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The U.S. government is buckling in response to a yearlong assault on its counterterrorism training programs for law enforcement, which critics say promote anti-Muslim sentiment and feature bigoted guest lecturers. Not only is the FBI now conducting a “top-to-bottom review” of its programs, but federal agencies have taken the perilous step of looking to Islamist groups such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) for help.
Though Islamists and their allies have long complained about alleged bias among trainers, the campaign to cleanse content related to radical Islam kicked into high gear in early 2011 when the left-leaning Political Research Associates (PRA) issued a report titled Manufacturing the Muslim Menace, which highlights instances of counterterrorism trainers describing Islam as inherently violent and drawing connections between Muslims’ piety and their likelihood of committing violence. The study claims that there is a “cottage industry” of fraudulent experts promoting an anti-Muslim agenda to the counterterrorism community. The PRA also legitimizes Islamist groups like MPAC, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), while delegitimizing their critics.
For example, the report risibly suggests that one of the criteria for knowing if a speaker is an anti-Muslim bigot is the belief that the Muslim Brotherhood has fronts operating in the U.S. It paints the Brotherhood as a benign, nonviolent organization that rejects violent jihad and supports democracy. Furthermore, the report says it “makes little sense that the Muslim Brotherhood would use front organizations in the United States” and accuses those who spotlight the aforementioned groups’ extensively documented ties to the Brotherhood and even Hamas of employing “McCarthy-era” tactics.
Speakers named in the report reject charges of bias and emphasize the importance of understanding the threat from radical Islamic ideology. Robert Spencer, a scholar of Islam, explains, “The correlation is not that every devout Muslim will engage in jihad terror, but that all jihad terrorists are devout Muslims who invoke Islamic texts and teachings as their inspiration and justification.” Tawfik Hamid, a former member of the terrorist group al-Gama‘at al-Islamiyya, states, “The fact that not every cigarette smoker develops lung cancer does not negate the fact that lung cancer is caused by cigarette smoking. Similarly, the fact that not every follower of Islamic ideology develops violent attitudes does not negate the fact that the ideology could be the cause of violent attitudes that develop in some Islamic societies.”
Nonetheless, the thesis of Manufacturing the Muslim Menace quickly gained traction among policymakers. On March 29, Senator Joe Lieberman, chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Senator Susan Collins, its ranking member, wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, expressing concern about “self-appointed counterterrorism training experts … engaging in vitriolic diatribes and making assertions such as ‘Islam is a highly violent, radical religion.’” They demanded answers on how federal money has gone to what they see as “ineffective or poor counterterrorism training” that is “actually detrimental to our efforts to combat homegrown terrorism.”
The controversy over training escalated during the summer and early fall, when the website of Wired magazine published a series of pieces documenting how instructional materials employed in some counterterrorism programs criticize Islam as a religion. Writer Spencer Ackerman took particular issue with the use of William Gawthrop, an FBI intelligence analyst, as an expert. In addition to tying Islamic devotion to violence, Gawthrop gave an interview in 2006 where he suggested that the West should point out “soft spots” in Islam, such as by raising questions about the credibility of its scriptures. Gawthrop also warned against focusing on individual jihadist entities like al-Qaeda and urged concentrating instead on the ideological roots of jihad during a June 2011 seminar for FBI agents, in which he likened Islam to the “Death Star.”
Senators Lieberman and Collins demanded immediate changes to what the former described as “inaccurate or even bigoted” sentiments. Citing the Wired reports, Islamist groups piled on, with ISNA calling the materials a violation of Muslims’ rights, CAIR insisting that the FBI “take swift and transparent action to reform a system that allows bias to influence training,” and Muslim Advocates requesting that the Justice Department “launch an immediate investigation into the … use of grossly inaccurate, inflammatory, and highly offensive counterterrorism training materials.”
The months of pressure have borne fruit. Testifying before Congress on October 6, FBI Director Robert Mueller said that the agency had “undertaken a review from top to bottom of our counterterrorism training” and gotten outside help to ensure that “offensive content does not appear” in its materials. During a conference at George Washington University Law School later that month, Deputy Attorney General James Cole stated that he had “recently directed all components of the Department of Justice to reevaluate their training efforts in a range of areas, from community outreach to national security.” Similar orders were circulated at the Pentagon.
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