As recently as January 2009, the FBI thought its agents ought to know the following crucial information about Muslims:
- They engage in a "circumcision ritual"
- More than 9,000 of them are in the U.S. military
- Their religion "transforms [a] country's culture into 7th-century Arabian ways."
And this was what the FBI considered "recommended reading" about Islam:
- A much-criticized tome, The Arab Mind, that one reviewer called "a collection of outrageously broad - and often suspect - generalizations"
- A book by one of Norwegian terrorist suspect Anders Behring Breivik's favorite anti-Muslim authors.
All this is revealed in a PowerPoint presentation by the FBI's Law Enforcement Communications Unit (.pdf), which trains new Bureau recruits. Among the 62 slides in the presentation, designed to teach techniques for "successful interviews/interrogations with individuals from the M.E. [Middle East]," is an instruction that the "Arabic mind" is "swayed more by words than ideas and more by ideas than facts."
The briefing presents much information that has nothing to do with crime and everything to do with constitutionally-protected religious practice and social behavior, such as estimating the number of mosques in America and listing the states with the largest Muslim populations.
Other slides paint Islam in a less malicious light, and one urges "respectful liaison" as a "proactive approach" to engaging Muslims. But even those exhibit what one American Muslim civil rights leader calls "the understanding of a third grader, and even then, a badly misinformed third grader."
One slide asks, "Is Iran an Arab country?" (It's not.) Another is just a picture of worry beads.
"Based on this presentation, it is easy to see why so many in law enforcement and the FBI view American Muslims with ignorance and suspicion," says Farhana Khera, the executive director of Muslim Advocates, a legal aid group. "The presentation appears to treat all Muslims with one broad brush and makes no distinction between lawful religious practice and beliefs and unlawful activities."
A grainy copy of the PowerPoint was obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union's Northern California chapter and the Asian Law Caucus, a San Francisco-based civil rights group, and provided to Danger Room. The two groups filed a Freedom of Information Act request last year inquiring about government surveillance of American Muslim communities.
"In order for FBI training to be effective it has to present useful, factual and unbiased information. This material fails on all three criteria," said Mike German, a former FBI agent who now works for the ACLU. "Factually flawed and biased law enforcement training programs only expand the risk that innocent Muslim and Arab Americans will be unfairly targeted for investigation and prosecution, and stigmatized in their communities." [Full disclosure: The author's fiancee works for the ACLU.]
In response to queries from Danger Room, the FBI issued the following statement about the PowerPoint: "The FBI new agent population at Quantico is exposed to a diverse curriculum in many specific areas, including Islam and Muslim culture. The presentation in question was a rudimentary version used for a limited time that has since been replaced. It was a small part of a larger segment of training that also included material produced by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point."
It is unclear when the FBI stopped using the PowerPoint.
Among the most provocative aspects of the presentation is its recommended reading list. One book offered is The Truth About Mohammed: Founder of the World's Most Intolerant Religion, by Robert Spencer. Spencer is one of the ringleaders of the protest against the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" and the co-founder of Stop the Islamicization of America, which "promotes a conspiratorial anti-Muslim agenda," in the view of the Anti-Defamation League. A manifesto written by the Norwegian terror suspect Anders Behring Breivik cited Spencer 64 times.
Another book cited is The Arab Mind, by Raphael Patai. The volume was briefly infamous in 2004, after Seymour Hersh reported its influence among certain Iraq war hawks in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal. According to Hersh, the takeaway of Patai's book is that "Arabs only understand force" and are susceptible to "shame and humiliation."
"It's like asking law enforcement to learn ‘the facts' about the African American experience by reading a book by the grand wizard of the KKK," says Khera. "It is deplorable and offensive that the nation's top law enforcement agency would promote such hateful so-called ‘experts' on Islam."
An FBI spokesman said Spencer's book is no longer on the reading list but was not sure about the others. "We encourage our agents to seek out a variety of viewpoints. That does not mean we endorse or adopt the view of any particular author," the bureau's statement continues. "Broad knowledge is essential for us to better understand and respond to the threats we face. Knowledge also helps us defeat ignorance and strengthen relationships with the diverse communities that we serve."
When dealing with Muslims and counterterrorism, the FBI's record is mixed. It's sent informants into mosques and used operatives to coax suspected extremists into active terror plots, arresting them before anyone was hurt. But its agents also stood up against torture at Guantanamo Bay and in the CIA's undisclosed prisons. FBI Director Robert Mueller testified in 2008 that many of its terrorism cases "are a result of the cooperation from the Muslim community in the United States."
In recent years, law enforcement agencies around the country have proven receptive to anti-Muslim crusaders. The Washington Monthly recently reported on the "growing profession" of terrorism consultants who get paid to make "sweeping generalizations about Muslims" to rapt audiences of cops. Adam Serwer at the American Prospect reports that another Breivik favorite, Walid Shoebat, also gets government cash to tell police things like "Islam is the devil."
At a Capitol Hill event on Monday, a Florida-based researcher named Peter Leitner claimed that up to 6,000 Muslims in America are a "fifth column." According to Leitner's official biography, he founded a group called the Higgins Counterterrorism Research Center; Higgins claims to have provided counterterrorism instruction to "FBI Counterterrorism Special Agents," various police departments countrywide and even Blackwater.
"These characterizations of Islam and of Arab and Muslim people are not just disheartening - they are frightening," says Veena Dubal, an attorney with the Asian Law Caucus. "Degrading and inaccurate characterizations of Islam and of the ‘Arab mind' don't help individual agents fight terrorism. Rather, they imbue law enforcement with an extremely biased view of a diverse community."