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Bigoted FBI training manuals betray a deep anti-Arab bias

A deep-seated bigotry against Arabs and Muslims permeates the literature that has been used to train FBI agents, raising questions about how law-enforcement officers act in the field.

There are times when I see a really hideous looking building, and I think: "That monstrosity didn't just happen. Someone designed it. Someone approved it. It went before a board that signed off on funding it. And a construction company was then hired to build it." In other words, many people, not just one architect, are to blame.

That is how we must approach the continuing revelations of biased material about Islam and Arabs that have been found in FBI instruction manuals and other resources used to prepare agents for their work relating to US Arab and Muslim communities.

The steady flow of leaks about these materials has shown shocking misinformation about Islam, and depictions of the religion and culture of Arabs and Muslims that can only be characterised as bigotry.

- "Accommodation and compromise between [Islam and the West] are impermissible and fighting [for Muslims] is obligatory."

- "There may not be a 'radical' threat as much as it is simply a normal assertion of the orthodox ideology ... the strategic themes animating these values are not fringe; they are mainstream."

- Zakat is characterised as "a funding mechanism for combat".

- "Never attempt to shake hands with an Asian ... Never stare at an Asian."

- While the "western mind" is "even keel" and "outbursts are exceptional", among Arabs "outbursts and loss of control [can be] expected". Arabs have "Jekyll and Hyde temper tantrums".

There is much more of the same. Reporters have found equally troubling material in the FBI's resource library and on the agency's internal website. "There is evidence to support the contention that sources of terrorism in Islam may reside within the strategic themes of Islam," said one law enforcement official who had prepared some of the offensive material. "Mohammed's mindset is a source for terrorism."

After a year of these revelations, the FBI announced that following an internal review they had removed offensive material from their programmes saying that they were in "factual error ... poor taste ... lacked precision". The agency was, however, also quick to add that in their review of over 160,000 pages of material, they found only 900 that were problematic.

Finally, officials announced a new set of "guiding principles" that will henceforth govern their work in this area. This is in addition to an earlier announcement that they had "reassigned" one individual who had been responsible for one of the training programmes that was particularly Islamophobic.

These initial steps to change course are important. But I have seen nothing so far that convinces me that the highest law enforcement agency in the United States understands the depth of the problem or is prepared to take the appropriate measures to fully address this situation. It is deeper than one individual who designed one programme. And it simply cannot be remedied by excising 900 pages of materials found to be "inaccurate" or in "poor taste".

There is not just one architect to blame. There must have been a committee that approved the programme, FBI leadership must have signed off on it, and hundreds or even thousands of law enforcement officials were trained based on this material.

Serious questions must be raised about bureau's internal review. Who conducted it and how can we believe that it was not done by the very same leaders who had approved the material in the first place? And is it sufficient to simply tell agents who were trained with the programme that they are now simply to ignore 900 pages? And what of the other 159,000 pages? Can we trust that they are not equally offensive, or maybe that they are just mildly offensive?

It is for these reasons, and more, that the Arab American Institute has said that this entire affair will not be closed until four conditions have been met.

First, there must be transparency and a full disclosure of all training materials pertaining to Arab and Muslim communities. This material should not be treated as secret. It is about US citizens and we want to know what is being taught about their history, culture and religion.

There must be accountability. In order for there to be change, we need to know how this programme was approved and who approved it. More than one person was at fault and more individuals who were responsible for this situation need to be sanctioned and reassigned, or removed from their posts.

Next, it is vitally important that those who were trained now be retrained. For trust to be rebuilt, it is critical that new cultural-sensitivity programmes be put in place. Agents whose attitudes have been shaped by wrong-headed training programmes of the past need to know how to challenge the misinformation campaign to which they were subjected.

And finally, there must be an acknowledgement of the wrong that was done to communities and to the United States' ability to respectfully engage with Arabs and Muslims. This is vital to America's future and to its ability to develop the ties that will be needed to foster trust and understanding.

I can only imagine if we had discovered similar programmes about African Americans, Latinos or Jews in a different era. The outcry would have been deafening with demands for an apology, accountability, transparency and retraining. In this instance, the demands for a full and appropriate response must be no less.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa

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