Justice

Why The FBI Is Suspending Its Anti-Extremism Program

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The FBI at least temporarily suspended a web-based anti-extremism program on Monday, reportedly putting it on hold after it was criticized for unfairly profiling Muslim Americans.

According to a New York Times story published on Sunday, the FBI has reportedly been working on the program, entitled “Don’t Be A Puppet,” as part of a sustained campaign to stymie the recruitment efforts of militant groups such as ISIS. The website uses games to teach users — presumably young students and teachers — how to identify warning signs of radical extremism. As participants rack up correct answers to questions, scissors slowly cut away at a puppet’s strings until it is set free.

But when members of Islamic, Arab, and related groups were invited to preview the software two weeks ago, many expressed concerns that it unfairly focused on extremism perpetrated in the name of Islam, even though religious radicalism has not been a contributing factor in the recent wave of school shootings. The program also did little to address right-wing militancy, which has killed more Americans than jihadist attacks since the September 11 attacks.

“We were all on the same page in terms of being concerned,” Hoda Hawa, MPAC Director of Policy and Advocacy, told the Washington Post. “It seems like they’re asking teachers to be extensions of law enforcement and to police thought, and students as well. That was very concerning to us all.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) was also critical of the program, saying it continues the “government’s pattern of stigmatizing the Muslim community through its [countering violent extremism] initiative and fails to deal with the main threat to students, that of school shootings.”

“The FBI’s job is to protect children of all faiths and backgrounds, not to offer programs that introduce suspicion into their relations with teachers and can lead to stigmatization and bullying by their peers,” said CAIR Department to Monitor and Combat Islamophobia Director Corey Saylor, in a statement released on Monday.

Pressure mounted as representatives from MPAC, the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, and other community groups sent a letter to the FBI arguing that anti-extremism efforts are most effective when led by community leaders themselves. As ThinkProgress reported in June, several local Muslim organizations, religious leaders, and imams are already undertaking this challenge — with many reporting successful results.

When members of the group went to the press to express their misgivings, the FBI reportedly told the Washington Post the program is now temporarily on hold as of November 2, and the website has yet to appear on the internet. ThinkProgress contacted the FBI to get clarity on the nature of the suspension, but the agency’s press office initially appeared unaware of any formal cancelation of the program. The agency then issued a noncommittal statement provided to other outlets.

“The FBI is developing a Web site designed to provide awareness about the dangers of violent extremist predators on the Internet, with input from students, educators and community leaders,” read the statement from the FBI.

Regardless, MPAC celebrated the suspension — temporary or otherwise — in a press release Monday morning.

“While we welcome efforts to promote the safety and security of our nation, tools like this that improperly characterize American Muslims as a suspect community with its targeted focus and stereotypical depictions stigmatize Muslim students (or those perceived as such) and can actually exasperate the problem by leading to bullying, bias, and religious profiling of students,” Hoda Hawa, MPAC Director of Policy and Advocacy, said.

Concern over the program is rooted in longstanding frustrations among Islamic groups regarding how some law enforcement agencies investigate possible extremists — i.e., often by stigmatizing Muslims. In 2012, news broke that the NYPD had been monitoring the communications of Muslims in and around New York City, and even paid a man to “bait” Muslims in criminal activity. The FBI roundly condemned the NYPD’s policy at the time, saying it had “a negative impact” overall and fractured important relationships between Muslim communities and law enforcement. The NYPD has since announced an effort to recruit more Muslim police officers to help rebuild trust, but issues remain.