How Your Tax Dollars Fuel the Hatred of Muslims
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The decade after the 9/11 attacks has seen the creation of a profitable cottage industry of self-styled “experts” on Islam. As Sarah Posner recently noted in an article on Religion Dispatches, anti-Muslim fear-mongers, ranging from politicians to national security experts, have “cultivated a wide-ranging conspiracy theory that totalitarian Islamic radicals are bent on infiltrating America, displacing the Constitution, and subverting Western-style democracy in the U.S. and around the globe.”
What hasn’t gotten a comprehensive look, at least until now, is how public tax dollars have been funding parts of this industry under the guise of counter-terrorism trainings for city and state law enforcement across the country, which after 9/11 has gotten heavily involved in fighting terrorism.
A recently released report by the Political Research Associates, a group that monitors the right in America, puts the spotlight on how “public servants are regularly presented with misleading, inflammatory, and dangerous information about the nature of the terror threat.” The report, titled, "Manufacturing the Muslim Menace: Private Firms, Public Servants, and the Threat to Rights and Security,” examines frames—like “Islam is a terrorist religion,” or “mainstream Muslim-Americans have terrorist ties”—and how they are propagated to law enforcement officers.
These trainings have caught the eye of Senator Joe Lieberman, the chairman of the Senate’s Homeland Security committee, and Senator Susan Collins, a ranking member. A March 29 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano from the senators reads, in part: “We are concerned with recent reports that state and local law enforcement agencies are being trained by individuals who not only do not understand the ideology of violent Islamist extremism but also cast aspersions on a wide swath of ordinary Americans merely because of their religious affiliation.”
The letter asks the attorney general to provide a list of grant programs being used to fund counter-terrorism trainings and asks about “improved oversight” of these trainings—demands that mirror the recommendations made in the Political Research Associates’ publication.
AlterNet recently caught up with Thom Cincotta, the author of the report and a Political Research Associates’ staff member, to delve into more detail on this subset of the anti-Muslim cottage industry.
Alex Kane: How did this project come to be?
Thom Cincotta: At the Political Research Associates, we have been, for the past two years, looking at the growth of the domestic security apparatus, particularly how local police have been mobilized to fight terrorism—specifically in new forms of collaborative bodies like intelligence fusion centers and Joint Terrorism Task Forces. This mobilization represents a tremendous, unprecedented growth of our domestic intelligence apparatus, and with the new powers, capabilities and resources at the hands of that bureaucracy, there are risks for our civil liberties.
In examining that infrastructure, we have had an eye out for opportunities for the politicization of intelligence-type policing, and during the course of our investigation into fusion centers, we noticed some courses being offered at the local level. Specifically, in Massachusetts, we noticed that one company called Security Solutions International in May 2009 was offering a seminar on the “radical jihadist threat” that was hosted by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. The description of that course included things like the “legal wing of jihad in America,” and that right away set off red flags that this course content might not simply be looking at detecting valid terrorism.
AK: What, in your view, is the most important finding in the report?
TC: The most important finding here is that public tax dollars are being used to fund the attendance of public employees—police, intelligence professionals whose job it is to serve the public—to seminars that risk endangering civil liberties, fundamental religious freedoms, and at the same time could potentially undermine national security priorities that strongly recommend that law enforcement partner with Muslim-American community groups.
AK: How exactly did the use of public dollars fund this counter-terrorism industry? How did this happen?
TC: It’s been a real challenge to trace the flow of dollars supporting access to these trainings. We tried to look at the question both from the top down and from the bottom up. When we went to federal and state officials who are responsible for monitoring how federal training dollars are spent—particularly Homeland Security grant money—curiously, these trainings did not pop up on the radar. We would file record requests with state agencies who were responsible for monitoring this, and they would come back and say, “no, we have no record that any federal dollars went to support these particular vendors.”
Then, looking at the ground up, when we asked municipal county agencies directly, “who are you sending your officers to hear?” we saw receipts for travel and registration fees to conferences where highly inflammatory and potentially dangerous messages were being shared.
The challenge remains for other investigators, for Congress, and for Homeland Security and the Department of Justice to figure out from what funds are these local agencies drawing from to send officers to these problematic conferences. We know public dollars, but we don’t necessarily know that it’s, for instance, federal grant monies, because the regime for reporting and oversight does not seem to be comprehensive enough.
AK: Place the report in the larger context of Islamophobia post-9/11, and more specifically, the most recent outbreaks of anti-Muslim sentiment from lower Manhattan to Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
TC: Our report is primarily a nuts-and-bolts one, where I tried to identify the problematic aspects of trainings and speeches and identify where they’re crossing the line, from preparing law enforcement and first responders to deal with actual incidents of violent attacks to a broader campaign that targets innocent and legal activity. A lot of the messaging and frames we analyzed in the trainings identify either outspoken civil liberties advocates and critics of U.S. foreign policy or any grouping called “Islamists,” including the new bogeyman of sharia law, as the enemy. That seems to operate as code for the word “Muslim.” It’s not really well-defined.
The broader context in this report is that the anti-Muslim rhetoric that was very evident in a public way around the Park 51 mosque, or Islamic center, issue, isn’t something that is relegated to the blogosphere or the Fox News Channel, or even these street rallies. What we are documenting here is the institutionalization of these views in a critical part of our government—those who have the power to monitor, extract, arrest and interrogate people. The value of this report is documenting the institutionalization of ideas that risk alienating innocent, law-abiding people and communities.
AK: What do you think are the larger implications of the expansion of this counter-terror industry, and what it means for all Americans?
TC: Whenever religious beliefs are used as a marker for potential terrorism, all religions and all political beliefs are threatened. What we see in many of the trainings we looked at is the desire for a quick-fix approach to preventing terrorism by looking at ideology. Counter-terrorism experts and law enforcement have, time and again, said that there is no such quick-fix approach. Religion, in particular, doesn’t have that kind of predictive power. Empirically, we cannot look at somebody’s religious expression or practices and predict whether that individual is more likely to be headed down a path toward violence.
Moreover, people from a variety of religious faiths have committed acts of terrorism, and more often than not, political grievances lead people to commit terrorism rather than religious faith. So, this approach is invalid at a number of levels.
AK: One of the more interesting findings of your report is how right-wing Zionism in the U.S., as well as Israeli counter-terrorism trainers, feeds into the frenzy of anti-Muslim trainings for law enforcement agencies. Could you go into further detail on that point?
TC: All of the rhetoric around these trainings leave very little room for Muslim-Americans to dissent from U.S. foreign policy or domestic counter-terrorism policy. There’s the notion that if anyone is outspoken, then they are providing ideological support for terrorism. When Dr. Zuhdi Jasser testified a few weeks ago before the King hearings, he characterized this as the “pool” where the violent radicals swim. So when you demonize, or paint legitimate advocacy groups or community groups as potential terrorists merely for speaking out against U.S. policy and because there is some vague overlap between the political goals of, say, an al-Qaeda—related to for instance, U.S. occupation of a foreign land—it leaves very little room for dissent and it stifles free speech.
You could see these trainings through the lens that by stigmatizing groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations or the Islamic Society of North America and other groups, in the domestic political sphere, it’s an attempt to silence a key bloc who support Palestinian rights in the United States. Without that vocal bloc pushing Congress, it’s hard to see how U.S. foreign policy with regard to Israel is going to change.
AK: And lastly, what do you think activists and other people concerned with these issues should be doing to combat what your report has found?
TC: The good news in our report is that there have been successful efforts at the local level to educate police executives about the dangers of inflammatory or potentially biased training. We look at an effort in Seattle, as well as one in the Boston-area, where police executives, after hearing more information about the nature of these courses, broke off relations with the problematic vendors.
So, here’s an opportunity at the local level to take these concerns about growing Islamophobia in our country and push back in a concrete way and get public officials on-the-record saying that this is destructive. This isn’t the type of country we want to be. We want to embrace our diversity and build ties with the Muslim-American community. At the local level, we need more sunlight shed on which vendors are being used.
In our report, we make a recommendation, to the greatest extent possible, that we should only rely on public and government trainers and people who have been vetted by Homeland Security and the Department of Justice.
At the national level, we make very specific recommendations for oversight, for stricter guidelines, for establishing standards to make sure that
federal funds aren’t being used to support groups whose training is inaccurate and potentially biased, and we need a more thorough accounting of who is actually being used.
In some respects, our report is the tip of the iceberg. We’re raising the alarm about this, but there needs to be hearings to really get to the bottom of it, to get a more thorough understanding of the extent of the problem.