Meanwhile, Back Home

Posted by sepoy on September 15, 2011 · 9 mins read

Holy Jesus, Moses and Muhammad.

The power-points, I urge you to drop everything and just stare at them, are amazing. They really are. They show, quite clearly, the mental acuity of a 12 year old child when confronted with a newspaper. There is reading comprehension, of course, and even retention and maybe some kind of a inner monologue. But it is not making sense. No sir.

My dear friend Babu (oft. mentioned here) jotted off this passionate and erudite response to his Senator and I reproduce with his permission:

To: Senator Richard J. Durbin

RE: The FBI and Counterterrorism

Dear Senator Durbin,

As a resident of Chicago, and now Evanston, for the last twelve years, I have been extremely proud to have you as my Senator. Indeed, I have almost never felt the need to contact your office with gripes and concerns about policy, largely because every time I get worked up about something I look into it and find that you are almost always on the right side of the issue. This, indeed, is why I write to you today, hoping that you can help sound the alarm about some deeply troubling recent revelations about alleged “counterterrorism” briefings being given to FBI agents presently in the field.

Even from what little we already know, I can tell you that these briefings have come from some exceedingly dubious — indeed dangerous — sources: including, astonishingly, the openly Islamophobic blogger Robert Spencer (a favorite author of the right-wing Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik), and William Gawthrop.The details of these briefings are only coming to light thanks to the diligent reporting of Spencer Ackerman at WIRED magazine. Ackerman notes that Gawthrop had told the website WorldNetDaily, that in his opinion "Muhammad's mindset is a source for terrorism". WorldNetDaily, Ackerman says, "would later distinguish itself as a leader of the 'birther' movement."

Ackerman's reports can be found here:

As someone who holds a PhD in South Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago, and an assistant professorship in South Asian history at Northwestern University, with a specialization in medieval and early modern Indo-Persian intellectual history (including expertise in both Persian and Urdu cultural and political traditions), I can tell you with some confidence that the material being presented in these briefings is beyond misleading — it is utter garbage, not to mention self-defeating and counterproductive. If this is what our FBI agents know about Islam and Muslims, then I'm afraid they know less than nothing.

Indeed, virtually all of the “knowledge” presented in these briefings comes directly from long obsolete, and long discredited, Orientalist stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims propagated mainly by nineteenth-century British and French colonial administrations in India, Egypt, and the wider Middle East, primarily to justify Europe's conquest and ongoing exploitation of those regions. People in the Muslim world, and, in fact, in most formerly colonized countries of the world, have a living memory of that colonial era, and thus are extremely sensitive about such rhetoric, which can only inflame existing concerns that the US is engaged not in a struggle against terrorism, but rather in a war against Islam, and a war for global empire inherited from our British and French friends and allies.

But forget about the sensitivities of faraway peoples — my own undergraduates would easily spot these frauds in a second, and yet the FBI appears entirely clueless about the utter bankruptcy of the instruction they are receiving. This is all especially ironic coming at a time when Congress and the Obama administration are busy slashing funding to critical education programs like Title VI language and Fulbright research fellowships, which for generations have been our country's most proven and reliable means of training future scholars, and generally improving our larger understanding about the history and cultural traditions of Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. Meanwhile, charlatans like Spencer and Gawthorp (and who knows who else) are somehow being allowed to step into the vacuum.

Congress needs to investigate this matter, and must urge the President immediately to open an internal investigation into how such outmoded, and frankly racist, forms of discourse about Islam, Muslims, and the Islamicate world could find their way into our nation's most elite law-enforcement training apparatus. The FBI should have access to the most advanced scholarship, not the most ignorant Islamophobic canards. Indeed, how can they possibly expect to better protect us all from the legitimate threat raised by actual terrorists if they are schooled by people who either have absolutely no clue what they are talking about, or worse, are deliberately manipulating post-9/11 anxieties to foster and maintain a climate of fear?

To their credit, Senators Lieberman and Collins have already spoken out on this issue, but I urge you to do so as well. Besides being President Obama's friend and erstwhile senior Senator, you also sit on both the Senate Foreign Relations and Judiciary Committees, and serve presently as Assistant Senate Majority Leader. As such you are in an ideal position to insist on Congressional hearings that can get to the bottom of this situation. Representative Peter King has made quite a show in recent months of flaunting his so-called “radicalization” hearings. Now, you and others in Congress who have any sense at all must do the right thing and hold credible hearings about the damage being done to our values, our civic ideals, and our national security by these egregious lapses in judgment at the FBI.

We know roughly what was in the Power Point presentations that were delivered at some of these training sessions, but what exactly was said between the slides, to elucidate the content? Who did most of the talking? Were any other views sought, or any reputable academic specialists consulted? How were the speakers for these briefings chosen? Were they paid? What is the vetting process? Who has oversight over these procedures? Indeed what is the FBI's general protocol for educating its agents about the culture and politics of the Islamicate world? What alternatives might the Bureau (and other state and federal agencies) explore in terms of enhancing their understanding of actual Muslim communities, rather than treating the latter collectively as a bunch of irrational, fanatical automatons mentally stuck in the 7th century? Are they even aware that the majority of the world's Muslims are not Arabs? Are they aware that there are plenty of terrorists in the world who are not, in fact, Muslim? And finally, at the risk of sounding smug, but in all seriousness: has anyone at the Bureau even read a book in the last ten years?

When the general tenor of these briefings was first exposed back in July, the Bureau officially responded that the offending presentation was “a rudimentary version used for a limited time that has since been replaced” — but replaced by what, exactly? As citizens, we have a right to know, and clearly this week's further revelations suggest that the problem is far more widespread within the FBI training program than we have been led to believe.

Again, I urge you to use all your power and influence as my elected representative in the U. S. Senate to do something about it. I have also faxed copies of this letter on my department's letterhead to your offices in Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Very sincerely yours,

Rajeev K. Kinra


maujkar | September 20, 2011