Rights groups are charging that a new FBI program to counter "extremism," expected to be unveiled shortly, employs games and online tools that encourage teachers and students to snoop on—and discriminate against—Muslims, in violation of their most fundamental civil liberties.
Entitled 'Don't Be a Puppet,' the program "leads the viewer through a series of games and tips intended to teach how to identify someone who may be falling prey to radical extremists," New York Times journalist Laurie Goodstein reported on Monday. "With each successful answer, scissors cut a puppet’s string, until the puppet is free."
Muslim, Arab, civil rights, and community groups invited by the FBI to "review" the program on October 16 told reporters that Don't Be a Puppet unfairly targets Muslims.
"Teachers in classrooms should not become an extension of law enforcement," said Arjun S. Sethi, an adjunct professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Center, in an interview with the Times. "The greatest threat facing American schoolchildren today is gun violence. It’s not Muslim extremism."
In fact, in the 14 years following the attacks of September 11, 2001, white supremacist and right-wing extremists killed nearly two times as many people in the U.S. than "individuals motivated by Jihadist ideology," according to a report released by the New America research group earlier this year.
Regarding the FBI's new program, Michelle Boorstein of the Washington Post reports on Monday:
Details about the Web site were vague. However, some participants described what the FBI showed them at the October meeting. It included exercises like a quiz. The quiz asked students: What would be activities that would concern the FBI? One option asked about a youth posting on Facebook that she intended to attend a political protest. What about a young person posting about feeling emotional about something, was a second. The third, participants described, cited a youth with a stereotypically Muslim-sounding name who 'posted that he’s going overseas on a mission [and] does anyone want to chat?" said [Hoda Hawa, director of policy and advocacy for the Muslim Public Affairs Council].
"All our hands went up, like: What’s with this?" she said of the meeting.
And the 9/11 Review Commission concluded in May that, because the FBI deals with law enforcement and intelligence, it is not an appropriate agency to prevent violent extremism.
What's more, Saylor emphasized that the FBI's meeting with impacted groups was likely symbolic. "Unfortunately this tends to be what happens at the last minute," he said. "Groups are called in and shown a program as a way to check a box. They are not really looking for feedback."
According to the Post, the new program was slated to go live on Monday but has been "put temporarily on hold in the last few days." It was not immediately clear why the launch was stalled or when Don't Be a Puppet will be released to the public.
The FBI has previously come under fire for targeting people believed to be Muslims and spreading inciting anti-Islamic sentiment through its so-called anti-terror operations. This latest program is set to launch amid growing anti-Islamic sentiment worldwide.
Corey Saylor, spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told Common Dreams that the program, if implemented, could worsen bullying and discrimination against Muslim students. The California chapter of CAIR released a report on Friday which found that, of 621 Muslim students in the state between the ages of 11 to 18, over half said they had faced at least one incident of bullying due to their religion in 2014 alone.
Meanwhile, the Southern Poverty Law Center warned in early October that the Syrian refugee crisis has "provided ample opportunity for far-right political figures and racist groups on both sides of the Atlantic to push xenophobia rhetoric into the mainstream."