Jahi Chikwendiu /The Washington Post / Getty Images

Homegrown spies

The FBI wants to turn the classroom into a surveillance zone

November 7, 2015 2:00AM ET

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has delayed the launch of its counterradicalization website amid an uproar from Muslim activists and civil rights groups. The program, which is aimed at educating teachers and students to help identify early signs of radicalism, was supposed to go online Nov. 2. Activists briefed by the FBI say the program will institutionalize the discriminatory profiling of Muslim youths.

“The FBI is developing a website designed to provide awareness about the dangers of violent extremist predators on the Internet, with input from students, educators and community leaders,” the agency said in a statement last week.

The online portal reportedly uses games and tips to warn users of potential radicalization. Dubbed Don’t Be a Puppet, the new program is based on a simple assumption: If teachers and students could be watchful of Muslim students and their extremist propensities, with the FBI’s help, the puppets could be “freed.” The program reportedly leads viewers through a series of questions and tips to help them identify people “on the path to extremism.” With each correct answer, animated scissors cut the puppet’s strings. It is based entirely on the spying of enlisted patriots on unwitting puppets of violent extremism rather than the puppet’s disavowal of extremist propaganda. “Freedom” happens, therefore, when the potential terrorist is identified and reported to law enforcement.

Don’t Be a Puppet will be an easy and visible way for the FBI to justify its $8.46 billion annual budget, whose centerpiece is countering threats from what FBI Director James Comey called “homegrown violent extremists.” Enlisting public school teachers and students to spy on would-be terrorists expands the post-9/11 us-versus-them rhetoric to a new generation of kids.

“It seems like they’re asking teachers to be extensions of law enforcement and to police thought and students as well,” Hoda Hawa, the director of policy and advocacy for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, told The Washington Post.

The new program would extend to schools the sort of spying and reporting that has already been utilized by law enforcement agencies — including the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (a national network for sharing information that could help detect, prevent or deter a terrorist attack) and the Department of Homeland Security’s If You See Something, Say Something campaign.

Overpoliced schools

These biased counterterrorism proposals contradict the mission of public education. Public school should be a place where students of all backgrounds learn and thrive.

In recent years, however, law enforcement has entrenched itself in public schools. Some 43 percent of U.S. public schools, including 64 percent of high schools, have uniformed police officers. In the 2011–12 academic year, school officials reported nearly a quarter of a million students to law enforcement, 92,000 students were arrested, and 3.45 million students were suspended. Many public schools impose severe punishment for even small or first infractions, regardless of the circumstances, leading to students being expelled for such things as taking scissors or nail clippers to school. 

Far from ‘freeing’ Muslim students from falling prey to violent extremism, the FBI’s flawed counterradicalization program would condemn Muslim students to arrest and undue scrutiny.

Unsurprisingly, African-American students were suspended and expelled at a rate three times that of white students. They accounted for 16 percent of enrollment but more than a quarter of referrals to school law enforcement. Even at preschool age, they made up 18 percent of enrollment but over half of out-of-school suspensions. African-American girls had a higher suspension rate than any other ethnicity, at 12 percent. Students of color with disabilities fared even worse, with 1 in 4 boys and 1 in 5 girls receiving out-of-school suspensions.

The Don’t Be a Puppet program ensures that brutality at overpoliced U.S. public schools — as illustrated by a recent video of a female African-American student flung across a classroom by a police officer — is also deployed against Muslim students. Its very existence represents another step in the transformation of U.S. public schools into a war zone where the majority labels racial and religious minorities as imbued with potential criminality.

In a highly publicized case in September, 14-year-old Texas teen Ahmed Mohamed was arrested for making a clock for a class project. He and his family have since announced plans to move to Qatar. Their decision makes sense. President Barack Obama may have defended Mohamed on social media, but institutions such as the FBI remain committed to extending and institutionalizing the paranoia and suspicion that put him in handcuffs. 

The arrests, suspensions and expulsions of African-American students are justified by the logic that teaching them a lesson early will save the kids from a future of criminality. It disguises the racism of criminalizing young students as a sort of tough love that would benefit them in the future.

The FBI’s new online tool appears to follow a similar logic. The agency wants schoolteachers and students to become the eyes and ears of the state in order to free Muslim students from becoming puppets of extremist groups. To accomplish this, it had rebranded the Islamophobe as the patriot. Not even a rebuke from the 9/11 Review Commission in March, which stated that the FBI was not the vehicle for producing prevention programs to counter violent extremism, has been able to halt this latest construction of the terrorism-industrial complex.

A dangerous place

In the post-9/11 era, in which more than half of Americans hold unfavorable views of Islam, public schools are already a fraught venue for Muslim students. A recent study by advocacy group the Council of Islamic Relations (CAIR) reported that 55 percent of Muslim American students surveyed in California faced some form of bullying because of their religious identity. The report identified examples of class discussions on Islam, the Middle East or terrorism, in which Muslim students had to defend “their beliefs, correcting misconceptions related to them or being perceived as unpatriotic.”

In one instance in April a Houston-area high school teacher distributed to his students an eight-page handout titled “Islam/Radical Islam (Did You Know).” It suggested Islam is a violent religion that preaches an “ideology of war.” A student complained to her parents, who then took the matter up with the school administration. It was not an isolated incident. The CAIR report lists examples in which Muslims students were even disciplined for speaking up and contesting teachers’ views of Islam.

The Islamophobia and racial tensions that divide Americans exist in its public schools as well. And the criminalization of students of color and Muslim students is presented as a solution to violent crime and terrorism. Being African-American or Muslim American is converted from a racial or religious identity into an inherent moral taint, one that requires vigilant and perpetual policing by the good majority that values peace and harmony.

Far from “freeing” Muslim students from falling prey to violent extremism, the FBI’s flawed and unproven counterradicalization program would condemn Muslim students to arrest and undue scrutiny. It’s a clever trick, one that works to maintain the power of a dominant white majority by reducing Muslim and African-American students to thugs or potential terrorists.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney, a political philosopher and the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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