Muslim organisations and civil rights groups have criticised a new FBI interactive website created to prevent violence in schools, saying its focus on Islam is tantamount to racial and religious profiling.
“Don’t Be a Puppet” is an interactive video game-like website designed for use by teachers and students.
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The site consists of a series of games and tips to teach the user how to identify someone prone to recruitment for violent attacks.
With each correct answer, a pair of scissors cuts a string off a puppet until the game is successfully completed and the puppet has no more strings.
The website’s nearly exclusive focus on Islam “adds to an environment of suspicion rather than fostering one of learning and curiosity,” according to Corey Saylor, a spokesperson for the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR).
“The game has myopic focus on just Muslims,” he told Al Jazeera.
One of the website’s scenarios tells users that they should be suspicious when an individual with an Arabic-sounding or Islamic name mentions going to the Middle East on a “mission”, suggesting that the word indicates an intention to engage in violence.
“Why should that raise a red flag? What if he or she was going on a humanitarian mission or a religious mission, for instance?” said Saylor.
“Here’s yet another instance when many children will walk away from the game and likely think that Muslim students are a threat or a ‘terrorist’.”
The website was supposed to launch on Monday, but has been put on hold following objections by religious and civil rights organisations.
According to the FBI, the website was “designed to provide awareness about the dangers of violent extremist predators on the internet, with input from students, educators and community leaders”.
It is part of the FBI’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVI) programme, which involves the participation of local communities.
Critics of the new interactive website say it will stigmatise Muslim and Arab students who are already vulnerable to bullying and xenophobia.
The Muslim Public Affairs Council was among the groups that previewed the website.
“We raised serious concerns about how it improperly characterised American Muslims as a suspect community with its targeted focus and stereotypical depictions and how it could exasperate the problem by leading to bullying, bias, and religious profiling of students,” the group said in a statement.
A new report published by CAIR found that Muslim students in public schools and non-Muslim private schools are bullied twice as much as the national average.
Of those polled, 52 percent had been verbally harassed about their religion by classmates or teachers, while 29 percent of girls who wear the hijab had been exposed to “offensive touching”, or had their headscarf pulled, the report found.
Other indicators that students are vulnerable to being recruited for violence, according to the game, include aloof behaviour or having problems at home.
“This is typical behaviour for teenagers, but for Muslim students they are being treated as suspicious behaviour,” said Saylor.
The misplaced focus could lead to self-censorship, added Saylor, explaining that Muslim students will be discouraged from speaking about their faith or openly identifying with it.
In September, 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was handcuffed and arrested at his school in Irving, Texas, after showing a home-made clock to his teacher, who suspected it was a bomb.
Rights groups accused the school and police of Islamophobic discrimination, arguing that the teen would not have been arrested if he were not Muslim.
“Even when a child does what you should want them to do – is innovative and shows enthusiasm for learning – he’s put in handcuffs,” Saylor said. “The targets [of Islamophobia] are becoming younger and younger.”
‘Prejudices and biases’
Since the al-Qaeda attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, US intelligence services and security forces have placed a heavy focus on Islam and Muslims, often drawing the ire of rights groups for intrusive measures.
The Southern Poverty Law Centre, a legal advocacy organisation, points out that Islamic-inspired attacks are much rarer than right-wing and anti-government violence.
“A large number of independent studies have agreed that since the 9/11 mass murder, more people have been killed in America by non-Islamic domestic terrorists than jihadists,” according to the centre’s February 2015 report.
That report found that nearly half of all incidents of political violence were motivated by “anti-government ideologies”, while many others were carried out by right-wing attackers.
“Terrorist attacks are mostly carried out by white supremacists or anti-government militias” in the US, said Saylor.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Laurie E King, a professor at Georgetown University, said the FBI’s approach to preventing violence is based on “prejudices and biases” and lacks “any serious comprehension of Islam”.
Opining that the FBI “probably has the worst record of fostering Islamophobia,” King said that “the FBI should not have any role whatsoever monitoring schools or universities”.
“And the very knowledge that they are doing this will undoubtedly increase the stigma against Muslim and Arab students and even lead to increased bullying,” she said.
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_