Two senators have launched an inquiry into federally funded counterterrorism training for state and local police, saying they are concerned some of the instruction includes inflammatory and inaccurate anti-Muslim stereotyping. But the move has ignited fears that political correctness might undermine the training.
"We are concerned … 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," wrote Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut independent, and Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican, in a letter Tuesday to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano.
The two senators, who work closely together as the chairman and ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, asked for details of the two departments' grant funding for counterterrorism training and for information about any standards or guidelines that training had to meet to qualify for federal money — including instructors' qualifications.
The senators said staff inquiries had uncovered evidence that "improper training may not be limited to mere isolated occurrences."
Since the terrorist attacks of September 2001, billions of federal dollars have been poured into grant programs for state and local police and other first responders, with much of that spent on counterterrorism training. But there are few standards for such courses, and the senators fret that some trainers may be unqualified and some training counterproductive.
The senators cited recent news reports of "self-appointed counterterrorism training experts as engaging in vitriolic diatribes and making assertions such as "Islam is a highly violent, radical religion."
"But Islam demonstrably is a violent religion," said Robert Spencer, an author and blogger whose writings on Islam have proved controversial. "Not every Muslim is violent, but the religion teaches and encourages violence against non-Muslims."
Mr. Spencer says he has taken part in counterterrorism training for U.S. military and intelligence agencies and the FBI, but not state and local police. He told The Washington Times he was concerned the senators' inquiry could lead to "politically correct guidelines to stop people teaching the truth about Islam, especially from the Obama administration."
Mr. Spencer, who has a master's degree in religious studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has studied Islam for three decades and written 10 books on the faith.
Walid Phares, another counterterrorism consultant who has helped train state and local police forces, told The Times that organized Islamic extremists were "trying to confuse the public by mixing criticism of unprofessional training with criticism of the best strategic analysis available in the United States."
He said he supported the senators' work.
At the root of many of the disagreements about the content of the training courses are differences about the nature of Islam and its relationship to extremist terrorist groups like al Qaeda.
Many see political Islam — a vision of the religion as not just a personal faith, but a blueprint for society and its laws — as the real enemy in the war against terrorism and as a toxic influence on the American body politic.
But the Obama administration, like its predecessor, says Islam is a religion of peace and generally urges officials not to describe al Qaeda and other terrorist groups as Islamic, but simply as violent extremists.
The Department of Homeland Security, in a statement released Tuesday evening, said the agency understands the senators' concerns.
All DHS grant recipients providing training to state and local law enforcement partners "are expected to reflect the same professionalism and courtesy that is expected of all DHS and DHS component personnel," according to the statement.
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