Religious leaders raise concerns about FBI training materials

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November 3, 2011

The Honorable John Brennan
Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and
Counterterrorism and Deputy National Security Advisor
The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500


Dear Mr. Brennan:

As religious leaders from Jewish, Christian and interfaith organizations that celebrate religious freedom and diversity, we write to you with deep concern over the recent allegations that the federal government has utilized biased, misleading and offensive materials about Islam to train personnel responsible for the safety of our country. Since there have been documented examples of this problem reaching across various agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Army, we ask that the White House convene an interagency task force to resolve this problem.

There exists in our country today a pervasive, unsettling, well-documented trend of anti-Muslim fear and bigotry. The prospect of those individuals responsible for the protection of our nation—law enforcement and defense personnel—being trained with false information is even more unsettling. The integrity of the information used to train government personnel should be above reproach and when that standard is not met, we as faith leaders feel a moral responsibility to shine a light on the problem.

We appreciate the difficult and important work done by American security forces to combat threats to our security both at home and abroad. But the continued demonization of Muslims, questioning of the Muslim faith and spreading of misinformation and fear is not the answer. By sanctioning or facilitating these kinds of biased training materials—whether intentionally or inadvertently—the federal government simply perpetuates fear and suspicion of the Muslim American community.

The diversity of faith in America is one of its greatest assets. The First Amendment’s promise that government will stay out of religion has allowed us to create a pluralistic society that while not perfect, at least strives to be. Recent efforts to demonize Islam not only disenfranchise an entire religion, but also endanger the religious freedom of all Americans.

The example of Stephen Coughlin illustrates this issue. A former consultant on Islamic law to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Coughlin has lectured both Army and FBI personnel. Addressing the Washington D.C. FBI field office in January 2011, he claimed Shariah, Islamic law, is a threat to U.S. law. Coughlin has also criticized former President George W. Bush and other national leaders for assuring the world that the U.S. is not at war with Islam. [1]

In an even more disturbing case, a 2006 FBI report asserts that “wearing traditional Muslim attire” or “frequent attendance at a mosque or prayer group” are among the signs that an individual could be a burgeoning “Homegrown Islamic Extremist.”[2] To suggest that engaging in such basic acts of religious devotion to the Muslim faith—or any faith for that matter—are indicators of criminal behavior is patently wrong and contrary to our nation’s long-standing constitutional commitment to the free exercise of religion. It casts suspicion on an entire religious community whose adherents are merely exercising their First Amendment right to freely exercise their faith.

From the histories of each of our faith traditions, we know all too well the kind of discrimination and hatred our friends in the Muslim American community face today. We also know that any attack on the ability of the members of one religious group to freely exercise their faith is a threat to all Americans, to the religious freedoms we all hold dear.

Muslim Americans are no less entitled to the religious protections afforded under our Constitution than any other religious community. We are blessed to live in a country where the free exercise of religion, in and of itself, does not render an individual suspect under the law. Muslim Americans are entitled to practice their faith and speak freely—even if it is to raise concerns about troubling government policy. Protecting religious liberty is most critical in times of crisis and controversy, and our government should make every effort to ensure this integral part of our democracy is not eroded.

We hope that you will convene an interagency task force to investigate and resolve this situation. We also hope that you will make clear that religious expression and belief are protected by the First Amendment—not cause for suspicion.

Thank you for your consideration.




Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, General Minister and President, United Church of Christ

Rev. Jennifer Butler, Executive Director, Faith in Public Life

Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, President, Interfaith Alliance

Rabbi Steve Gutow, President, Jewish Council for Public Affairs

Rev. Richard L. Killmer, Executive Director, National Religious Campaign Against Torture

Rev. Michael Kinnamon, Ph.D., General Secretary, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA

Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

Rev. Steven D. Martin, Executive Director, New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good

Rev. Peter Morales, President, Unitarian Universalist Association

Rabbi David Saperstein, Director and Counsel, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, Ph. D., Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies, Director, Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue, Jewish Theological Seminary

Jim Winkler, General Secretary, United Methodist General Board of Church and Society

The Rev. J. Brent Walker, Executive Direct, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty

Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins, General Minister and President, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

[1]Spencer Ackerman, New Evidence of Anti-Islam Bias Underscores Deep Challenges for FBI’s Reform Pledge, WIRED MAGAZINE, Sept. 23, 2011, available at