Cultural Competency & the FBI

In June of 2011 in Miami, Florida the FBI raided a mosque and arrested two Imams that had been under surveillance for some time. It is remarkable that most of us had no idea it  happened, and it didn’t seem to fuel any anti-Muslim sentiment elsewhere. When I heard the story I was impressed. Not one to praise the FBI or government in general, it was a moment where I was amazed with the thoughtfulness and cultural awareness with which the raid was carried out. All the evidence points to actions that took into account the larger Muslim community and efforts that were taken to inform and involve this community.

The story goes that the activity of the imams had been watched for some time. When the decision was made that an arrest and questioning was warranted, the FBI consulted with a cultural broker of sorts as to the best time to carry out the raid. It is a large and active mosque with prayers going on five times a day and activities in between. It was decided that a Saturday morning would be the ideal time, at 6am. This ensured the fewest number of people and the least amount of chaos. Second, the officers took off their shoes before going into the mosque. They took the effort, despite the obvious seriousness of the situation to display sensitivity to this need and recognition that this was a place of worship and it was important to abide by the rules of the mosque. Third, they spoke to the imams in Pashto, through a translator. It was their native language so there was no ambiguity about the arrest and no miscommunication because of limited English. The Pashto was clear and precise. Fourth – they waited until the prayers had finished, they did not interrupt but surrounded the mosque waiting. Lastly, before the media had any idea that this had occurred, the spokesperson for the FBI contacted leaders in the Muslim community. The neighborhood surrounding the mosque is heavily populated with Muslims and, while an arrest of a religious leader within any religious community would be difficult, given the current attitudes toward Muslims this is one of most difficult and potentially explosive things that can happen. They wanted the community to have an opportunity to frame a response before a media frenzy began inciting fear of all Muslims as well as assumptions that all in the community were involved in suspicious activities linked to terrorism.

This is all quite remarkable. We have all heard of police violence, FBI gaffes, and abuse of power by people in the role of law enforcement. There are horror stories in other countries as well that include raids, torture, and untold abuse by secret police and intelligence people. Yet in this case, the FBI went above and beyond expectations of cultural competency as they carried out this raid. Just days before the operation many of the officers had attended a training program that gave tools on working in a culturally sensitive way with Arab and Muslim communities.

I am well aware of the often valid criticism that is voiced about decisions of the United States government and the many organizations that fall under the auspices of the government, including the FBI.  But this is a time to be impressed and applaud, not criticize. Almost weekly I work with a colleague presenting workshops in healthcare organizations on how to give culturally responsive care to diverse communities. What amazed me about this story is that an organization with intent to arrest did a far better job communicating across cultural boundaries than many healthcare organizations do with intent to heal.

Bloggers note: You can read or listen to the full story on NPR here.

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3 thoughts on “Cultural Competency & the FBI

  1. This makes me proud to be human. I don’t know if the reasons for arresting the Imams were valid, but I am so grateful that in the face of perceived violation of a law, such respect for others was held. This gives hope to my vision of a world in which the majority respect others…including world leaders. My only regret is that this story wasn’t widely shared. Perhaps I may need to do so. :)


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