Tensions flare in cultural awareness training
by Jessica Loeding
Oct 06, 2011 | 3365 views | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Bartow County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. James Jonason, left, speaks with Soumaya Khalifa with the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta, center, and Navtej Singh Khalsa, Southeast Regional Director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, during a break in Thursday’s cultural awareness training seminar at the Clarence Brown Conference Center. Jonason, who spent time in Saudi Arabia while in the U.S. Army, said he made an effort to speak to Khalifa and Khalsa because he understood how it was to be in a place and feel isolated.  SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
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We have been through this before -- racism, bigotry, hatred. In the 1940s, it was the Japanese. In the 1960s, it was the black population. Today, it's Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs, anyone who looks remotely like the Sept. 11 hijackers.

"It's a post-9/11 world" was heard repeatedly last week during cultural awareness training for law enforcement, emergency personnel and government employees -- and one newspaper reporter. The two sessions at the Clarence Brown Conference Center focused on the Arab, Muslim and Sikh culture and were sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice, Community Relations Service, U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Georgia, Federal Bureau of Investigation -- Atlanta Division and the Bartow County Sheriff's Office. Co-sponsoring organizations for this event included the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

The workshop spotlighted the customs and beliefs of those communities. "The training has proven to be very effective in defusing the backlash of harassment directed toward members of these communities and has also improved relationships between police officers and individuals within the community. CRS, ADC and SALDEF have been dedicated to increasing understanding about Arab Americans, Islam, Muslims, and Sikhs through interfaith and inter-cultural initiatives across the United States," stated the training flier.

During Tuesday's seminar, agencies from Cartersville, Bartow County, the Georgia State Patrol and Emerson, along with representatives from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Fulton County, Barrow County, Carrollton, Marietta and Woodstock, attended the educational session on Sikhs and Muslims. Although the Sikh speaker attended only the Thursday session, Tuesday's crowd of roughly 100 watched a video on Sikhism, the world's fifth-largest religion.

Soumaya Khalifa, executive director of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta, then took the stage.

The training offered information on how to respect the Muslim culture in a non-emergency situation. As Khalifa said, "In an emergency, do what you have to do."

It became clear rather quickly how difficult some found the workshop's focus. Some disregarded the speaker while laughing and playing on their cellphones. Others sighed, shifted, rolled their eyes. Some paid attention and participated, and a select few took it upon themselves to debate religion with Khalifa.

An officer from Woodstock Police Department made it obvious about halfway through Khalifa's presentation that he was unhappy with the program. He offered question after question, and while they were sprinkled with Islamic terminology, he sounded -- at least to this reporter -- deeply disrespectful.

I have since been told the officer from Woodstock sent a letter of complaint to the DOJ and was on several message boards criticizing the program. As a member of the public, it is upsetting to think that a person sworn to protect and serve could not look past the appearance of a citizen, but it is an all-too-real occurrence.

Islamophobia -- the fear and hatred of Islam and Muslims -- has skyrocketed since 2001. Activist groups, media experts and the election of Barack Obama are credited with the increase.

As Americans, we watch those who board the train or plane with us. We view anyone who looks Middle Eastern as suspicious. How could we not? A crew of Islamic hijackers took over four planes, killing almost 3,000 people and exposing just how vulnerable we are, but also brought to our attention how so many outside our borders hate us.

Thursday's seminar included speaker Navtej Singh Khalsa, Southeast Regional Director for SALDEF. Sikhs, who have four temples in the state of Georgia, follow a monotheistic religion founded more than 500 years ago in northern India.

Like those practicing Sikhism, Khalsa wore a turban. As he explained in a "turbanomics" lesson, there are various types of styles worn by those from different areas. But following Sept. 11, many Sikhs were targeted because they wear a turban.

Khalsa also walked the audience through the basics of Sikhism and the articles of faith each wears.

Both presenters touched on the prejudice they say they face because of their religion. Khalifa, who was born in Egypt but moved to Texas as a child, said she often is treated as those she is uneducated because people believe she doesn't speak English, which she does without a trace of an accent.

"Discrimination and harassment, according to the EOC, the number has gone sky high -- a 150-plus percent increase," she said. "This is something the American Muslim community feels all the time. 'Why are we singled out?' Because the American Muslim community really feels they have paid the price twice. Some of the victims of 9/11 were Muslims, some of the first responders to 9/11 were Muslims ... and the American Muslim community is paying the price 10 years later by being singled out, by being dehumanized, by being associated with the terrorists."

Cultural awareness can ease the path for law enforcement and emergency personnel by opening the lines of communication. In 2011, local agencies have dealt with the case of Wazineh Suleiman, a Muslim mother of five who disappeared for several days in April, and with several incidences of vandalism at the Islamic Center of Cartersville.

For Sheriff Clark Millsap, who attended a similar training in February, Suleiman's case offered the opportunity to further his knowledge of Islam.

Millsap said cultural education is vital to his department. "It's just another tool in the toolbox."