It was a consciousness-raising game of free association.
The question: “What do you think when you see a Muslim?”
Among the answers by a group of mostly police, airport security and corrections officers: “terrorist,” “prayer,” “monotheism,” “mystique” and “unknown.”
The exercise was part of a cultural training session Thursday morning at MU for local and state public safety officials to help increase awareness and understanding of Arab, Muslim and Sikh cultures. The objective of the training, organized by the Department of Justice, was to “dispel misconceptions, to build relationships with the community,” said Aftab Ahmad, a trainer from St. Louis who talked about Arab and Muslim cultures.
How should law enforcement respond to a complaint about a Muslim praying in public?
Most practicing Muslims pray five times a day, so public prayer happens. Law enforcement officers should just wait for the prayer to be over. Then, if a question is necessary, ask away, Ahmad told the group.
The group of about 70 people learned the basic tenets of Muslim and Sikh faiths and how to approach Muslims and Sikhs in non-crisis situations. Presentations included sensitivity videos about Arab-Americans and Sikhs, a clip from the Canadian sitcom, “Little Mosque on the Prairie” and role-playing exercises.
Ahmad and Maysa Al-Barcha, another presenter from St. Louis, talked about the importance of understanding differences, like the significance of eye contact. During a role-playing exercise with a Kansas City detective, Al-Barcha showed how Arabs, Muslims and Sikhs avoid prolonged eye contact, especially with authority figures, because it is seen as disrespectful and confrontational.
“We tend to think that people who avoid eye contact have something to hide,” Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm said. About 12 Columbia police officers attended the training.
Rajbir Datta, the Pittsburgh-born director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, talked about how Sikh men are easily identified by the turban their faith requires them to wear.
“The turban now signifies terrorism or Muslim or Arab or worse,” Datta said.
Cody Abram, from the Department of Justice in Kansas City, got to experience part of Datta’s morning routine: wrapping an 18-foot to 24-foot piece of cotton around his head. A slightly reluctant volunteer, Abram held the end of the cloth while Datta wrapped and the class snapped pictures.
“This isn’t something you can take off and put on easily”, said Datta, as he lifted the turban off Abram’s head in front of the group, an action no Sikh would ever perform in front of anyone except close family members. Hence, the need for privacy when searching a Sikh.
For Datta, it boils down to this: “Law enforcement can do their job better by knowing the community they serve.”
The training, which was sponsored by a coalition that included the Department of Justice, MU Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative, MU Extension, Missouri Police Chiefs Association and the Columbia Police Department, was held at the Reynold’s Alumni Center at MU.