WASHINGTON - An interactive programme designed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to help teachers and students identify warning signs of violent extremism has drawn strong criticism Muslims and civil rights leaders, according to US media reports. 

The programme, called “Don’t Be a Puppet,” predominately focuses on Islamic extremism, even though that has not been a factor in school shootings and attacks, .

Muslim and Arab advocacy groups who were briefed  by FBI on the programme say it will foment discrimination against Muslims, The Washington Post said in a dispatch published on Monday.

“We were all on the same page in terms of being concerned,” Hoda Hawa, director of policy and advocacy for  the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), was quoted as saying. “It seems like they’re asking teachers to be extensions of law enforcement and to police thought, and students as well.  That was very concerning to us all.”

The FBI declined to confirm details of the programme or why it was put on hold or when it is expected to go online, the Post said. After initially declining comment altogether, it said, the agency Sunday night issued a statement.

“The FBI is developing a Web site designed to provide awareness about the dangers of violent extremist predators on the Internet, with input from students, educators and community leaders,” the statement read.

The community groups said they learned about the site last month when the FBI called several people to a meeting.

Also at the meeting, the FBI described its plan for “Shared Responsibility Committees,” which the Muslim and Arab participants said are proposed groups of community leaders and FBI representatives who could discuss cases of specific youth.

The participants said they were also very concerned about the concept and complained to the Department of Justice. That programme was put on hold last week, participants said.

Abed  Ayoub, the legal and policy director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, recalled, according to The New York Times,  “They were getting blowback from everybody. It was a very tense meeting.”

“They wanted teachers in social studies, civics and government classes to show this to their students,” Ms. Hawa said. “But the website will be accessible by anyone.”

She and others interviewed were particularly troubled by a question that she said asked the user to identify which of four or five posts on social media should raise alarm. Among the choices were a person posting about a plan to attend a political event, or someone with an Arabic name posting about going on “a mission” overseas. The correct answer was the posting with the Arabic name.

“What kind of mission? It could have been humanitarian. It could have been religious,” Ms. Hawa said.

Ayoub said, “If this is shown to middle and high school students, it’s going to result in the bullying of these children.”

While group participants and experts on such efforts said they believed this would be the first such programme in schools, law enforcement agencies have for a decade been debating and creating efforts called counter-radicalization or countering violent extremism, or CVE, the Post said. Some involved improving communication and partnerships between Muslim organizations and law enforcement, it was pointed out. Some are run by local police or sheriffs’ departments, others by Homeland Security or the FBI or the Justice Department. Some Muslim leaders are skeptical of efforts they see as disproportionately focused on Muslims and wrongly leaning on Muslims to connect law enforcement to people who may simply be criticizing U.S. foreign policy or have mental health issues, among other scenarios.

“The most controversial part of CVE  is that there is no consensus as to what is a pre-terrorism indicator,” said Faiza Patel, a Pakistani who is co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school.

(ENDS)/ia