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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Law enforcement seminar strips away cultural stereotypes

Removing a Sikh's turban in public is the same as a strip search. Not all Arabs are Muslim. A kirpan is not a concealed weapon.

Those lessons and others were delivered Wednesday to about 75 Pennsylvania law enforcement officers during a four-hour seminar at the Allegheny County Police Academy.

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice's Community Relations Service, the seminar was designed to teach local agencies about Arab, Muslim and Sikh cultures, officials said.

"What do you think of when you hear the term 'Arab'?" Nawar Shora, director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee's Law Enforcement Outreach Program, asked attendees.

Initial answers were neutral: "Omar Sharif," "nomads," "camels." Only after Shora urged people to include stereotypes did one man respond with "terrorists."

"These are all common answers," Shora said.

Most Americans have negative images of Arabs and Muslims because our schools, pop culture and media promote such stereotypes, he said.

But, Shora said, not all Arabs are Muslim; 42 percent of Arab Americans are Catholic. Many famous Americans are of Arab descent, he said, including Ralph Nader, actress Shannon Elizabeth and pop mogul Paula Abdul.

"The odds are, you've reacted with Arabs. You just haven't realized it," he said.

But subtle cultural differences exist, Shora said, offering tips for police who might deal with Arabs in non-emergencies. For example, in the Arab world it's acceptable to stand closer to another person than in the United States. An Arab who gets too close to an officer might not realize it, Shora said. "They're not getting up in your face, they're not going for your gun."

Rajbir Datta, a Pittsburgh native and associate director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said that although Sikhs speak a different language (Punjabi), practice a different religion (Sikhism) and generally come from a different continent (India), they often are mistaken in America for Arab Muslims.

Most men wearing turbans in the United States are Sikh, Datta said. If a police officer must search a turban, Datta urged them to explain why, to do so in a private setting, and to offer the Sikh something to cover his hair during the search.

"Turbans are very religious, very personal," he said. "Many men never reveal their hair in public, so making them remove it would be like a public strip search."

Datta said many Sikhs carry a kirpan, a 3- to 6-inch sheathed knife that symbolizes a Sikh's commitment to protect the weak and promote justice. An officer who has to confiscate a kirpan should explain why and handle the knife with respect, Datta said.

Pittsburgh police Detective Julie Stoops said the seminar was educational.

Stoops is one of three police liaisons who works with Hispanics. She said she hopes to expand the program to include Muslims, Arabs and Sikhs.

"Until today, I was completely ignorant of Sikhism," Stoops said. "I learned a lot. This was great, one of the best training sessions I've taken in a long time."

www.usdoj.gov/crs [Link]

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