Some in Congress may need a primer on Islamic extremists. Five years after 9/11, three members of the House Intelligence Committee in recent interviews couldn't answer basic questions about who's Sunni and who's Shiite in the Muslim world. But other American institutions are already boning up – especially when they have a stake in doing so. For example:
•Law-enforcement agencies, from the FBI to the New York Police Department are learning Muslim customs in attempts to do their jobs more effectively.
•Major hospitals, including one in Tampa, Fla., are training staff to honor Muslim beliefs about the body.
•Business groups are studying Islamic law in order to raise capital among Muslims, who aren't allowed to charge interest.
In general, Americans don't know much about Muslims, surveys show. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that the share of those saying they knew "not very much" or "nothing at all" about Islam actually grew from 61 percent in 2001 to 66 percent in 2005. In another 2005 Pew finding, 62 percent failed to identify Allah and the Koran as the terms Muslims use for God and sacred scripture.
Certain key sectors of US society also display a dangerous ignorance, Muslim advocates say. Topping the list this month is Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D) of Texas, the incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. In an interview with Congressional Quarterly last week, he could identify the historic Sunni-Shiite split but didn't know that Al Qaeda is Sunni or that Hizbullah, which fought Israel this summer in Lebanon, is Shiite.
GOP Reps. Jo Ann Davis and Terry Everett, also on the intelligence committee, fared worse when the Congressional Quarterly interviewed them last summer.
But even on Capitol Hill, there are pockets of hope, Muslim advocates say. Congressmen tend to know more about Islamic culture when their own futures depend on working well with Muslims.
"In areas where there are large Muslim populations, you tend to see that members of Congress are more in tune with the thinking of the Muslim community," says Corey Saylor, national legislative director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group in Washington. Among those with few Muslim constituents, he says, knowledge of Islamic culture is "better than it was five years ago, but we still have a long way to go."
That same trend shows up in other sectors of society. Where the stakes are high, Americans are doing their homework.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, for instance, will emphasize Muslim culture when it expands introductory training for new agents from 18 to 21 weeks next month. In upcoming sessions, trainees will "drill down deeper" than they have in the past, for instance, into differences between radical Shiite cultures and radical Sunni ones, says Keith Slotter, assistant director of the FBI's training division. For the first time, new agent training will also cover dynamics surrounding suicide bombing.
"When a person from another culture says something, the meaning behind the words may not be the literal translation that an agent might want to jump to," Mr. Slotter says. "There are so many different nuances and aspects [that] to be an effective interviewer ... you're going to need those cultural skills."
Urban police are taking similar steps. About 100 members of the New York Police Department's hostage negotiating team, for instance, earlier this year spent a day learning to foster cooperation by honoring Muslim customs. For example, when entering a home, leave dogs outside and don't step on prayer rugs. In San Jose, Police Chief Rob Davis is a Mormon, but he has in the past fasted each day during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in order to foster understanding and closer ties with Muslims in his city.
Sometimes, the passion for knowledge has proved fleeting. When the Houston Police Department first offered a monthly continuing education course on Muslim culture at a local mosque in 2003, every class was near capacity with about 30 officers in attendance. But the department discontinued the course last year because not enough officers were signing up. The sharp decline in numbers coincided with a department policy shift.
"We used to have classes on city time, but now that you have to go on your own time, the majority of officers don't want to take this class," says Muzaffar Siddiqi, the department's liaison to Muslims. They're taking other courses online because "they can just sit at home and do it."
Some business people are also trying to learn more. Earlier this year, managers at East Cameron Partners, an energy development firm in Houston, studied Islamic finance in order to raise funds in the Middle East for oil and gas exploration. The result was the first-ever US issue of sukuk, an Islamic bond that generates revenue from sales, profits, or leases rather than interest. In September, International Swaps and Derivatives Association in New York began studying Islamic law requirements in order to craft international standards for more cross-cultural deals.
In healthcare, Tampa General Hospital has emphasized Muslim culture in its two-year-old diversity training program, which counts as continuing education for many of the hospital's 5,000 staffers. In March, Muslims will make their fourth presentation – more than any other group – to an expected crowd of about 150.
The education has had immediate on-the-job value for medical staff, according to the Rev. William Baugh, director of pastoral care at Tampa General. They now try to have women physicians visit Muslim female patients "because of the tremendous modesty," he says. And when a patient dies, nurses now accommodate family members who insist on taking the body to wash it.