A Visit from Ta’leef Collective

Will Caldwell from the Ta’leef Collective recently visited the school to talk about the American Muslim experience.

The mission of Ta’leef Collective is “…to provide the space, content, and companionship necessary for a healthy understanding and realization of Islam.” As the education director for Ta’leef Collective, Caldwell teaches introductory classes on Islam and is responsible for programming to teach about the faith. Caldwell visited Parker at the invitation of Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Erika Prahl to share about the American Muslim community in the aftermath of the October 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas terrorists.

In this gathering with employees and students, Caldwell shared more about his own conversion to Islam while studying in Jerusalem as a Christian. He described his frustration with trying to learn more about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from his peers with Jewish, Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian backgrounds, noting that this topic made once-level-headed folks incapable of having a conversation.

Caldwell used this example to point out the difference between educating and indoctrinating. The former involves an invitation for one to listen and consider ideas, while the latter is an expectation that one takes what is said as fact. He reminded everyone that whenever they are in a situation with heightened emotions, they should try to determine whether those around them are attempting to communicate or persuade them to think a certain way. “Much of what we encounter around heightened situations is not intended to guide or illuminate. It is intended to get us to pick a side,” Caldwell said.

As a PhD student, Caldwell was interested in learning more about the history of American Muslims. While conducting research, Caldwell was shocked to learn that the FBI conducted the first organized effort to learn more about American Muslims back in the 1950s and 1960s as part of a widespread counterintelligence program designed to shape the public narrative about American Muslims. As part of these efforts, government operatives inserted themselves into academia and media to share American perceptions of Muslim people. The Church Committee reports and hearings would later confirm the tactics were first during WWII and were later knowingly deployed on American citizens by its own government.

Flashing forward to present day, Caldwell was clear in sharing that our government and governments around the world are still very interested in what we think and in shaping our perceptions of the world to help ensure those thoughts conform to their own policy agendas. “If we are going to make sense of the world in a productive and effective way, this is something we need to be aware of,” Caldwell advised.

Next, Caldwell played a current ad produced by the US Army to promote its PsyOps division, a specialized group charged with shaping public perception, and pointed out visuals featuring screens and tablets along with conventional elements of warfare within the ad.

Caldwell introduced the concept of 5th generation warfare, which is conducted primarily through non-kinetic military action, or using information and deception, and reminded all in the room of the smartphones in each of their pockets. He pointed out that what Generation Z knows and how they perceive the world is more determined by smartphones than any other medium. He spoke about the power of the images coming out of Israel in the immediate aftermath of the October 7 attacks, as well as the need for critical thought on everyone’s parts to evaluate the nonstop stream of information being pushed at each of us.

Using Voltaire’s quote, “Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities,” Caldwell called on the students as digital natives to realize they were being targeted with 5th generation warfare tactics, and the emergence of AI only makes things more difficult.

In closing, Caldwell reminded everyone of the battle going on for their minds in a generational sense, and student members of Generation Z were uniquely situated to discern truth from lies when compared with prior generations.

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Francis W. Parker School educates students to think and act with empathy, courage and clarity as responsible citizens and leaders in a diverse democratic society and global community.