Homeland Security head aims to build trust in L.A. Muslim community

Jeh Johnson
Dr. Muzammil Siddiqui, center, and Dr. Amna Rizvi, right, look on as Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson addresses a news conference outside the Islamic Center of San Gabriel Valley.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson met Thursday with American Muslim leaders who’ve raised concerns about government surveillance, initiatives to combat extremism and treatment during airport security screenings.

The meeting at the Islamic Center of San Gabriel Valley in Rowland Heights, which was closed to the media, was intended to “build partnerships and build trust,” Johnson said after gathering with about 60 community leaders.

“I’ve made this a personal priority of mine,” Johnson said.

Among other things, the gathering touched on a pilot initiative called “Countering Violent Extremism,” which community leaders say indiscriminately targets the Muslim community.


Community leaders say the discussion around Countering Violent Extremism focuses only on the fear of extreme or violent acts committed by Muslims, not extremist behavior in any other community.

“We do not wish to be treated as a suspect community,” said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Greater Los Angeles Area Chapter, who attended the meeting.

Ayloush said Johnson did not respond to their concerns about the initiatives. But some said they viewed the meeting as a positive step.

“Remember where we were 10 years ago when we had sting operations, when we had so many profiling issues?” said Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.


“I think, at least, Secretary Johnson is saying those days are behind us — we’re working toward engaging communities.”

Johnson also said he wanted to reinforce the “see something, say something” motto used by the Department of Homeland Security to encourage a unified effort from the community and law enforcement.

“It means more than a slogan,” he said. “It means public participation in our Homeland Security efforts.”

But some community leaders said this level of awareness was already going on in the community.

“American Muslims again and again have proven that when they know of someone engaging in criminal behavior, they are the first ones to report these people because it is our country and our neighborhood,” Ayloush said.

He said the idea of “see something, say something” is too broad, especially when counting on average citizens, who are untrained, to report suspicious behavior.

“We never tell people not to report. The issue is never not to report something, it’s when to report,” Ayloush said. “Is it when I see someone going to the mosque at night? Or are we talking about someone clearly engaged in suspicious criminal behavior?”

Johnson said he tried to ease concerns about informants in mosques and government profiling.


“We’re here to encourage people themselves to be on the lookout for potential acts of violence,” Johnson said. “I don’t regard that as being an informant or a snitch. It’s part of participation in democracy.”