Speaking in Dearborn on Wednesday, the head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) attempted to reach out to local Muslims, saying that Islam is a religion of peace while also calling upon the community speak up against extremism to counter ISIS.
Secretary Jeh Johnson spoke at the University of Michigan-Dearborn to about 20 student leaders, followed by a public address to hundreds of students, law enforcement chiefs in metro Detroit and brief remarks to reporters.
Johnson was criticized for not having a meeting in Dearborn with Arab American and Muslim leaders who work on civil rights issues. There also were no imams, Muslim religious leaders, at the event. Spokesmen for DHS did not comment on who they invited and why Johnson only met with students. The meeting with students was closed to the media.
Nabih Ayad, founder of the Dearborn-based Arab American Civil Rights League, said that Johnson should have met with community leaders, not just students. Ayad, an attorney who often handles civil rights cases, asked Johnson about Arab Americans being placed on the no-fly list, a question that Johnson sidestepped in his response.
More than 40% of Dearborn’s population is Muslim, a community that Johnson said the government wants to work with to battle extremism and the lure of ISIS. Johnson’s visit came the day after President Barack Obama slammed hateful attacks on Muslims in his State of the Union address, a view Johnson echoed.
“We must not vilify Muslim-Americans,” Johnson said in his remarks to reporters. “The very essence of the Islamic faith is peace.”
Johnson said that the nature of the terror threat has changed, from what he called “terrorist-directed” attacks, like Sept. 11 and the Christmas Day bombing attempt near Detroit, in which a foreign leader leads or orders an attack, to “terror-inspired” attacks in which someone in the U.S. carries out the deed on their own, such as in San Bernardino, Calif.
“We find ourselves in a new phase in the global terrorist threat, which requires a new … type of response,” Johnson said to the audience. “We now deal with the prospect of terror-inspired attacks by those who are here in our homeland, through the use of the Internet, through the use of social media … publications like (Al-Qaeda’s) Inspire magazine.”
“These types of threats are harder to detect. These make for a more challenging situation.”
Johnson encouraged people to speak up if they see or hear about extremist activity.
“If you see something, say something,” he said. “We want public awareness, public vigilance.”
While there have been no ISIS-related arrests in Dearborn, there is a cleric in the city, Ahmad Jebril, who is popular with ISIS fighters from the West.
This month, the Department of Homeland Security announced it was creating a task force hosted by the Department of Homeland Security for Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), a program developed in recent years aimed at Muslim-Americans that seeks to reduce extremism that could lead to terrorism.
Several Muslim and Arab-American advocacy groups have slammed the program, saying it’s bigoted to single out one group for extremism, when the majority of violent acts are carried out not by Muslims but by people in right-wing or white supremacist movements.
Asked by the Free Press if the CVE program unfairly singles out Muslims, Johnson said: “No, not at all. The program does not focus on Muslims per se. The Islamic State is targeting Muslims. Therefore, we have an obligation to respond to that, to work with the communities that the Islamic State is itself targeting in our homeland, to help them develop a counter message, to build bridges to these communities.”
Speaking to the audience, Johnson said, “There has to be a counter-narrative that takes away the perceived glamour and intrigue of the Islamic State. … It’s not nearly what it’s advertised to be.”
He said that “the overwhelming majority of Muslims are … people of faith and peace,” saying that about one out of four people in the world are Muslim.
Johnson also touched upon deportations, an issue that has concerned some advocates in metro Detroit. Ryan Bates of Michigan United held a news conference on Monday to express concerns about immigrants being targeted in raids for deportation, saying they are breaking up families. This month, DHS stepped up raids of some Central American immigrants escaping poverty and violence.
Johnson said, “I do have an obligation to enforce the law. … Our priorities are convicted criminals.”
He also spoke about terror-inspired attacks in San Bernardino, Calif., and Chattanooga, Tenn. DHS has been criticized in recent weeks by a former employee, Philip Haney, who said that DHS shut down his investigation into the Deobandi religious network tied to San Bernardino. Asked about Haney’s complaints, Johnson said he did read Haney’s article in the Hill, but didn’t comment further on it.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, praised Johnson, saying she’s “been very concerned over the last few months of fear causing hate and division. … We cannot target anyone because of nationality or religion. We are one community, united we win, divided we fall.”
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