Homeland Security Officials Meet with Local Islamic Leaders

For the first time, local Muslim leaders and officials with the Department of Homeland Security are utilizing face-to-face forums to discuss concerns and misconceptions. Houston Public Radio's Jack WIlliams reports.

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The discussion between the DHS's Director of the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Daniel Sutherland and local Islamic religious leaders, known as imams, took place at Rice Universities Baker Institute for Public Policy. The forum was part of a new Department of Homeland Security effort to open the lines of communication between the government and Muslim-Americans.

"When you sit face-to-face and talk face-to-face with other people, you learn their perspective and they learn your perspective and I think it's helped community members to understand the security focus of agencies but it's also helped the security agencies to learn from the communities."

Sutherland is traveling across the nation, hosting similar forums in large cities like Los Angeles, New York and Detroit. He says so far, the discussions have led to answers and more understanding.

"We really try to listen to one another well, respect one another. We've found that the Muslim-American community really wants the country to be secure just like everybody else and they really appreciate the fact that we're coming and asking for their views on how we can do it. So we tackle tough issues, we don't dodge them, we don't hide from and we try to find ways that we can maybe pick a particular part of it that we can work together on that one and try to make some progress on that."

Many Muslim-Americans are concerned about perceived profiling and discrimination at airports and border crossings since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Rodwan Saleh is the president of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston and says it helps both sides to discuss their concerns in an open forum.

"This is about opening a line of communication. This is about letting the American citizens know that our imams are legitimate citizens who are preaching peace and tranquility and the understanding and bridging the gap between two cultures, the Islamic one, the Middle East two, the Muslim world in general and the United States."

Saleh says he hopes the dialogue continues as local Muslim-Americans learn to trust the government and its security policies.

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