On July 24 and 25, I, along with over 40 Arab, Sikh, South Asian and Muslim youth leaders attended a roundtable discussion on security and liberty in the United States. The event was held co-sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute (HSPI).
The purpose of the event was to create a dialogue between grassroots youth leaders and government officials. The event began on the 24th with introductions and icebreakers between the speakers and the attendees present. The event then moved into its first panel discussing how well â€œintegratedâ€ Arab, Sikh, South Asian and Muslim youth were and if there were any radicalization trends present within any of these respective communities.
Following that, we had a working lunch where we sat and ate while watching â€œTwelve Angry Menâ€ and then held a discussion afterwards about issues of the rule of law and the notion of innocence before being proven guilty. The discussions then shifted to issues of interfaith dialogue and its impact on intra and inter community relations.
Finally we closed out the day with a discussion on whether or not home-grown radicalization and violent extremism is a real possibility in America among the communities represented at the roundtable.
The next day started with a panel of government employeesâ€“a Sikh from the FBI, a Muslim working on Capitol Hill and an Arab Christian working in the DHSâ€“and what are the opportunities and challenges for working in the government. After a short break the next panel shifted the discussion directly to issues of civil rights and what can be done to ensure that they are not violated.
A working lunch on campus and classroom life at universities followed, focusing mainly the experiences of Muslim students within their respective Muslim Student Associations and their interactions with other organizations and campus communities.
The last two panel sessions were on the role of the media and levels of engagement between the U.S. government and local Arab, Sikh, South Asian and Muslim communities. The first panel included Al-Jazeera correspondent and commentator Riz Khan, Islamica Magazine editor Al-Husein Madhany and AltMuslim.com columnist Zahir Janmohamed. The second panel discussed ways of improving communication between law enforcement and local communities and what kind of messages should be sent.
Finally, the last day ended with a discussion between the attendees and Homeland Security Michael Chertoff.
In hindsight, I saw the conference as a first good step. However, there are some important improvements that need to be made should another forum, like this one, be held again.
First, we were talking to the wrong people. The sponsors, the speakers and the attendees were largely just preaching to the choir. While it is nice to hear and give feedback from the academics at the HSPI and people and the DHS office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, the people that need to hear it the most are the policymakers and analysts within DHS, FBI and other agencies. They are the ones that set the policies for catching the criminals and protecting our nationâ€™s security. They are also the ones that set policies that affect peopleâ€™s civil liberties. However, this suggestion did not fall on deaf ears and a second dialogue is scheduled to take place between 10 attendeesÂ and a group of DHS policy and intelligence analysts. Neither the specific attendees nor the government analysts have been decided upon yet.
Second, I was disappointed by the overall lack of direct discussion of policies. Throughout the entire roundtable, while we did occasionally touch upon issues such as racial profiling, TSA no-fly lists, etc. the discussions were generally limited to a few token complaints and no discussion of alternative solutions. The most productive discourse, I felt, concerned provocative terminology used by some individuals within the media, government and academiaâ€“terms like â€œjihadiâ€, â€œIslamic terroristâ€, â€œIslamic extremistâ€, â€œradical Islamistâ€, etc. Here we felt that stripping away the religious sounding elements of such terminology is useful because they give Al-Qaeda and other like-minded people religious legitimacy that they need. Even so, when pressed on this issue, Secretary Chertoff felt that it would be impossible ignore the religious overtones. He didnâ€™t see the division of labor involved: Leave the so-called religious overtones of Bin Ladenâ€™s ideology and rhetoric up to Muslims, and you, the members of the government, handle the violent criminal activity.
In spite of these two very serious drawbacks, the roundtable was also a positive experience by giving myself and others the opportunity to learn more about the government, discuss these issues more in depth with other members of the government and academia in person and provide an opportunity for further dialogue and discussion with the halls of power in the future.