DHS and the Dearborn Muslim community: A relationship on the rocks?

On January 13, Department of Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson trekked to Dearborn, Michigan, where he spoke to students and law enforcement at the University of Michigan, Dearborn about the department’s efforts to engage the Muslim community.  He also met privately with student leaders in a meeting closed to media. 

Reportedly, Johnson did not meet with leaders of the local Muslim community.  He did say that he was “open to the idea of meeting with faith leaders in the future,” but it still seems odd, considering that DHS billed the talk’s subject as community engagement.

It’s possible the secretary was simply too busy.  He may have thought the students were more of a priority, given the youth of so many people attracted to ISIS and other terrorist groups, and felt felt he could not take the additional time needed to meet with community leaders. 

Or perhaps there is more to it.  Johnson’s message included this plea to Muslims: “Terrorist organizations … seek to pull your youth into the pit of violent extremism.  Help us to help you stop this. … If you see someone turning toward violence, say something.  Say something to law enforcement, or to one of your community or religious leaders.”

Contrast the secretary’s comments with a poster on the website of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Michigan chapter, exhorting readers: “If the FBI contacts you, contact us.”  The poster supplies CAIR-Michigan’s telephone number, 248-559-2247.  While the FBI is part of the Department of Justice rather than the Department of Homeland Security, the message is consistent with CAIR’s oppositional attitude regarding government efforts to counter violent Islamism – including its opposition to a bill that would fund DHS counter-extremism efforts.  The Arab American Institute has likewise been critical of government efforts to counter “violent extremism.”

Local Muslim religious leaders like Imam Mohammad Ali Elahi, leader of the Islamic House of Wisdom in Dearborn Heights, have also denied a connection between Islam and the crimes of violent Islamists.  Unlike, for example, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has called for a religious revolution within Islam, or the recently launched Muslim Reform Movement, which openly states it is in a “battle for the soul of Islam,” Elahi speaks of Islam as a victim of Islamist terrorists and urges, “Don’t blame Islam for the evil actions of its enemies.”

Johnson parroted the administration’s party line, “the very essence of the Islamic faith is peace,” but also called on the community to speak up against extremism in order to counter ISIS.  The administration has received pushback on the latter request from groups like CAIR, and it also seems contrary to the message of Elahi and other religious leaders in the Dearborn area.

For all the administration’s bending over backward to include Muslim groups like CAIR and its fellow travelers within the Muslim community, perhaps the latter’s efforts to obstruct government anti-terror efforts are beginning to register within the administration.  Maybe he thought a group that tells its constituents, “If the FBI contacts you, contact us,” isn’t the right partner for a talk urging listeners, “If you see something, say something” to law enforcement.  Perhaps Johnson decided the leadership of the local Muslim community in and around Dearborn are a bit too radicalized and uncooperative to make engagement with them productive and has written them off as a practical reality.

Johanna Markind is associate counselor for the Middle East Forum.