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DHS: Listening and engaging Muslims, others

June 4, 2009

So the conference call with Juliette Kayyem, the assistant secretary for Intergovernmental Programs in the Department of Homeland Security, was brief but interesting for a couple of reasons.  

Kayyem, who is one of the highest ranking Arab Americans serving in the administration, addressed President Obama’s speech in Cairo about relations between the United States and Muslims (as well as non-Muslim Arabs and South Asians). 

A key component of Obama’s outreach, Kayyem said, is acknowledging the contributions of Muslims, Arabs and South Asians to the United States and the world. She also emphasized that DHS officials were not approaching this relationship strictly as a counter-terrorism effort but an effort to more broadly engage these communities. The DHS seeks to learn from folks who may not feel very comfortable with the federal government.

For some reason, the other reporters who RSVP’ed to the call did not participate. The only other journalist who called in was a woman from the Arab American News who, fortunately, had several specific questions and comments about the tension between the government and Arab Americans. 

(I, on the other hand, had to keep my phone on mute because a certain someone in my house was extremely fussy. So no questions from me.)

But through the other reporter, I learned that Kayyem is a Christian of Arab background and is married to a Jewish American. How’s THAT for perspective!

Kayyem said that DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has assembled people from a broad array of ethnicities for her senior leadership team. 

Also on the call (from DHS) was Shaarik H. Zafar, senior policy advisor. He said it’s important not just to stay in Washington but to go out to the communities and hear people’s stories. He said they’ve been able to solve complaints that way and urged those who have complaints to let the DHS know by emailing

“We’re listening, we’re aware, and we want to keep engaging,” he said.


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