DEARBORN, Michigan — As Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson looked out to the crowd of police officers before him, there sat women in hijab and officers with origins from Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Some welcomed each other in Arabic with a common greeting that translates to “peace be upon you.”
Collectively, they were an outward display of an increasingly vilified community that’s challenging conventional thinking on what it means to be Arab or Muslim American.
“This is our ground force. You are ground forces,” Johnson told the 200 people in the room, many of them police officers here, a largely Arab-American city.
Johnson spoke before members of the first conference of the Middle East Law Enforcement Officers Association. The group is only a year old, founded by a Palestinian Muslim female watch commander with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and a male Chaldean who also works as a special agent for the Department of Homeland Security.
The group says it is committed to doing community outreach, showing both Arab Americans and non-Arabs alike that to be Arab or Muslim and in law enforcement is not a contradiction.
Fadia Odeh was working at the Ford Motor Company’s credit department and a new mother when the September 11 terrorist attacks happened, inspiring her to join U.S. Customs and Protection.
“I never saw myself going into law enforcement. After 9/11, I was holding my baby, terrified for his future,” Odeh explained to The Daily Beast.
As a Palestinian, Muslim woman, Odeh said often the reaction she gets most is surprise at the sight of an Arab-Muslim woman in uniform.
She now serves as MELOA’s vice president. Steve Francis, the group’s president, grew up in a home where his family didn’t speak English.
“Because of the current climate, it was necessary for us to come out of the shadows,” Odeh said. “We wanted to show [Arab Americans] there is so many of us. …When we are going out there and telling our story, it is so personal because we sometimes we throw in Arabic or talk about a certain food we make at home.”
These officers are largely Arab and Muslim Americans who wear a police uniform for federal agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations, Enforcement Removal Operations, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Office of Field Operations and the U.S. Border Patrol. But also among them are Jews, Christian and non-Arabs committed to the effort. Indeed, of the group’s 10 board members, only two are Muslim.
“You live in the very communities we are trying to build bridges to,” Johnson told them.
And yet, as Johnson spoke, there was an elephant in the room: Donald Trump. To listen to the efforts here was to be exposed to two Americas. At this meeting, Arab-American police officers spoke about ways to educate local police departments about the Arab-American community and about giving scholarships to Arab and Muslim students interested in law enforcement. Meanwhile, on the campaign trail, there is talk of banning Muslims from even entering the United States. Alternatively, Trump recently proposed asking Arabs and Muslims to join a commission to identify the traits that make someone an extremist. Arab and Muslims should expect immigration to be met with “extreme vetting” if Trump is elected, he said Monday.
The juxtaposition of both isolating and embracing Arabs and Muslims has left some unsure about whether Johnson’s effort to reach out to the Arab and Muslim community will endure in the months ahead. Johnson referred to it in his speech before MELOA last week.
“In my judgment, this must continue. This must continue beyond this administration,” Johnson said. “I urge you: keep expanding, keep growing.”
During his tenure as Homeland Security secretary, Johnson has led an outreach program toward Arabs and Muslims, often meeting with community leaders. He has often referred to his American story as an African-American grandson of a college professor who was targeted in 1949 by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which alleged he was disloyal. Johnson believes his grandfather was targeted because he, too, was challenging conventional thinking of what it meant to be black in America, having earned a Ph.D. The committee eventually dismissed the charges against his grandfather, and the family did not speak of the incident afterward. It was only when Johnson was researching a speech as Homeland Security secretary that he found out about the charge.
Leading Johnson’s campaign internally is George Selim, an Egyptian-American of Lebanese origin, tasked with building partnerships with Arabs and Muslim communities.
So often, the focus of reaching out to Arab and Muslims centers around terrorism even one recent study concluded global terrorism attacks are lower now than they were in the 1980s. But security often is as much about perception as statistics and the attacks in Orlando, San Bernardino as well as Nice and Paris, France has made groups like MELOA feel all the more urgent.
And yet only here, in a city of 100,000 with six mosques nearby, has Johnson met so many who are part of law enforcement. In the past year, MELEOA has expanded to Chicago and Los Angeles and eventually Newark, all home to large Arab American populations.
But for all the outreach, the group’s leaders can’t say what percentage of its members are Muslims, Christians, Arabs or non-Arabs.
“Honestly, religion never comes up. We look at each as Americans,” Francis said.