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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

In July 2007, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties hosted a roundtable in Washington, D.C with American Arab, Middle Eastern, and South Asian youth leaders of multiple faith backgrounds.

The roundtable was intended as a means of “gauging the views and aspirations of young people from these communities” and involved discussions of civil rights, terrorist threats, media stereotyping, employment discrimination, and careers in U.S. government. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff met with participants at the close of the two-day roundtable.

When I first read about the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) efforts to dialogue with Arab, Middle Eastern, and South Asian youth, I was skeptical. DHS was founded as a result of the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act, also known as the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001, one of the most controversial pieces of legislation to have been signed by George W. Bush. DHS is currently responsible for protecting the United States from terrorist attacks. Whatever good one might argue DHS has accomplished, it has also been involved in numerous cases of civil rights infringement, racial profiling, and suspect military actions after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

So instead of asking for the government’s take on the success of their roundtable, India Currents decided to go directly to the participants. What follows is our discussion with four of the youth leaders in attendance, Rammy Barbari, Zahra Khan, Navdeep Singh, and Zeeshan Suhail.

India Currents: Why did you choose to attend the youth roundtable?
Zahra: When the Department of Homeland Security invited me to participate in the youth roundtable, I felt honored by the request and a sense of responsibility to the cause. As a young American Muslim in the post-9/11 era, I have the opportunity to educate those around me about my faith and how extremists here and abroad have manipulated its message. In addition, I wholeheartedly agreed with the purpose of the forum, which was to enhance communication and understanding between government entities and minority groups.

Zeeshan: I attended the roundtable to enhance my leadership skills as well as to share whatever knowledge and experiences I have had as a Pakistani Muslim in the United States.

The DHS roundtable brought together one of the most diverse groups of participants I’ve ever seen to discuss issues of post-9/11 civil liberties issues in the Arab, Muslim, and Sikh communities. A big reason why I attended was to find out what perspective the government was taking. If they were taking action, what sort of action were they taking? How did they perceive the community? And its role? Needless to say, I had many questions.

Rammy: I also chose to attend the roundtable because I was very curious and anxious as to who would be there, what topics would be discussed, and, if any, what would be the positive outcomes of the event. I am an Arab-American born and raised in America and I thought it essential to bring to the discussion my unique perception of my bi-cultural experience.

I have experience working for the federal government and non-profits such as the Arab American Institute, and I wanted to engage with young leaders regarding the ever-important issues facing our (Muslims, Sikhs and Arabs—including Christians) communities today. I feel that discussion and direct involvement are the only ways to truly make a difference.

Navdeep: The roundtable was a great step in creating a lasting dialogue between Arab, Muslim, and Sikh American youth and federal policymakers so that we can further work together to jointly face the challenges of protecting the nation and its citizens civil rights. As a Sikh American, I feel that it is extremely important that we actively engage the government to ensure the rights and freedoms of all Americans are protected.

India Currents: To what extent did the Department of Homeland Security allay any fears you might have had about security, racial profiling, or marginalization?
Zahra: Throughout the day we were divided into small groups to deliberate and come to a consensus about which issues were most important to us. Once a decision was reached, we presented those ideas to the group as a whole, and some were chosen to be presented to Secretary Michael Chertoff. During these conversations, members of the DHS as well as the FBI engaged the participants in an honest and straightforward fashion. They let the group know what their limits were and what jurisdiction they had in realistic situations. I appreciated the DHS’s commitment to helping us youth tackle the issues that were specifically mentioned.

There was mixed feeling as to whether the group’s fears were allayed. Some felt that if the DHS had no power to make certain changes, that in itself was a serious problem. Many of the issues discussed were expected by the DHS, but many others were quite a surprise. This dialogue challenged and encouraged critical thinking on both sides.

Navdeep: I was encouraged by the effort made to address the concerns common to all Americans, including the issues of racial and religious profiling. However, as evidenced by the Transportation Security Administration policy which disproportionately singles out Sikh Americans for additional screening, the DHS as a whole must still be vigilant in the implementation of policies that can marginalize a segment of the American population.

Zeeshan: I’ve traditionally used opportunities such as the DHS roundtable to dispel myths and allay fears the government may have about our communities, so I’m not necessarily sure if I attended the event thinking they would allay mine. It was heartening, though, to notice that many government representatives were present in the room. At least our voices were being heard, and I was given the assurance that the authorities were looking out for everyone’s best interests and that we were equal partners in the struggle for a terror-free America. At some point, I do hope that these conversations translate into policy changes—not just recommendations.

Rammy: I think that the fears regarding security, racial profiling, and marginalization will be present in our communities for quite some time. However, I would like to stress that the roundtable was a step forward in proving to our communities that the government is not out to get us and is willing to work hard to try and understand our culture, values, and perceptions of certain actions. So, DHS did allay some fears but on a minuscule scale. It is our responsibility to carry the message from the government to our communities in order to continue the dialogue while fostering and maintaining lines of communication.

India Currents: How successful was the forum in opening up those lines of communication?
Rammy: As I said, this forum opened the lines of communication between the federal government and leaders from our communities. But the fact is that the average community member was not present at this forum and most probably didn’t even know it took place.

DHS needs to coordinate with us and our local communities and local governments to conduct many more of these dialogues on a community-based level, with police chiefs, investigators, community leaders, and so on in order to truly allow the lines of communication to trickle down the ladder of bureaucracy.

Navdeep: I think the roundtable was a tremendous step in making sure that the voices of color and faith in our community are heard and active participants in the shaping of government policy.

Zeeshan: I’m more interested in seeing how we can develop rapport with new immigrants as well. The roundtable consisted largely of assimilated, integrated, and progressive/liberal Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians, but what about those who have recently made America their home?

The participants were “the usual suspects” who have been working on these issues for a while now. We need to involve newer immigrants in this dialogue, especially those who arrived after 9/11. Their inclusion in this conversation is of utmost importance.

Zahra: This is by no means the end of the conversation.

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan was Editor of India Currents from July 2007-June 2009.

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan has been a regular contributor to India Currents since 2001.