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Muslims, Others Air Grievances to FBI

At the agency's town hall meeting, speakers tell of their frustration and embarrassment at being singled out.

April 09, 2006|Jean Merl | Times Staff Writer

Some told of the embarrassment of being detained at airport check-in lines because their Middle Eastern names were on a security warning list.

Others wanted to know what is considered a hate crime, while still others told of their frustration at being regarded with suspicion because they are Sikh or Muslim.

About 100 people turned out Saturday for a town hall meeting organized by the FBI's Los Angeles field office and its 2-year-old Multi-Cultural Advisory Committee.

"It's an avenue for communication," Special Agent M. Catherine Viray said in an interview. "There are always going to be disagreements, but now there is a way to air them."

Saturday's session at the Exposition Park Community Center near USC was the first of what organizers hope will become a regular event. It drew participants from throughout Southern California.

Since the FBI formed the advisory committee in 2004, its members have advised the agency on a number of matters and have opened discussions with state and local law enforcement groups as well, P. Patrick Ashouri of the Iranian American Lawyers Assn. told the audience. The association is one of 20 community organizations that are members of the advisory committee, including the Council of Pakistan American Affairs, the Free Muslims Coalition, the L.A. Latino Muslim Assn. and the Sikh Society.

The FBI brought staff specialists to answer questions about its role and procedures and about crimes against children, public corruption, civil rights and hate crimes, identity theft, counter-terrorism, Internet crime, gangs and organized crime.

Some participants used the forum to air grievances.

Danny Bundakji, who identified himself as a chaplain for the Garden Grove Police Department and the Orange County Sheriff's Department, described his surprise when, en route to a conference in the Middle East a month ago, he was detained for an hour and a half by airline representatives because his name turned up on a list of suspicious travelers. Upon his return, he said, he was met by two Homeland Security officers.

"I never thought this would happen to me," Bundakji said. "I am very proud to be an Arab American, but I was so embarrassed at the airport search and everything."

He wanted to know how he had landed on the security-risk list and how to get off, and his remarks met with strong applause from others who had had similar experiences.

A grandmother living on the Palos Verdes Peninsula told of fearing for herself and her family amid a backlash against the Muslim community since 9/11.

"I am worried about my grandchildren," said Pouran Momand, who said she is sometimes afraid even to go out shopping because her head covering identifies her as Muslim. "What is the solution for us?"

J. Stephen Tidwell, assistant director in charge of the Los Angeles FBI office, said he had no easy answers but encouraged participants to "work with us" to find solutions.

"We'll stay with it," he said of the agency's efforts to improve community relations.

Several attendees -- including some who had aired complaints -- praised the town hall meeting.

"It was excellent," said Masjid Al-Fatiha of Azusa. "I wish more people would come, but we have to start somewhere."

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