In a quiet event during an otherwise well-publicized visit to Los Angeles this week, U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder Jr. reached out to local Muslim American youths, calling on them to work with the government to fight violent extremism and pledging that the Justice Department would reinvigorate enforcement of civil rights and work to advance religious freedom.
"For American Muslims specifically, these are times that pose serious civil rights and civil liberties challenges," Holder told the crowd, according to a copy of prepared remarks.
The meeting, which was closed to the media, was held Thursday evening at the Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation, a mosque and community center near USC, said Dafer Dakhil, the foundation's director.
It lasted about an hour, during which Holder gave prepared remarks and answered questions from an invited audience of about 200 people between the ages of 18 and 33.
The relationship between the Muslim American community and the Department of Justice has come under increasing strain. Earlier this year, a coalition of the nation's largest Muslim organizations issued a statement demanding that the Obama administration address FBI actions, including what they described as the "infiltration of mosques," the use of "agent provocateurs to trap unsuspecting Muslim youth" and the "deliberate vilification" of one of the nation's largest Muslim civil rights organizations.
The point of Thursday's event "was to engage the Muslim community here in Los Angeles," said Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller.
Events closed to the media are not unusual and allow participants to have an "open, frank discussion," he said, adding that Holder also held a closed community round table Thursday morning about fighting gang violence in South Los Angeles.
Although Muslim Americans suffered in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks like all Americans, Holder said in his prepared remarks, they also suffered in unique ways -- as victims of hate crimes and as people who "have seen your faith maligned and insulted by those who commit acts of hatred and violence in its name."
Questions posed at the event included concern about law enforcement's profiling of Muslim Americans, the sanctity of mosques, hate crimes and plans for the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, said Dakhil, who helped organize the event.
Sharaf Mowjood, 26, of Upland said he asked Holder about the use of informants in mosques, a topic that stirred controversy locally after the disclosure earlier this year that the FBI sent an informant to an Irvine mosque.
Holder "recognized that the department has to be sensitive to religion," Mowjood said.
"The good thing is that he listened. He answered the questions to the best of his ability. . . . He could have been more frank, but it's OK. He's new."
The event was important to building relations between the Justice Department and the Muslim American community, Dakhil said.
"The attorney general got to meet face to face with a generation of Muslims born and raised in this country," he said.
But more than one participant expressed a wait-and-see attitude.
"It was a good gesture for him to come out," said Adel Syed, a student at UC Davis who is critical of the FBI's use of informants in mosques. But "more telling will be what the attorney general does next and the DOJ does next."