Homeland Security Secretary Johnson: Islamic rhetoric only fans the flames | AspenTimes.com

Homeland Security Secretary Johnson: Islamic rhetoric only fans the flames

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, left, was interviewed by Thom Shanker, an assistant Washington editor of The New York Times, on Wednesday at Greenwald Pavilion as the kick-off to the Aspen Security Forum.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

The secretary of Homeland Security chose his words carefully about whether Muslims should be allowed to enter the United States but offered that such rhetoric is at odds with his department’s mission.

Speaking Wednesday at Greenwald Pavilion, Jeh Johnson’s discussion with Thom Shanker, an assistant Washington editor of The New York Times, was part of the McCloskey Speaker Series, which kicked off the Aspen Security Forum.

Johnson, an attorney who was sworn in as the fourth secretary of Homeland Security in December 2013, did not refer to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has called on temporarily banning the immigration of Muslims into the U.S. Johnson did, however, say that rhetoric critical of the religion hampers his department’s efforts to build alliances with Muslims in the U.S.

“The rhetoric that vilifies American Muslims and Muslims in general is counter to our Homeland Security efforts,” Johnson said in response to a question posed by interviewer Shanker. “Given the nature of the threat we face, it is critical in building bridges to these communities so they are encouraged to root out, identify and intervene when they see somebody who is going in the wrong direction.”

Homeland Security has made strides with Muslim communities throughout the U.S., Johnson said.

“We have been probably to every major metro area with a significant Muslim population and building bridges to these communities … and integrating them is critical to our Homeland Security efforts,” he said.

Johnson couched his comments about the presidential race, leaving out names and his opinion.

“I cannot comment and should not comment on what the candidates for elected office say,” he said.

But while referring to a September speech he gave at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, the secretary acknowledged the responsibility that comes with having a pulpit.

“I think it is crucial for those of us in public office, those of us in command of the microphone, again, I’m not commenting about anybody running for office, but those in command of the microphone be responsible in their rhetoric because what we’ve learned is irresponsible rhetoric has consequences,” he said.

The political debate about whether to refer to Islamic terrorists as part of radical Islam, which President Obama refuses to say, or as violent extremists hasn’t drawn much concern from Johnson, he said.

He called it a “reasonable debate to have,” but it is “not relevant to whether we put somebody on a no-fly list or whether somebody is arrested and charged.”

The label does matter, however, he said, in his exchanges with American Muslims.

“I consistently hear in American Muslim communities … ‘ISIL has hijacked our religion. They do not represent Islam. They are a terrorist organization claiming the banner of Islam, but they do not represent any aspect of my religion and to refer to the Islamic State or al-Qaida as Islamic extremists suggests and buys into the aspect that they occupy some aspect of my religion, which is offensive to us,’” he said.

Telling Muslims that “we have to do something about Islamic extremists, help us out, you’ve got a problem with your religion, we’re not going to get very far,” Johnson argued. “This political debate about Islamic extremists and violent extremists, day to day, it is of no consequence on who we arrest, who we take down, who we prevent from coming in.”

Johnson oversees the third largest Cabinet department, which includes 22 agencies and 240,000 employees. Its 2016 budget is $41.2 billion.

He’ll likely be done after Obama’s second term expires. Johnson said the question he would ask his successor would focus on their personal comfort in the position.

“Are you personally prepared to spend time and use the weight and authority of your office to build bridges to communities in our homeland in which ISIL is attempting to recruit,” he said. “I think that is vital for the secretary of Homeland Security to play that role and be personally comfortable in that role, whoever that is.”

The Aspen Security Forum runs through Sunday and includes a Friday conversation with John Brennan, director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com


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