Obama Administration taps Southland Muslim for top post

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The Obama administration has tapped Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Arif Alikhan for a top job at the federal Department of Homeland Security. KPCC’s Frank Stoltze says Alikhan immediately becomes one of the administration’s highest-profile Muslims.

Frank Stoltze: Arif Alikhan downplays his Sunni Muslim roots. That’s not always been easy. Not growing up in the San Gabriel Valley with a name like Alikhan.

Arif Alikhan: After the first Iraq War, we’d get sort of the crank calls of people just looking and seeing that my parents’ last name was Muslim and saying some not so nice things. That was after the first Iraq War. After 9/11, I got more calls from friends calling and saying "are you OK?" It was such an outpouring of concern, it actually caught me by surprise.

Stoltze: Alikhan’s parents brought the family to Diamond Bar from Canada in the late 1970s. His father was from India, his mother from Pakistan. He says they wanted to live in “the greatest country in the world.”

Alikhan: The safety, the security, the ability to vote and be a part of the society. I really gained that appreciation from them because they would always remind me, "we’re in America, everybody matters, you have the ability to do so much, don’t every forget that."

Stoltze: Alikhan ran with that idea. After he graduated from UC Irvine and Loyola Law School, he clerked for a federal judge, worked for the prominent law firm Irell and Manella, and finally joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles. He’d wanted to be a prosecutor ever since hearing one at career day in middle school.

Alikhan rose to chief of the Cyber and Intellectual Crimes Section and worked as a senior adviser to then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez in Washington. Now, after two years as L.A.’s deputy mayor for public safety, the 40-year-old returns to the nation’s capital as assistant secretary for the Office of Policy Development at the Department of Homeland Security.

Alikhan: This is the main sort of think tank and policy analysis shop that provides advice to the secretary, the deputy secretary, and spans over all of the different component departments of the Department of Homeland Security.

Stoltze: His first briefing book was a 90-page list of acronyms he’ll use on his job. He says a big part of his job will be fostering communication between agencies. Alikhan also wants to help improve America’s image with Muslims around the world.

Alikhan: I think a big part of what we need to educate the world about is how involved the Muslim community is in America here. You know, Muslim-Americans are very proud and very patriotic about being here. And there are more Muslim-Americans in the United States than there are in some Muslim countries and I don’t think people realize that.

Stoltze: Alikhan won’t comment on concerns that the FBI targets Muslims for racial profiling. Instead, he encourages American Muslims to cooperate more with federal investigators tracking terrorism. Alikhan’s appointment prompted one blogger to question a Muslim’s loyalty to the country.

Alikhan says he’s faced that kind of ignorance before, sometimes from law enforcement colleagues. He’d like to think he’s erased some of it.

Alikhan: I think a lot of people have learned from me about being Muslim, how diverse it is, how there is no real monolithic Islam out there, how Islam clearly, clearly prohibits any type of extremism or violence and absolutely condemns that.

Stoltze: He may get that opportunity to teach again at some of the highest levels of the federal government.