Nawar Shora takes battle for Arab and Muslim rights inside the TSA

Nawar Shora is used to fighting for the civil rights of Muslims and Arabs, but now he will do so as a federal government official.
Nawar Shora is used to fighting for the civil rights of Muslims and Arabs, but now he will do so as a federal government official. (Gerald Martineau For The Washington Post)
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By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Nawar Shora, the legal director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, has sparred with the federal government over what he saw as security abuses against minorities. Now, he is joining the Transportation Security Administration as a senior adviser for its office of civil rights and liberties.

Shora, 33, said the move next month to the Department of Homeland Security will back up what he has been telling summer interns for a decade as he urged them to enter federal service.

"I'm finally practicing what I preach," said Shora, a self-described "Arab country boy" who was born in Syria and raised in Huntington, W.Va. "It's about time I cross over to the government and start working within the system. That's the beauty of our society: Anybody can work with the government."

The move by Shora, who started with the ADC as an intern in 1999 after graduating from Marshall University and the West Virginia University College of Law, comes at a challenging time for the TSA and other security agencies.

U.S. law enforcement agencies have confronted a growing number of incidents since 2009 involving violent "homegrown" extremists and cases in which overseas terrorist groups have recruited and trained Americans. Separately, vulnerabilities in international aviation security were exposed in the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, an alleged al-Qaeda operative from Nigeria charged with trying to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day.

In January, the TSA heightened security measures for travelers who are from -- or traveling through -- 13 predominantly Muslim countries, plus Cuba. Those procedures drew criticism from Arab, Muslim and South Asian civil liberties groups, which said the measures were too broad.

"Complaints are going to come in fast and furious" from Americans visiting those countries during the upcoming peak summer travel months, said James Zogby, founder of the Arab-American Institute and a longtime Washington civil rights advocate. "I know no one better equipped to handle them than Nawar."

"All of a sudden, people are labeled as being related to terrorism just because of the nation they are from," Shora said this winter, calling the TSA move "extreme and very dangerous."

Federal civil rights offices have for decades tapped a pipeline of talented young lawyers from private organizations. Shora also has built a decade-long track record of trying to bridge the differences between law enforcement and Muslim and Arab Americans.

Shortly after the 2001 attacks, Shora became a founding member of an Arab, Muslim and Sikh advisory council set up by the former head of the FBI's Washington field office, Joseph Persichini Jr. The council aired concerns about hate crimes, the USA Patriot Act, FBI investigations and other sensitive topics.

Shora made nearly 50 appearances before FBI agents to increase cultural awareness of Arab and Muslim Americans; appeared in training videos for the Justice Department Community Relations Service and the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in 2003 and 2007; and joined a group organized by the American Society for Industrial Security International dedicated to security issues for religious groups including Jews, Muslims and Mormons and other Christians.

"As a devout Muslim, my mother always taught me you must be a good Jew and a good Christian," too, said Shora, who met his wife, a French Catholic exchange student, at law school in West Virginia. "That lesson stayed with me over the years."

Shora also has written a book, "The Arab American Handbook," which is billed as a "non-politicized, fun . . . quick read."

On Friday, Shora will be honored by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, receiving the director's Community Leadership Award, for his role in creating the FBI's Future Agents in Training program, which began as "a cross between Space Camp and Boys State" aimed at South and Central Asian youths and has since become a week-long program introducing the bureau to 40 high school juniors selected from across the country.

"In his position at ADC, Mr. Shora has consistently advocated on behalf of the community's concerns," TSA Special Counselor Kimberly Walton said in a statement. "He . . . will bring a wealth of experience in community outreach, training and civil rights and civil liberties law."

Shora said he worked with, not for, the FBI, and never on investigations. Still, he acknowledges that increasing communication and understanding between two camps can be a "lose-lose" proposition, with some Muslim activists labeling him a "collaborator" and some law enforcement agents suspicious of an Arab or a Muslim working alongside them.

"The trust a number of us have worked so hard to build since 9/11 has unfortunately had a few notches against it the past few months," Shora said, referring to tensions that flared over such matters as allegations that the FBI infiltrated mosques in California and elsewhere and the death of a Detroit imam shot 20 times in an FBI sting operation involving stolen goods.

"We need to reenergize that trust-building," he said. "The big-picture issues are too important for us to get off track."

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