At a time when some St. Louis-area Muslims feel under siege from federal authorities, Zia Faruqui hopes to change that perception.
U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan recently appointed Faruqui, an assistant U.S. attorney, as outreach coordinator to the area's growing Islamic community.
"I understand people can feel uncomfortable and scared," said Faruqui, himself a Muslim and the child of Pakistani immigrants. "For the most part, I think that's based on misunderstanding. They don't need to be fearful of the government."
Callahan envisions Faruqui, 31, as an ombudsman. "Someone they can go to for explanations, complaints, reassurances if necessary. A friendly face on an arm of the federal government."
Faruqui's appointment came soon after the November arrest on terrorism charges of Mohamud Abdi Yusuf, a Somali immigrant who worked as an airport cabdriver. Federal authorities have accused Yusuf of collecting and transferring almost $6,000 to contacts for al-Shabaab, an Islamist group seeking to overthrow the shaky Somali government. At the time of Yusuf's arrest, FBI agents also summoned dozens of other Somali cabdrivers for interviews and sought to copy their cell phone memory cards and examine their personal computers. The actions spurred complaints from Muslims in the community.
Callahan said Faruqui's appointment was not related to Yusuf's arrest but instead resulted from a Justice Department conference where Muslim outreach was discussed. Attorney General Eric Holder has stressed the need to improve such relations.
"Obviously, this indictment may have raised an issue or some fears," Callahan said. "My hope is the Somalian community will have the same degree of confidence in our fairness and integrity as I hope all the Eastern District does."
Asked if he thought relations between his office and the Muslim community needed improvement, Callahan said "it's the community that can better answer that question than me."
"But I hope we're going to do our part to eliminate the problem if there is one and if there isn't one, make sure one doesn't develop."
Jim Hacking III, who has been a vocal critic of government tactics toward Muslims here, applauded the appointment. Hacking, a lawyer and legal consultant to the local chapter of the Council of American Islamic Relations, has since met with Faruqui and "found him to be very sincere, very engaged."
"There's been a real rift over the last couple of years because of some valid perceptions in the Muslim community that law enforcement is working adversely against them, that their rights have been violated and that dialogue needed to increase," Hacking said. "I hope it works."
Callahan said he first considered naming an attorney from his civil rights unit for the post but recognized that the same person frequently collaborated with staff members who worked counterterrorism issues.
"It seemed that might be counterproductive," Callahan said. "In the end, I wanted to have somebody who was not connected with counterterrorism so there would not be the temptation or even the perception that the outreach had to do with acquiring information. I wanted to keep that separate."
Faruqui mostly prosecutes asset forfeiture and money laundering cases resulting from large-scale drug conspiracies. He said he is "walled off" from terrorism cases. "I don't know what's under investigation," he said.
Faruqui was born and raised in Baltimore and graduated from Georgetown Law School. He spent more than four years in private practice in Washington before moving more than two years ago to St. Louis, where his girlfriend was pursuing her doctorate in evolutionary biology at Washington University. They have since become engaged.
Faruqui said he has no specific goals in his new post other than to build personal relationships based on trust.
"Being a Muslim-American, I understand a lot of concern others in the Muslim community have," he said. "No community should feel left out, singled out or profiled."