Neighbors or Enemies? > Living with Hate

Los Angeles

Hussam Ayloush

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Director, CAIR–Southern California

The aftermath of 9/11 led to a huge push for civil rights and immigrant rights. Our community traditionally has been slow in adapting to change from outside. CAIR was able to react to this change.

For some people, 9/11 raised the question of whether the Muslim community was a Fifth Column. Others began coming around to say the targeting was unfair, they were very vocal in expressing this to us. Still, we received many more negative calls, including threatening ones – about a three-to-one ratio. In the media all you heard was the negative side. The expressions of support were only at the individual level.

That was okay as far as it went, but it was not enough. Good people were not speaking up.  It made the community feel like the support was not there. People felt like they were under siege.

This very negative experience had a positive result, when Muslims realized the need to do something. We had to speak out, to build alliances. Since then we’ve seen a major boost in the level of support for CAIR from the Muslim community, a major rise in membership and financial support.

We handle many complaints of job discrimination – because of someone’s name, because they were wearing a hijab, because they were passed over in hiring. People are asked questions in job interviews about their religion, their dress, or their national origins.

Other people were harassed on the job after 9/11, if they were known in their workplace as Muslim or Arab. People were told things like, “don’t bother to show up – we don’t want terrorists here, your people attacked our country.”

We surveyed the community about whether their work environment suddenly turned hostile and unfriendly. Hundreds of people responded to us nationally. For every report, we know there are 20 or more incidents.

There is nobody I’ve talked to who hasn’t suffered harassment and verbal attacks. Most people feel there is no point in reporting it. People feel like they are under siege. Often, it’s not something life-threatening, but “the mean look.”

Responding to incidents of harassment and discrimination is a big part of our work. Often we use mediation – most companies will back away from their actions because of their fear of liability. We educate employers that the right to attend Friday prayer is legally protected. On occasion, we resort to legal action.

There has also been a lot of government-related abuse since 9/11, including FBI visits, interrogations, detention. Or the INS lost people’s papers or did not process them – papers that did not have even minor errors. These are the toughest cases – standing up to the government is hard, especially for the Muslim community.

This issue has split the community. Some people are afraid and feel we shouldn’t stand up to the government – the attitude is, let the ACLU or the immigrant rights groups take the heat. It’s mainly first-generation immigrants who feel that if we complain, we’ll attract more negative attention; if we don’t, they reason, the government will forget us and go after someone else.

This is true even though immigrants have been the main victims of harassment. The government picks its targets selectively, it doesn’t go after people who were born here. Most of people who are targeted would never call us – they associate the FBI with the secret services of their own countries.

The second generation and beyond is ready to go head to head – their attitude is, let’s expose them, let’s chain ourselves to the federal building.

We don’t do either, because we don’t want to lose either segment – either the trust of the older members of the community, or the faith of the younger ones. We do challenge government action as much as possible, through joining in suits with the ACLU, the CCR, the ADC, the Iranian community.

We have never burnt our bridges. We’ve invited law enforcement to meet with community leaders in mosques throughout southern California. We remind everyone that the FBI is responsible for both counter-terrorism and enforcing the laws against hate violence.

We speak out in the media, to show a strong public response to government behavior – but the lines of communication always remain open. As a targeted community, we cannot be on the blacklist. We need to make it illegal to discriminate against or harass any community. Over time this has eased a lot of tensions.