Building on New Foundations > Standing Up, Reaching Out

Los Angeles

Hussam Ayloush

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Director, CAIR–Southern California

CAIR [the Council on American-Islamic Relations] was established nationally in 1994. We began in southern California in 1996, with volunteers.

I didn’t know anyone with CAIR personally back then – I called their Washington office, which helped guide us in the establishment of this chapter. In 1998, I became paid staff, after two years of volunteering. Now we have seven full-time staff, four interns working part time, and dozens of volunteers at different levels.

We have a presence in 20-30 cities in the area. Our membership includes many engineers and other professionals. We provide a tool for the Muslim community to get active. Our work covers employment issues, community relations, interfaith dialogues, government relations, civil rights, alliance building, voter registration, and civic participation.

Our civil rights program publicizes some individual cases of discrimination and harassment. We also offer diversity trainings to schools, law enforcement, FBI, and health professionals. Relationship building with the civil rights community and immigrant rights community is another focus. Our work on media relations challenges  stereotyping and defamation, through editorial board meetings and other initiatives.

Overall, we are trying to shift the focus, to show that the Muslim community is like anybody else. We focus on humanizing the Muslim community, rather than responding defensively when we are attacked.

We also work inside our own constituency, providing training and sponsoring forums and seminars. We want to empower the community to become involved, whether through CAIR or other community organizations.

Of course, we can’t meet all the expectations. For many people, the attitude is, “whatever you need, call CAIR.” So a lot of what we do is to make referrals. Our own focus is on discrimination — from the media, from the government, and in the workplace.

All of this helps the community feel that they are not alone. They have the ownership of the battle. Whatever we do, it has to be with the community, empowering them to be with us.

On many issues, California is more progressive than other parts of the country – on the involvement of women, the types of issues people want to raise, on questions of tactics – such as debating whether to invite politicians to mosques.

Civil rights is a major issue for our community – we get calls every day from parents and individuals who have been victims of harassment or government discrimination. We always try to mediate. We try not to go public except as a last resort – if you always do it, you begin to lose support. We arrange meetings, for example between parents and school administration, or with the superintendent, depending on what level is necessary. We try to resolve individual issues and get larger policies, as well – like a memo from the school district to sensitize teachers and the administration.