Neighbors or Enemies? > In a World at War

Los Angeles

Hussam Ayloush

Print this interview

Director, CAIR–Southern California

The climate has stifled discussion of foreign policy issues like Kashmir, Afghanistan, Palestine, or Iraq. For those involved – whether evangelicals, the Hindu right, or the Zionists – Muslims are today’s bad guys. If you want to win on your issue, link it with the world’s number-one enemy –  Muslim terrorists. It’s very difficult to take on - how can you defend terrorists? It has intimidated freethinkers and stifled freethinking.

We face monitoring by the FBI and also by the ADL [Anti-Defamation League]. Recently in Orange County, the ADL sent information to local newspapers about Muslim leaders who had made statements critical of Israel. The effect is to intimidate imams from discussing those topics. Many Muslims take the attitude that we can support those who take stands on these issues, but we cannot be on the forefront.

The US is a very diverse nation. The government tries to keep people together through an external enemy. Once it was the Russians; today, it’s Arabs and Muslims.

Certain groups promote anti-Muslim sentiment because they favor American dominance over the rest of the globe –  “we have to spread our freedoms.”

Theologically, groups on the Christian right believe that that their version of religion is the only one. They think in terms of global missionary activities; any challenge is from terrorists.

Zionists are worried about the growing influence of American Muslims on the political scene. Muslims are often involved in interfaith initiatives led by liberal Christians. This leads to the development of friendships and can begin to raise questions in people’s minds, which is slowly tilting public opinion regarding Israel/Palestine.

Politically, as Muslim grow in numbers – well, politicians respond to voters. One way to reverse that is by turning the Muslim community into an outcast. Anyone who relates to our viewpoint is accused of supporting terrorism.

The climate today is shaped by an unholy alliance of these elements. September 11 provided an excuse for them to come out of the closet – it made it politically acceptable to demonize and vilify an entire religion.

The Muslim community is wondering – what if something else happens? If you sit with any group of Muslim or Arabs, our suitcases are ready. Other people respond by saying, this is my country, I have nowhere else to go.

Have we prepared the larger community for what might happen? We can’t prevent another attack – so the question becomes, how should we be preparing for the worst-case scenario?

We are much more prepared today. We have many more friends than in we did 2001. On September 11, 2001, 85-90 percent of the mosques in the US didn’t have the phone number for any other religious institution. Since then, Muslims have become involved in their communities – they know the police, the media, the civic organizations; they know the churches and synagogues.

We don’t need to fear a similar reaction as before. Communities that know us will react more quickly to condemn violations of our rights.We’ve put the worst behind us – the future can only get better.

After 9/11, some people did leave the country, but only a tiny percentage. Most stayed because they realized their only option was to be active in the community, to register to vote. People who didn’t use to know the difference between a mayor and a congressman are sponsoring political fundraisers. Every mosque in the area is involved in “open mosque” activities. And we’ve made some friends.

If there is no other attack, I think things will get better. If something else happens, the results will be unpredictable.

How we treat the Arab and Muslim community here has an impact on a worldwide level. It affects the way people perceive the US from outside of the US. Recent immigrants have contacts with their families back home. Al-Jazeera and Arab newspapers carry reports about what is happening in LA or DC. When the average Muslim reads that the US is about to deport 13,000 Muslims, who have been singled out from among so many undocumented people – the perception is that the US is trying to control the world.  For Muslims and Arabs, it is turning into war against Islam.

Al-Jazeera ran a talk show on the antiwar demonstrations[before the invasion of Iraq]. It humanized Americans for the rest of the world. The response from so many people was, “we had no idea.”