Hussam Ayloush

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Director, CAIR-Southern California

Hussam AyloushCAIR [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.

We focus on humanizing the Muslim community, rather than responding defensively when we are attacked.

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.

In the 1940s, the Japanese had no way to reach out, they were very isolated.

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.

There is nobody I’ve talked to who hasn’t suffered harassment and verbal attacks.

Eighty percent of the Muslim community in the US are immigrants and their children; 20 percent are US-born. Half of Muslim immigrants are from Pakistan, India, or Bangladesh; a third are Arabs from Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon; and the rest are a very mixed group – Africans, Malaysians, Turks, Afghanis, Bosnians, Iranians.

The Iranian community is very large in the LA area, but previously it didn’t relate to the Muslim community. People left Iran because of the Islamic revolution; many were supporters of the shah. Now their kids are coming around to CAIR or the Muslim Student Association.

These days Iranians are drawing closer to other Muslims. Discrimination and harassment don’t distinguish Iranians from others, or people who attend mosque from those who don’t. There are many Iranians who are successful in business, who never go to mosque – but their kids are getting beaten up. The feeling has been, “I named my son John, I drink beer, I’m not religious or ideological” — but it doesn’t help. People are realizing it’s racism and has to be dealt with as such.

CAIR offers a space that brings together the mosque-going and the non-mosque part of our constituency, in LA even more than in DC or on the east coast overall.

We’ve also built relationships with non-Muslims – for instance, with part of the Coptic community. We met with the Coptic patriarch following the killing of a Coptic grocer after 9/11. One of our people and a Coptic representative serve on the city’s Religious Advisory Council, it’s a forum where people can get to know each other.

We also work closely with the Sikhs – nationally we are supporting the Sikhs to build their own coalition to address similar areas of action.

The government picks its targets selectively, it doesn’t go after people who were born here.

The aftermath of 9/11 has brought so many different groups together – it’s the humanistic side of such a horrible criminal activity. In the 1940s, the Japanese had no way to reach out, they were very isolated.

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.

The climate has stifled discussion of foreign policy issues like Kashmir, Afghanistan, Palestine, or Iraq.

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.

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

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.

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.

If you sit with any group of Muslim or Arabs, our suitcases are ready.

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.”