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SHOOTING AT LAX

When a Few Tar the Innocent Many

Arabs: Muslims and others from the Mideast fear they'll be viewed as sharing 'collective guilt.'

July 06, 2002|TERESA WATANABE and PETER HONG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Once again, violence broke out this week between an Arab and Israelis--this time at Los Angeles International Airport.

Once again, the attack was labeled a "terrorist act"--this time by Israeli officials characterizing the way Egyptian-born Hesham Mohamed Hadayat had killed two Israelis.

And, once again, the American Muslim community shuddered, heaved a collective sigh and braced itself for yet another round of public scrutiny and suspicion.

"This is a terrible, horrible crime, but any action committed by an Arab or Muslim becomes viewed as collective guilt--that's the problem," said Muzammil Siddiqi of the Islamic Center of Orange County. "People don't say he was a crazy person; they say he was a Muslim or Arab terrorist."

Hussam Ayloush of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Anaheim said no other religious group has been "put in a position where they have to prove their innocence because of the acts of [a] few....

"Before, the definition of terrorism was based on the action, not on the ethnicity, of the attacker," Ayloush said. "Now it seems the definition has shifted, based on who's doing it. This is outrageous and racist."

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Ayloush said, his civil-rights organization has received 1,400 complaints of discrimination and harassment, ranging from murders to verbal abuse. The usual number reported is 200 to 300 annually.

He added that most Americans have treated Muslims with "respect and understanding."

Many Muslims are concerned, however, that the attack by Hadayat, an Irvine resident, will perpetuate the image that the American Islamic community is harboring "sleeper terrorist cells."

That argument is gaining wider exposure in books and lectures by such controversial figures as Steven Emerson, an investigative journalist who specializes in terrorism, and Daniel Pipes, editor of the Middle East Quarterly. The two frequently write and speak on the dangers of radical Islam, winning praise from some as fearless truth-tellers and condemnation from others as irresponsible fear-mongers.

Emerson's new book, "American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us," is the No. 1 bestseller among Amazon.com's 113 books on jihad.

The book, published in February, ranks 627th among all of Amazon.com's listings--compared with the ranking of the book by a Southland Muslim leader, Maher Hathout, "Jihad vs. Terrorism," at 1,027,965. Hathout's book describes jihad benevolently as an internal spiritual struggle.

Emerson said Hadayat did not appear to have been a member of any "sleeper cell" but acted in what Emerson called a "personalized jihad," driven by "an extremist ideology and appeal that made him believe it was acceptable, if not mandatory, to go out and kill Jews." Emerson blamed "American Muslim leaders and the religious hierarchy" for promoting such extremism.

More than 20 books have been released this year on the "Islamic menace," according to Khaled Abou El Fadl, a UCLA professor of Islamic law.

"All of this is desensitizing people to hateful speech," Abou El Fadl said. "With this constant drumbeat, people are emotionally and psychologically willing to believe all kinds of nasty things about Islam."

Such fears were echoed at the Islamic Society of Orange County.

"As soon as I heard the news," said Siddiqi, the director, "the first thought was, 'I hope the [gunman] is not Muslim.' "

At the Islamic Center of Southern California in Koreatown, the afternoon prayer service drew about 700 faithful Friday--men in one room, women in another.

In his sermon, Hathout said that, even if they fear an anti-Muslim backlash, they must not "hide in a cocoon; it will not offer you safety or security." Few people expressed fears over safety. Since Sept. 11, the center has actually received an outpouring of public support, said Mahmoud Abdel-Baset, the center's religious and social services coordinator.

He pointed to the American flag flying above the center, noting it had been donated by two Asian American veterans.

But Abdel-Baset said he is worried about the compromising of civil liberties by the government, citing as an example the detaining of Arab or Muslim Americans without indictments. The Egyptian native, who left his country 34 years ago, said he fears that the United States could eventually begin using national security as a justification to "eliminate its opponents," as he said Egypt does.

One person who said he regularly faces anti-Muslim hostility is Saeed Dar, 36, who works at a Los Angeles gas station.

Dar said customers at the gas station who see his name on his uniform regularly insult him, and one threatened to attack him after he got off work.

As Dar prayed in the parking lot, kneeling on a thin carpet and bowing to Mecca, a four-letter, boldface imprint on his backward baseball cap, celebrating heroes of Sept. 11, became visible: FDNY.

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