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Groups Fight Increase in Bias Against Arabs

Hate: Organizations are seeking to document and prevent backlash incidents after attacks.

July 08, 2002|JOCELYN Y. STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The initial post-Sept. 11 violence against American Arabs and Muslims, or people mistaken for them, often took place in public spaces: on the street, at a convenience store, near a mosque. But some advocates of these groups say a quieter backlash also took place in people's homes--and they worry that it may still pose a threat.

It can be a neighbor's hostility, an unwarranted eviction notice or a wild accusation. All of these have rattled the sense of community of some Southern California residents of Arab or South Asian descent. Such concern has brought an effort by some local organizations to document the problems and try to prevent them.

* The Housing Rights Center, which regularly sends out "testers" to determine whether landlords discriminate, has increased its pool of would-be renters of Middle Eastern descent since Sept. 11.

* Statewide, a group of advocates recently formed a task force to study the issue of fair housing and immigrants.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council said it has asked the Justice Department to review a list of guidelines that the Los Angeles Police Department sent to apartments' owners. The group worries that the list might increase bias against Muslims.

* The South Asian Network has begun a campaign to encourage people to talk about problems in employment or housing matters.

Advocates acknowledge that they do not know the extent of housing harassment or discrimination. In a time of increased detentions, interrogations and deportations, they said, getting people to talk is tough.

"Nobody wants to appear on the radar," said Hamid Khan, executive director of the South Asian Network, based in Artesia. "We're trying to get the word out. Please call us; let us know. We need to document these things, start some advocacy and start mobilizing the community."

Incidents like the shooting Thursday at Los Angeles International Airport by an Egyptian-born man makes the job of Khan's group more difficult, he said. "We're dealing with guilt by association. Any time an incident like this happens our alarm bells go off. We go on alert as to what kind of retribution is going to take place."

"South Asian" is a broad term that includes Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and Nepalese. Khan and other advocates say that South Asians are targeted by people who mistake them for Middle Easterners.

Sikhs wear turbans and many older South Asians still wear ethnic clothing, so "they are easily recognizable as 'foreign,' " said Kripa Upadhyay, program coordinator for the South Asian Network group, known as SAN.

Knowing whether an incident is motivated by a person's religion or ethnicity is inherently difficult. The Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations has not compiled statistics for this year on hate-motivated crimes or incidents that have taken place at victims' residences. It counted 44 such cases between Sept. 11 and Dec. 2. And incidents so far this year have troubled some advocates.

In January, the magazine of the Apartment Owners Assn. of Southern California, which has a circulation of 75,000, published an article titled "A Moment of Truth for Muslims." The article, which also appeared on the association's Web site, described Islam as a "religion of violence and hatred," and accused Muslims of being "responsible for most terrorism in the world today."

Such articles reflect "a lot of ignorance and stereotypical images about Muslims," said Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

Aslam Abdullah, editor in chief of Minaret, a Muslim magazine, said he had asked to write a rebuttal in the apartment association's magazine but was refused.

He called the article "hate speech" and said, "I have information that a few Muslims were denied rentals after the publication of this article."

Dan Faller, president of the Apartment Owners Assn., said he had run the article because of his interest in religion; he said it had no implications for tenant-landlord relations and said the publication in the past has run articles cautioning against discrimination.

"The Muslim religion teaches that they worship the same God that the Jewish people worship, that the Christian people worship, and that is a lie," Faller said. "So the primary purpose of my putting the article in was to point out that that's not true." He said the article had drawn strong support, particularly from Jewish readers.

Another incident occurred in February, when a cardiologist of Indian origin was shot at in his Porterville, Calif., home in what prosecutors allege was a hate crime.

Before dawn, a man knocked on the door of Indian-born Dr. Ashok Behl, then shot at Behl through a thick glass pane, said Porterville Police Sgt. Eric Kroutil. The doctor suffered injuries to the face and neck.

The alleged gunman, Joe Howard Keel, 27, was arrested later the same day in Burbank, Kroutil said.

Police said the shooting had been "possibly in retaliation for events in New York" and they have labeled it a hate crime. Keel told police he thought the doctor was "Arabic," Kroutil said.

Anxiety among some South Asians and Arab Americans in Los Angeles heightened in May when the FBI issued a memo saying terrorists might target apartment buildings with explosives.

The Los Angeles Police Department followed that memo by releasing a list of guidelines that encouraged owners to be more vigilant about prospective tenants--for example, people who are not disabled but want first-floor units.

Though the guidelines do not target any group, and police officials have cautioned managers to obey anti-discrimination laws, some housing advocates and civil rights attorneys worry that the list will encourage landlords to discriminate.

"We understand the need for security," Khan said.

"Our concern is, they are handing out these guidelines to untrained people who bring their own prejudices to this."

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