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U.S. Muslims Benefit From Stronger Ties With Neighbors

Islamic communities find that new relationships with the public and officials yield greater tolerance.

March 22, 2003|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

With a beard and black turban marking his Islamic faith, Imam Moustafa Al-Qazwini made a conspicuous target for harassment after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Then, the Islamic leader says, people routinely called him a "terrorist," made vulgar gestures and once tried to attack him while he spoke in a church.

Since U.S. forces opened war with his native Iraq this week, however, Al-Qazwini says he has not encountered a single act of hostility.

"It was hysterical then," Al-Qazwini said Friday. "This time, it's much more peaceful. People have been educated about American Muslims and understand the difference between the perpetrators and the innocent."

Not that there haven't been some problems: The Muslim Public Affairs Council, for instance, has received 20 threatening e-mails in the last week, according to its executive director, Salam Al-Marayati.

But despite concerns about the domestic effects of a war between the United States and an Arab nation, a backlash against Arab Americans has not developed, at least so far.

"After 9/11, there was a lot of insecurity, fear and suspicion -- the kind of things that kick up stereotypes that would lead to hate crimes," said Robin Toma, executive director of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission.

In the three months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Toma said, 188 hate crimes related to the terrorist attacks were reported, a large increase over the number from the previous year. Since the war began this week, however, no hate crimes have been reported, he said.

Problems could still develop if the war produces more U.S. casualties or triggers another terrorist attack, Toma said. But, for now, "people are more focused on what's going on abroad, and there's a feeling that the U.S. is going to win."

Another factor is the friendships built between Mideast communities here and the broader public, officials say. In countless town halls, interfaith gatherings, visits to schools and meetings with law enforcement, bonds have been forged between Muslims and their non-Muslim neighbors. Public officials have worked hard to prevent outbreaks of hate crimes.

After three Muslim women were verbally attacked in Venice last Sunday, for instance, Gov. Gray Davis, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn and Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo all publicly denounced the attack.

Friday, in a meeting at the Islamic Center of Southern California, Hahn told several hundred Muslims that the city had put extra police patrols around the mosque and 500 other "sensitive" sites. Police have also compiled a computer database of those sites and assigned them a special code to trigger faster responses, said Ron Wakabayashi of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Appearing with Hahn at the Islamic center, Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton warned those who would vent hatred or religious intolerance: "Do not."

"We will vigorously investigate it and prosecute it and put those responsible in jail," Bratton said.

Despite the assurances, many Muslim institutions are taking precautions.

Muzammil Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Society of Orange County, based in Garden Grove, said his mosque had increased the number of security guards. Members of the group met Wednesday with Garden Grove police to discuss increased patrols around the facility, which includes an elementary school serving 350 students.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations has dispensed "safety kits" to mosques around the country with instructions on reporting suspicious activity and asserting one's rights as an airline passenger, as well as tips on increasing security and improving lighting around mosques.

The council's Anaheim chapter also met with local FBI officials Monday to discuss its concerns about hate crimes.

The meeting exemplified the closer ties that Muslim community leaders have forged with public officials since the terrorist attacks.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Islamic council received complaints about FBI behavior: agents making predawn visits, for instance, or treating people as suspects, according to Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the council's Anaheim office.

As a result of the widespread complaints, the Islamic council asked to meet with FBI agents. They were subsequently invited to conduct a "sensitivity training" seminar with 150 agents in Orange and San Bernardino counties. Agents were also invited to mosques and town hall meetings to meet American Muslims, Ayloush said.

"That really helped," Ayloush said. "It humanized the community as people who care and worry about the same things they do."

In Pomona, Islamic educator Mosadek Alattar also said his community is reaping the benefits of friendships developed in the last two years.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, he said, fears of hate crimes ran so high that he closed his Islamic school for a week.

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