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Muslims Chafing Under 9/11 Measures

A clash with homeland security's main enforcement agency over its practices is strongest in the Southland, activists say.

February 07, 2005|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

Angry and frightened, the Riverside businessman was complaining that he was not allowed to board a flight to Pakistan in December.

His story had a familiar ring for Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations. Based in Anaheim, it is the largest chapter of the nation's most aggressive Islamic civil rights group.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Ayloush's phone rings constantly as Muslims throughout the Southland seek his help with problems of all kinds with the federal government. There are an estimated 500,000 Muslims in Southern California.

The businessman, a U.S. citizen, was calling about the federal government's no-fly list, which bars some U.S. Muslims from flying because their names are similar to known terrorists'. Ayloush spoke reassuringly and with compassion.

"This isn't how your country wants to treat you," he told the caller, who asked not to be identified. "This is how the Department of Homeland Security wants to treat you."

"Be patient. This will pass."

While the war continues unabated overseas, there is a clash in this country between Muslims and homeland security's main enforcement agency, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The domestic conflict, which some say is rooted in miscommunication and mistrust, hampers the U.S. war against Islamic extremists, Islamic leaders and some government officials say.

In Southern California, the tension is palpable, fostered by a lack of dialogue that Arab American leaders say heightens fear and apprehension. Nowhere in the United States is the lack of communication with local homeland security officials as bad as it is here, some leaders say.

A December town hall meeting for Muslims to air their grievances to homeland security officials attracted a smaller than expected crowd. Homeland security officials declined to attend.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in Laguna Niguel declined to say why they did not attend the meeting. But spokeswoman Virginia Kice said Islamic groups often wanted to talk about people arrested for immigration law violations. Agency policy prohibits officials from discussing these cases except in open court, she said

"We recognize the necessity for dialogue with community organizations, but we're largely an enforcement agency," Kice said. "To the extent we can, we certainly want to help the community understand what we're doing and what we're not doing."

Some Muslims chose not go to the meeting because of a mistrust of the agency. "People stayed away because they're afraid of the Department of Homeland Security," said Abdul Rashid, spokesman for the Islamic Institute of Orange County. "We were going to discuss issues that impact the community, like why are our religious leaders being arrested on immigration charges but jailed as terrorists."

Since July, two imams and another religious leader in Orange County have been arrested on suspicion of violating immigration law. Though they were not charged with terrorism, the three were accused by the Department of Homeland Security of having ties to terrorists, allowing them to be held without bail.

A subsequent private meeting in San Pedro between immigration authorities and leaders of two Southern California Islamic groups -- the only one held so far -- ended in discord. Future meetings will have to be coordinated with Department of Homeland Security officials in Washington, the Muslims were told.

"Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Los Angeles area is simply not open to having meetings with the community," said Kareem Shora, director of legal affairs for the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington.

In comparison, Shora said, his group had had frequent meetings with homeland security authorities in Washington and local officials in other areas including Dearborn, Mich., where Muslims make up 40% of the city's 100,000 residents.

"As far as I can tell, Southern California is the only part of the country where we don't have routine meetings," Shora said.

Ayloush, whose Anaheim office speaks for Muslims from Santa Barbara to Mexico, blames local homeland security officials for the failure to communicate.

"The message from homeland security is clear. We don't trust you, and we don't care if you don't trust us," he said.

Salam Al-Marayati, spokesman for the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, said the lack of dialogue hurts the war against terrorism.

"We are the moderates the government keeps saying need to be empowered to counter religious extremism," Al-Marayati said. "By alienating these communities, you're alienating the moderates that are needed to win the war on terror."

Department of Homeland Security officials and some Islamic leaders attribute the communications gap in part to the growing pains of a new agency formed after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

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