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Workplace Bias Against Muslims, Arabs on Rise, Advocates Say

A tally of complaints jumped in 2005. Some victims may fear reporting to authorities.

October 03, 2006|Alana Semuels | Times Staff Writer

The restaurant manager from Morocco, the Armenian caterer from Syria and the Yemeni sailor aren't all Muslims and hail from different homelands. But all three say they suffered discrimination at work after Sept. 11, 2001, because of their national origin or perceptions that they were Muslim.

Now, they are among those who have filed lawsuits through the California offices of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission -- reflecting increasing discrimination against people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent, according to advocacy groups.

"I did not think this would happen when I came here," said Abdellatif Hadji, who moved from Morocco to the United States in 1989 and recently filed an EEOC suit against a Mendocino County restaurant where he was a manager. "America is the land of opportunity."

Reports of workplace discrimination against people perceived to be Muslim or Arab soared after the Sept. 11 attacks and then declined, government statistics indicate. But some advocates say they've seen a resurgence in the last year that corresponds to global political events.

"Anytime there's anything in the news ... that is related to the Middle East, you see a spike in hate-motivated and employment-related incidents," said Kareem Shora, director of the legal department of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

After 9/11, the EEOC introduced a category of employment discrimination against people who are or are perceived to be Arab, Muslim, Middle Eastern, South Asian or Sikh. Nationwide statistics from the EEOC indicate that such complaints -- so far exceeding 1,000 -- have decreased each year since 2002.

However, the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations says it processed more civil-rights and workplace discrimination complaints in 2005 than ever before. The annual total jumped to 1,972 in 2005 from 1,522 in 2004. The discrepancy may indicate that victims fear reporting discrimination to the government.

"We only see the tip of the iceberg," said Joan Ehrlich, district director of the EEOC office in San Francisco. "It's probably not even reflective of the amount of discrimination going on because people are afraid to come to the government for help."

One of Ehrlich's cases involves Hadji, the Moroccan restaurant manager. He filed suit Aug. 31 against the Albion River Inn.

Hadji said that in late 2004, he reproached a customer for harassing a Tunisian waiter. Hadji said he asked the customer to leave after the diner said, "If you don't like it, go back to your country," and "I fought two wars to get rid of people like you."

The restaurant's owners ordered Hadji to apologize to the customer or resign, Hadji said. Hadji left the restaurant and moved to San Francisco.

"All I was trying to do was protect my staff from racial harassment," he said.

Ray Erlach, an attorney for the restaurant, said the evidence didn't support the allegations. "The Albion River Inn has had a perfect record for 25 years of inclusivity of all races and religions," he said. "No one has ever complained."

Hadji's case is similar to one filed Sept. 25 by the Los Angeles EEOC office in which a caterer who worked for the Monterey Hill restaurant alleged that she was called "Mrs. Bin Laden," even though she's Christian. The suit said the woman was told she watched too much Al Jazeera, the Mideast-based news channel, and was subjected to other discrimination because of her Syrian background. The eatery, located in Monterey Park, is owned by Anaheim-based Specialty Restaurants Corp., operator of nearly 40 outlets, including Castaway in Burbank.

"They say that discrimination doesn't happen in America anymore, but I have something to say to that," said the 29-year-old Glendale resident, who asked that her name be withheld for fear of trouble at her new job.

A representative of Specialty Restaurants said the company hadn't seen the lawsuit and couldn't comment.

In 2005, the Council on American-Islamic Relations received more discrimination complaints in California than any other state -- 378, or 19% of all complaints. The council's L.A. office said 68 of those complaints were workplace-related, up from 56 in 2004.

The large number of California complaints partly reflects the state's sizable Muslim population. Still, civil rights lawyers said they were taken aback by the volume.

"I have been surprised by the number of calls coming from the Bay Area because we have this perception of the Bay Area being a very accepting place," said Shirin Sinnar, an attorney with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights who represents Hadji.

Anna Park, an attorney in the EEOC's Los Angeles office, said diverse cities still saw a great deal of discrimination as demographics shifted. "The cases that we bring now are not just between blacks and whites," she said.

Research by the nonprofit Discrimination Research Center suggests that much employment-related bias has focused on Muslims.

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