Sheriff Lee Baca, center, greets Maher Hathout of the Islamic Center of… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
If L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca was feisty last week when he tangled with a Republican congressman in Washington, D.C., he was even more impassioned Tuesday while discussing it.
A week ago, Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) impugned Baca during a House Homeland Security subcommittee meeting, saying the sheriff had allied himself with a Muslim American group that engaged in "radical" speech by going to its fundraisers. Baca not only attacked that description of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, but he also told Souder he would be fine with going to more fundraisers for the group.
"If he thinks I'm afraid of what he said, I will go to 10 fundraisers because he said it," Baca declared Tuesday afternoon, just a few hours before a town hall meeting with the Muslim American community.
Actually, Baca said, he's been to only two fundraisers for the organization in four years, but that, he added, is not the point. What rankled Baca -- aside from what he took as Souder personally challenging the sheriff's patriotism -- was what he saw as the congressman's inaccurate assessment of the group.
"In other words, he's an amateur intelligence officer," Baca said.
Several times a year, the Muslim American Homeland Security Congress -- an independent group set up to advise Baca and forge a partnership between the department and Muslim Americans -- and the Sheriff's Department's Muslim Community Affairs Unit hold forums to discuss issues. The one Tuesday night was scheduled before the dust-up in Washington offered a charged topic for discussion.
When Baca spoke at the Tuesday event, he was given a standing ovation by the 75 or so people at the Omar ibn Al-Khattab Foundation near USC.
Baca called Souder's comments "scary" and said they were an affront to all Muslim Americans. "When you attack CAIR," he said, "you attack virtually every Muslim in America."
Baca's response to Souder was a statement in defense of democracy, said Maher Hathout, spokesman for the Islamic Center of Southern California. "And they will not vanish," he said. "They are on the record and they are a landmark on the road of our democracy."
Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, hailed Baca as a hero. "Sheriff Baca is our champion and is our hero in defending us against McCarthyism in this era," Al-Marayati said.
Although CAIR, a national Muslim civil liberties group, has its critics, Baca said the local offices represent average Muslim Americans "very committed to the safety of the U.S. It is not an organization that supports or promotes terrorism." He added that the group supported a proposed half-cent sales tax hike for law enforcement. "I think CAIR's support for public safety is unequivocal," he said.
Baca said he believes strongly in a connection between public safety and religious understanding. The Sheriff's Department's interfaith council, he said, has been working for a decade on projects such as passing out food baskets to the homeless and counseling drug addicts. "We have all faiths represented -- Jewish, Muslim, Scientology is even involved."
The Muslim American Homeland Security Congress was set up in the wake of "this constant uninformed chatter about religion being a factor in terrorism," he said. "I'm saying -- because I've read the Koran and been involved with Muslim Americans for years -- this is not correct. God has nothing to do with mentally ill people committing terrorist acts. If a mentally ill person is using Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Scientology to say 'This is part of why I'm doing this,' I say, 'Well, guess what, don't act like you're God, you don't have God's authority.' "
Baca is Catholic. "I'm a weak Catholic; I'm not suggesting I'm doing my best at it," he said. "I respect Catholicism and I respect all faiths."
Without them, he said, "our crime would be outrageous. We would not be a civilized world."