Over the past few weeks, San Luis Obispo County Muslims have endured a rollercoaster of emotions: horrified by the Nov. 13 Paris terrorist attacks, saddened and appalled over last week’s massacre in San Bernardino, heartened by the support they’ve received locally, and worried that dangerous political rhetoric and “Islamophobia” will spread.
Several members of the local Muslim community said the violence has increased their resolve to dispel misconceptions about Islam, to protect Muslim communities from vilification by a public that may not differentiate between their religion and radical militants, and to educate young Muslims to immunize them against extremist ideologies.
“My reaction to it is thinking ... what can I have done personally to stop this?” said Rushdi Cader, an emergency room physician, reserve San Luis Obispo police officer and medical director for the San Luis Obispo Regional SWAT Team who has founded an educational program to counter extremist views. “And what can I do on a community level to protect our young people against these types of ideologies and protect our communities from being stigmatized?”
Some American Muslims fear a backlash from the Dec. 2 deadly mass shooting at a social services facility in San Bernardino.
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The FBI said Friday it is investigating the shootings as an “act of terrorism” and that the woman who allegedly helped her husband kill 14 people at a holiday banquet for his county co-workers used an alias to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State and its leader on Facebook the day of the attack. Facebook found and removed the profile after the attack.
An attorney representing the family of the husband, said Friday that relatives were shocked by the slaughter but that the attack could have been work-related and “doesn’t make a statement about an entire religion.”
Local Muslims said they haven’t received any threats after the Paris or San Bernardino attacks and that some community members have reached out to them, offering support. Mus’ab Abdalla, the official imam (prayer leader) at the Mosque of Nasreen in San Luis Obispo, said that when he spoke to a local rabbi about an upcoming interfaith event shortly after the terrorist spree in Paris, the rabbi asked how local Muslims were doing.
“She said ‘I have a group of volunteers and they’re ready to guard your mosque,’” he recalled this week.
Abdalla declined the offer, but shared the exchange to illustrate the support the local Muslim community has received since the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris killed 130 people and wounded about 350 others.
“A true Muslim”
On Friday, a San Luis Obispo police car was parked outside the mosque before the 1:15 p.m. prayer. Inside, Abdalla urged members to not let others define Muslims.
“People don’t know how to feel about us,” he said. “It’s up to us to define ourselves.”
He added: “Terrorism has no religion. A true Muslim does not hurt anyone. We should take this opportunity to show people Islam.”
Naiyerah Kolkailah, president of the Islamic Society of San Luis Obispo County, said she received several calls and messages after the Paris attacks, with one person offering to host a Muslim couple for Thanksgiving. An estimated 200 to 300 Muslims live in San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties, she said.
“We’ve gotten a lot of supportive comments,” Kolkailah said. “I think that’s such a huge blessing.”
Kolkailah said local Muslims who met for Friday prayer after the Paris attacks discussed how tragic and appalling they were. But she also expressed some frustration that Muslims seem to be expected to condemn violence involving extremists who do not share their values, but the same may not be expected of other religious groups.
“They might claim they are Muslim, but they are committing acts of violence that are violating our own faith and what our faith stands for,” Kolkailah said, noting that the Quran equates killing one soul without justification to the killing of entire mankind.
Cader said the terrorists claiming to carry out violent acts in the name of Islam are practicing what he calls “Mislam”: misguidance, misbehavior and misanthropy.
“When those things happen it’s very painful to us ... because it’s just so incongruent to who we are and what we believe,” Cader said. “We think about what our prophet taught — he taught us how to be beautiful people and these people are nothing but anger and violence and it’s so foreign to us. It’s so opposite of how we raise our children and treat other people.”
Surge in discrimination
While members of the Islamic community in San Luis Obispo County said they have not felt threatened since the attacks, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, recently released an initial report on the unprecedented backlash and discrimination targeting the nation’s Muslim community since the attacks.
CAIR said it received more reports about acts of Islamophobic discrimination, intimidation, threats, and violence targeting American Muslims — or those perceived to be Muslim — and Islamic institutions during the week-and-a-half period after the Paris attacks than during any other limited period of time since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Two of those incidents happened in San Diego: a visibly pregnant Muslim women was allegedly assaulted Nov. 18, and a Muslim student at San Diego State University reported to campus police Nov. 19 that she was attacked by a male who pulled off her Islamic headscarf and made hate statements.
Sometimes you forget the biggest victims of ISIS are Muslims. People think the answer is less religion, but the answer is we don’t have enough religion. If people were more educated about religion, they wouldn’t do these things.
Mus’ab Abdalla, imam at Mosque of Nasreen
Similar incidents have not been reported in San Luis Obispo County, but comments expressing anti-Islamic views and anti-gender-identity remarks were scrawled on a “Free Speech Wall” put up by the Cal Poly College Republicans on campus prior to the Paris attacks. One anonymous post read, “Islam has no place in free Western World.”
Several student protests followed and a group of underrepresented students calling themselves “SLO Solidarity” issued a list of demands concerning diversity and inclusiveness on campus.
Salar Malik, a third-year history major and president of the Muslim Student Association at Cal Poly, which has about 60 members, said it was heartening to see other clubs and minority groups on campus come together to say “this is not what we’re about.”
At a club meeting following the Paris attacks, Malik said he told his members that there is a small fringe group of people who hate Islam for whatever reason, but many others are simply ignorant about the religion. “It’s up to us to bridge that gap,” he said.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations attributes the national spike in anti-Muslim incidents to the Paris attacks and to the mainstreaming of Islamophobia by political candidates and lawmakers in the run-up to the 2016 general election.
Of particular concern, the organization said, is the extreme anti-Muslim rhetoric and falsehoods being espoused by Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson.
Kolkailah said such statements are threatening and she fears the progression of that rhetoric into more violence perpetrated against Muslims. Both she and Cader said the rhetoric is reminiscent of what happened to Jews leading up to the Holocaust. Under the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, Jews were required to carry identity cards with special identifying marks.
On Nov. 19, Trump said he would support a database to register Muslims living in the U.S.; later he said he would not rule out a database on all Muslims but for now wants a database on refugees coming into the country.
“He (Trump) is basically making statements very similar to what Nazi German officials were making toward the Jewish community in the 1930s,” Cader said.
There needs to be an assumption of innocence for Muslims in general. And 1.6 or 1.7 billion people in the world are not going to condone that type of behavior or aggression against anyone.
Naiyerah Kolkailah, president of the Islamic Society of San Luis Obispo County
Both Kolkailah, who’s pursuing a master’s degree in biology at Cal Poly, and Cader recalled incidents of discrimination after 9/11. Kolkailah, then a junior at San Luis Obispo High who was born and raised in the community, recalled her hijab being pulled off, and students telling her to “go back to where she came from.”
“For me it strengthened my identity and wanted to make me become a stronger Muslim who can dispel misconceptions about Islam,” she said.
Cader’s family received several hostile phone calls; this year on Sept. 11, his wife was screamed at while walking down the street.
They didn’t experienced similar types of overt discrimination after the Paris attacks. But Kolkailah said sometimes the discrimination is much more subtle.
“You do notice, though, sometimes if ISIS is in the media a lot, you’ll notice the way they look at you, like ‘You’re the ones who are part of that group,’” she said. “You feel the energy from people.”
Local Muslims are conducting outreach and education to both Muslims and non-Muslims: they want to encourage Muslims to get involved in their communities and be productive citizens, and they encourage non-Muslims to reach out, learn more about Islam and have compassion for Muslims who are victims of the Islamic State.
Whenever anything tragic like this happens, I think a lot of Muslims run and hide under their shell, but I think this is the perfect opportunity to kind of show what you’re about.
Salar Malik, president of Cal Poly’s Muslim Student Association and a third-year history major
“The answer is simple: read more about Muslims, sit in a Muslim’s home and see what is a Muslim really,” Abdalla said. “Being Muslim and being American is not separate.”
Abdalla and his wife created a Facebook page, Muslims of California, that features photos and comments from “everyday Muslims.” The mosque will hold another annual open house in May, Kolkailah said.
Cader has launched two programs.
One founded with his family in 2010 is A.L.E.R.T.U.S. Shield (Alliance with Law Enforcement for the Reporting of Threats within the United States), which aims to support law enforcement, promote public service training that is accurate and free from religious bias, and avert hate crimes and attacks on faith communities and their houses of worship.
Another project, called Anti-V.I.R.U.S. (Anti-Violent Ideology Recruitment in the U.S.), is a grassroots educational program to counter the barrage of online recruitment efforts by extremist groups, primarily targeting young Muslims in the West. The program also strives to distinguish true Islamic beliefs from terrorist ideology. So far Cader has given one talk at the local mosque but hopes to expand the program.
Malik, the Cal Poly student, said the Muslim Student Association is focusing its efforts on an upcoming MSA West conference at Cal Poly in January that will host about 1,200 students from Muslim associations at colleges across the West Coast.
Attendees will refocus on their spirituality, develop leadership skills, and network with other students, said conference chair Alian Ali, a third-year civil engineering major. Ali said they also hope to put on a cultural program that dispels stereotypes and celebrates the diversity in the county and in the greater society.
Ali said the past two years at Cal Poly and in San Luis Obispo “have been really good to me, but in light of recent events, I have begun to realize that equality does not mean acceptance.”
“It worries me to say that there may be a culture of seclusion surrounding the minority groups on campus, even if explicit actions have not been made,” he said in an email. “I feel this uncomfortable burden of being different than others. But of course the actions of a few (i.e. the Free Speech Wall for instance) do not dictate the culture of many, so I hope that Cal Poly students and community members alike continue honoring the happiest place in the USA and be loving towards one another.”
Attendees will learn about the Jewish Festival of Light; there will also be a discussion of last month’s recommended book, “Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources,” by Martin Lings, with Mus’ab Abdalla, iman of the Mosque of Nasreen.