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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, September 26, 2001

Backlash too close to home Backlash too close to home (September 26, 2001)

Bay Area Muslims have become hate-crime targets

by Geoff S. Fein

A>mid concerns of a growing backlash against Middle Easterners across America, local Muslims say Palo Alto has displayed more tolerance toward Islamic residents than other Bay Area communities.

However, even as Muslims praised Palo Altans' restraint, the Islamic Society of North America's Palo Alto office received its first piece of hate mail, sent from Mountain View.

According to Manzoor Ghori, chairman of the Indian-Muslim Relief Committee at the Islamic Society's office on San Antonio Road, the organization received the letter Sept. 19. Ghori has since turned it over to Palo Alto police.

The handwritten letter said "Muslims in Hell," and "You murdering b------s get out of my country."

Ghori is surprised by the level of hate directed toward Muslims.

"I have no words to say other than it's disturbing," Ghori said.

Following the devastating terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., Middle Eastern people or those who look Middle Eastern have been the victims of both verbal and physical assaults across the country. The incidents have ranged from hate-filled phone messages and e-mails to the shooting death of a Sikh in Mesa, Ariz. and the attempted firebombing of a Sikh family's San Mateo home.

Although the Sikh religion is Indian and not Middle Eastern, they have nonetheless become targets because of their appearance.

Ghori said there have been more than 30 hate-related incidents in the Bay Area, including the burning down of a Fremont area business owned by a Muslim man and a shooting at a 7-Eleven convenience store in Hayward.

Ghori said Muslims are no different than any other American citizen. His family joined other Americans in their anger and pain over the attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.

"We are outraged over what happened, like any American. We condemn it," he said. "Even though we have the same feelings, we have to deal with harassment."

The harassment has not been limited to adults. Muslim students in Bay Area public schools and colleges have also been subjected to threats and in a few cases physical altercations.

Asma Ghori, Manzoor's daughter, is the west zone representative to the Muslim Student Association, a national organization comprised of all Muslim student organizations. She has heard of positive and negative incidents.

On Sept. 14, more than 400 people outside the Islamic faith attended an open Muslim prayer at UC Berkeley. However Asma has also heard incidents of people pulling Muslim women's head coverings off. She also heard about a college teacher in Oakland who verbally lashed out at a Middle Eastern student in class.

"You try to prepare yourself for something like this to happen," Asma said.

While her friends in other parts of the country are doing what they can to avoid trouble, Asma said she is lucky to be living in the Bay Area.

"(People) are more accepting (here)," she said.

That's not to say Asma hasn't been the subject of verbal assaults. She recalled someone once yelling at her "go back to your own country."

"But I was born here," she said.

Omar Latif was born in Chicago. He is the president of the Islamic Society at Stanford. He said people need to understand there are American Muslims too.

The Stanford organization has received some hate e-mails, but the vast majority have been positive, Latif said.

"There's been a tremendous outpouring from the community," he said. "Americans are sophisticated enough to separate fact from fiction."

Latif points out it has also been a difficult time for the Muslim community too.

"There were Muslims working in the World Trade Center. New York has a large Muslim community," he said. "And now we are facing discrimination."

If there has been one positive from the events of the last few weeks, Latif said, it has been the increased interest he has seen in Islam. However, Latif said it frustrates him that the actions of terrorists, which go against the teachings of Islam, are treated as if they are part of the religious faith.

Manzoor Ghori says a lot of the blame for people's perception of Muslims rests on the media.

"Most journalists equate Islam and Muslim with terrorism," he said. "When it comes to other communities they do not."

For example, Manzoor Ghori cited the violence in Northern Ireland.

"No one calls the actions in Northern Ireland Christian terrorists, or in Israel, no one calls them Jewish terrorists," he said.

Manzoor Ghori is chairman of the Indian-Muslim Relief Committee at the Islamic Society of North America's Palo Alto office. The local group is an umbrella organization of Muslims in North America, he said. There are more than 500 mosques and Islamic societies involved. Last week President Bush spoke at the New York Islamic Society's office. There are 30,000 members in the Islamic Society of North America, making it the largest Muslim organization in the country, Manzoor Ghori said. There are 7 million Muslims in North America.

"There is a definite Islamic community in Palo Alto, but we don't have sufficient facilities, so people go elsewhere, like Santa Clara" Manzoor Ghori said. "There is no mosque in Palo Alto. We don't have the numbers."

Ghori said there has been a growing interest in Islam, however not as much as he thought there would be.

"Most people here are not interested in religion," he said.

The Islamic Society of North America has had a presence in Palo Alto since 1985.

Calls received at the Palo Alto organization have been running about 10 to 1 in support of the Muslim community. Manzoor Ghori said that is because Palo Alto is a more tolerant and educated community.

Ghori said he has received calls of support from Palo Alto religious leaders and writers, people he has never met.

"That's a good feeling," he said.

But for all the good feeling, Muslims are still taking precautions, he added. Some Muslim women have chosen not to wear scarves, for instance.

"It's very tragic, but what choice do they have?," he said.

Although Manzoor Ghori has never before seen this level of backlash generated toward Muslims, he added there is also much more awareness of Muslims today.

He is also hoping to have a community meeting with the organization's neighbors.

"In any time of difficulty family, friends and neighbors should come together for understanding," he said.

E-mail Geoff S. Fein at gfein@paweekly.com


 

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