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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, September 11, 2002

One year later One year later (September 11, 2002)

Palo Alto seen as tolerant, but some crimes were reported

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon tested the limits of tolerance across American society. As shock over the tragedy turned to rage, a backlash against people believed to be Muslim rippled through the nation. It left several people dead and a wake of injury and vandalism.

In Palo Alto, police received reports of three hate crimes stemming from Sept. 11. One involved a fight that ended in a death threat outside a restaurant. In another case, a cardboard sign with anti-Palestinian slogans was placed outside Gunn High School.

The final report came from the Islamic Society of North America on San Antonio Road, which received hate mail.

Those letters notwithstanding, Manzoor Ghori, the society's director, said the reaction in Palo Alto in the days following the tragedy was overwhelmingly supportive. He estimated that 95 percent of the calls he received were positive.

"Strangers came to the office, as well as church leaders who said, 'If you need anything, I'm here.' I was touched," he said.

New York Pizza owner Hamid Shahabi, who emigrated with his family from Afghanistan 12 years ago, agreed that Palo Alto is still a tolerant place.

Last Sept. 22 three teenage boys made an obscene gesture at Shahabi and pushed him to the ground when he confronted them outside the store. Police classified the incident as battery, rather than a hate crime, since the youths never explicitly attacked Shahabi's ethnicity.

But Shahabi said the incident hasn't changed the way he feels about doing business in Palo Alto. "It's a nice area, a good neighborhood with not a lot of violence. That's why we came here," he said cheerfully.

As for last year's attack, it was just a matter of ignorance, he said. "They didn't realize what was going on. Maybe they were thinking all Muslim people are bad."

Ghori and Chintan Singh, the head of the Sikh Foundation in College Terrace, found that things calmed down within a few months of Sept. 11.

But Ghori sees subtle, lingering changes in the treatment of local Muslims. Perceptions of them has changed, he said.

"I'm amazed how people who knew you for 25 years still have a question. It's like, 'Ha! You're one of those people,'" he said as he described the cool reception he received from some of his coworkers.

For his part, Singh is still haunted by a choice he made to ward off potential threat in the week after Sept. 11.

After a Sikh was shot to death at a gas station in Arizona, Singh decided not to wear his turban to the first day of class at a community college on Sept. 18.

As it turned out, he had no need to worry. The class accepted him, and he resumed wearing his turban. But he still feels guilty about his decision, which led him to choose safety over observing a central tenet of his religion.

"What is the meaning of me being a Sikh if I take my turban off?" he asks. "I tell myself I'm never gonna do that again."

-- Pam Sturner


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