Terror attacks bring adversity to local Muslim community | News | Palo Alto Online |


Terror attacks bring adversity to local Muslim community

Islamic Society of North America offices to spearhead interfaith efforts

For the estimated 250,000 Muslims living in the Bay Area, these are the times when faith is put to the test.

Following the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino by radicalized Islamic extremists, a pall of suspicion has been cast on the Islamic community that reminds some of the dark days after the Sept. 11 attacks.

On a day-to-day basis, local Muslims say this backlash can play out through glares, derogatory slurs or cold treatment from strangers. And the animosity is fueled by politicians calling for surveillance on mosques and a ban on Syrian refugees, and by other public statements such as Donald Trump's extreme proposal to totally bar Muslims from entering the country.

Even in the Bay Area, a region that prides itself on tolerance and diversity, there are plenty of examples of anti-Muslim hostility. Earlier this month, a group of Muslims picnicking at Lake Chabot in Alameda County were berated and had hot coffee thrown at them by a woman who saw them praying. Also recently, the Santa Clara offices of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) received an envelope containing white powder resembling anthrax. The powder wasn't hazardous, but the incident resulted in a full evacuation of the building, and three employees were sent to the hospital as a precaution.

Under this backdrop, the Islamic community in the Bay Area is coping with how to respond in the face of many misunderstandings from the public at large.

Mountain View office

Leaders of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) say they have a renewed focus on the Bay Area, and earlier this year the organization opened its main West Coast office in Mountain View.

Until recently, ISNA had operated out of its main offices in Indiana and Washington, D.C. Opening a new Mountain View office should allow the group to address local cases of so-called Islamaphobia and coordinate the network of mosques and schools in the area, said Manzoor Ghori, an ISNA board member and Palo Alto resident. Along with its advocacy role, the new office also offers a prayer space.

Mountain View's new ISNA offices will also spearhead interfaith efforts. The most ardent allies Muslims may have during precarious times are the religious leaders from other faiths, said Ustadh Faraz Khan, an Islamic teacher with the Zaytuna College. He recounted how Jewish and Christian clergy had rallied with the Islamic community to deter crowds threatening to burn down mosques after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In turn, it is just as important that Muslims show support for other faiths when they face persecution, Khan said.

This type of adversity brings out both the worst and the best in people, said Hazem Bata, ISNA secretary general.

"What we're going through is nothing new -- just ask the African-Americans, ask the Jews, ask the Japanese, ask the Chinese," he said. "We're another cog in the wheel."

Facing the challenges

The questions surrounding being both Muslim and American took center stage on a recent Saturday at an ISNA conference, titled "What Did Muhammad Do: The Challenges of Being a Minority," held in Santa Clara at the Muslim Community Association. During the all-day event, local imams and Islamic leaders urged the congregation of hundreds to remain engaged citizens of their communities, even if they face adversity or blatant bigotry.

Suspicions among the wider U.S. public about Islam are based on ignorance, and the best remedy is for average Muslims to openly show others who they are, urged Zahra Billoo, who directs the Santa Clara CAIR offices where the powder-filled letter was sent.

"If we're afraid to talk about our faith, people are going to get their information from Fox News," she said. "We're going to get through this. It's certainly more tense now than it previously was."

On Saturday, Billoo talked to a small group of about 20 teens for an afternoon session discussing the contemporary challenges of being Muslim. The young audience was evenly split between boys and girls, many of whom wore headscarves or skullcaps. Asked if they had been bullied at school about their religion, many hands went up in the air.

Billoo urged the teens not to shy away from expressing their experiences as Muslims, whether through face-to-face interaction or social media.

Still, the current U.S. political climate presents real fears, especially for Muslim parents and their children. Farha Andrabi, an Islamic Society coordinator, described getting texts from her daughter who was feeling scared following the San Bernardino shooting. On a daily basis, peaceful Muslims are reminded through media coverage that they are lumped together with violent terrorists.

"This bombardment of negatively on the screen, how do you escape it?" Andrabi said. "How do you show grief? How do you show that we're just as much grieving as everyone else?"

This is the 15th year the Muslim association has organized a South Bay speaker series. While this year's event had been planned for months, it took on new significance in light of the recent attacks.

For American Muslims, the aftermath of an extremist attack prompts a barrage of many of the questions they have come to expect and dread: Does the Muslim community condone acts of terror? How can the community allow violent extremists into their ranks? Shouldn't they apologize to the victims for their losses?

These questions are loaded with biases, Billoo and other speakers said. More than one speaker pointed out that other religious groups don't face similar scrutiny following atrocities. A Planned Parenthood clinic shooting, for example, generally doesn't prompt questions on violence in Christian doctrine.

In cases where Muslim radicals did commit mass violence, such as the attacks in San Bernardino, groups like the Islamic Society of North America are left walking a fine line between feeling no obligation to respond and not wanting to sound insensitive. Following the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, ISNA issued a press statement condemning the carnage and noting that violence was antithetical to the tenets of Islam. Mosques throughout the Bay Area organized prayer circles after the San Bernardino shooting.

Muslim advocates blame media organizations for instilling the idea that regular Muslims owe the public some kind of apology after violent acts perpetrated by others. Billoo urged her audience not to give credence to that line of thought.

"I don't have to apologize for San Bernardino or Paris because I had nothing to do with it, but I'll still condemn it," Billoo said. "I'll condemn these acts, but I'll also condemn when Israeli air strikes kill Palestinian children or when U.S. drones kill Pakistanis."

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48 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 21, 2015 at 8:41 am

I have a lot of sympathy for the majority "good" Muslims in our community and in this country.

I know that the vast majority of Muslims are not radicalized and not likely to do anything to harm anybody.

However, saying this, I would like to see the Muslim community as individuals and as an organized group to denounce those few radicalized Muslims, to condemn them, and to do more to look for possible terrorists in their midsts. If they could police themselves and report suspicious behavior to authorities it would help American society from judging them all as potential terrorists. If they could make more noise telling their own to report anything suspicious rather than seeing this behavior as normal, it would help. If they could be proactive in looking for the radicalized rather than pleading ignorance and having a victim mentality, it would make for good public relations.

I support any efforts they make in being open about their faith and inviting others to functions in their facilities. It is a good beginning. I look forward to seeing more and more of this openness in the future.

50 people like this
Posted by Chris Zaharias
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 21, 2015 at 9:33 am

Chris Zaharias is a registered user.

I would go a lot further. Specifically, I would ask the adherents of *all* major religions to affirm that

a) they recognize that their religious beliefs are their necessarily *imperfect* attempt at knowing the unknowable; and that
b) they place the laws of our country above the laws of their respective religions

49 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 21, 2015 at 9:42 am

I would definitely expect Muslims living here to denounce their extremists, expel them from their midst and report them to the authorities if they have reasons to believe they plan to commit terror attacks. I expect Christians/Chetolics to do the same with anti choice extremists.

12 people like this
Posted by Mohammed
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 21, 2015 at 10:57 am

I love when people believe that snitching on your neighbor is the solution , even worse when they believe that making their Muslim community member feel guilty of the terrorist's act.

Non-Muslims Carried Out More than 90% of All Terrorist Attacks on U.S. Soil According to the FBI.

There are bad people and good people in this planet, the only difference is sadly many Americans believe that a reality tv star with a name Trump who can't even form a complete sentence is their savior.

Alienating Muslims is not the solution. How about trying inclusion?
Hillary said it best, you need the Muslims to combat terror.

33 people like this
Posted by Openly
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 21, 2015 at 11:15 am

As the most modern of the major religions, it would be nice to see Muslims at least denounce the more rabid segments if their faith. Silence can be interpreted as tacit support.

11 people like this
Posted by Plane Speaker
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 21, 2015 at 11:40 am

[Post removed.]

13 people like this
Posted by 38 year resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 21, 2015 at 12:11 pm

[Post removed.]

16 people like this
Posted by Terry
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 21, 2015 at 12:32 pm

I don't like the demands here that area Muslims out "their" extremists and to declare a laundry list affirmations (above). Extremists are not in the control of any wider community and it is wrong and insensitive to assume so. As to this list of affirmations, let the author get his or her own constinuacy to embrace it instead of ignoring all extremists whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc. For instance I have not seen Christians ( 3 billion of them?) renounce killings and bombings at planned parenthood by radical Christians. There is plenty of stupid violent people In all groups - not just Muslims. Stop scapegoating.

12 people like this
Posted by Religion and Politics Don't Mix
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 21, 2015 at 12:35 pm

[Post removed.]

12 people like this
Posted by Brendan
a resident of South of Midtown
on Dec 21, 2015 at 12:49 pm

Brendan is a registered user.

Agree with Terry wholeheartedly.

Extremists are the enemy. Fear, unrest, and attention are what they want. Don't give it to them!

The odds of being hurt in a car accident are astronomically higher than a "terror" event. Keep that in mind the next time you get behind the wheel of your car.

17 people like this
Posted by revdreileen
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Dec 21, 2015 at 2:07 pm

revdreileen is a registered user.

We Christians as individuals and as an organized group need to denounce those few radicalized Christians, to condemn them, and to do more to look for possible terrorists and mass shooters in our midst. If we could police ourselves and report suspicious behavior to authorities it would help American society from judging us all as potential terrorists and mass shooters. If we could make more noise telling our own to report anything suspicious, like building up a large cache of weapons and bullets, rather than seeing this behavior as normal, it would help. If we could be proactive in looking for the radicalized rather than pleading ignorance, having a victim mentality, and blaming mental illness for these behaviors it would make for good public relations.

18 people like this
Posted by Chip
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 21, 2015 at 2:37 pm

Chip is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

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