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Muslims in San Diego, five years later: Still mournful, still nervous

Audio

Aired 4/19/09

Five years have passed since the September 11th attacks threw Muslim society into sharp focus. San Diego is home to one of the largest Muslim communities in the United States. After 9/11, many local Muslims shrunk into obscurity in the face of hostility. KPBS Radio's Andrew Phelps reports the anti-Muslim climate has cooled, but not by much.

When the sun sets, Muslims at the Islamic Center of San Diego hear this call to prayer. All hu Akbar. God is great. In 2001, that phrase became a sort of political weapon. In the anxiety that followed 9/11, Muslims and Arab-Americans in San Diego became the most frequent target of hate crimes. The number of those crimes has dropped sharply. But Imam Taha Hassane says the anxiety lingers.

Hassane: "Not all the Muslim community here, but some of them, they still have a kind of fear. Some of them don't want to appear with anything that can characterize them as Muslims."

Last month's Gallup-USA Today poll finds just about 40 percent of Americans indicate some prejudice toward Muslims, and a third believe Muslims were sympathetic to al-Qaeda. Hassane's Islamic Center was recently pelted with eggs. But he says patience is part of his faith.

Hassane: "Actually, I totally understand those people."

Muslim scholars universally condemned the 9/11 attacks, but some leaders within the Muslim community say Americans have not heard that message loud and clear.

Barghouti: "I strongly believe that the Muslim community, before 9/11, they didn't do their job. They didn't reach out to the members of our society, the larger society. After 9/11, they realized that there is a lot of work that should be done."

Nasser Barghouti is president of the San Diego chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

Barghouti: "They couldn't even express their sadness and anger at what happened because they always had to fear what people might say. But it was you who did that. And so I think what they did is they completely went inwards. And tried to hide."

Barghouti says Muslims felt excluded from the surge in nationalism, in part because of rhetoric by President Bush.

President Bush: "You're either with us, or you're against us in the fight against terror."

Barghouti: "What is with us or against us? Against whom? And with whom? It was a very polarizing moment. I mean voicing any opinion against the Bush administration's policies in the Middle East was very difficult. Now, it's completely different."

Until recently, Doris Bittar says she mourned the anniversary of 9/11 in silence. Bittar is a Lebanese-American artist and professor at UC San Diego. She's not Muslim but is often mistaken as one.

Bittar: "People I thought were friends were coming up to me and spewing the most outrageous, stereotype things about Iraq and the people there and the role of women. I mean, they just didn't know what they were talking about."

Bittar and her Jewish husband have organized local discussions on Mid-East peace. These days, Bittar sees an opening. She says dwindling support for the president and his foreign policy makes room for growing dissent within the Arab-American community. A year ago, she was afraid to voice sharp criticism. But for her, U.S. support for Israel in the recent war with Hezbollah was beyond the pale.

Bittar: "Now I don't care who I talk to and I don't care how crazy I may sound. I'll just tell them."

Five years after 9/11, perhaps no one is more sensitive to the ongoing threat of terrorists among us than the local FBI. After all, two of the hijackers lived, worked, and played in San Diego. FBI Supervisory Special Agent Alex Murray says his agents meet with mosque directors to identify suspicious activity and also offer greater protection to Muslim community. But there have been cultural growing pains.

Murray: "For example, one of the first things I learned about was the large Chaldean community we have here in San Diego. And before 9-11, I don't think . . .I certainly had no idea who or what a Chaldean is."

Murray now knows that Chaldeans are Iraqi Christians. San Diego is home to the second largest Chaldean community in America -- a reminder that many Arabs are not Muslim, and most Muslims are not Arab. Murray says the FBI does not engage in ethnic profiling. But tell that to San Diego attorney Randy Hamud. He says the Arab-American community is enduring a chilling effect on their rights.

Hamud: "Any time they do go to a demonstration they all like to joke that they're going to have their photographs and biometric data gathered by the government. And a lot of people don't go because of that."

Hamud represented the material witnesses in the September 11th trials. Since 9-11, he says he receives constant calls from Arab-Americans complaining of discrimination. Hamud fears an anti-Muslim crescendo is near, as President Bush brandishes a new buzzword in the War on Terrorism: Islamofascism. Fear never stopped Sulaiman Morgan from speaking his mind. Morgan is 21-year-old student at UC San Diego and a practicing Muslim.

Morgan: "What I see as right and what I see as wrong, I will express and not fear the consequence."

Morgan draws on the courage of Martin Luther King for inspiration. He says the Muslim community in San Diego faces a struggle akin to King's civil rights movement to find respect among neighbors and to live free of fear. For KPBS, I'm Andrew Phelps.

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