How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Hate crime or not, why the killing of Shaima Alawadi carries special weight

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Shaima Alawadi

Police have yet to determine if the murder of Shaima Alwadi, a 32-year-old Iraqi American mother of five who was beaten to death last week, is indeed a hate crime. Alawadi died last Saturday of head injuries after enduring a brutal beating a few days earlier in her El Cajon, Calif. home, which appeared broken into; a note that family members found next to her read something along the lines of "go back to your country, you terrorist," as her daughter told media.

Her family said it was the second note of this kind they had found in a week. Alawadi's death is being investigated as a possible hate crime, but police haven't drawn any conclusions. Meanwhile, El Cajon's large Iraqi immigrant community is shaken, and the murder has resonated internationally.

Coming a month after the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old unarmed black boy shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida, Alawadi's murder has drawn comparisons to that killing. There has been other violence against Muslims in the U.S. over the last decade, even against people perceived to be Muslim, like Indian Sikhs. But for a number of reasons, Alawadi's murder carries special weight for Muslims and Arab Americans. In this Q&A, Salam Al-Marayti of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles provides his take on why.


Q&A: A Los Angeles Muslim community leader on the damage bin Laden caused U.S. Muslims

Salam Al-Marayati, photo courtesy of MPAC

The terrorist attacks orchestrated by Osama bin Laden affected all Americans, but they affected American Muslims in a unique way. One of the groups that has called for greater tolerance in the face of anti-Muslim sentiment and tried to clear up misperceptions is the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which has offices in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

The group's president, Salam Al-Marayati, addressed via e-mail today a few questions relating to the damaging effects that bin Laden's actions had on Muslims in this country, and what the future may hold now that he's gone.

M-A: The attacks of 9/11 affected everyone, but can you tell me in particular how these actions changed the way in which American Muslims live during this past decade?

Al-Marayati: We have many young Muslims who have either grown up with 9/11 impacting their identity or were born after 9/11. As a result, our image in the U.S. is dependent on the perception of how secure our nation is. With more insecurity comes anti-Muslim sentiment.

M-A: Do what degree do U.S. Muslims (and others, such as Sikhs) live in fear today as a result?

Al-Marayati: I wouldn't say fear is a driver, but more alienation and psychological ghettoization.

M-A: How have Muslims been affected not only by policies such as the Patriot Act, but by public perceptions and/or discrimination?

Al-Marayati: Tremendously, since it only reinforces the perception that Muslims are a problem in our society, either a victim or a villain.

M-A: Do you think that the death of bin Laden will have any effect, or do you think this community will subject to more of this for some time still?

Al-Marayati: We hope it is the mark of an end to a dark era and an ushering in of a new era for mutual understanding in U.S.-Muslim world relations. With the rise of democracy in the Middle East and the descent of Al-Qaeda, there is an opportunity for partnership between people in the Muslim world and in the U.S. We can't expect our governments to address issues involving culture and religion. It involves people-to-people dynamics.


'The right to choose how we dress:' American Muslim women speak out on French burqa ban

Photo by Siobhán Silke/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Kenza Drider, one of the most vocal opponents of France's burqa ban, April 2011

On Monday, France implemented a controversial ban on the face-covering veils worn by some Muslim women, which are referred to there as burqa or niqab. Women who continue to wear the veils are subject to steep fines if cited. The French government defends the ban as promoting sexual equality, while critics have called it a blatant appeal to anti-Muslim voters. Meanwhile, there has been mixed reaction from Muslim women as the ban is debated around the world.

KPCC intern Yasmin Nouh, a recent graduate of UC Irvine who herself is Muslim and wears hijab, the traditional head scarf, interviewed three prominent Muslim women in California on reaction to the ban. She spoke with Hadeer Soliman, vice president of the Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine; Edina Lekovic, director of policy and programming for the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles; and Zahra Billoo, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Here's what they had to say about the burqa ban, how it affects Muslim women here, and broader concerns they see surrounding it.


Quotes of the moment: Muslims on NPR's Williams incident as a teachable moment

Photo by HORIZON/Flickr (Creative Commons)

The interior of a mosque in Ishafan, Iran, May 2006

"We need to use this moment as a catalyst to open a national debate about the grievous misconceptions, fear and suspicion about Islam and Muslims. This discussion needs to be elevated to ethical discourse beyond biases and prejudices."

- Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, on NPR's dismissal of Juan Williams

The reaction from Muslim civil rights groups to the network's firing of veteran journalist and news analyst Williams last week - and his comment about Muslims that led up to it - has been varied, with some taking a more forgiving attitude than others.

Williams remarked last week during an appearance on Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor" that getting on a plane and seeing people in "Muslim garb" made him nervous. In reaction, the national Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a statement calling on called on Muslim Americans and the general public to contact NPR and "take appropriate action."


Answers to some of the questions swirling around mosque controversies


Photo by HORIZON/Flickr (Creative Commons)

The interior of a mosque in Ishafan, Iran, May 2006

The Huffington Post featured an interesting Q & A yesterday with Salam Al Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which has offices in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

Al Marayati (also a member of KPCC's regional advisory council) addresses some of the questions and fears swirling around the so-called "Ground Zero mosque" in New York and related controversies elsewhere, including in Temecula, where some residents have protested against the development of an Islamic cultural center and mosque near a Baptist church.

Among the topics he addresses: Islamic law, national security, and terrorism. From the interview:

Q: What about Sharia (Islamic law) in the U.S.?

A: If what you mean by Sharia is what is practiced in the Muslim world -- no! Many Muslims fled the Muslim world because of corrupt regimes, injustice, misogyny, and downright discourtesy...When we see stoning of women in Afghanistan or Nigeria, or child marriages in the Arabian Peninsula, that is not Sharia. It is an exploitation of Islam to oppress people, especially women.

Q: Is terrorism ever justified?

A: No. Terrorism is evil...Yet, when terrorists tape video messages from the caves of Afghanistan or the jungles of Somalia, they get free publicity in all US markets. When we condemn terrorism, it is barely recognized.