Muslim community launches TV campaign to fight hate speech

CAIR-LA Executive Director Hussam Ayloush unveils the
CAIR-LA Executive Director Hussam Ayloush unveils the "9/11 Happened to Us All" public service announcement at CAIR's offices in Anaheim.
Susan Valot/KPCC

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A Muslim group is speaking out against the backlash against plans to build an Islamic community center a few blocks from ground zero in New York. They say it’s spawned a lot of hate speech against Muslims in general.

They’re hoping a new series of TV public service announcements will help. The Los Angeles chapter of the Council in American-Islamic Relations — or CAIR — unveiled those PSA’s in Anaheim yesterday.

The PSA’s have two themes: “We have more in common than we think” and “9/11 happened to us all.”

One of the three videos features a New York City firefighter — a Muslim — who was one of the first to arrive at the Twin Towers. As he talks, tears stream down his face.

"I had a very good friend of mine. His name was Shawn Powell. And he worked in my firehouse for a while," says Hisham Tawfiq in the PSA. "When my friend came up to me and told me that Shawn Powell was on the list, I was like, ‘No, he’s not.’ And I took out my phone and I called him. That’s really when it hit me and I was like, ‘Okay, this is real.’”

CAIR hopes the TV campaign will help dispel the myth that all Muslims are terrorists.

CAIR-LA attorney Ameena Qazi, who wears a traditional Muslim head scarf, says she’s noticed an increase in hate e-mail and phone calls in the last six months.

"Just the other day, I got a hate mail — voice mail on my phone here at work, saying, 'You F-ing terrorist, go home. Leave our country.' Just completely out of nowhere," Qazi says. "Somehow they got through to my voicemail and left that message."

Qazi says those messages are like a hit-and-run. She says there’s no way to respond to help those people better understand her religion.

"For me, the hurtful part is that, you know, I am American," Qazi says. "I’m actually a mix race, you know. I’m white American. I’m Pakistani American. So it’s hurtful when we have our own people spurring this hate against us because it’s like our own. You know, we don’t view them as others or we’re others. It’s like our own not being able to understand. And that’s what we hope to achieve through this [PSA campaign]."

CAIR-LA Executive Director Hussam Ayloush says hate talk is driven by fear of Islam — and that’s driven by ignorance. He says hateful comments keep bubbling to the surface long after the 9/11 attacks.

"It’s nine years and brewing. That’s what it is," Ayloush says. "I think what happened — things got out of hand because of many factors. One is the election of President Obama. Some people are still not digesting the idea of having a first black president in America. For them, it is something that undermines, that shakes the history of what America stands for because for some extremists what America is maybe a white, Christian society."

Ayloush says more anti-Muslim groups have popped up in the years since 9/11. He says the rhetoric is becoming more vicious, as traditional hate groups like neo-Nazis and former Ku Klux Klan members get involved.

"This is the exact same practice that led to attacks on black people in the ‘30s and ‘40s, up to the ‘60s," says Ayloush. "These are the same type of tactics that led to the internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. The internment didn’t happen in a vacuum. It came after many, many years of building and brewing anti-Asian and anti-Japanese feelings and sentiments in America."

Ayloush also blames politicians for fanning the flames in an election year.

"When we face — and it has happened throughout history — when there’s a bad economy, populist — not popular and not necessarily good leaders — populist leaders try to find victims, someone to blame, a scapegoat," says Ayloush. "Whether it’s the immigrants in the past or the Catholics or the poor East Europeans or the Jews. Today it’s the Muslims. The Muslims to be blamed to all evil things that happen in the world."

Ayloush says he hopes the new TV announcements will change some minds about Muslims. They start airing on TV stations this week and are posted on YouTube.

We soon could find out how well they work. On October 17, Muslims in Southern California will invite people of all religions to visit them on Open Mosque Day.