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Muslims find Bay Area leans toward tolerance

For Muslims in the Bay Area, life presents a dichotomy.

Like other residents, they enjoy the prevailing atmosphere of tolerance and political openness here. Sparked by opportunities that didn't exist 20 years ago, they've created local organizations and expanded them nationwide. Because of recent immigration, the Bay Area's Muslim population has swelled to more than 200,000. Dozens of new mosques and Islamic-oriented schools have opened. An increasing number of local companies set aside rooms for Muslims to pray.

Yet many Bay Area Muslims -- especially those who "look Muslim" -- complain of job discrimination or of being unfairly targeted by law enforcement. Some say they've changed their day-to-day habits, including how they dress and what they say in public, to avoid possible harassment.

On the three-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Bay Area Muslims are conscious of the advances they've made as a community, but they also worry that some non-Muslims still see them as outsiders. Violence in the Middle East often leads to an increase in hostile actions against them.

"The Bay Area, overall, is one of the best places to be in the country, but that doesn't mean the Bay Area doesn't have its bigots," says Souleiman Ghali, president of the Islamic Society of San Francisco, as he sits on a couch in a classroom area of the society's Jones Street building. "We get hate letters. I get death threats. I've had people on the street shouting at me, 'Go back to your country.' "

In the three years since Sept. 11, the Northern California office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations has logged more than 50 cases of Muslims who say they've been threatened or harassed or discriminated against. In that same period, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's offices in San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland have received 95 work-discrimination complaints from Bay Area Muslims and Arabs. All 95 complaints fall under the category of "9/11 backlash," the council reports.

A South Bay journalist says she started wearing her Muslim head scarf called a hijab in a less traditional style in the past year.

"I was on a bus and some kids got on, and they started calling me a terrorist," says Yasmin, who doesn't want her last name used because of that experience. "They asked if I was going to blow up the bus." Now, she says, "I don't wear a long, flowing head scarf. I wear it in a bun, so it looks more like a wrap or a fashion statement. That allows me to blend in a little more."

Yasmin is one of scores of Bay Area Muslims who've been interviewed by the FBI since March, when the agency started doing "informational" interviews with selected Muslims who have traveled abroad, especially to the Middle East and Pakistan. FBI spokesperson LaRae Quy says those questioned aren't viewed as suspects but as travelers who could have been approached by terrorist organizations like al Qaeda.

Some Bay Area Muslims begrudgingly welcomed meetings with the FBI that were done in a group environment (at mosques or other Muslim centers) as a way to diffuse tension with the agency and to prove they have nothing to hide. Still, Yasmin calls her FBI meeting at her home "very intrusive."

How Muslim to be in public is much discussed. Because of the political climate, some Bay Area Muslims have ceased public discussion of the Iraq war or U.S. foreign policies.

Faisal Ghori, a senior at UC Berkeley who is Pakistani American, was with two Pakistani American friends in a U-Haul rental facility on Bayshore Boulevard in San Francisco last month, talking about a Pakistani medical school, when one of the friends suggested they keep quiet. He was worried the conversation could be misinterpreted, that other customers might somehow suspect the three were renting a truck for terrorist purposes, Ghori says.

Hatem Bazian, a lecturer in Near Eastern studies at UC Berkeley, has heard many similar stories of Bay Area Muslims censoring themselves. Bazian says he watches what he says in cafes, even in a liberal city like Berkeley. "Muslims are engaged in a profound sense of self-censorship," he says. "You edit yourself in such a way to make sure you're not misunderstood."

Yet for every story about self-censorship, there's another report about the growing visibility of Muslims in the Bay Area -- as represented by Maad Abu-Ghazalah, a Pacifica businessman and immigration lawyer who has run twice against Congressman Tom Lantos; Sohaib Abassi, a former Oracle executive, and his wife, Sara, who gave $2.5 million to endow Stanford's new Islamic studies program; Agha Saeed, founder and chairman of the American Muslim Alliance, a Newark organization that is the largest Muslim political group in the United States; Maha ElGenaidi, executive director of Islamic Networks Group, a San Jose educational organization with offices around the country that's opening its first international chapter in London; and Hamza Yusuf Hanson, co-founder of the Zaytuna Institute, a Hayward Islamic school and institute that's become a model for other schools around North America.

Then there are the Bay Area Muslims who in going to work, raising children and simply going out with friends are raising the profile of the Muslim community here.

Several months ago, Hisham Ibrahim, a production manager at the Silicon Valley software company Intuit, and his wife, Safaa, were among hundreds who crowded into the Fox Theater in Redwood City to watch "Me, No Terrorist," an Arabic-language stage comedy (the main character is a man dressed as a woman). The Ibrahims, who say they haven't experienced anti-Muslim sentiment here, learned of the production from an Arabic-language satellite TV show they watch at their Aptos home, where a grandfather clock in their living room announces the call to prayer five times a day.

The mosque that the Ibrahims attend, the Islamic Center of Santa Cruz, is one of 43 in the Bay Area. In the early 1980s, the Bay Area had only three mosques, says Bazian, who teaches a course on Islam in America at UC Berkeley.

Bay Area Muslims who adhere to the Islamic commandment to kneel toward Mecca and pray five times a day say they are sometimes the subject of stares and derisive comments when they pray in public. But an increasing number of Bay Area corporations like Oracle and Cisco Systems have set aside rooms for their Muslim employees to pray. And on a recent Saturday afternoon at Civic Center plaza, in front of San Francisco's City Hall, the Muslim call to prayer could be heard as the Pakistan Association of San Francisco celebrated Pakistan's independence.

Many Bay Area Muslims say being open about their religion is important. Kelly Walker, a San Francisco Muslim who often takes public transportation, says her Islamic dress makes her feel more comfortable -- not less -- interacting with strangers, especially men. "It's about being treated with equal respect," Kelly says. "I don't get treated as an object."

The size of the Bay Area's Muslim population has mushroomed in the past 20 years, pushed higher by immigration waves of Afghans (the Bay Area has the largest Afghan population in the United States -- 12,000 according to U.S. census data);Iranians (32,000); South Asians (many of whom are educated professionals drawn to high-tech jobs in Silicon Valley -- according to census data; Pakistanis (6,000);Bosnians and others from outside the Arab Middle East.

This boom has transformed areas in the South Bay and East Bay, where restaurants, bookstores and other establishments have sprung up. So many Muslim-oriented restaurants and food establishments have opened that, in 1999, a Bay Area Muslim engineer and entrepreneur began a Web site, zabihah.com, as a guide. Like craigslist.com, the site has since expanded exponentially -- it now includes restaurants and eateries around the world, and a halalapalooza.com offshoot that lists Muslim-oriented businesses. ("Halal" is Arabic for "permissible.")

Whereas the center of the Bay Area Muslim community in the 1960s and 1970s was San Francisco, that hub now runs around the south end of the bay from Hayward to Sunnyvale.

The exact number of Bay Area Muslims is a question mark. No formal studies have been done, and the U.S. Census Bureau doesn't use religion as a category. UC Berkeley's Bazian says between 300,000 and 500,000 Muslims live in the greater Bay Area -- a number that is based, he says, on extrapolating attendance figures at Bay Area mosques. Helal Omeira, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations' Northern California office, says the figure is closer to 200,000. Even if this lower number is used, the Bay Area's Muslim population has grown 10 times since the early 1980s, when the population was about 20,000, Bazian says.

The Bay Area has at least seven Islamic-oriented schools, including the Clara Mohammed School that's affiliated with Masjidul Waritheen, a mosque in East Oakland whose membership is primarily African American.

Along with math, English, science and other subjects, the Clara Mohammed School teaches Arabic, Quranic studies and Muslim history. Middle-school students in math class learn that algebra is an Arabic term, that numbers used in the English-speaking world were developed by Arabs, and that the concept of zero was developed by the ninth century Persian mathematician Mohammed Ibn Musa al-Khawarizmi.

"All of the teachers incorporate Islamic studies into their curriculum," says Faheem Shuaibe, the mosque's imam who is also the school director.

Some local Muslims have run for office. In 2002, when Abu-Ghazalah ran in his first congressional race against Lantos, other Muslims told him to print campaign literature without "Abu" in his name because they thought it was too Muslim-sounding. Abu-Ghazalah, who came to the United States in 1979, after being raised in the West Bank and Saudi Arabia, rejected the advice.

Two years ago, Ghali, of San Francisco's Islamic Society, and his wife were expecting a son and debating what to name him. They were considering Muhammad (a popular Muslim name that's the name of the religion's prophet), but they worried it might lead to stigmatizing by non-Muslims. After an intense discussion, they chose Muhammad.

Ghali smiles when the subject turns to the school the Islamic Society is establishing in South San Francisco. At the society's Jones Street building, Ghali happily shows photos of the school grounds and other pictures of Bay Area Muslims attending public functions. These are the scenes of which Ghali is most proud. A short time later, he is hugging his son Muhammad after Friday prayers. For a moment, thoughts of harassment and threats in the mail are far away.

(San Francisco Chronicle, September 10, 2004)

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