Terrorism. Terrorists. Since the planes flew into the World Trade towers on September 11, 2001, these words have become almost synonymous with Islam and being a Muslim. For many Islamic believers in Southern California, the aftermath of September 11 didn't result in physical harm or even personal attacks, although there were some incidents. Muslims in Southern California express a different pain -- the hurt of having their religion constantly associated with terrorism and violence.
From the front page of the daily newspaper to the broadcast channels on television, Southland Muslims said they feel the effects of this post 9/11 characterization of the religion that they care for and believe in deeply. For many, the Islam depicted in the media rarely resembles the one they practice.
"This event had a lot of effects on everybody, especially Muslims," said Idris Traina, the President of the Board of Directors of the Islamic Center of Hawthorne, California. "The media associated this event with Islam, not a group of people who were terrorists. That's the problem. That's the stigma that happened with 9/11, and it has had a large effect on Muslims here and everywhere."
Traina, who is also a member of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California estimates there are more than a half a million Muslims in the Southland. He admitted there isn't an official census of the Muslim community, but used the figure given by the Islamic Shura Council that compiles this information. The Council, which started in 1995, is an umbrella organization of Southern California mosques and Muslims organizations.
The Islamic leaders and Muslims of Southern California expressed a consistent response concerning their present life after September. Essentially, they think their lives are plagued with a persistent misunderstanding of their religion due to Islam's repeated association with terrorism. And many Southern California Muslims think America has developed an anti-Muslim sentiment or Islamophobia, which can be seen in the mainstream media.
"Too many Americans associate Islam with terrorism and extremism," said Malik El-Amin, a 33-year old African American Muslim. "The American public is much more aware of Islam now than before 9/11, but the awareness derives almost entirely from negative stories, stereotypes and misconceptions."
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey in 2007 found that "public attitudes about Muslims and Islam have grown more negative in recent years." Thirty-five percent of Americans polled expressed a negative view of Muslims in 2007, up from 32 percent in 2004 and 29 percent in 2002.
In addition to negative impressions, "twice as many people use negative words as positive words to describe their impressions of the Muslim religion (30% versus 15%)," according to the 2007 Pew Report. The survey also found that "fanatic", "radical" and "terror" were the most frequently used words to describe Islam.
The American association of the Muslim religion with words like "fanatic" and "terror" serve as examples to what many people now call Islamophobia, which has become a recognized form of intolerance alongside Xenophobia and Anti-Semitism since the 2001 "Stockholm International Forum on Combating Intolerance."
The Council for American and Islamic Relations (CAIR) defines Islamophobia as "unfounded fear of and hostility towards Islam." CAIR is America's largest Islamic civil liberties group and has 35 offices and chapters nationwide and in Canada. Its mission is to enhance the understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding."
With regard to Islamophobia, the CAIR organization thinks "this fear and hostility leads to discrimination against Muslims, exclusion of Muslims from mainstream political or social process, stereotyping, the presumption of guilt by association, and finally hate crimes."
"Now there is often an assumption in political discussions that I sympathize with terrorists," said Malik El-Amin, a 33-year old Muslim actor in Los Angeles who said he is often stereotyped. "More people assume that my views are intolerant of other perspectives. I run across this assumption much more now than I did before 9/11."
Muslims in Los Angeles and across the nation think Islamophobia is increasing.
"Islamophobia continues to rise, assisted by a veritable cottage industry of extremists who pontificate with great certainty about the cause-effect relationship between Islam and terrorism, when none exists," said Parvez Ahmed, the Chairman of the CAIR Board.
CAIR along with the independent media watchdog organization, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), point to a link between Islamophobia and messages presented in mainstream media.
"In the last seven to eight years, America might have gone a little bit backwards on Islamophobia and tolerance towards Islam," said Steven Randall, a senior analyst at FAIR, who examines the media's role in Islamophobia. "Anti-Muslim bigotry can be seen in mainstream media."
The 2007 Pew report also found that "the biggest influence on the public's impressions of Muslims, particularly among those who express an unfavorable opinion of Muslims, is what people hear and read in the media."
And "about a third of the public (32%) - including nearly half of those who offer a negative opinion of Muslims (48%) - say what they have seen or read in the media has had the biggest influence on their views."
"Islam is under attack to a certain extent by certain members of the media," said Galal El-Kholy, a board member at the Islamic Center of Southern California, which has an estimated 5,000 Muslim attendees.
Steve Randall, Isabel Macdonald and the members of the Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting organization characterize this attack as the media "smearing" the name of Islam. The organization recently published a six article series about Islamophobia. Their October 2008 issue is called "Smearcasting: How Islamophobes spread fear, bigotry and misinformation."
Randall, who researched and co-wrote "Smearcasting," said one of the report's goals was to expose the widespread acceptance of Islamophobia, which now permeates mainstream media.
"Liberal media groups, like NBC and Disney, are sponsoring this hate, which is the reason why we coined the term 'smearcasting,'" said Randall.
The report gives examples of well-known media executives and journalists, like Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly of Fox News and Glenn Beck formerly with CNN, giving Islamophobia or anti-Muslim views on major American media outlets.
One of the biggest examples the "Smearcasting" report cites of the media supporting Islamophobia is the September 2008 distribution of 28 million copies of the movie, "Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West (2006)" on DVD to Americans across the country through 70 different media outlets, including dozens of newspapers ranging from the St. Petersburg Times to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
The report also mentions the adoption of the term "Islamofascism" by politicians and the mainstream media.
"The pairing of 'Islam" and 'fascism' has no parallel in characterizations of extremisms tied to other religions, although the defining movements of fascism were linked to Catholicism -- indirectly under Benito Mussolini in Italy, explicitly under Francisco Franco in Spain," said Boston Globe columnist James Carroll. "Protestant and Catholic terrorists in Northern Ireland, both deserving the label 'fascist,' never had their religions prefixed to that word. Nor have Hindu extremists in India, nor Buddhists extremists in Sri Lanka."
Southern California Muslims point to the unequal application of the term terrorist to their religion and not to others.
"It's wrong to associate religion with terrorism," said Traina, an Arab Muslim who moved to America more than 30 years ago from Libya. "People are not calling America's war with Iraq and Afghanistan 'Christian terrorism,' even though Bush used the word 'Crusades' with the Iraq war."
Bakr El-Tawansy, a member of the Islamic Center of Southern California disagrees with Islam's association with terrorism.
"You can't stick all terrorists with Islam," said El-Tawansy. "Terrorists have no religion."
The 2007 Pew report shows that Americans view the Islamic religion as different from other religions. "Fully 70 percent of non-Muslims say that the Muslim religion is very different from their own religion, compared with just 19 percent who say Islam and their own religion have a lot in common," according to the report. This viewpoint has increased over recent years; only 59 percent viewed Islam as very different from their own religion in 2005." These numbers are up from 52 percent in November 2001, immediately following the September 11 attacks.
"They think Muslims are bad people, but that's because most people are ignorant and don't educate themselves about the religion and the people that follow it," said African American Muslim Sabah El-Amin, when asked how she felt Americans viewed members of her faith. "Ignorance is America's curse."
Almost 60 percent of Americans surveyed in the CAIR 2005 Poll on American Attitudes Towards Islam and Muslims said they "are not very knowledgeable" or "not at all knowledgeable" about Islam. The survey even found that 10 percent said Muslims believed in a sun god.
The 2007 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey had similar findings. In the individuals polled, 58 percent said they know little or nothing about Islam's practices.
Although the CAIR organization said Islamophobia could lead to an increase in hate crimes against Muslims, Islam practitioners in Southern California have seen a decrease in hate crimes in 2007. According to the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations, hate crimes against Muslims decreased 73 percent from 2006 to 2007. And hate crimes targeted at people of Middle Eastern descent remained approximately the same, comprising only 1 percent of the total hate crimes in Los Angeles. Similar results were also found in the hate crime reports of Orange County.
Southern California Muslim believers say the crime is media's depiction of Islam.
"The way Islam is described in the main media, when I hear it, I say, 'This is not the Islam that I know,'" said Traina, whose mosque in Hawthorne, California serves up to 4,000 Muslims. "The media twists everything to make Islam bad. When they talk about Islam, I feel like by their definition, I can't be a Muslim if I think of how they describe Islam."
Traina and other Muslims in Southern California think the lack of knowledge about Islam is one of the main reasons for Islamophobia. Several Muslims think education and dialogue is the key to changing the tide of anti-Muslim sentiment.
"It is incumbent upon Muslims to do the bigger share," said El-Kholy. "We must continue opening up and being accessible to those who want to understand Islam. It is our main responsibility."
Although she feels there has been a lot of damage done already, Sabah El-Amin still has a glimmer of hope that the American perception of Islam can be improved.
"Ideally, it would have to start with each individual wanting to educate themselves, and for the government and the news to stop spreading fear about Muslims," she said.
Randall of FAIR in addition to Islamic leaders in Southern California think the media and journalists should educate themselves on Islam and unpack rumors about Muslims.
"The media should come to us and ask what we stand for," said El-Kholy. "They should be informed. A lot is uninformed and they are doing the public a great disservice."
Based on his understanding of the growth of Islamophobia, Randall of the FAIR organization doesn't see the tide turning towards a more sympathetic and tolerant view of Islam any time soon.
"I don't think there is a lot of hope at this point because things look pretty grim," said Randall. "I don't know what more Muslims can do. They are being blamed for so many things."
However, El-Kholy, a member of the board of directors for the Islamic Center of Southern California remains hopeful.
"I think Muslims can work towards overcoming Islamophobia by having more communication between us and the American people," said El-Kholy. "We are all Americans and believe in the freedom given here."
To illustrate his point, El-Kholy presented a story from his days as a lawyer in Cincinnati, Ohio. He recalled the judge's words on a case he was involved in concerning a first amendment ruling after the court had closed the proceedings to the press.
El-Kholy said, "So the judge says, 'Democracy dies behind closed doors.' And then a lady in the audience spoke up and said, 'It's not democracy only that dies, religion also can die behind closed doors."
"I couldn't agree with you more," El-Kholy said, "So, let all the walls come down."
Follow Brooke-Sidney Gavins on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CaramelBella