S. E. Williams
Attacks against Muslim Americans and their places of worship which escalated in the wake of the November terrorist attacks in Paris have increased exponentially since the December 2nd attack in San Bernardino.
Last Thursday, a Muslim woman was purportedly threatened by a man wielding a knife while she was at a car wash in Chino Hills.
On Friday, The Council on American-Islamic Relations in Florida reported two separate incidents also involving Muslim women. In the first incident, a woman wearing a hijab (a specific form of veil worn by some Muslim women) was allegedly chased and cut-off in her car by a man throwing rocks and other objects at her vehicle. The man reportedly got out of his car, cursed at the woman and yelled, I’m going to cut her. In the second incident; another Muslim woman who also wore a hijab was allegedly shot at as she left an Islamic Center. Also on Friday, the Islamic Society of the Coachella Valley Mosque was set ablaze in Riverside County.
Other alleged incidents of crimes against the Muslim community just this month include the receipt of an envelope at the headquarters of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Washington D.C. that contained a suspicious white substance. It resulted in the evacuation of that facility. In Georgia, a 13 year-old student who is also a Black Muslim was reportedly asked by her teacher whether she was carrying a bomb in her backpack. And, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Muslims discovered the head of a pig that was left at their mosque.
These are just a few examples of recent acts that have pressed down upon the Muslim community and with it the added weight of unmitigated fear. According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, between January 1 and December 8, mosques and Islamic centers around the nation have experienced no less than 64 incidents of vandalism, harassment and anti-Muslim bigotry. Alarming as this number is, the Justice Department recently reminded the general public that such incidents of hate are too often under reported which leads most to believe incidents related to acts of hate against Muslim Americans is probably far worse.
If left unchecked, acts of hatred can tear a community apart. Conversely, in the wake of the December 2nd attack on the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, political, community and religious leaders are determined to do all they can to increase community togetherness; enhance understanding among all people and mitigate/eliminate incidents of hate.
Last week, Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown who represents California’s 47th Assembly District near where the December 2nd terrorist attack occurred, reflected on the strength, hope and togetherness of a wounded community. Brown was among the first to reach out to the Inland Empire Muslim community the day after the attack.
As previously reported by The Voice, on Thursday morning following the attack, Brown went to Fontana and met with Police Chief Rodney Jones to talk the about the Muslim community. She went to Fontana because it is home to the Ar-Rahman Islamic Center. Jones, according to Brown, began meeting with mosque leadership in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks. The two of them subsequently sat down with local Muslim leaders. In sharing her reflections of the session Brown said, “They felt so much better that someone understood them as minorities.” Also according to Brown, the outreach effort showed, “Somebody cared and understood how frightened they are.”
During the interaction, Brown learned of the Muslim leaders’ concern there was no interfaith council in the Inland Empire region. Brown shared that concern with her personal pastor who immediately worked with other religious leaders in the area, who in short-order established an interfaith council in the region.
This week in an exclusive interview with The Voice, Associate Director of the Inland Congregations United for Change (ICUC), Karen Borja, spoke candidly about her organization and is its ongoing efforts to positively enhance the community’s ability to coalescence, particularly during this critical period where far too many are bent on fanning the flames of hatred and distrust.
The ICUC is a faith-based community group in 15 cities across the Inland Empire. According to Borja, it has a strong base of congregations in Riverside, San Bernardino, the Coachella Valley and the High Desert. The organization consists of 60 member congregations from diverse faith traditions. Its goal is to empower people of faith to transform their communities through civic action. “We have been organizing in the Inland Empire for over 25 years,” she said, “Mostly in communities of color, low income, and disadvantaged.”
Borja was asked about some of the ways her organization hopes to engage more of the community in its efforts, particularly in relationship to the fear mongering and hate being peddled by some in response to the recent terrorist attacks.
“The first thing ICUC did was to engage experts in community education,” she advised. “We have called upon our clergy caucus of pastors, Rabbis, Imams, priest and sisters, and lay leaders as well to preach and teach. Preach and teach on love and interconnectivity, and denounce racism, violence, and Islamophobia.” She continued. “We have true experience that people hearing a strong prophetic stance from their religious leaders invokes in people again, a sense of unity and empowerment to be together.”
Other efforts undertaken by the group include hosting interfaith prayer vigils where all congregations are invited to participate and hosting press conferences so it is publically known where the faith community stands on issues of hatred, racism and violence.
Many believe the nation’s best hope for a future with a more inclusive, tolerant and compassionate society rests with the children. They believe what and how we teach them has the potential to ultimately change the world. Borja was asked about ICUC efforts in this area.
“We have very strong youth organizing in 15 high schools throughout the Inland Empire,” she replied. “Those youth are the ones who have had a campaign against gun violence in San Bernardino for over a year. Our youth organizing efforts began almost 13 years ago following the murder of one of the teenagers in a local high school. These young adults, generation after generation, have continued to organize with us.”
According to Borja, the incidents that occurred in San Bernardino and Coachella are no different.”Our youth didn’t only bring their peers to the interfaith vigil held in San Bernardino a week after the shooting, but they planned and led with faith leaders.”
When asked what ICUC recommended individual citizens can do so their Muslim neighbors will not have to live in fear. She responded, “We in Coachella held a clergy caucus where Imam Nour of the Islamic Society of Palm Springs was invited. He said to 15 other clergy in the room: “Living in these times when ignorance plays a huge role in hate we must be willing to educate on Islam.”
Nour continued, “Our community feels vulnerable; especially the women in my congregations who do cover up. They do not feel safe to walk in the streets right now. But, we will not allow ourselves to be deterred from living out our religious right.”
According to Borja, Nour’s clergy has asked the ICUC, it clergy and communities to educate on Islam and Muslims. “To share with anyone who will listen,” Borja explained, “That they have been our neighbors, that we know them as peaceful people and faithful people.”
In response to that request and in alignment with that purpose, ICUC congregations will be inviting Imams into their congregations to preach and educate. In addition, they have asked other faith traditions to link-up with the local Islamic Centers. “It is a responsibility ICUC is honored to take, and one we choose to do publically and prophetically,” Borja confirmed.
Borja also stressed how individuals are invited to attend a Friday prayer service at a local mosque, Imam Nour and others have opened their doors to guests, she said. “They will also be speaking in the next couple of months in public spaces and we encourage our congregations and communities to attend events to further develop an understanding of Islam.” She stressed, “As a community we must pray, and we must act boldly.”
In conclusion, Borja was asked what other insights ICUC would like to share with residents of the Inland Empire regarding the environment of fear and mistrust bubbling so close to the surface in their communities since the recent terrorist attack. “We are all children of God in the many names we know him by,” she replied. “We will confront fear through education and [by] paying attention to our faith tradition that teach us love.”
She continued, “As a faith community we will support our Islamic brothers and sisters through prayer and action in our own congregations. We denounce racism and violence for it is not in the spirit of any religion. We proclaim that we will love all of our brothers and sisters of all traditions but today especially our Muslim brothering.”
At the conclusion of the interview Borja wanted to remind readers, “We all connected” and referenced a quote from the Revrand Dr. Martin Luther King Jr:
“In a real sense all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be… This is the interrelated structure of reality.”