Recent attacks by Islamic militants in France, Pakistan and Nigeria have focused scrutiny on American Muslims, who are again being forced to defend their religion. This frustrates Ojaala Ahmad, communications coordinator for the Council on Islamic-American Relations (CAIR)- Greater Los Angeles Area Chapter. Ahmad said there are about 1 million Muslims in the state of California, with about 600,000 residing in the SoCal area. The group is racially diverse and consists of Muslim immigrants, as well as American converts.
Ahmad also said Islamic terrorists have a twisted view of the religion and are largely uneducated about the faith. Ahmad is a native Southern Californian, whose family is originally from Pakistan.
She said the recent terrorist attacks have forced the Southern California Muslim community to be proactive.
The community has held forums to discuss the issue of terrorism. The seminars, titled “Crisis of ISIS,” discussed the causes of extremist ideology and what the Muslim community can do to put forward a more positive image. Ahmad said ISIS, which stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is “deviant and has a destructive ideology.” She also stated that ISIS’ actions, which include taking sex slaves and executing hostages and nonbelievers, completely go against the teachings of Islam.
“Islam teaches us to use education and peaceful means. If there are legitimate grievances, there are ways to address that,” she said. “The gruesome things ISIS are doing are completely deviant. They are neither Islamic nor a state. These people do not understand the religion.”
Ahmad said the rise of ISIS might have more to do with the political instability of the Middle East, a region largely undemocratic.
ISIS has attracted a large number of foreign fighters, young men and women who have been drawn to the region from Europe and North America. Ahmad says these young people are often unemployed and directionless and attracted to the idea of an adventure in the Middle East.
The recent terrorist attacks in France were carried out by French Muslims of African and Arab descent. The media has written several articles claiming these groups often face racial discrimination and high unemployment. This shows that France is having a hard time integrating these minorities into mainstream society.
According to Ahmad, American Muslims see themselves as Americans. She sees herself as a regular Southern Californian, who eats pizza and goes to the beach. But she feels frustrated at the way the mainstream media portrays Islam.
“If people studied Islam, they would know this has nothing to do with Islam,” she said.
Ahmad also said when these kinds of acts of terrorism are carried out, Muslims are forced to apologize.
“The Ku Klux Klan is considered to be a Christian organization, but Christians don’t have to apologize for their actions,” Ahmad said.
In addition, Ahmad also said Muslims are often victims of Islamic terrorism as in the case of the Peshawar school attack and attacks by Boko Haram in Nigeria, which has targeted mosques.
“ISIS’ largest number of victims are Muslim,” she said.
Ahmad also said the mainstream media often fails to highlight positive stories about Muslims who are combating Islamic terrorism. She pointed out that Ahmed Merabet, a French Muslim police officer, was killed in the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper.
“He is the face of mainstream Muslims. He loved his country and died defending his country,” Ahmad said.
Another Muslim, Lassana Bathily, saved several patrons of a Jewish bakery, by hiding them in a locker.
CAIR representatives are often invited on national media, such as FOX News, and asked why mainstream Muslims have not condemned acts of terrorism. In response to this charge, CAIR has produced a five-minute YouTube video criticizing terrorism and highlighting the many articles they have written on the issue.
Jihad Saafir, an African American imam at a South Los Angeles mosque and former prison chaplain, said the African American Muslim community is also concerned about local terrorism, through gang members.
“We fear our children joining a gang,” he said. “This is the terrorism we are worried about. We are trying to save our children from joining local terrorists.”
Saafir is a second-generation Muslim, who comes from a family who used to be members of the Nation of Islam, but later embraced mainstream Islam. According to Saafir, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan is encouraging group members to join mainstream mosques. Saafir is also involved with a community organization called Islah LA, which offers services such as helping former prisoners reenter society and offering backpack giveaways. They also have a school that serves Pre K- sixth grade students.
Saafir said Islam has many positive aspects to offer the African American community such as refraining from drugs, alcohol and fornication. He added Islam has also helped many ex-convicts turn their lives around after they have gotten out of jail.
“Islam has caused people to become upright citizens,” Saafir said.
According to Saafir, people are attracted to terrorist groups, such as ISIS, for the same reasons people join gangs. Young men feel alienated, emasculated and think the political/economic system doesn’t work for them.
“They are searching for self esteem, autonomy and independence and this leads them to extremes,” Saafir said. “They find things in Islam to justify what they are doing.”
He also pointed out that people can find verses in holy books to justify anything.
Commenting on the Charlie Hebdo issue, Saafir said he believes in free speech, but not all free speech is good for society. He pointed to rappers who are free to use foul language, but that does not help the community as a whole.
“I don’t think that insulting someone’s religion is good for the culture,” Saafir said.