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Los Angeles Citizens Pledge to Protect Threatened Religious, Ethnic Minorities - 2003-03-31


Los Angeles officials say homeland security involves protecting the rights of Americans who are sometimes the target of hate crimes.

After the terrorist attacks of 2001, there was a surge in hate crimes against Muslim Americans and those perceived as Muslims, including Christians of Mideast origin, and Indian Sikhs and Hindus.

The war in Iraq has not sparked a similar surge, but local officials worry it could happen. Robin Toma of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission said war sometimes leads people to turn against immigrants and other minorities. "To reduce people in all their complexities to simple stereotypes - a nationality, a religion, an ethnicity, a turban, a headscarf. And when they do that, they put those people at risk," he said.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, committed by Islamic extremists, left many Muslims feeling uneasy. American Muslim leaders denounced the attacks at once, but not everyone heard them.

Najeeba Syeed-Miller directs a dispute resolution center. She has always experienced stares because, as a Muslim, she wears a headscarf. And she said since September 11, the stares have been worse. "Before it was more just lack of understanding of what this meant, and sort of, 'Oh, she looks a little bit strange.' It was an unknown quotient, but not the kind of fear that I think I have been seeing in some people after September 11," she said.

After September 11, officials urged tolerance and promised to prosecute the perpetrators hate crimes, which they have done. Now, local and federal officials, police and community groups are asking people to sign a pledge, promising to protect the rights of all in the community who may be the target of hatred.

"What is being suggested today is an opportunity for people to, as the children would say, 'not only talk the talk, but to walk the walk,' to sign this pledge which encourages people to interact with one another, to prove at long last that Los Angeles is a place which will not tolerate hate language and hate crimes," said Allen Freehling, a rabbi who signed the pledge.

These community leaders said the irrational lashing out in times of stress or conflict is understandable, but preventable through education. The pledge is being circulated through schools, government offices, and religious institutions. It reads in part: "I pledge to promote understanding and respect for my neighbors to make our homeland more secure for all."

Salaam al Marayati of the Muslim Public Affairs Council quoted one of the founding leaders of his organization, who said religious divisions are less important than some other distinctions. "The world is not divided into Muslims, Christians and Jews. The world is divided into stupid people and intelligent people," he said.

He said intelligent people do not support extremism.

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