Some of Sacramento’s top cops joined forces with local Muslim leaders Thursday to battle would-be terrorists and prevent anti-Muslim backlash in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels and San Bernardino.
The community roundtable hosted by Sacramento U.S. Attorney Ben Wagner was part of a nationwide interagency initiative, “Combating Religious Discrimination Today,” launched by the U.S. Justice Department in 11 federal districts. The roundtable was held to help encourage the community to report hate crimes and religious discrimination in schools, work places and neighborhoods.
As Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz talk about banning Muslim immigrants or sending police into Muslim American neighborhoods looking for terrorists, the need to protect American Muslim civil rights is greater than ever, several forum members said.
“Unfortunately in this society negative stereotypes about Muslims and the Muslim community seem to be the last socially acceptable stereotypes, and there’s a lot of negativity in the public discussion,” Wagner said.
There are 13 mosques in Sacramento County alone, and the Sacramento metropolitan area is home to at least 40,000 Muslims, including Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians, said Rashid Ahmad, former president of the downtown mosque and founding president of Sacramento’s Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“If there’s any radicalization here we would know about it and report it; we are the allies of law enforcement,” Ahmad said.
In Sacramento and across the country, “there has been an upsurge in hate crimes as a misguided act of retaliation,” Wagner said. “Muslim women who wear the hijab are particular targets, having people yell at them, follow them around and make threatening statements.”
There has also been an increase in school bullying “of students who are Muslim or are perceived to be,” Wagner said. “Just this week harassing calls were made to a local Islamic center.”
Basim Elkarra, executive director of the Sacramento CAIR said a Muslim woman was almost run over in an Elk Grove parking lot by a driver. Elk Grove police found the suspect indicated anti-Muslim sentiment through social media and referred the case to the district attorney, said Saad Sweilem, CAIR’s civil rights attorney.
And a 10-year old Sacramento girl who wore a hijab to school for the first time two weeks ago was called a terrorist by other students, was told she was ugly, “and she was crying so much her mom had to come and take her home,” Sweilem said.
Elkarra praised local law enforcement for being “very responsive” to alleged hate crimes.
“Whenever you report an incident they take it seriously,” Elkarra said.
Wagner cited hate crimes around the state and the nation that have caused the Justice Department to investigate. On Dec. 26, a Molotov cocktail exploded at the Tracy Islamic Center. That same day an elderly Sikh man in Fresno was badly beaten for allegedly wearing a turban, and two individuals have been charged with a hate crime. Anti-Muslim literature has been circulated in Bakersfield.
“The concern about radicalization to violence and the threat to communities and the concern about backlash crimes go hand in hand – we need to take these twin threats seriously.”
Along with nine Muslim American leaders from various mosques and organizations, the roundtable included Manny Fernandez and Bob Tripp from the FBI, Mike Bray from the Sacramento Police Department, Folsom Police Chief Cynthia Renaud, and Dave Torgerson and Naeem Alvi of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.
Alvi, one of several Muslim deputies, said he often visits local mosques and community organizations to break down fear of law enforcement.
Still, Wagner said, many Muslim immigrants come from countries where law enforcement is feared, and therefore hate crimes often go under-reported.
“The Muslim community is a strong ally in combating radicalization and terrorism. We want the community to know that we stand with them against Islamophobia and hate,” Wagner said.
Dina El-Nakhal, a Muslim leader from Davis who wears a hijab, said presidential politics has fueled the flames of anti-Muslim sentiment.
“The fact that we are in an election year has raised the number of people who are a captive audience to what some presidential candidates have been saying,” she said, and the media should allow ample time for American Muslims such as those in Sacramento who have strongly condemned violence and terrorism.