CAIR-LA's 20th Anniversary Turns From Retrospective on Muslim Activism to Rallying Call

The day following Donald Trump's presidential election victory, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) office in Anaheim received a flurry of phone calls. People reported anti-Muslim hate incidents to the civil-rights group from all over Southern California, whether they happened at schools, workplaces, on the street or at a shopping plaza. And the calls haven't let up since, a harsh prelude of a Trump presidency.

“What we've seen in the past week is worse than what we've ever seen in any other week of time,” says CAIR-LA Executive Director Hussam Ayloush. “The majority of people that have faced some incidents have not reported them, either because they don't think anything will happen or they are worried about bringing more attention to themselves and their families.”

New FBI statistics show that anti-Muslim hate crimes nationwide surged by 67 percent in 2015, the biggest increase since 9/11. An annual report by CAIR noted a similar spike in California, with Orange County leading the way last year, a trend blamed, in part, by Trump's campaign rhetoric. Now, with an incoming Trump administration, the tasks are many for Ayloush and his staff, but on one recent morning, he simply pulled bags of scarves from the trunk his car before taking them upstairs to the office.

The local Muslim advocacy group is preparing gift bags for its upcoming 20th Anniversary Gala this weekend, an event intended to celebrate CAIR-LA's history. But it has now been charged with a sense of urgency. If the Muslim community in the U.S. finds itself at a crossroads, it has a fighting chance thanks those who first helped organize the greater Los Angeles chapter in OC long ago.

“In 1996, I got together with a couple of activists from Orange County that I knew,” Ayloush says from his office. At that time, OC only had three mosques, in Anaheim, Garden Grove and Lake Forrest. Ayloush visited the Islamic Center of Orange County mosque in Garden Grove, central to OC's Muslim faithful, and found enough members to start a CAIR-LA committee. The mosque even offered up a small classroom on Sundays for meetings.

“The main task back then was the mobilization of the community but also making ourselves available for local media,” Ayloush says. Just then, he pulled a Motorola pager from his desk. “We used to get two or three calls per week.” All of the early activism that year happened without official organizational sanction. Omar Ahmad, a CAIR co-founder and national board member called a friend of Ayloush's and tasked him with starting a Southern California chapter of the organization only to be told one already existed!
Within four years, CAIR-LA held an inaugural banquet, acquired a building in Anaheim that now houses its office and hired Ayloush when he decided to leave a career in aerospace engineering behind to become its first full-time staffer. The organization informed moviegoers of the unfair portrayal of Muslims in The Siege and successfully advocated for a Bank of America employee's right to wear the hijab on the job, victories that boosted morale in the community. And then came 9/11.

“At that time, many Muslims who didn't think there was any need for CAIR, suddenly realized the importance of our work,” Ayloush says. The organization extended its outreach to law enforcement agencies and sought to educate the public about Islam at a time when anti-Muslim hate crimes increased. The number of CAIR chapters nearly tripled nationwide and donations expanded CAIR-LA's revenue. But lawmakers became leery of associating with the group, declining previously accepted invitations to its banquet that year and asking that their names to be taken off the event's promotional material.

CAIR-LA carried on and now is the national organization's largest chapter, both due to Southern California being home to one of the largest Muslim communities in the U.S. and the hard work of its activists. Unlike 2001, CAIR's annual banquet has too many elected officials these days to be accommodated. “We're no longer, as an American Muslim community, for the most part, seen as a radioactive liability,” Ayloush says. “We now leverage our presence with many other partnering organizations and communities.” Because of outreach efforts, candidates often ask for the organization's political action committee endorsement in key local races and CAIR-LA's importance is also noted by national lawmakers.

“CAIR Los Angeles has long been a model for the rest of the country about how to support and advocate for the Muslim community,” says Indiana's Andre Carson, the second Muslim-American ever to serve in Congress. “At a time when Islamophobia is more prevalent than ever, CAIR-LA will continue to play a critical role in holding our leaders accountable and fighting for policies that benefit people of all faiths.”

Beyond electoral politics, CAIR-LA has also forged important relationships with grassroots groups like Jewish Voice for Peace—Los Angeles. “They're just a tremendous, dedicated, wonderful group of people to work with,” says JVP chair Estee Chandler. She first worked with CAIR-LA in February 2011 when gathering thousands of signatures for the so-called “Irvine 11” UCI students who heckled Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren during a speech. Trump's election is only going to strengthen bonds between them. “We're not going to stand and let people be threatened in the way the President-elect and other people in his campaign have talked about over the course of the past fifteen months,” Chandler says.

Tickets for Saturday's 20th Anniversary Gala have already sold out—faster than usual, a good sign of solidarity for the largest Muslim banquet in the West Coast. “We're much more prepared, stronger, more informed this time around and have a great network of allies,” Ayloush says. He promises that if Trump attempts to carry out any of his anti-Muslims policies that run afoul with the constitution, CAIR-LA will be there to fight with all legal means at its disposal. “This is our community's, and therefore our organization's moment of truth.”

CAIR-LA's 20th Anniversary Gala at the Anaheim Hilton, 777 W. Convention Way, Anaheim.  (714) 776-1847; 6 p.m. Sold Out!

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