BRIDGING THE GAP
Corona man vows to educate others and clarify misperceptions of Muslims
By MONA SHADIA, Staff Writer
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Hussam Ayloush found himself at square one. The Corona resident was one of the founders of the Southern California Council on American Islamic Relations, and had spent years working to clarify misperceptions about Islam.
Before Sept. 11, some people knew about Islam and respected it, he said, but those who didn't, didn't feel it affected them.
Before Sept. 11, Ayloush said, ‘‘Muslims were misunderstood, but not feared.''
Then, on Sept. 11, 2001, four airplanes were hijacked by extremists; one crash landed in the fields of Pennsylvania, one destroyed part of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and two flew into the World Trade Center twin towers, leveling the architectural wonders and killing thousands.
‘‘I think America passed a test that many countries wouldn't have passed,'' Ayloush said. ‘‘People took a deep breath, and didn't say, ‘Kill Muslims.''
He admitted there were shows of violence -- some mosques were vandalized and Muslims attacked -- but, in other countries, he said, the reaction would have been much more savage.
Ayloush said America's shift was a more subtle, psychological change.
‘‘There's no doubt that there is a minority of Muslim extremists with a very narrow interpretation and it's also rejected by the overwhelming majority of Muslims,'' Ayloush said. ‘‘Here are (also) ideological or political extremists in America who speak in the same language and who fuel the concept of a clash of civilization.''
Tahra Goraya, president of CAIR southern California said, since Sept. 11, the organization's goals of educating the public and encouraging dialogue in the community have become even more vital.
‘‘CAIR's focus pre-9/11 was mainly to educate Americans about Islam and Muslims and we found ourselves having to redouble our efforts after 9/11,'' she said. ‘‘In many ways, it felt like we had to start all over in dispelling misconceptions; we found ourselves working overtime.''
‘‘As a result CAIR Southern California, under the great leadership of Hussam, has been able to successfully build bridges of understanding and dialogue by taking a multisector approach through partnerships with law enforcement, interfaith communities, civil rights advocates, and the media.''
This cooperation is vital, she said, to the CAIR reaching it's goals.
‘‘It is only by working together that we can achieve greater acceptance and understanding of each other in our society, and to that end, CAIR has been diligently advocating and working to accomplish greater understanding of not only American Muslims but all people,'' she said.
When Ayloush came the United States, he said, it was with plans to get a college education and then go back to his country to do his part to help rebuild it.
Born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon, Ayloush grew up in a large Muslim family that was diverse, with interfaith marriages bringing Christian and Jewish families into the mix.
His childhood spanned the civil war in Lebanon. By the end of the war, he was 18 years old, ready to graduate from high school and start college.
‘‘It was tough, you don't live your childhood. Most of us didn't see most of Lebanon until the end of the civil war,'' Ayloush said. ‘‘As kids, it didn't bother us, we thought this is life.''
He came to the United States to attend the University of Texas' school of aerospace engineering. During college, Ayloush lived with an American family. He said the thing that struck him was how alike his family in Lebanon and this American family were.
‘‘They were nothing different from my own family. It was my first eye-opener -- people could be the same,'' he said.
When faced with questions about Islam in college, he said he felt the questions were legitimate and he needed to research them and give the proper answers.
Quickly, Ayloush's goals changed. He was no longer working with the sole purpose of graduating and moving back to Lebanon -- that had changed as he began to develop a bond with Americans. Now he wanted to help dispel misperceptions and bridge the gap that exists between his culture and the American culture.
‘‘Home is where you feel at home. I feel at home,'' said Ayloush, who joined the Muslim Student Union in college and began working in the community to break down communication barriers between Muslims and non-Muslims..
After moving to California with his wife and ‘‘soulmate,'' Arwa, with whom he now has a son, two girls and one girl on the way, Ayloush started graduate school at Cal State Fullerton, but he continued the work he had begun in Texas, speaking about Islam in churches and synagogues and giving sermons at mosques.
When he and some friends heard about a newly formed organization focused on enhancing the understanding of Islam in the United States, he knew he was meant to be involved.
Now, CAIR is the largest nonprofit Muslim civil rights organization in North America, with chapters around the United States, and Canada. CAIR's mission, according to its Web site, is ‘‘to enhance understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.''
When the Southern California chapter had grown to the point of needing a full-time employee, Ayloush was offered the job. He consulted his wife, who he said ‘‘has always been morally and emotionally supportive,'' and took on the position of executive director, secretary, communications director and everything in between. It was hard, but his ‘‘heart was with it,'' he said.
Now, Ayloush said, CAIR has its work cut out for it. Ayloush said, to be able to eliminate ‘‘Islamophobia,'' he must first speak against, protest and oppose extremism within.
He said Osama bin Laden has damaged Islam's image, but the key to defeating him is to work with Muslims to do so. After Sept. 11, Ayloush said, instead of working with Muslims to defeat bin Laden, Muslims were rejected and alienated.
‘‘We did not just alienated them,'' said Ayloush, referring to the current administration. ‘‘We actually enraged them with anti-Muslim rhetorics and failed policies.''
He said extremism can be found anywhere.
‘‘I firmly believe both extremists are the two sides of one coin, they live off and need each other,'' He said. ‘‘Bin Laden would not last a day if there wasn't someone on the other side fueling and matching his hatred. They justify each other's existence.''
Ayloush said educating young people is a key to reaching the goal of bridging the gap.
‘‘The way the average people are going to change their minds will be through old fashion one-on-one interaction with a real flesh blood Muslim,'' he said. ‘‘(It will be then) that the average person (will) see another image that will counter the image of the hijacker.''
- Hussam Ayloush
- Hussam has been a lifelong human rights activist who is passionate about promoting democratic societies, in the US and worldwide, in which all people, including immigrants, workers, minorities, and the poor enjoy freedom, justice, economic justice, respect, and equality. Mr. Ayloush frequently lectures on Islam, media relations, civil rights, hate crimes and international affairs. He has consistently appeared in local, national, and international media. Full biography at: http://hussamayloush.blogspot.com/2006/08/biography-of-hussam-ayloush.html