Anaheim Police Chief Raul Quezada and FBI investigators working the San Bernardino massacre met with Muslims in Orange County Wednesday to pledge their support in the wake of Islamophobic hate incidents, including an apparently bullet-riddled Quran left on the doorstep of a local business last week.
About 100 community members attended the forum at the Brookhurst Community Center, where audience members raised concerns about their safety and that of their mosques, some of which have received harassing calls and threats – beginning with the Paris shootings orchestrated in November by ISIS and intensifying with the killing of 14 by extremists last week in San Bernardino.
“A lot of our mosques are receiving threats by phone,” said Taher Mutaz of the West Coast Islamic Society during the question and answer period of Wednesday’s meeting. “We’ve prepared ourselves with our own security.”
Similarly, Azeem Syed asked Quezada at the meeting if his Anaheim mosque should arm the guard employed to secure the building. The mosque is visible from the highway and children attend school there, making it an especially vulnerable target, he said.
There are an estimated 170,000 Muslims in Orange County and according to Salatomatic.com, a mosque-finder website, 21 mosques.
Quezada encouraged community members to ask for police help in assessing threats to mosques, saying that some cases might warrant an increase in police patrols. He said it’s important to determine if the threats are vague – “blowing off anger” – or credible and specific enough to raise alarm. At least one Orange County imam was specifically threatened, according to audience members at Wednesday’s meeting.
Concern about anti-Muslim backlash was a theme of the meeting, and not just in response to San Bernardino but also recent comments by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who this week proposed a ban on Muslim immigration to the U.S.
“I know you’re hearing a lot in the media and it’s scary to you,” said the assistant director of the FBI’s L.A. office David Bowdich. “You’re in an election season, and people are going to say a lot of bombastic things.”
An investigator on the San Bernardino shooting, Bowditch drew applause when he said, “You are citizens like everyone else…. If there is a backlash, I want to make sure you know we’re here for you.”
FBI relations with the local Muslim community have not always been smooth. In 2006-07, the agency assigned an informant to pose as a Muslim convert at an Irvine mosque.
On Wednesday, however, community members spoke highly of law enforcement at the local level, saying they welcomed the invitation from Quezada to discuss their safety concerns, including the vandalized Quran.
Police told the audience that the Quran, which was left anonymously at the Al-Farah Islamic Clothing store in Anaheim on Dec. 1, is currently in the crime lab being examined for DNA or fingerprints. Officers were unable to find witnesses or video footage showing someone dropping it off.
Shaista Azad of Garden Grove heard about the Quran in her mosque, but “my kids don’t know about it,” she said, glancing at her young children.
“I’m feeling a little on edge,” she added, due to concerns about an anti-Muslim backlash after San Bernardino. No one has threatened her, she said, but “it’s the looks, the reactions, the feedback from my friends — it’s way worse than after Sept. 11.”
Proximity to the shooting has probably heightened reaction in this area, Quezada said.
While the OC Human Relations Commission’s most recent annual report shows just three hate crimes against Muslims in 2014, the Anaheim-based office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations received 215 civil rights-related complaints in Orange County in 2014. Hate incidents and hate speech are more common than hate crimes, though both are largely thought to be underreported.
On Wednesday, police encouraged audience members to report incidents, even if they are expressions of hate rather than crimes, so they can be documented and possibly investigated.
Quezada also encouraged parents to monitor their children’s use of texting and Facebook in an apparent reference to extremist influences such as ISIS that often recruit followers on social media. A video screen at one end of the meeting room silently flashed, “If you see something, say something,” which is the slogan of a national campaign from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to encourage reporting of suspicious, possibly terrorist activity.
Some local Muslims have said in past community meetings that they felt singled out by the emphasis on Islamist radicalization, saying that mass violence is more likely to erupt from white supremacist shooters such as Dylann Roof, who earlier this year slaughtered nine African Americans in a Charleston, S.C. church.
But audience members on Wednesday seemed to welcome Quezada’s comments.
“It’s good to remind people.” said Sabiha Quidwai of Garden Grove
Fasi Javeed said Wednesday’s meeting went well and spoke highly of police: “They were very forthright about what they are doing, and I appreciate that. It’s a partnership.”
Amy DePaul is a Voice of OC contributing writer and lecturer in the University of California, Irvine Literary Journalism program. You can reach her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.