What is happening in San Diego?
On March 21, Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year-old Iraqi Muslim and mother of five, was found brutally beaten at her home in El Cajon, a community just east of San Diego that is home to more than 50,000 Iraqi immigrants. A note left next to her read, “go back to your country you terrorist.”
Alawadi, who died at a local hospital three days later, was found by her 17-year-old daughter, who told reporters last week that her mother had been beaten on the head repeatedly with a tire iron. She also said her mother had dismissed a previous threatening note found outside the house, thinking it was a child’s prank. According to Alawadi’s family, the first note read, “This is my country. Go back to yours, terrorist.”
It’s been more than a decade since we learned that at least three of the Sept. 11 hijackers lived in America’s Finest City, but the tension that news generated between Muslims and non-Muslims here never really went away.
Alawadi’s murder, which is still being investigated by El Cajon police and the FBI, has brought that tension back into the national spotlight. The story became a top trending topic on Twitter, and has generated Facebook pages and YouTube tributes.
Some have compared Alawadi, who wore a hijab, the headscarf traditionally worn by Muslim women, with Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African-American from Florida who was shot dead in February by a neighborhood-watch captain who thought he looked suspicious. Martin, who was unarmed, was wearing a hoodie when he was shot. Hashtags #RIPTrayvonMartin and #RIPShaima are showing up together in hundreds of messages such as “hood or hijab–this needs to stop."
But what isn’t being widely reported is that even before Alawadi’s death, San Diego-area Muslims were experiencing a notable increase in discrimination, bullying, and physical assaults, according to the local Council on America-Islamic Relations, or CAIR-San Diego.
In the first quarter of 2012, the number of hostile incidents against Muslims in and around San Diego was nearly equal to the total number of incidents in 2011, according to Hanif Mohebi, director of CAIR-San Diego.
“We’ve seen an increase of reports just in the last few months, including some disturbing bullying of young Muslim students, discrimination in employment, and even harassment in prisons, and not just by fellow prisoners but even by prison guards,” Mohebi said.
“And now this tragedy, which has many Muslims in this community concerned, especially those that wear scarves.”
Last year, a San Diego cab driver attacked a Muslim man praying near a local park. The driver reportedly shouted, “You idiot, you motherf----r, go back to where you came from,” then grabbed the victim by the shirt and punched him repeatedly.
Also last year, a woman in a hijab was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight at San Diego International Airport and was told the captain didn’t “feel comfortable” with her on the flight. Southwest later apologized to the woman.
And in October a San Diego group called Defend Christians launched a campaign focused on passing out anti-Muslim literature to high school students.
The behavior isn’t coming only from private citizens.
In 2010, a DMV worker in Oceanside, home to the Camp Pendleton Marine base north of San Diego, insisted that a Muslim woman remove her hijab for her driver’s license photograph, despite California regulations that allow for religiously mandated head coverings. The DMV later apologized for the incident.
A few years earlier, the same thing happened at a DMV office in nearby Poway.
Nationally, the number of anti-Muslim groups in the United States tripled in 2011, according to a new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center. But Muslims in San Diego are feeling particularly concerned of late.
San Diego attorney Randy Hamud, an American-born Muslim and a member of the Arab-American Advisory Board for the San Diego Police Department since before Sept. 11, believes that animosity in the San Diego area toward Muslims is “actually worse now than it was even right after the 9/11 attack.”
Hamud believes this has more to do with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq than with the terror attack itself.
“This is a military city, and county, with several military bases, and I think intolerance is a residual effect of a war that has lasted so long,” he said.
Of Alawadi’s killing, Hamud said, “If this was a hate crime, it could be the result of an increased frustration some people in this community have with Muslims because of what happened in Iraq and what is happening in Afghanistan, where even some of the people we are there to support have attacked and killed us.”
While there is no evidence yet a member of the military had any role in Alawadi’s death, Hamud fears the possibility that Southern California could be harboring another Robert Bales, who is charged with going on a rampage and killing 17 civilians in Southern Afghanistan in March.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned about it,” Hamud said. “We have a very large veteran population here, and so many of our troops do multiple deployments and come home with post-traumatic stress. And we have so many identifiable people of Middle Eastern background. It’s something I can’t help but think about.”