L.A. Sheriff Reaches Out To Muslims As Feds Increase Surveillance
SAN DIEGO On a weekday morning, a group of businessmen, scholars, residents and a sheriff’s deputy meet for coffee and eggs in the basement of a mosque, near downtown Los Angeles. They're the Muslim American Homeland Security Congress, locals who want to shape the way counter-terrorism works in their community.
On the agenda this morning, is an invitation to L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca for Ramadan services, which start in early August. Baca has reached rock-star status here, after he founded this group six years ago.
Sitting in his office in the eastern edge of the city, Baca does not appear cop-like in the least bit—he’s thin and gentle in his demeanor.
“Someone has to stick their neck out to defend Muslims,” said Baca. “We wanted to get ahead of the predictable problems that all counties face in America and that is, work closely with the immigrant public, which is a very big part of L.A.”
Since becoming sheriff in 1998, Baca has created advisory councils for various ethnic and religious communities. But the attacks of Sept. 11th, and their aftermath, have had the most impact on his tactics.
Days after the attack, Baca began reading the Qur'an, meeting with Muslim shop owners, and asking them to report hate crimes. He also assigned seven officers to a special Muslim Community Affairs Unit, which would keep tabs on what happened in mosques and neighborhoods.
But while Baca was doing all this, the federal government’s relationship with the Muslim community in Los Angeles was deteriorating.
In the middle of an office park halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, is the Islamic Center of Irvine. This new mosque ended up at the center of a controversy over questionable policing of Muslims by the FBI a couple of years ago.
The agency had used an undercover informant to build a terrorism-related case against a worshiper; the case later fell apart. In its defense, the FBI’s Los Angeles office has said it does its own outreach into mosques and Muslim leaders in Southern California, and does not "investigate people based solely on religious affiliation."
“That happened within a prism of terrorism. We were not seen as ‘fellow Americans, let’s get to know you,' " said Hussam Ayloush, director of the Council of American Islamic Relations in Southern California (CAIR).
“We were seen as ‘prove to us you’re innocent, prove to us you’re good Americans.’ And unfortunately, that’s how the FBI started their relationship with Muslims, right after 9-11.”
In South Central L.A., Imam Abdul Karim Hasan oversees a mosque catering both to immigrant and African-American Muslims. Reminiscing about his city’s convoluted racial history, Hasan argued that Sheriff Baca stands out in his efforts to defend civil rights of both minority groups.
“If one brother commits a crime, you don’t arrest another brother," said Hasan. "You know, everyone is responsible for their own acts, acts that they commit. And that’s what makes him stand out a little more, I think, than some of the other politicized people.”
But Baca's Muslim outreach is not stranger to controversy. This March, Baca testified before Congress at Muslim radicalization hearings, where Minnesota Republican Congressman Peter Cravaack challenged the sheriff's association with CAIR.
“Basically, you’re dealing with a terrorist organization. I’m trying to get you to understand that they might be using you, sir, to try to implement their goals," said Cravaack.
"Let me just answer you this way: If the FBI has something to charge CAIR with, bring those charges forward and try them in court and deal with them that way,” replied Baca.
Visibly upset by the accusation, Baca added: "As a police officer, you have facts and you have a crime. We don’t play around with criminals in my world."