Calling for peace, understanding

September 19, 2001|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

In the wake of the growing backlash in the nation against Muslims — and others mistaken as Muslims — a press conference was staged in El Centro on Tuesday to call for peace and understanding.

Organized by the El Centro Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau, the event brought together people from the local Muslim, Sikh and Hindu communities and others to talk about the strike against America on Sept. 11.

While officials say there have been no reports of backlash in the Imperial Valley, throughout the country people who are Muslim or appear to be Muslim have been attacked.

A man of the Sikh faith, an India-based religion distinct from the Islamic faith, was shot to death in Mesa, Ariz., on Saturday. There have been other reports across the country of Sikhs coming under attack.


There have been growing reports of mosques throughout the nation being vandalized and Muslims being assaulted.

During Tuesday's press conference in the El Centro chamber, speakers said they feel the loss and share the pain people are struggling with throughout the country.

They said no matter what faith they are, they are Americans or have chosen to make America their home and are loyal citizens.

"We don't want anyone to target anyone, whether they are Muslim, Arab, Middle Eastern or Sikh," said Dr. Prabhdeep Singh, an internal medicine physician with a practice in El Centro.

"My religion requires me to wear a turban and because of that we are being singled out," said Singh, a Sikh.

Singh, on the board of directors of the El Centro chamber, said the "ultimate" message of the press conference was to spread peace.

"Let the government do its job; let us give the government our support, but let's not be vigilantes," added Singh, who is working toward becoming an American citizen.

Kirti Shah, who is of the Hindu faith and the owner of Desert Medical Pharmacy and the Ramada Inn in El Centro, has been a U.S. citizen for 20 years.

"We are not terrorists," Shah said. "I am of East Indian heritage."

Shah said 99 percent of Americans understand and sympathize with those who have felt the brunt of backlash after two hijacked airlines slammed into the World Trade Center in New York and one struck the U.S. Pentagon in Washington, D.C. A fourth hijacked jet crashed in rural Pennsylvania.

The suspected hijackers are all reportedly tied to extremist Muslim factions.

Recent photos and video have shown people in some Middle Eastern countries celebrating the attacks against the United States.

Video images from Pakistan, a country whose leaders have said they will cooperate with the United States in any actions it might take against Afghanistan, show people protesting their government's alignment with America.

Afghanistan is the country apparently harboring the key suspect in the Sept. 11 attack, Osama bin Laden.

El Centro City Manager Abdel Salem, a Muslim, said those involved in the terrorist attacks do not represent the teachings of Islam. He said the Islamic faith is a religion of peace.

"There is nothing in any religion that justified that act," Salem said.

Salem, who said he was speaking on behalf of the Muslim community, said, "We strongly condemn the heinous act that has affected so many lives."

Originally from Egypt, Salem moved to the United States in the 1960s. He has been El Centro city manager for 20 years.

He said he wants people to know he is as loyal as anyone else to this country.

He added, "We are proud to be part of this community. I never considered myself an outsider."

Salem's sentiments were echoed by all those at the press conference.

Each person who spoke said the doctrine of their religion is one of peace, understanding and acceptance of all others.

Dr. Elias Moukarzel, an obstetrician/gynecologist who practices in El Centro, said it is important to remember the attacks on Sept. 11 were carried out by individuals.

Moukarzel has lived in the Valley for two years and moved here from New York. He said the World Trade Center was "very dear" to him.

Moukarzel came to the United States from Lebanon, a country made up largely of Christians and Muslims. Moukarzel is Christian.

However, he said many of his friends are Islamic and added, "Islam is not a terrorist religion."

Moukarzel said America is a country built by many people who are joined by the Constitution. He said that is why people emigrate to the United States.

He also said the country and the Imperial Valley are made up of people of different cultures and each of those cultures "enriches each one of us."

He added it is important that parents teach their children not to be ignorant and to be tolerant of others.

"It starts at home," he said.

John Anderson, superintendent of the county Office of Education and chamber president, said the people of the Valley need to celebrate the diversity of cultures in our area.

El Centro Police Chief Ray Loera and Deputy District Attorney Deborah Owen also attended the conference and stated anyone who takes part in any hate crime in the Valley will be prosecuted.

Loera did say he has heard no reports of any hate crimes locally but he urged anyone who feels threatened to contact authorities.

Those at the conference said now is the time for people of all cultures in America to pull together.

"We must remain united throughout this trying time and not allow the terrorists to succeed in their plan to rip apart our social fabric," Singh said.

Salem pointed out, "This is my land, this is your land, this is our land."

Staff Writer Darren Simon can be reached at 337-4082.

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