Surely, Orange County has progressed since its infamous anti-Muslim protest in 2011 outside an Islamic charity fundraiser in Yorba Linda, right? That question may find an answer one way or another this Monday when Golden West College (GWC) in Huntington Beach plays host to a "Challenging Islamophobia" town hall. In this election season, Muslims have been the scapegoat of choice for pundits and politicians alike, but the idea for event took root long before all the buffoonery.
Last year, the campus Alliance for Cultural Advancement club hosted an interfaith panel that included a Muslim speaker. "We noticed that when we opened it up for the students to ask questions, 99 percent of the questions were directed to the Muslim gentlemen," says Lorena Ortega, Program Associate of the Intercultural Program at Golden West College. "And they were not questions that were kind. They were born out of fear and our own ignorance." After the event, Melissa Lyon, Director of the Center for International and Intercultural Programs at GWC, took in what she saw as a real fear among students in attendance and wanted to follow up on it.
A week after the San Bernardino massacre this December, Lyon called Ortega into her office and asked about putting on an event challenging Islamophobia. Ortega was game, only Lyon wanted to open it up to the broader community. "This is Orange County," Ortega recalls of her initial hesitation. "We're going to get annihilated." She eventually put her concerns aside and signed up for it all. Ortega contacted the local Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-LA) who suggested some knowledgeable speakers both Muslim and non-Muslim.
The Challenging Islamophobia event will be moderated by Sande Hart, President of the Spiritual & Religious Alliance for Hope. Panelists include Shaykh Mohammed Faqih of the Islamic Institute of Orange County, Marta Ramirez of the Los Angeles Latino Muslim Association and Reverend Dr. Peggy Price, co-chair of Compassionate Huntington Beach.
Details of the event remained offline and out of sight until Ortega finally posted the flyer for it on a Facebook Huntington Beach community forum on January 12 for all to see. The reaction was swift. "It was up a total of one hour, but within the very first minute, it was vitriol," Ortega says. An ignorant meme compared Islam to Hitler and Nazism. "Free goat parking for the men," another chimed. Ortega decided to take the post down and all the nastiness along with it.
Given the response online from the Huntington Beach community forum, all the panelists have been informed of what they may face. The Huntington Beach Police Chief got word and has decided to have uniformed officers present in and around the event. All this before it even happens!
"The overarching goal of this event is to not just to do what it says, challenging Islamophobia, but to bring the community together and open up dialogue," Ortega says. "We want to give everybody their place and space to talk about those fears and smash those fears. We don't have to be afraid of people of this faith."
Here's hoping, and praying, for the best. Insha'Allah!