Things are getting better for Middle-Eastern Americans in the Inland Empire, says 52-year-old activist Reza Tehrany, despite the guy screaming “God Bless America and fuck you!” from his new gas-guzzling sport utility vehicle.
“Two or three years ago, we couldn’t stop hearing people shouting at us. Now you see maybe one out of ten cars against us,” explained the Iranian-American during an anti-war demonstration Saturday outside the Galleria at Tyler Mall in Riverside.
Unlike other peace demonstrations in Southern California and across the country, the three dozen who gathered here are all of Middle Eastern descent.
With that difference in demographics comes a change in perspective. For one, it’s their people who are being blown up. Meanwhile here at home, the president’s way of labeling everything evil in the world as somehow “Islamic”—Islamo-fascism, Islamic fundamentalism, Arab extremism—has made them, too, feel like targets.
“[Bush] definitely wants to see us as the enemy and wants other people to think of us that way as well,” said Muna Coobtree, an organizer with the LA-based Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) coalition. However, said the Palestinian-born activist, “None of us would be here unless we were optimistic that most Americans, if they knew the truth, would be with us.”
Too bad that truth is something you won’t find on TV, says Salam Rafeedie, a 24-year-old from Grand Terrace.
“We have both channels—Al-Jazeera [on satellite] and CNN—and there’s a stark difference. On CNN you don’t hear about the victims,” said the UC Berkeley grad. “It appears there’s an agenda by the American media. They try to scapegoat Arabs and Muslims as part of this thing that people should fear.”
On the ground here, feelings are that Middle Easterners are the ones with something real to fear. The demonstration marked the anniversary of a three-day massacre of 3,000 Palestinian civilians by militia groups at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps that began on September 16, 1982.
More on everyone’s minds, however, was the recent US-sanctioned Israeli bombardment of Lebanon—“a wake-up call for a lot of people,” said Mahmud Ahmad, a member of the Al-Awda (Palestine Right to Return) coalition, which organized the event.
Ahmad drew comparisons between those events and the American occupation of Iraq.
“It’s a war of extending empire and hegemony over the region and separating people from their natural resources. On the Iraqi side, it’s a war against occupation. It’s a war for human rights,” he said.
Feelings on Lebanon ran deep, underscoring a difference of opinion about the nature of groups the American government has labeled terrorist organizations.
Tarek Afendi, a UC Riverside student of Palestinian origins, believes it’s misleading for the American and Israeli governments to call Hezbollah, the political and militia group that was targeted in Lebanon, terrorists without first taking a long look in the mirror.
“Resistance groups — that’s how we see them. If you’re going to call them terrorists, you have to call the Israeli occupation forces terrorists because they’re killing innocent people. Everybody who kills innocent people are terrorists,” said the 21-year-old, who carried an anti-Iraq War sign.
At a similar but larger rally organized by ANSWER in downtown Los Angeles last month, young demonstrators gathered in a circle and chanted “We hate Israel, and we support Hezbollah” in Arabic in front of the Federal Building. One of them was 19-year-old Manar Hijaz of Rancho Cucamonga, who described Hezbollah as “protecting the Lebanese and the Palestinian people, and they’re fighting back. It’s the first time we’ve had people actually fighting back for us.”
Mainstream media outlets, said Afendi, have a way of spinning events so as to obscure that truth or, as was the case a few weeks ago with Riverside County goat farmer turned alleged al-Qaeda operative Adam “Yahiye Gadahn” Pearlman, paint Islam as an all-around bad influence.
Pearlman’s personal conversion after moving to Pakistan, said Afendi, “has nothing to do with the [local Arab] community.”
Then there was the pope. On Saturday, Benedict XVI hadn’t apologized yet for inexplicably quoting a 14th century Byzantine emperor who had said Muslims had only brought things “evil and inhuman” into the world.
Remarks like that only serve to fuel prejudice, furthering the need for events like Saturday’s, said demonstrator Sana Ibrahim of the Palestinian-American Women’s Association.
But it wasn’t just generalizations about the Middle East that the group gathered to shatter. Dominated and organized by women—and none of them wrapped in burkas—the protest was something of a display of Arab-American feminism.
“We are here breaking stereotypes. There’s been a miscommunication of our culture,” said Ibrahim.
Joe Piasecki is deputy editor of the Pasadena Weekly.