In a Milpitas mosque where wall decorations tout love and peace, Saadia Ahmed ushered her guests from prayer room to kitchen. She explained the special prayers for Ramadan, the flat bread called naan, and why Islam doesn’t condone violence.

It’s a scene that will be replayed throughout mosques nationwide as Muslims welcome visitors during the holy month of Ramadan. Since terrorists steered planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001, American Muslims have undertaken a public-relations campaign to distance themselves from terrorists who, they say, hijacked Islam as well as the planes.

In the past five years, Muslims have given away free copies of the Koran. They’ve initiated letter-writing campaigns to local newspapers and public-service announcements for television shows like “24,” which includes terrorist plots. And every Ramadan, they hold open houses — as many Bay Area mosques will do this weekend — so non-Muslims can visit mosques and learn about the religion they too often see in headlines and news channels.

“There’s so much misconception about Islam right now,” said Ahmed, a member of Bait-ul-Baseer mosque. “We need to tell people: What you see on the media, what you hear, it’s not the truth about Islam.”

Despite their efforts, some reports suggest attitudes are hardening against Muslims. A Washington Post-ABC News poll earlier this year found that 46 percent of Americans have a negative view of Islam; the poll suggests that prejudice is higher now than immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks. The advocacy group the Council on American-Islamic Relations also found that a quarter of Americans believe “Muslims value life less than other people.”

CAIR said it received the highest number of complaints in its 12-year history in 2005, ranging from employment discrimination to verbal harassment to profiling.

In the Bay Area, such complaints spiked from 35 in 2004 to 113 last year, according to Sameena Usman with CAIR’s Santa Clara branch. Cases include people being insulted on the job, or women having their head coverings torn off by strangers. So far this year, the office has processed 165 complaints.

Usman said growing Islamophobic rhetoric is partly responsible for the rising numbers, as is Muslims’ greater willingness to report problems to Islamic advocacy groups.


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