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It is early morning in San Francisco and a few elderly men are walking out of one of the few mosques in the city. They look just like everyone else on the street, but their Arabic gives them away. One of the men, 63-year-old Jamal from Syria, is the most talkative. He tells me how life has changed in the past 11 years, and not for the better.
"I remember just enjoying life and being able to talk with my family, especially my 88-year-old mother who doesn't speak English, on the street and nobody seemed to care," he revealed. "But now, so many people are angry at us and just because we are Muslim."
Jamal is a lawyer, and has lived in the United States since he was 19 years old. He brought his mother to San Francisco 18 years ago and until September 11, 2001, life was good. Today, that has all changed.
"Too many people hate us and they don't even know us. They think all Muslims are terrorists. It is unfortunate," he said, speaking accent-free American English.
But for conservatives like Pamela Geller of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), Jamal is not American. She leads a cadre of anti-Islam figures in this country, and is responsible for the hateful "jihad" advertisements that have sprouted up in New York City and now San Francisco.
Earlier this month, Geller went on the offensive again, when her "human rights" organization called upon government and law enforcement authorities to close three U.S. mosques she claimed have been established "as breeding grounds for jihad terror."
Geller's group called for an "immediate investigation into foreign mosque funding in the West and for new legislation making foreign funding of mosques in non-Muslim nations illegal," as well as for "surveillance of mosques and regular inspections of mosques in the U.S. and other non-Muslim nations to look for pro-violence materials. Any mosque advocating jihad or any aspects of Sharia that conflict with constitutional freedoms and protections should be closed."
Listening to Jamal and a few of his fellow Muslim friends outside the mosque in downtown San Francisco, I could feel their frustration. They are Americans. They have jobs and pay their taxes. As one of them told me, "We celebrated the 49ers in the Super Bowl this year and love our Giants."
That's not enough for Geller and her anti-Islam cohorts around the country. "The Muslims are coming" is their rallying cry. And too many Americans are listening.
Not long ago, I returned to the United States after 10 years in the Middle East. I am continually shocked at how, here in my home country, Muslims have become the enemy. Americans are a diverse group of people. There are over 300 million of us. Muslims are a sizable minority who deserve to be heard. They also deserve what all Americans want: a better life for our children.
Jamal and others like him are typical Americans. They just happen to pray daily and go to mosques. Should we start, as Geller and others propose, to monitor them for any "tendencies toward jihad?"
As we move beyond the abhorrent events in Boston, we must, as a society, think about how we can become more inclusive. People like Jamal, whom I meet on a regular basis, are Americans, too. Unfortunately, Geller and her ilk are hell bent on creating a society where we fear our neighbors. This is not the America I grew up in, and not the America that ought to be.
Journalist Joseph Mayton reported from Egypt and other countries in the Middle East over the last ten years. He now works in San Francisco.