Editor's note: Deep down we never thought it would happen here. Not so long after the horrors of Pearl Harbor. Terrorist attacks happened elsewhere. They were what we saw in far-off places on the nightly news. Then the planes came. Suddenly, innocence lost, we were all vulnerable. Fear, sorrow, anger and a hot desire for vengeance followed. Flags flew. Politicians ranted. We wanted a payback. And so the long War against Terror ensued. Sometimes it seems as if nothing has changed since 9/11; other times it's like everything has. Orange County Register columnists set out to examine in a personal way how the events 10 years ago have affected and shaped our lives. At best they provide a lens through which you can see how 9/11 may have changed you. We can't undo the damage caused by that 10-year-old nightmare, but maybe we can uncover what we have learned.
Victoria Tamoush had enough – enough of the shouting, the comments, the attacks big and small against Muslims in America.
Yes, Tamoush, a Christian and a second-generation Arab American, knows that the terrorists of Sept. 11 were Muslim. But she also knows that only a few Muslims support such tactics or share the hatred that fueled them.
And as a longtime activist and promoter of religious tolerance, she believes that hate speech targeting any religion is toxic.
So as she watched anti-Muslim rhetoric grow more heated in recent years – and saw a particularly troubling conflict earlier this year in Yorba Linda – Tamoush, a Tustin resident, vowed to do something to change it.
That might, on its face, contradict a basic tenet of protest and counterprotest – to speak out against injustice. But in a world long on shouting and short on listening, Tamoush figured something close to silence would be like putting salve on an infected wound.
Her plan was simple. She issued an email call to action to friends and contacts in the interfaith community. In March nearly 40 people of a variety of faiths met in Irvine to create a new organization: Interfaith Witnesses.
There would be no dues, no monthly meetings, no paperwork. The group's goal is to defend religious freedom. How? By "standing in silent witness."
An example: In July, a mosque was vandalized in La Mirada. So Tamoush and other members of Interfaith Witnesses took to the streets near the mosque, carrying a banner that read: "Standing on the side of love."
They were talking as much to the victims as they were for the vandals and those who support them.
"Muslims deserve to hear the message that they're not just accepted or tolerated but that they are an integral and valued segment of our community," says Tamoush, a member of the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana.
"That community means (Muslims), too," she adds. "It means all of us."
It's a message that, she believes, has become muted in America in the decade since Sept. 11, 2001. As evidence, she points to the conflict in Yorba Linda in February.
On one side were those attending a dinner hosted by the Islamic Circle of North America's Southern California chapter, an event aimed at raising money for the homeless and women's causes. Outside the hall were a few hundred protesters, there to speak out against what they believed was an event raising money for terrorists.
Among those who spoke to the crowd was Deborah Pauly, a councilmember in Villa Park. As she denounced a pair of speakers scheduled to appear at the charity dinner, Pauly described all the attendees as "enemies of America" who seek to "destroy our way of life and everything we stand for."
As night fell, some of those who listened to Pauly cursed and threatened people walking in to attend the event. Their anger extended to young children, who were showered with chants of "Terrorist lovers!"
And though the event was in Orange County and attended by people from throughout Southern California, another (printable) chant of the night was "Go home! Go home! Go home!"
The protesters apparently saw Muslims and deemed them something other than American. Tamoush watched a video of the confrontation – video that went viral and captured national and international news coverage – and saw an America in danger of losing its soul.
"We've degraded as a society. We've allowed hatred to spread and grow, and much of it comes from elected officials," Tamoush says.
"That incident in Yorba Linda – that, to me, is one of the great shames of our society and our community."
The creation of Interfaith Witnesses comes at a crossroads.
Though there was a wave of anti-Muslim speech and action in the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, the general trend in anti-Muslim activity was somewhat flat between 2001 and 2008, according to statistics for Orange County and the country. But after the national election of 2008, those who monitor hate crimes have noticed a jump in anti-Muslim action and speech.
Since November 2008 there have been four major anti-Muslim hate incidents in Orange County, including anti-Muslim graffiti sprayed on a Cypress mosque and a burned copy of the Quran left on the doorstep of a mosque in Costa Mesa.
More Americans see Muslims as facing more discrimination than other major religions, according to the Pew Research Center. But at the same time there is wider acceptance of derogatory commentary about Islam.
"What's at stake is not just about Muslims and Islam," says writer and filmmaker Ruth Broyde Sharone, who has highlighted the work of Interfaith Witnesses in her book "Minefields & Miracles: A Global Adventure in Interfaith" to be published this month.
"What's at stake is who we are as Americans."
Indeed, Tamoush points out that her group's work is as red, white and blue as you can get, defending one of our country's most cherished principles – freedom of religion.
Still, it's a difficult path. In May, the Interfaith Witnesses stood in silence even as they were screamed at by a group protesting the Orange County Human Relations Commission's decision to honor Muslim theologian and Orange County Imam Muzammil Siddiqi, who co-founded the Academy for Judeo, Christian and Islamic Studies.
Yet, even as they were showered with hate speech, Tamoush and her group stood their ground. When a protester got in the face of Clarita Karlin, a member of Interface Witnesses, and told her "You're not Jewish," she responded in Yiddish: "I'm Jewish, are you?"
Then she shut her mouth. "It's not easy to be silent. I've been a fighter all my life and I talk a lot," says Karlin, 81, of Laguna Woods. "But it was also extremely rewarding for me."
Tamoush says her first instinct was to intervene when she saw the man get so close to Karlin. But as she looked on, two other members of the group took Karlin's hands and simply stared ahead as the man continued to scream.
"All of a sudden I see this Mona Lisa smile come over Clarita's face," Tamoush says.
"It was just a hint of a smile and I realized, 'Oh my God, it worked.' "