Southern California is a Hotbed of Islamism

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Orange County Los Angeles County Muslims in Southern California
Surfers walk up the beach in Marina del Rey, California. Southern California is usually known for its great beaches, not Islamists. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

From Los Angeles to San Diego County, Southern California is a hotbed of Islamism. With a census of 500,000 Muslims, Southern California is home to pocket communities of ethnically diverse Muslims and flocks of Latino converts. It hosts 120 mosques and has some of the first Islamic schools in the country, with many more following suit over the last 10 years.

Southern California is unfortunately also a hotspot for Islamist extremism. At least 18 Southern California residents have been linked to Islamist terrorism since 9/11. The most notable of these were the San Bernardino shooters, who abandoned their infant child to gun down employees at a holiday party held for mental and behavioral health service workers.

While outright attacks may seem sporadic and are sometimes forgotten, extremists in suits and ties work the ideological front on a daily basis:

  • Islamists Partner with Local Government
    The San Diego Chapter of CAIR is already well networked with local government, which in recent years partnered with CAIR to launch a “Muslim Appreciation Day.”
  • Uncontrollable Radical Campus Groups Growth
    University of California, Irvine (UCI) has seen intense anti-Israeli propaganda launched on its campus by the Muslim Student Association. Ongoing since 2002, the university has been unable to control the organization’s chaotic manifestation, which has often relied on local Islamist support
  • Jew-Hating Imams Go Unchecked
    Imam Mahmoud Harmoush based in Riverside, California in an anti-Semitic sermon called Jews “unjust tyrants” and prays to God to “destroy them”

Despite this grim portrait, it is very difficult to isolate a demographic or territory as just one thing or the other. The truth is a lot murkier and requires space for nuanced understanding. While Southern California is a hotbed of Islamism, it also represents low-hanging fruit in the fight against Islamism.

Southern California Muslims Fight Back

Southern California is home to some of America’s top Muslim human rights activists, including Soraya Deen, Dr. Waqas Khan, Anila Ali, Ani Zonneveld, Stephen Suleyman Schwartz — most of whom are actively engaging their peers and cultivating dialogue within both Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Each of these Muslim activists challenges the Islamist landscape in their own way.

Despite collective woe of many Muslims over tragic headline stories, not every Muslim is able to raise the torch against extremism directly. For some, their resistance is in the way they live their day-to-day life by bringing the right mix of the old world into the American landscape. For example, the warmth and hospitality of Muslim culture is seen in places like Little Arabia, a cultural destination in Anaheim, California, where streets are lined with hookah lounges, cafes, restaurants and shops.

Unlike ghettoized neighborhoods in Europe where non-Muslims feel uneasy in Muslim-dominated neighborhoods, Little Arabia is an open and welcoming strip of cultural fusion where all are welcomed, and where men and women mix freely.

Further inland, the Markaz is a well-known cultural hub that grew out of interfaith activists and artists focused on dialogue around the Arab-Israeli conflict. In 2018, a new Southern California chapter of Salaam Shalom brought diverse Muslim women together with Jewish women.

Without the need for permission or honors to get the job done, along the coast Muslim women are leading a renaissance for what it means to be a Muslim woman. From 2014-2916, several Orange County Muslim women who felt there was no space for them in rigid Islamic organizational structures, sprang their own organization.

With no formal name or structure, they used a rich network of friends and colleagues to host inclusive Eid celebrations and Christmas soirees with proceeds going to local women’s shelters. For a brief moment before careers pulled the women in different directions, these ladies gave women a space to mix socially without the formality of traditional Islamic spaces.

The work of creating a space of resistance to the rigid narrative of Islamists continues, especially with the well-known Women’s Mosque of Los Angeles. The Women’s Mosque is inclusive of all Muslim women and holds a space for them to come together in sisterhood and challenge debilitating patriarchy.

While Southern California Islamists continue to operate in a well-oiled and well-funded machine, reformist Muslim activists offer immense hope that there is also a well-spring of organic counter-culture in Southern California. With a little support and encouragement, it presents formidable internal resistance to the Islamist narrative.

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Shireen Qudosi

Shireen Qudosi is Clarion Project's National Correspondent.