Christian and Jewish leaders in Thousand Oaks are joining forces with local Muslim residents who say they have become the target of religious bigotry because of the war in the Persian Gulf.
The war against Iraq, a predominantly Muslim nation, has fostered an anti-Islamic backlash since it broke out more than a month ago, said Iqbal Kidwai, a spokesman for the Islamic Center of Conejo Valley.
When Kidwai, a Pakistan-born salesman, joined a group of anti-war demonstrators on Thousand Oaks Boulevard last month, motorists hissed at him, he said.
"They said 'Arabs, go home!' " he said. At a Thousand Oaks restaurant, he added, a male customer also told him to "go home," and a waitress asked him to leave.
"I don't consider myself an American. I am an American," Kidwai said. "There's no two ways about it."
Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders have organized three interfaith prayers in March to improve relations between followers of different faiths.
Services will be held at 7:30 p.m. on Sundays next month at three Thousand Oaks houses of worship: the Islamic Center on March 3, the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on March 10 and the Jewish Temple Adat Elohim on March 17.
Gerry Swanson, a member of the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church and former pastor of Cal Lutheran University, said the prayers will consist of scriptural readings from the Bible, the Torah and the Koran, and talks by different speakers.
Swanson said anti-Arab sentiment is fueled by stereotypical drawings of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, now a common feature of bumpers and T-shirts. Some of the messages are laced with bigotry against Muslims, he said.
"The kind of things that are selling so big on T-shirts and bumper stickers really inflame those kinds of feelings," he said. "War by its nature exploits bigotry. It carries over potentially to Muslims here."
The three-year-old Islamic Center of Conejo Valley is one of about 30 such centers in Southern California. It has a membership of about 200 families in Ventura County, or about 1,000 people. About a third of them are Arabs.
Actually most of the Muslims in Ventura County have no connection to the Middle East. The president of the center is from Kenya and others hail from Muslim countries in Asia.
Like Muslims elsewhere, Muslims in Ventura County pray five times daily, mostly in the privacy of their homes. When they attend twice-weekly prayers, it is not in a mosque but in a converted print shop located in a modest Newbury Park warehouse.
The warehouse houses a Sunday school classroom for children and a large prayer room where brightly covered rugs from Malaysia are scattered. Muslims must take off their shoes to pad across the wall-to-wall carpet before kneeling to pray. Prayers are conducted in Arabic.
Although the center has never been threatened, members are wary of what news coverage of a prolonged war in the Gulf will bring, Kidwai said. There are other Muslims who are concerned about how Muslims are portrayed.
"Unfortunately, the American public is undereducated when it comes to Middle East politics and Islamic religion," said Palestinian Nidal Barakat, a property manager from Moorpark. "The biggest myth is they portray us as a violent religion."
In fact, Barakat, 54, has organized peace prayers each night since the war started. Many of the people who join him are not Muslim, he said.
"I call on people to take five minutes and just pray for peace," Barakat said. "It's nonpolitical. It's just a way of praying."
But Barakat said he has noted feelings of distrust from people who ask whether he is from the Middle East. "I try to avoid questions about whether I support Saddam Hussein," he said.
The attention on Arabs has spilled over to followers of other religions, including 34-year-old Sunil Kumar of Canoga Park, a follower of the Hindu faith who works at a Newbury Park gas station.
Customers often question Kumar about his nationality and ask whether he is an Arab. When one customer was told that Kumar is from India, he became friendlier, Kumar said.
"The man said I should put a sign up that says 'I am Indian,' " he said.