A year after attack in San Bernardino, faithful seek unity

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Almost a year after her father was killed in the San Bernardino terror attack last December, Kate Bowman etched the word "love" in yellow chalk on the sidewalk outside a mosque.

It was just one of the messages of peace the 15-year-old Lutheran and her mother have left in an effort to unify Muslims and Christians in the hardscrabble city east of Los Angeles against the violence that many community members feared might divide them.

"What angered me most after Dec. 2 was the amount of hate speech going on," Bowman said, recalling the day her father, Harry Bowman, and 13 others were killed by husband-and-wife assailants at a lunch meeting for county health inspectors in San Bernardino.

"I just kind of didn't understand how people could be that ignorant about another religion to think that the acts of a few (.) make them blame the entire community," she said.

Her actions were among efforts in the city to counter what some feared would be a prolonged, hate-filled backlash. Victims' families, such as Bowman's, encouraged dialogue and tolerance. The Muslim community undertook its own campaign to educate neighbors about Islam. Clergy organized interfaith talks.

Nationwide, hate crimes against Muslims were up last year and President-elect Donald Trump frequently used heated rhetoric about Muslims on the campaign trail.

As San Bernardino prepares to mark the first anniversary of the onslaught, a Somali-born Muslim student carried out an attack at Ohio State University and police in Los Angeles met with Muslim leaders to condemn hateful letters sent to mosques in the city and elsewhere.

In San Bernardino, apart from some incidents, residents say their worst fears about a backlash in their own community never materialized.

"I think as a community it felt good not to be divided," said Brian Levin, a professor at California State University, San Bernardino who studies hate crimes. "And I think in other parts of the country they had the luxury of hating when we didn't."

Last December, San Bernardino County health inspector Syed Farook and his Pakistan-born wife Tashfeen Malik opened fire on a meeting of Farook's colleagues, and were killed in a shootout with police. Investigators said the assailants were inspired by the Islamic State group.

Afterward, residents of San Bernardino said they couldn't believe such an attack could happen in a struggling community with a rundown downtown that is only a drive away from well-known tourist destinations like Disneyland and Hollywood. Many feared it would only spur a rise in hate crimes in a city of 216,000 people already down on its luck.

In the days after the attack, some things changed. Muslim women wearing headscarves said they were stared at in public, and some even changed their attire out of fear. A Muslim university professor reported to police receiving threatening emails.

But the effects were short lived, experts believe, in part because community members took action. Muslim residents held vigils for the victims and developed an 11-point campaign rejecting terrorism that members of diverse faiths could agree on, starting with the local police chief.

Clergy formed an interfaith alliance. Christians invited Muslim community members to speak with them about their religion to promote greater understanding.

"There was an obvious worry. These are people who looked like us here in America committing these violent acts," said Amjad Khan, a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in nearby Chino. "But it wasn't as pronounced as I thought it might be."

After the attack, a teacher in an adult education class at the First Presbyterian Church in San Bernardino asked Pastor Sandy Tice to do something to foster interfaith dialogue. Tice invited Khan to speak, and the crowd was standing-room only as congregants peppered him with questions.

"I think there are people who are afraid," she said. "But mostly I think there are people who have risked getting to know others that they didn't know before. There is a kind of urgency about getting to know one another, figuring out how to co-exist."

After a major event such as a terror attack, hate crimes tend to increase, Levin said. But while there were eight anti-Muslim crimes reported in the five days after the Dec. 2 shooting, none of them occurred in the city of San Bernardino, he said.

Last December, two mosques were sprayed with graffiti and one set on fire in other cities in Southern California.

Ojaala Ahmad, a spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in greater Los Angeles, said there was an initial spike in reports of hate incidents after the attack but it was short-lived. More recently, the election of Trump has sparked another increase, she said.

No specific incidents, however, were reported in San Bernardino, said the city's police chief, Jarrod Burguan.

Ayman Taleb, the director of a mosque in nearby Riverside, regularly holds "open mosque" nights and invites visitors to ask questions. He hopes to combat fear with knowledge, even though he hasn't heard of any uptick in hateful incidents since arriving in the community.

"I thank God every day that nothing does happen," he said.