ANAHEIM, Calif. — A few miles from Disneyland is a place most tourists never see. The signs along the thoroughfare suddenly switch to Arabic script advertising hookah shops, Middle Eastern sweets and halal meat.
At a run-down strip mall in the neighborhood known as Little Arabia, flags from a half-dozen Muslim countries flap in a stiff breeze. Flying above them is a giant American flag.
After Sen. Ted Cruz called for increased surveillance of Muslims in the U.S., many people in this community and others like it either challenged the Republican Presidential candidate or dismissed his comments as mostly meaningless rhetoric.
Majd Takriti, 43, stopped to discuss Cruz’s remarks as he picked his mother up from a butcher shop. He said he took Cruz and rival Donald Trump with a grain of salt. “A lot of what they say is to attract attention,” Takriti said.
A block down the street, Jordanian native and 44-year U.S. resident Wathiq Bilbeisi slurped on lentil soup during his break at a Jordanian restaurant. He seemed mystified by the concern among some non-Muslim Americans about the candidates’ comments.
“The politicians, they want to say whatever the constituents want to hear. I don’t think they mean what they say, and in the end, they’ll have to come to terms with themselves,” he said.
Bilbeisi wasn’t worried about the GOP seeking major changes to U.S. law. “When they go to Congress to get laws to watch the Muslims, nobody’s going to do anything about it,” he said. “It’s against American values.”
At a nearby hookah shop displaying pipes in a rainbow of colors, employee Guss Zayat questioned whether IS members were true Muslims.
“They are killing more Muslims than anyone else in this world. They are killing children. They are killing Christians and Muslims in our home countries,” said Zayat, who came to America from Beirut about three years ago. Politicians “should know the difference between ISIS and Islam.”
Cruz’s statement on March 22 came hours after the deadly attacks at the Brussels airport and a subway station that killed dozens of people and wounded many more. The Islamic State militant group claimed responsibility.
He said law enforcement should be empowered to “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.”
Echoing earlier statements from Trump, Cruz also said the U.S. should stop the flow of refugees from countries where the Islamic State has a significant presence.
In Washington, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates was asked at a news conference about calls to step up patrols of Muslim communities. She said the Muslim community “is one of our greatest partners in our fight against terrorism and public safety generally.”
Ahmad Tarek Rashid Alam, publisher of the weekly Arabic-language Arab World newspaper and one of the immigrants who helped build Little Arabia, said anti-Muslim statements are familiar.
“This has been going on in every Islamic neighborhood for years,” he said. “But now our kids are in the police, in the Army. Are they going to watch us?”
He said Cruz’s remarks seemed aimed at exploiting prejudice to get votes. “The way he talks, it could work maybe 40 years ago. But now, it’s too late. Islam is part of the country. . We are already in the country. We’re part of the country whether he likes it or not.”
Sam Chashku, a Syrian immigrant who arrived in 1996 and married an American-born Christian woman, said Cruz’s comments simply made him sad.
“We love this country. We came from nothing. They gave us everything. It’s crazy. This country is built on immigrants.”
Sometimes, he said, he doesn’t want to tell anyone that he’s Muslim because “people get offended, and I’m scared of hate crimes.”
Trump, who has proposed a temporary ban on foreign Muslims entering the U.S., said in a CNN interview that he supported Cruz’s plan.
Speaking March 22 in New York, Cruz praised the city’s former program of conducting surveillance in Muslim neighborhoods. He called for its reinstatement and said it could be a model for police departments nationwide.
After the 9/11 attacks, the New York Police Department used its intelligence division to cultivate informants in Muslim communities. In a series of articles, The Associated Press revealed that authorities had infiltrated dozens of mosques and Muslim student groups.
The program was later disbanded amid complaints of religious and racial profiling.
Kamel Haddouche is overseeing the rebuilding of the Al-Tawheed Islamic Center in Jersey City, N.J. It was destroyed in a fire in 2014.
He said he’s met people he’s sure were working for law enforcement. They would show up, talk to people and get involved in activities.
The surveillance, he said, makes Muslims feel like they are being watched and they “don’t feel free.”
“This is what you call a free country? It’s not a free country. Especially when you are doing nothing wrong.”
The Detroit suburb of Dearborn is widely known as the hometown of Henry Ford, who hired Arabs and Muslims in the early days of the Ford Motor Co.
It is now one of the nation’s largest and most concentrated communities of people who trace their roots to the Middle East.
Ali Najaf, a senior at the Dearborn campus of the University of Michigan, said the campaign rhetoric is concerning but also motivating. He hopes one day to run for office and tackle some of the issues separating Muslims and non-Muslims.
“Brussels has done one thing: It’s made the Muslim community stand on its heel. Even innocent Muslims now feel, ‘I need to fight back,'” said Najaf, an Iraqi native who came to the U.S. when he was 9.
“Nobody,” he added, “wants to be on the fence anymore.”
By Gillian Flaccus. AP writers Jeff Karoub in Dearborn, Michigan; Eric Tucker in Washington, D.C.; and Deepti Hajela in Jersey City, N.J.; also contributed