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American Muslims ‘grieve for the victims like any other human being,’ raise more than $170,000 for San Bernardino families

A Shia Muslim holds a banner in protest against ISIS and the use of terrorism in the name of Islam during a religious procession of US Shia Muslims at Lafayette Square, outside the White House in Washington, DC on December 06, 2015. MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images

On the afternoon of the San Bernardino shooting, a California doctor who helped found a health-care and social services nonprofit, set up a fundraising campaign for the victims’ families.

Dr. Faisal Qazi happens to also be a Muslim-American. But the role of his faith in his initial effort was only that his religion teaches him to help neighbors in need. He planned a modest community outreach, hoping to raise $20,000 at most.

But as the motives of the shooters became known, Muslim leaders locally and nationally suggested Qazi expand his campaign to unite Muslims everywhere in support for the victims.

In the week since the massacre that killed 14 people at a company gathering at the Inland Regional Center, the American Muslim-led campaign has raised $171,093. It was for several days collecting at a rate of about $1,000 an hour.

“We wish to respond to evil with good, as our faith instructs us, and send a powerful message of compassion through action,” the fundraising page on the site LaunchGood reads. “Our Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said: ‘Have mercy to those on earth, and the One in the Heavens (God) will have mercy upon you.’ And the Quran teaches to ‘Repel evil by that which is better’ (41:34).”

It is important to “send a message that Muslims feel emotionally and physically invested in our communities and our neighborhoods,” Qazi said.

After an attack carried out by Muslim killers, the American Muslim community grieves for the loss of innocent life, but must also contend with defending themselves against the harassment and hostility that follows.

Tarek El-Messidi, a national Muslim leader in Knoxville, Tenn., was among those who encouraged Qazi to make his campaign broader. Through his nonprofit, Celebrate Mercy, he has organized similar Muslim-led outreach campaigns. In 2012, after the attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, El-Messidi called on Muslims to write condolence letters to the Stevens’s family.

He received almost 8,000 letters from Muslims all over the world. He presented them directly to Stevens’s sister that Thanksgiving.

For American Muslims, it’s frustrating to be grouped with “nutcases” who carry out attacks, claiming to be doing so in the name of Islam, he said.

“We’re very frustrated because we want to grieve for the victims like any other human being would,” he said. “We not only grieve, but have to fear for our safety.”

Of course they condemn the violence, but being expected to do so can be insulting, he said, noting that Christians were not asked to condemn the attacks by the shooter at the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Colorado.

“To ask Muslims, ‘do you condemn the killing of human beings,’ it’s like asking ‘are you a human being?'” he said. “Yes, we do condemn blood being spilled.”

Omar Suleiman, an American-Muslim imam living in Irving, Tex., says he finds himself squeezed by hatred from all sides. He’s treated suspiciously by some of his fellow Americans, while receiving death threats from Islamic State supporters online.

One recent tweet directed at him said, “wait for your head to be separated from your body you murtad (apostate).” Another said, “you’ve been backstabbing the Ummah (community) since you reared your ugly kuffar (disbelievers) loving head munafiq (hypocrite).”

Meanwhile, armed protesters have been gathering outside his mosque. And it’s exacerbated, he said, by the political debate stirred by GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump over whether Muslims should be allowed in the country. “It scares me because this is the only country I know,” he said.

“When he talks about banning Muslims from America, he’s talking about my grandmother who was just here to attend my wedding,” El-Messidi said. “Trump is to American values what ISIS is to Islam.”

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The American Muslim community hopes that its outpouring of support, both emotionally and financially, for the San Bernardino families shows that “Muslims are part of the solution, not the problem,” he said.

“It’s a response to ISIS to show them that they’re not going to divide us. Whatever they seek to destroy we’re going to rebuild,” El-Messidi said.

Suleiman, who must explain to his 6-year-old daughter why anti-Muslim protesters are gathered with rifles at their mosque, said he’s just going to continue working to change perceptions.

He tells his young daughter, “There are bad people that don’t know any better and we have to be nice to them, if you’re kind to people they’ll be kind back to you.”

“If you smile at them [it tells them] I’m not going to hate you, I’m not going to resort to that,” he said. “If you’re going to yell profanities, I’m going to smile at you and move on and respond with peace. We just respond with peace.”