For Muslim Americans, says L.A. judge, “Every time you hit bottom, there
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Halim Dhanidina. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

For Muslim Americans, says L.A. judge, “Every time you hit bottom, there's a new bottom”

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Halim Dhanidina, the first Muslim judge in the State of California, recently spoke to UCLA students about his career and why he continues to be publicly engaged.

I think I'm one of six Muslim judges in the country at any level. Once people see you in these positions, it sort of demystifies it — I don't think that any juror or attorney in my courtroom sees me as a Muslim judge.”

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, March 21, 2016 — Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Halim Dhanidina (UCLA J.D. 1997) recently recounted his experiences growing up and working as a Muslim American in the United States. He delivered his remarks to UCLA students enrolled in the winter quarter course, “Islam in the West,” taught by Professor Asma Sayeed, director of the Islamic Studies Program, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. Cosponsored by the Center for Near Eastern Studies on March 7, the event was open to the general public.

In 2012, Dhanidina became the first Muslim judge in California after working for over a decade as a public prosecutor in Los Angeles. Born and raised near Chicago, he said perceptions of Muslim Americans in the United States have become increasingly fearful over the past three decades. A firm believer in community engagement, he initially became involved in public education efforts about Islam as a college student and continues to do public speaking and service work with many pluralist groups.

“Public engagement is very beneficial to Muslims and non-Muslims alike,” he remarked. “I think I’m one of six Muslim judges in the country at any level. Once people see you in these positions, it sort of demystifies it — I don’t think that any juror or attorney in my courtroom sees me as a Muslim judge.” He noted, however, that Muslim Americans typically face a double bind in terms of public perceptions: “If you don’t get involved, you’re seen as insular. But if you get involved, you’re seen as infiltrating.”

Growing up American

Born in suburban Chicago to immigrant parents from East Africa, Dhanidina was encouraged at a young age to become involved in his local community. “When it came to society and the law and civic institutions, my parents were very pro-American,” he said.

Although teachers regularly mispronounced his last name and his peers teased him about his name and looks, he never felt unwelcome growing up outside Chicago, even though he didn’t live in a particularly diverse community. Being Muslim and being American were happily conjoined in his mind. His first inkling that Muslims and Americans were perhaps not the same, and that Muslims might not be welcome in the United States, was hearing — at eight years old — anti-Muslim rhetoric about the Iranian Revolution and the U.S. hostage crisis.

Dhanidina considered most of the questions and curiosity about Islam that he encountered as a college student at Pomona College — a time that coincided with the first Gulf War — to be in good faith. That situation continued when he was at UCLA School of Law in the early 1990s. “People would be curious and they would ask questions,” he explained. “But it was nothing like it is now, nothing so tense.”

UCLA Professor Asma Sayeed, director of the Islamic Studies Program. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.) The day after 9/11, Dhanidina — then a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles — was in a courtroom to select a jury for a murder trial. The judge spent an unusually long time instructing potential jury members, asking them whether they had prejudices that would prevent them from being fair. She even noted that the appearance of some people at the trial might evoke thoughts of the perpetrators of the recent attacks.

“And I realized, she’s talking about me,” remarked Dhanidina. He asked himself, “When these jurors are looking at me, is that what they’re really thinking of? Are they thinking of Al Qaeda, are they thinking of the Twin Towers? That is not what I was ever accustomed to in my role as a prosecutor.”

Until that time, the young attorney had always believed that he and the jury were on the same team. “As a prosecutor. . . I’m speaking to the jury almost as their representative,” he explained. “My success always hinged on my ability to connect with the jury, to connect with the community.”

Terrorist attacks worsen public perceptions of Muslims

The September 11th terrorist attacks, said the judge, galvanized the patriotism of American Muslims, who found them the attacks horrific. But public reaction in the country painted him into a place where, for the first time, he felt perceived as a perpetrator. “It was a very strange place to be,” commented Dhanidina. “I had never felt that type of separation. But even then, I could not have imagined that things would deteriorate to where they are now… I never thought that I would raise my kids in an even more hostile environment.”

By the time he was appointed a judge by California Governor Jerry Brown in 2012, the atmosphere was even more fraught. Two days after the press release announcing his appointment as California’s first Muslim judge was published, for example, he was featured prominently on the website “Jihad” under the headline “Sharia Law Judge Appointed in Mexifornia.”

“It shook me — it was the first time that I heard such negative opinions of me by people I didn’t even know,” he related. Rather than pull back and simply do his job as a legal professional, however, Dhanidina chose to become an active public speaker. He felt a responsibility to provide a counter-narrative to popular rhetoric about Muslims and spoke — and continues to speak — at community groups, schools, law schools, and multicultural and non-denominational groups. It comes as a surprise to many such audiences, he noted ruefully, that he is sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States and knows nothing about Sharia law.

“What's really weird about the climate in the last several years is that whenever you [as a Muslim American] think you’ve hit bottom, then there’s a new bottom,” remarked the speaker. Although it is a repeated refrain of American history that certain groups come to seen as “the enemy” and are scapegoated, Dhanidina said that eventually, the country moves on to another group, and then another.

“But that's not happening this time,” he commented. “It’s the same group, and it just gets worse and worse and worse.” He reflected that Americans are now living in a cycle ruled by division, remarking, “There is very little effort to bring people together. In the end, I think that’s very self-destructive as a community, both politically and socially.” Nevertheless, he believed that over time, attitudes toward Muslim Americans would change.

“I realize that there is a lot of anxiety and a lot of fear on all sides,” he said. “And that fear is legitimate.” Yet Dhanidina found rhetoric about barring Muslims entry to the United States and their possible internment within the country very cynical. In his view, such rhetoric reinforces rather than defuses the ideological conflict waged by terrorist groups such as ISIS. And it also has the serious potential to produce highly adverse consequences in this country. “I feel that we dismiss that rhetoric at our peril. People who favor justice and equality always need to be pushing back at that type of rhetoric, wherever it happens,” he remarked.

Faith, the law and religious bigotry

Asked if it was possible to have religious faith and not have that faith affect one’s rulings as a judge, Dhanidina replied, “There is no easy answer to that question… No matter what religion you’ve been brought up in… you have a set of values and often times those values are often informed by your religious beliefs,” he said. “You’re not a computer.”

The litmus test, he specified, is whether one’s beliefs are consistent with the law. “We live in a society where equality under the law is paramount,” he explained. “So if you hold a value or belief, wherever it comes from, that is inconsistent with equality under the law, then you’re not fit for that position.

“I find that a lot of religious bigotry comes from people who view themselves a very religious,” he continued. “They will say, ‘We don’t like that group and their religious values. We want to impose our religious values on everyone else instead.’ And really the answer is, nobody should be imposing their beliefs on anybody — that’s the secular democracy that the Constitution is supposed to protect.”

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