Lodi Highlights Battle Over America’s Mosques

LODI, Calif.–Though FBI vehicles and small-engine aircraft no longer circle the town, Muslims in Lodi, Calif., still feel under siege. Four months after the government launched a highly public terrorism investigation that ensnared five Pakistani men here in June, the community is still reeling, not just from the pressures stemming from the federal probe, but also from a pre-existing split in the community that some say the FBI exploited. “Everyone is just kind of hiding their head under the sand, hoping the storm will pass,” says Taj Khan, an outspoken Pakistani Muslim leader in Lodi. Father and son Umer and Hamid Hayat, alleged to have ties to a terrorist training camp in Pakistan, now await trial in Sacramento County Jail. Local Muslim clerics Muhammed Adil Khan and Shabbir Ahmed and Adil Khan’s 19-year-old son selected to depart for Pakistan in August instead of fighting immigration violation charges. Equally contentious, though, is that the Farooqia Islamic Center, a Muslim school and community center Adil Khan and his prot_g_ Ahmed were planning, is now all but defunct. And those heading the existing mosque are not shedding any tears over its demise. Such conflicts within American mosques are becoming increasingly common as Muslim communities grapple with conflicting ideologies regarding “women, interfaith events, the West, education, civic service and marriage,” says Asra Nomani, activist and author of “Standing Alone in Mecca.” “Pakistan is undergoing a fierce battle for the hearts and minds of its people. It’s natural that this flows into immigrant communities,” Nomani says. Pakistanis have made Lodi their home for almost a century, and since 1978, the Lodi Muslim Mosque, an inconspicuous yellow building that was once a Jehovah’s Witness Hall, has served an estimated 500 members from a community of 2,500. Men relax on the mosque veranda between scheduled prayers, and boys in Pakistani tunics play basketball across the street. Females are not barred from entering the mosque, mosque members say, but the facility is not large enough to accommodate women, who traditionally pray in separate lines behind the men. Few Pakistani women are to be seen there or in other public places in Southeast Lodi, where many in the community live. Planners of the Farooqia Islamic Center envisioned an 18-acre establishment where women’s education programs, K-4 schooling and interfaith gatherings could be held. Adil Khan, who immigrated to Lodi from Pakistan in the spring of 2001 and was named mosque imam shortly thereafter, kick-started the project, organizing conferences with local Christian and Jewish leaders in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and publicly signing a “declaration of peace” with a rabbi and reverend. “I think the most important thing it would have brought is more open communication between Muslims and non-Muslims,” says Pamela Parvez, 48, a white Muslim from nearby Stockton who converted 20 years ago. “But it would also be nice to have a place where women can go … to read the Quran, to study Islam together.” County supervisors halted the Farooqia project on Sept. 27, citing land-use concerns. Parvez and other supporters — Taj Khan, in particular — blame the project’s defeat primarily on the terror allegations, but also on leaders of the existing mosque. Three months before Adil Khan’s arrest, in March, Lodi Muslim Mosque president Mohammed Shoaib and others sued Adil Khan and four other Farooqia organizers for $200,000, alleging fraud and deceit in the group’s fund raising, notably its sale of the mosque-owned land, which Adil Khan used to finance the purchase of a separate 18-acre plot for the center. In their suit, Shoaib and his faction indicated that Adil Khan had overstayed his religious worker visa. Taj Khan has steered the Farooqia project in Adil Khan’s absence, and his supporters claim Shoaib deliberately provoked the imams’ arrests. Shoaib denies that accusation, blaming the imams themselves for attracting the FBI. “If you believe in the justice system here, the court has convicted them,” he says. Taj Khan, who now attends a mosque in Stockton that advertises “Friday prayers for women also,” is now one of several plaintiffs suing Shoaib and others on the mosque board claiming the president resigned in 2004 and has no authority over the governing body. “These people are being used by FBI,” Taj Khan says. “They plan and conspire and do stuff against the rest of members of the community.” Author Asra Nomani says adding federal investigators into this kind of religious dispute makes conditions ripe for the kind of back-stabbing that occurred in Lodi. “People point fingers at each other trying to stoke this fear of Muslims,” she says. “It’s like walking on egg shells.” Both cases are still pending in San Joaquin Superior Court. Regardless of their outcome, they have revealed in the community a deep divide. Taj Khan says that most of Lodi’s Muslims backed the plans for a more open mosque, but that Shoaib and his supporters, many of whom are related, disliked the project’s progressive aims. “They’re following the Wahabi sect in Saudi Arabia, and other people don’t like that,” Khan says. Shoaib says that his opponents have mislabeled him, and that Adil Khan, an educated native of metropolitan Karachi, was an interloper who did not respect community members from the poorer districts of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier province, where most Lodi Muslims have their roots. “We’re not against women, not against another mosque,” he protests. “We’re against the way it is being run.” Whatever their differences, Khan and Shoaib agree on one thing: that the lasting feud has kept the community from regrouping. In mid-August, organizers called off an annual Pakistani Independence Day celebration in recognition of Adil Khan’s and Ahmed’s detention. Shoaib says that was a missed opportunity to show non-Muslims that the community had nothing to hide. Outside attempts to bring Lodi’s Muslim community together have faltered, as well. A proposed “Million Muslim March” — promoted by Lodi Mayor John Beckman and local conservative radio show host Mark Williams as a way to affirm the community’s stance against terrorism — was scrapped in July due to community division, Beckman said. The Council of Sacramento Valley Islamic Organizations organized talks to patch the rift, but they too fell through, says Shoaib. Reconciliation does not appear likely amid unresolved lawsuits and the imminent terrorism trial, according to six-year mosque member Sultan Afsar. “The wounds are too deep to be healed,” he says.