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A small town answers a hate crime with solidarity

Vandalism at a mosque in Madera, Calif., is met with anger from the community.

By Diana Marcum, Special to the Los Angeles Times

9:32 PM PDT, September 4, 2010

reporting from madera, calif.

This is a small mosque in a small town about as far as you can get — in more ways than one — from New York City.

Its minaret rises between a car lot and a veterinary hospital on Road 26, a couple of miles north of town. There are nothing but wide-open fields across the street from the recently vandalized Madera Islamic Center.

The men praying here on a recent night included a cardiologist and a pediatrician from Pakistan; two grocers from Yemen; a part-time farmer from Morocco; the owner of a trucking company who was born a McAllister, a member of a black family that arrived in Madera during the Dust Bowl; and a 77-year-old retired mechanical engineer from Syria who takes a shortcut through the fence to get from his house to the mosque.

Many mosque members have lived in the community 30 years or more. There are some 200 Muslims in Madera, and about 20 of them are doctors. They've slapped the bottoms of newborns who are now grown-up community members and adjusted people's high blood pressure medicine.

"We're not travelers. We live here. We're Americans. We're Rotarians!" said Dr. Mohammad Ashraf, a cardiologist.

Yet it was here, in one of a series of events, that a brick almost smashed a window. A sign was left: "Wake up America the enemy is here." Then on Aug. 24, more menacing signs appeared, including "No temple for the god of terrorism."

The Madera County Sheriff's Department has classified the vandalism a hate crime. A group called the American Nationalist Brotherhood claims responsibility. Sheriff's officials said they have never heard of the group in this largely Latino city of 58,000.

"Obviously, people are connecting this to New York, the debate on whether they should or should not build a mosque near ground zero," said Erica Stuart, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Department. "But, still. Here? What in the world does any of that have to do with Madera County?"

Now the FBI is in town. The Islamic Cultural Center in Fresno, the nearest big city, held a news conference at the Madera mosque Thursday to combat what they say is growing anti-Muslim sentiment stirred up by the Manhattan debate, especially on local talk radio.

And a Central California farm town with laid-back ways is navigating exactly what it means to stick up for your friends and neighbors.

*

The day after the latest vandalism at the mosque, Denise Salazar, office manager for Dr. Muhammad Anwar, and Maricela Garcia, the receptionist, were initially silent. They had seen the signs at the mosque on their drive to work.

"I was riled up. But I was at work. I didn't feel it was right for me to bring it up," Salazar said.

"I've seen these Muslim doctors help people who have no money, no health insurance; start free clinics; run food drives. Dr. Anwar is my boss, my friend and a caring person. I feel like I would lay down my life for him. But what do you say and who do you say it to?"

That afternoon, Thomas Lewis, a 58-year-old retired delivery driver, showed up for his doctor's appointment.

"Can you believe those idiots?! That vandalism?! I cannot accept linking all Muslims to 9/11," he said, loud enough for everyone in the reception room to hear.

"He was so passionate," said Garcia. "I was glad he brought it up. After that everyone started talking about how terrible it was."

Lewis said he plans to correct anyone who draws a connection between the whole religion of Islam and terrorism.

"Me and the wife, if we hear somebody talking bad about Muslims, we speak up and say 'to me, that's un-American,' " Lewis said. "There are some people who are just mean-like, and they want to find a reason to hate. Most people are good, but they're silent. You have to speak out what you believe in your heart."

That same day, a Pepsi delivery driver heard a radio report about the vandalism. He back-tracked on his route to run in and tell Shaukat Mohammad, who works at the Union 76 Station, that he was sorry to hear what happened.

Mohammad had watched the faces of his sons, Qasim, 17, and Saim, 13, when they had seen the latest vandalism at the mosque the night before.

The Pepsi driver was the only one outside the Muslim community who expressed condolences to Mohammad.

"But it made him feel good. One person matters," Saim said.

Saim, all arms and legs and knees and elbows, is old enough to reference a Tennessee zealot's threat to burn the Koran this Sept. 11, but young enough to wonder if he should tell the teacher when kids call him a terrorist.

"No," advises his big sister, Zunaira Shaukat, 19. "It will just make it worse. They'll call you a snitch."

Zunaira wears the traditional head scarf outside her home. In school, girls once offered her $100 to take it off. She refused. One girl ripped it off, and the pin scratched Zunaira's chin, drawing blood.

"It's hard. I used to think: Will people not like me because I'm Muslim?"

Qasim tells of a YouTube video popular with Muslim youth.

"A man is in his office praying. A woman walks in, and all of a sudden he pretends he's doing push-ups. It's funny, but it's also sad. He is afraid to be seen practicing his faith."

Saim said he loves going to the mosque to pray. Even when he was a 4-year-old in Pakistan, the family had to keep an eye on him because he'd trot off alone to the mosque when he heard the call to prayer.

He was wakeful all night after the vandalism. The next day at school no one mentioned it, even though the trouble at the mosque was all over the news.

"I kept expecting someone to say something. But no one did. Not a teacher. None of my friends. I just thought someone would say they were sorry that this happened because it is a place of prayer."

*

It is Ramadan, a month when observant Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.

Pediatrician Aftab Naz, Saim's uncle, has had no food or water since early morning. It is afternoon and he has patients in several rooms at his office.

He greets each child with a hearty "How are we today?" varying the language depending on the family. He's fluent in Urdu, Punjabi, English and Spanish.

In his free time, Naz often acts as master of ceremonies at Pakistani events.

"You would find my jokes very funny if you spoke Urdu," he says.

After he disappears into another examining room, one of the clinic workers whispers that Naz doesn't charge when his patients are in financial trouble — but that she's not suppose to tell anyone.

"In his religion, good deeds are secrets," she says.

When Naz moved his family to Madera from Chicago, his wife didn't like the change. But one day she bought him a coat at a local store and asked if she could return it should he not like it.

"Oh, just take it home, Mrs. Naz, and if your husband doesn't like it, bring it back. If he does, send us a check," they told her.

The Nazes decided then that maybe there was something to small-town life.

Now, almost half of Madera's Muslim population are members of Dr. Naz's extended family. One brother is a manager at Wendy's; another a cook at Chevy's Tex Mex; a third is a pharmacy tech at Wal-Mart; and the fourth, Mohammad, works at the gas station. There are nephews and nieces and grandchildren and in-laws.

There were always misunderstandings about the family's religion, but before 9/11 they seemed harmless and well-meant.

A patient once wrote to Dr. Naz telling him he was loving, honest, hard-working and full of charity — the perfect Christian.

"I wasn't offended at all. These are the same traits of a good Muslim," he says. "They are just the traits of any good person."

During a short break between patients, Naz recounts brutal episodes of American history, from the killing of Indians during the westward expansion to the internment of the Japanese during World War II.

"Eventually there was shame for these things. So eventually America will decide that we Muslims are OK too," he says.

He is of two minds about the debated Islamic center in Manhattan. Two-thirds of New York City residents want it to be moved farther from ground zero, according to a New York Times poll released last week.

"As a Muslim, I take a pragmatic view and think 'move it.' When people did not accept him in Mecca, the prophet moved 3,000 miles away. But as an American, I have a problem with that. I believe everyone has an equal right to practice their faith, and hate should not change that."

His next patient is 10-year-old Jarred Bennett, who has a cough.

"I used to take care of his dad. Also his aunt," Naz says as he puts a stethoscope to Jarred's chest.

Lucille Bennett, Jarred's mother, didn't hear about the trouble at the mosque until she got to the clinic. While still in the waiting room, she determined she would say something.

The Bennetts are African Americans and Jehovah's Witnesses. A couple of months ago her husband was canvassing a neighborhood when a man on a bicycle hurled racial epithets at him.

"The other neighbors all came out and they profusely apologized to my husband. It means something when somebody else shows they're concerned," she says. "You don't feel so alone."

After quizzing Bennett on various colors of phlegm, Naz concentrates on his computer screen, filling out a prescription.

"Dr. Naz," Bennett says to him. "I heard what happened at your mosque. It's horrible."

Naz pivots and gives her his full attention, meeting her eyes.

"I've been here 30 years. Thirty years," he says. "But these things happen, right?"

"No," Bennett says. "It's horrible."