COVER STORY : Between Two Worlds : Shiites Have Quietly Found Their Niche in Central L.A. While Preserving Muslim Culture
It is Saturday night and once again Ali Elyaszadeh has traveled 40 miles from his Fountain Valley home to the Azzahra Islamic Center in South Gate to pray.
Inside, 50 Shiite men are removing their shoes, greeting one another with handshakes, the traditional greeting Salaam aleikum --Peace be upon you--and settling onto rows of mats. A lecture follows prayers and a dinner of roasted chicken, rice with dill, lima beans and yogurt. Veiled in the hijab, or covering, women view the evening’s program on a television set from the other side of an olive-green curtain, following Islamic law that they pray separately or behind the men.
“In Islam, group prayer is highly recommended,” said the Iranian native Elyaszadeh, who brings six Iraqi friends from Long Beach to the Saturday programs at the Azzahra center. “If two pray together, the value of this prayer is 150 times as great as if each prayed alone.” By the time you pass 10, the value is so great no one can count it.”
Although largely unknown amid the area’s larger African-American, Latino and Asian communities, Shiite Muslims have been quietly establishing a religious heart in Central Los Angeles for nearly two decades. Every week, dozens flock from throughout Southern California to Islamic centers in South Gate, Bell, Cudahy, Pico Rivera, Watts, Inglewood and Koreatown, sites chosen for their inexpensive property values and their central location for worshipers primarily from Los Angeles and Orange counties.
While relatively small in numbers--there are roughly 30,000 Shiites in Southern California, about 10% of the area’s Muslim population--they have established a strong presence in their respective communities.
Some are on a first-name basis with city leaders. Others have joined commissions and worked amid their neighbors, with one Shiite leader in Watts playing an instrumental role in forging the ongoing truce between the Bloods and the Crips. Still others have established businesses and are planning to open Islamic schools.
Yet much about these diverse people remains shrouded from the public.
Indeed, Shiite leaders say they are trying to preserve a centuries-old faith that the West has long misconstrued as terror-prone and oppressive toward women. When tensions flare up in the Middle East, they say, a backlash of harassment and resentment often follows.
“We give dignity for all the children of Adam,” said Sayed Mortada Qazweeni, religious scholar at the Azzahra Islamic Center. “We respect everybody’s rights, even those who are not Muslim. This is one of the most important messages of Islam.”
Shiite Muslims, who represent about 20% of the world’s 1 billion Muslims, differ from their vastly more numerous Sunni Muslim counterparts in the belief that Islam has had 12 true religious leaders, or imams, appointed by Allah.
Each of the imams that Shiites believe were descended from the Prophet Mohammed, who died in AD 632, were persecuted for their beliefs, instilling a sense of resistance against oppressors that is central to the Shiite identity today, Qazweeni said. Many local Shiites said they have come to this country because of political and religious persecution in their homelands.
Those in Central Los Angeles and neighboring southeast cities have come from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and China, among other places.
Muslim leaders are uncertain how many Shiites are in Central Los Angeles, especially given the numbers of African-Americans and Latinos who have accepted the Shiite brand of Islam.
About 60 Shiite Lebanese families--some 300 people--have settled in Bell since the mid-1970s, opening an Islamic center on Gage Avenue and setting up retail clothing outlets in Huntington Park and Downtown Los Angeles.
Cudahy’s 13-year-old Jafaria Islamic Society hall, the oldest and largest of the local Shiite centers, draws more than 1,000 worshipers during the holy month of Ramadan--the ninth month of the lunar calendar--and other holidays, leaders say. Ramadan, a period of daily fasting and celebration, marks the divine revelations of spiritual doctrine to Mohammed through the angel Gabriel.
Shiites say their faith is peace-loving, a message they have had some success in spreading among their neighbors.
Mujahid Abdul-Karim, religious leader of Masjid Al-Rasul, a Watts Islamic center, has preached Islam’s teaching of “respect for the self and others” among South Los Angeles youths for more than a decade.
Abdul-Karim helped bring together Bloods and Crips from the Imperial Courts, Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs housing projects last spring to discuss a truce that they verbally agreed to on April 26, three days before the not-guilty verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating and the riots that followed.
Gang members met face to face every Sunday for more than a month at the 12-year-old center-- a converted storefront on Central Avenue that served as neutral ground--to find ways to forge the truce, which Abdul-Karim said is holding in Watts despite continued gang-on-gang killings in other parts of the city.
“Islam tells us to unite and help develop the community,” said Abdul-Karim, an African-American who accepted Islam 14 years ago. “We are trying to instill spiritual direction (and) moral uprightness. Black people . . . have respect for Muslims because they know we don’t drink and we live a good moral life that is clean.”
The Shiite Lebanese community in Bell and the Jafaria Islamic Society in Cudahy say they, too, have made inroads among their neighbors.
Some in the Lebanese community are on a first-name basis with Bell City Council members, whom they have invited to dinner several times. And a Lebanese resident has served on the city’s nine-member Public Safety Commission and as a block captain for the city’s now-defunct neighborhood watch program.
Those outreach efforts have been reciprocated by city officials.
“I have made a real effort to find out who these folks are . . . and make them feel like they are a part of the community,” said City Councilman George Cole. “They are very friendly, very generous. We spend a lot of time sitting, drinking tea and talking. It’s a nice thing to be able to have that kind of blend of cultures.”
Jafaria members note that when the Jewish Defense League demonstrated outside the predominantly Pakistani center to protest the July, 1985, hijacking of a TWA flight in Greece by two Shiite Muslims, their Latino neighbors emerged from their homes to show support.
“One man said (to the demonstrators), ‘What the hell are you doing here? This is a religious place, a house of God. Get the hell out,’ ” recalled Shiraz Dharas, the layman president of the center.
Dharas said Jafaria members plan to invite local residents to visit in the coming months, as “a neighborly gesture so they can understand the Shia,” he said, referring to the Shiite community. Plans also are being discussed for a radio program in English, Urdu and possibly Spanish to recite passages of the Koran and commentaries by Shiite scholars, Dharas said. Among the center’s books is a Spanish translation of the Koran.
Despite the goodwill efforts, the image of Shiites remains tainted by media portrayals of them as “international terrorists,” said Salam Al-Marayati, director of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council. He and other community leaders insist that the frequently used term jihad --literally, righteous striving involving an internal struggle or the defense of people whose rights have been violated--has been misinterpreted to mean “holy war.”
“It is really the struggle of a society to liberate itself from an oppressor,” Al-Marayati said. “It is the Iraqi people against (Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein), the Palestinians against Israeli occupation, black South Africans (against apartheid and) the American independence struggle against British imperialism. When Patrick Henry said, ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ that statement epitomized jihad. “
The work of individual Shiite groups should not be equated with the aims of the world’s estimated 200 million Shiite Muslims, several local leaders said.
“There are always going to be people who take things into their own hands,” said Dharas, who was born of Indian ancestry in Uganda. “I’m just an average guy off the street. Why do you consider me a terrorist?”
The rise of Saddam Hussein, a secular leader who has persecuted religious activists in his own country, including Shiites, has fueled resentment toward Muslims, especially those easily recognizable in traditional garb, community members said.
They worry that instances of harassment, which they say increased during and after the Gulf War, will rise again if Washington and Baghdad renew hostilities.
“If someone sees me praying in the street and he has an image of Saddam, what happens? Problems,” said Lebanese-born Sami Hijazi, who settled in Bell in 1975. “People see these women with scarves and give them the finger or call them ‘Arab bitches’ and say, ‘Go back to your homes.’ ”
Several Shiite leaders said they oppose Saddam Hussein and wonder why military forces did not move on to Baghdad and oust him during the Gulf War. Ongoing air strikes, they believe, will only strengthen Hussein’s hand and hurt innocent civilians.
“The question we have is: Why is it so difficult to get one person like Saddam in the Middle East when it is so easy to get a dictator like (Manuel) Noriega in Central America?” said Sayed Fazil Mosavi, religious scholar of the Jafaria Islamic Society. “Those who are Shias (in Iraq) and know their religion have either been killed, run out of the country or they are in the jails.”
Overlooked amid the varied conflicts in the Middle East in recent years are the virtues of the Islamic lifestyle, Mosavi and others said.
Chief among those, they say, is the importance of the family and of the clearly defined roles men and women play in raising healthy children.
While the man’s responsibility is to be the breadwinner, the woman’s primary focus rests inside the home, said Loraine Mirza, a mother of five.
The arrangement, Mirza said, creates a stable family life with little divorce, teen-age pregnancy, child abuse, alcoholism and other social problems that have been on the rise in this country.
“American women aren’t prepared for marriage,” said Mirza, 48, who is American-born and who accepted Islam at age 15. “They aren’t willing to make sacrifices for their children. That’s why American culture doesn’t create good parents.”
Mirza, a reporter for public radio station KPFK-FM (90.7) in North Hollywood, and other women also said that they are permitted to pursue interests and careers outside the home, something they say the non-Muslim world has failed to recognize.
Mirza said she has managed to balance raising her family with her job covering Islamic world affairs and the local African-American community. Dressed in a black hijab with a plastic identification pinned to it that reads “Pacifica Radio, KPFK News Identification,” she cuts a striking figure among her fellow reporters.
Several Shiite Muslim women said Westerners also misunderstand the purpose of wearing the hijab , which they said is mandatory in Islam to maintain modesty between the sexes.
Other women said they choose to remain home, even though they have the option of working outside.
“You can have more money and raise your children with a baby-sitter or you can have less income and have more warmth within the family,” said Nicaraguan-born Nora, 39, who asked that her last name not be used. Nora was raised Catholic but accepted Islam 14 years ago. “It is (more) important for my daughter to see me than to have more money.”
Still, several parents said they worry about whether their children, most of whom attend public schools, will carry on Shiite beliefs and customs. Indeed, parents say they are concerned that their children will grow up with little understanding of their religion or their cultural identities.
In an effort to curb assimilation, the Lebanese community in Bell conducts daily after-school Arabic classes for about 40 elementary schoolchildren. The Lebanese community also plans to open a school in a building it recently bought on Gage Avenue. Jafaria Islamic Society and the Azzahra Islamic Center each plan to open schools as well, though no dates have been set.
But a few parents worry that such schools will isolate their children from the Western culture around them.
“We shouldn’t narrow our children’s minds,” said Shabnam Dewji, 32, a native of the United Arab Emirates. “It isn’t fair for them to go to elementary schools that are all Muslim, then throw them into college with the sharks. Once you start segregating your own kind, don’t complain about others segregating you.”
Jafaria members plan to combine Western and Shiite Muslim teachings in their school, which will offer a curriculum of secular and Islamic courses and will be open to non-Muslims.
“We are trying to protect our children from terrible things like drugs,” Mosavi said. “A system has to be initiated that will be lasting against these anti-human forces. We will work day and night to make it so.”