Terrorism Probe Shakes Lodi and Its Pakistani Community
Syed C. Shah arrived in this San Joaquin Valley wine hub from Peshawar, Pakistan nearly five decades ago, a farmworker following the immigrant trail. He picked apples, grapes, cherries -- “everything that grew.”
“It was all German people here,” Shah, now 70, recalled. But Lodi, he soon decided, would be his permanent home.
In the years since, Shah has obtained visas for enough family members to fill 20 households. He co-founded Lodi’s only mosque, a pale yellow former Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall of clapboard and stucco near a city park on the southeast side of town.
Shah also saw relations with Lodi’s “white Americans” mature over the years like the zinfandel this town is known for. It has been a largely harmonious coexistence, he and others said, punctuated by occasional low-grade hostility. But the community peace was shattered by this week’s widening FBI terrorism probe.
Two residents have been arrested and three detained on allegations ranging from lying to federal officials to immigration violations. One of the five allegedly admitted attending Al Qaeda training camps in Pakistan that taught participants “how to kill Americans,” authorities said.
Whether the investigation leads to convictions remains to be seen. But the Lodi arrests have prompted radio talk show rants and other unsubstantiated reports that paint the town as an Al Qaeda “stronghold.” They have brought an onslaught of media attention, riled ethnic relations and prompted fears of hate crimes.
Mostly, the probe has drawn attention to a community of Pakistani Muslims that local leaders estimate at 2,000, among the largest in California. It happens to be lodged in the heart of a conservative town of 62,000 that calls itself the “Grape American Dream” and once boasted of having a church on every corner.
“The Muslims of Lodi have been living here for the past nearly 100 years,” community leader Taj Khan, 62, said. “We are not going away.... We are going to learn from this.”
Like Shah, early arrivals came in search of farm work or other labor, settling as well in nearby Sacramento and Stockton. Malik Ahmad, 40, arrived from Lahore, Pakistan, at age 9, but his grandfather had already opened the door, arriving in 1922 to work on the railroad.
Early immigrants found a niche in a segregated world. As more arrived without work papers, they had difficulty finding jobs. Shah stepped in to help, became a farm labor contractor -- a middleman providing labor to the region’s growers -- and purchased several motels.
By 1978, he and several others bought the squat Jehovah’s Witness hall and transformed it. No longer would Lodi’s Muslim’s have to travel to Sacramento for Friday prayers or fulfill their daily religious obligations from homes and fields.
As immigration law softened, new arrivals streamed in, family members sponsoring family members. Some found work as truck drivers, welders, packers in the local canneries. They purchased gas stations and fast-food franchises. Many hail from the Attock district in northeast Pakistan’s Punjab state.
“The Muslim community brought food to the table and took care of their families,” said Khan, an engineer who immigrated on a professional visa.
But their chosen home presented an image of itself that was homogenous and didn’t seem to include them or its growing Latino population.
“Lodi is historically a strong conservative God-fearing church-attending community,” said Larry Hanson, a city councilman and former police chief who arrived in Lodi in 1970.
Hanson’s first awareness of the growing Pakistani Muslim community came in 1995, when three high school kids vandalized the mosque, breaking windows, tossing lighted flares inside and defacing the building with swastikas.
“All of a sudden I had 10 members of the Muslim community in my office, very concerned,” Hanson recalled. “They were trying to show the [broader] community they were peace-loving, law-abiding citizens. They were hoping they weren’t going to be targeted.”
What developed was a respectful relationship with Lodi’s small police force that remains to this day. Then, in 1998, there was a cross burning, and the ritual was repeated. This time, Hanson and others created the Breakthrough Project to foster mutual understanding.
The greatest test, however, came on Sept. 11, 2001.
Merchants in downtown Lodi hauled out American flags, and they remain to this day. Dinner mints at the Lodi Brewing Co. come wrapped in flags. They adorn the windows of the House of Clocks on School Street and cover the rear wall in Ollie’s Bar.
The atmosphere after the attacks?
“Look at the flag,” bartender George Gladius said. “That tells it all. That’s how it was.”
Tensions flared. After a few Muslim high school boys drove through town waving the flag of an Arab nation, Hanson said, a false rumor spread that many had poured into the street, “clapping and cheering.” Someone tossed eggs at Pak India Spices.
Still, taunts never turned to violence, said the store’s owner, Mohammad Shoaib, a 54-year-old immigrant from Attock who arrived in Lodi three decades ago. In time, they dissipated.
Among those working to mend relations was Muhammad Adil Khan, then the imam of the Lodi Muslim Mosque and among the men now held on immigration violations as part of the probe. “He spent a lot of time trying to bring the community to the mosque and get the people together with the Jewish community and Christian community,” said Gary Nelson, a Stockton attorney representing Muhammad Adil Khan in a civil matter that stemmed from a community rift.
Joining Muhammad Adil Khan in the effort was Taj Khan. Along with a Lodi Methodist minister, a Stockton rabbi and others, they drafted a “declaration of peace.”
“We acknowledge that fanatics and extremists have, throughout history, committed acts of terror and inhumanity against us all,” said their statement, signed in June 2002. “Together, we repudiate these acts and declare them to be contrary to our Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths.”
The conflict would not come from outside the faith, however, but from within.
At the urging of Muhammad Adil Khan, mosque members lent money and raised more to purchase land on the outskirts of Lodi for a community center and school. Muhammad Adil Khan and others eventually placed the name Farooqia Islamic Center on the deed, court records show. Leadership at the Lodi Muslim Mosque opposed the move, alleging in a lawsuit that they were owed $187,000.
The dispute became so heated, shopkeeper Mohammad Shoaib and others said, that the mosque president threatened to turn Muhammad Adil Khan in to federal officials. The president, also named Mohammad Shoaib, denies that he involved the FBI. However, the lawsuit filed by the mosque against the Farooqia Islamic Center in March states that Muhammad Adil Khan’s temporary visa “is believed to be expired.”
Against this backdrop came this week’s arrests and detainments. Muhammad Adil Khan; his son, Muhammad Hassan Adil, 19; and Muslim leader Shabbir Ahmed are being held for alleged immigration violations. Hamid Hayat, 22, is charged with lying to federal officials about his participation in a Pakistani camp where he allegedly was trained to kill Americans. His father, 47-year-old Umer Hayat, has also been charged with lying to federal officials about his knowledge of his son’s participation.
Attorney Brian Chavez-Ochoa, hired as a spokesman for Lodi’s Muslims, said, “The father attended the mosque occasionally, but nobody really knows him or the son well. They were more on the fringe.”
As FBI investigators have swept Lodi in recent days to question Muslims, finger-pointing between community factions has intensified.
Taj Khan says the dispute was ideological: New mosque leadership has been closed-minded and more orthodox, while Farooqia proponents have advocated more interfaith dialogue and a community center where women, forbidden to enter the mosque, could gather.
Others say it is about money and control. Shah called Muhammad Adil Khan a selfish man who was more interested in business than religion. The FBI, meanwhile, is investigating the broader Farooqia movement for militant ties to Pakistan.
Most Muslims here, however, deny that ties to terrorist training camps exist. “Nobody believes in this community that there’s any connection,” said Safdar Afzal, 31, a welder and forklift driver who came to Lodi at age 11 from Attock and began picking cherries for Shah.
Regardless, the probe has brought two Lodis face to face. Although police officials report no hate crimes, there has been plenty of name-calling. As shopkeeper Mohammad Shoaib stood near his store talking to a reporter this week, a woman walked by and loudly sniffed: “Must be Al Qaeda.”
Afzal took several days off work to avoid being approached there by FBI agents. Even after Sept. 11, he said, he and others felt comfortable walking the streets in their religious dress. Now, they worry they will be ostracized.
As patrons at Ollie’s played dice Thursday and sang along with Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Lodi,” Taj Khan and Basim Elkarra, executive director of the Sacramento Valley chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, fielded calls from worried parents. As young men were taken in for questioning, they scrambled to find lawyers.
Long-timers like Shah, however, are not worried.
“This will pass,” he said. “We’ve seen it before.”
Times staff writer Rone Tempest contributed to this report from Sacramento.
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‘Grape American Dream’
Lodi’s estimated 2,000 Pakistani Muslims are a small minority in this agricultural products trucking center. The city of 62,000, named for a town in Italy, once cultivated mainly watermelons and, later, table grapes. It now is known for producing zinfandel.
Lodi educational attainment
Less than 12 years: 28%
High school diploma or GED: 25%
College degree or better: 23%
2005 estimates for population 25 and older
Workforce 16 years and older
Business and professional: 28%
Industrial and transportation*: 28%
Sales and office: 26%
Farming, fishing and forestry: 4%
*Includes construction, extraction and maintenance, production and material moving.
Note: 2005 estimates. May not add up to 100% due to rounding.
County political affiliation
San Joaquin County voter registration in November 2004:
Declining to state: 10.5%
Sources: Claritas, San Joaquin County Registrar of Voters, epodunk.com, Times research. Compiled by Cheryl Brownstein-Santiago
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