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Preparing for Religiously Motivated Disaster

The story of a culver city mosque

Preparing for Religiously Motivated Disaster

by Ruth Broyde Sharone

On Sunday, September 10, 2006, a day before the fifth-and-still-painful anniversary of 9/11, a group of some 75 angry demonstrators showed up – with a city permit – outside the King Fahad Mosque of Culver City, California. Their intention was to publicly burn a puppet of Bin Ladin in effigy and tell the members of the mosque that, as Muslims, they were considered enemies of America and should return home to their native countries.

Interfaith leaders gather in solidarity outside Culver City mosque – Photo:    Los Angeles Indymedia: Activist News

Interfaith leaders gather in solidarity outside Culver City mosque – Photo: Los Angeles Indymedia: Activist News

Another 75 people turned out as well that day, leaders of the local interfaith community – I among them – and a group of supportive residents from the local community. The police were on hand, and two local TV crews showed up because they had been alerted to the possibility of religiously motivated violence – always a lure for the media. Their cameras that day were focused primarily on the contorted faces of the demonstrators, their provocative placards, and their angry taunts: “Go home, Muslims. You are not wanted here!”

Dr. Thomas Hedberg, a chaplain for the Southern California Parliament of the World’s Religions, remembers the incident clearly. “I went out into the street and tried in vain to talk to the demonstrators.”  Ever the peacemaker, Dr. Hedberg was extremely frustrated when he was forced to retreat. “They were so verbally aggressive and insulting, there was nothing I could do,” he lamented, so he joined the interfaith leaders on the other side of the Great Divide.

Interfaith minister Doris W. Davis, a founder of the Culver City Interfaith Alliance, recalled the event as a “high-point in the history of the local interfaith community.” Asked to come and demonstrate their solidarity at a moment’s notice, the group of interfaith leaders came immediately. “We were very conscious of what we needed to do – most certainly not to exhibit any belligerence on our part against the demonstrators. Rather we would stand in solidarity with the Muslims at the mosque,” Rev. Davis recounted.

I recall that we lined up with our interfaith colleagues on the parapet of the mosque, shoulder to shoulder with a group of Muslims who had recently been praying inside. We had no idea what might happen, but we instinctively joined hands and prayed.

Later I tried to convince the local TV crew not to over-emphasize the potential violence in the streets, but to highlight instead the number of interfaith leaders who had shown up to protect our Muslim brothers and sisters. “That is the real news,” I emphasized during the TV interview, “the solidarity of the interfaith community, not the anger of the demonstrators.” That quote never made the local news.

The Power of Solidarity

A week later our interfaith community received a heartfelt letter from the mosque’s Director of Administration and Public Relations, Usman Madha. He described how moved he had been by our spontaneous show of interfaith solidarity and recalled it as one of the most profoundly meaningful moments in his life as a Muslim in America.

Almost 13 years have passed but Usman, now 71, recalls that day in sharp detail. “Not only did the interfaith leaders spontaneously appear to stand together with us,” he said, “but children and their parents – predominantly Christians from Huron Street and the local community – came to the mosque with their own placards that read: We support our mosque. They took ownership and pride in our mosque," he said, also noting that there had been no mosques in Los Angeles when he arrived 32 years earlier.

It was a very tense situation that day, he acknowledged. Yet he remembers with glee the amusing thing that happened that same day.

“The demonstrators had announced that at a certain time they were going to come and do their noisemaking and ultimately burn Bin Laden’s effigy. I had advised the members of the mosque to stay home. About 1:30 pm, I checked to make sure the mosque was properly secured. I was confident the mosque would be adequately protected by the police, but decided to place a couple of the men who work as security guards at the entrance. Whatever the demonstrators wanted to do, they could do it on the public side, in the streets,” he explained. “It wouldn’t bother me.

“Suddenly, a car pulled up and this lady got out, almost breathless, and said that she had traveled all of the way from San Diego to be part of the protest. She looked at my Scotch-Irish coloring, my red hair and freckles, and asked ‘Are you with us?’”

“No, I’m with them!” Usman replied.

He laughed heartily as he remembered the event. “She was so flustered by my response, she got back into her car and hightailed it out of there. You can always find some humor in every situation.

“Take, for example, my personal history.” Usman, a Muslim of Indian descent, arrived in the US in 1966 when he was 18. That was decades before 9/11, and in those days he experienced a profoundly different attitude towards Muslims. “Americans viewed us as exotic, and everyone wanted to know what is a Muslim,” he recalls with a smile.

Creating New Relationships

(l to r): Abdul Aleem, Usman Madha, Helal El Sherif, Dr. Mohsen Hamza and Rabbi Laura Geller – Photo: Ruth Broyde Sharone

(l to r): Abdul Aleem, Usman Madha, Helal El Sherif, Dr. Mohsen Hamza and Rabbi Laura Geller – Photo: Ruth Broyde Sharone

“If you want to know me, then you need to know where I came from. My ancestors originally came from India, a prominently Hindu country. My great grandparents moved to Burma, a predominately Buddhist country, over 150 years ago. When it was time for us to get an education, our parents enrolled us in Catholic schools because that’s where you could get the best education. So I was a Muslim from an orthodox background, living in a Buddhist country, attending a Catholic school. That’s the story of my life!”

After he arrived in Los Angeles, Usman quickly realized he would have to become pro-active in interfaith engagement. A good friend of his for many years, Steven Gourley, an ex-mayor of Culver City, urged him while the mosque was being constructed to get thoroughly involved in the local community and do outreach directly with the different religious groups.

 “I followed his advice. I always invited people to come and visit our mosque. Rabbis, pastors, school children, and church groups, including our neighborhood Catholic church, St. Augustine. They once held a special prayer service to help us get our operating permit. Can you picture that? Catholics doing a special prayer in the church so that the local mosque could get their operating permit? No one could make that up!” Over the years Usman developed a close friendship with many Jewish leaders as well.

Usman was happy to talk about the private and public aspects of his interfaith affiliations. “After 9/11 Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis and his wife, Ruth, came forward. He brought two school buses filled with members of Congregation Valley Beth Shalom in the San Fernando Valley so they could have the experience of visiting a mosque. It was the Day of Sacrifice, honoring the prophet Abraham. We were always telling people to come and visit. With me it was Open Mosque Day 365 days a year, not just one day a year. In fact, our mosque and Temple Emmanuel, under Rabbi Laura Geller’s leadership, launched the “Twinning Project,” an initiative designed by an orthodox rabbi from New York, Rabbi Marc Schneier, to encourage mosques and synagogues to sponsor mutual visits and pulpit exchanges. It was launched right here and then soared in popularity around the world. It still happens every year!” he said proudly.

The Changing Tide of Islamophobia

Americans are becoming more and more open to the idea that not all Muslims are bad, Usman stated, but with an afterthought. “Do you know who else supported the Muslims here in America? The Japanese-Americans. Their attorney, Asdaq Wahid, was a good friend of mine, and he told me the Japanese-American community would often bail Muslims out of jail. But no one ever heard about that!”

For those of us engaged in interfaith education, it has become obvious that someone who is part of a minority group and has experienced discrimination personally is more likely to step forward in solidarity when another minority group is threatened. That was demonstrated clearly after President Trump issued a ban on Muslim travel in January of 2017, and thousands of non-Muslims – many of them members of minority groups – rushed to airports around the country to protest the ban with handwritten signs expressing unequivocal solidarity: "We are all Muslims."

Usman, celebrating his final day of fasting during the month of Ramadan, left me with a final thought, a favorite saying of a Muslim philosopher resonates with him deeply: “We, the Jews, Christians, and Muslims, are ultimately all children of Abraham. In order to be a good Muslim, you have to be a good Jew first, then a good Christian second, and only then you can become a good Muslim.”

Header Photo: Wikipedia