Controversy over building new mosques in the US spills over into the Temecula Valley

Cynthia Daum, center, Mano Bakh, right, and other anti-Islam opponents picket the Islamic Center of Temecula Valley, July 2010.
Cynthia Daum, center, Mano Bakh, right, and other anti-Islam opponents picket the Islamic Center of Temecula Valley, July 2010.
Steven Cuevas/KPCC

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Opponents of a proposed Islamic center near “ground zero” in New York say it’s insensitive to build a Muslim house of worship so close to the site. The controversy over where an Islamic mosque can or can’t be built is also spilling over into other communities too. Conservative activists in Temecula are trying to block construction of what would be the first Islamic mosque in Southwest Riverside County.

Updated 10 a.m. Aug. 26, 2010

The Islamic Center of Temecula Valley started like many places of worship in the fast-growing city - in warehouse space. Seven years ago it squeezed into a bland white building once home to a paintball company.

At a recent Friday service, about 200 people crowd shoulder-to-shoulder on a thinly carpeted floor and in folding chairs lining the walls of the narrow prayer space. Islamic Center board president Hadi Nael says the congregation has outgrown the facility.

‘When we first started 12 years ago, we used to pray in our own homes,” says Nael, a longtime resident of the Temecula Valley. “A group of seven families. But after that got to be a little too much we decided to move in here.”

Nael says the congregation scrimped and saved money for years to build Southwest Riverside County’s first real mosque: a 25,000-square-foot facility with a prayer hall, recreation center, playground and more. The Islamic Center bought land 10 years ago next door to a Baptist church to carry out those plans. Imam Mahmoud Harmoush says it seemed like an ideal location at the time.

“We felt so confident since it is a religious group over there, a church they will be welcoming and supportive,” says Harmoush, who also teaches Arabic languages and Islamic culture at Cal State San Bernardino.

“Unfortunately so far they are not, probably due to the lack of understanding. We love them and that’s what I expected from our neighbors next door.”

But next door neighbor Pastor William Rench and his flock at Calvary Baptist Church opposed the mosque from the start. They worry it’ll be too big, and create traffic and noise problems. And there are bigger concerns that cannot be addressed by a planning commission.

“We’ve always held the view that Islam is wrong and that it’s a false a religion and we disagree with it,” says Rench. “We hold the view the Mormonism is wrong, that Jehovah’s Witnesses are wrong and that Roman Catholicism has gotten divergent from the truth. So, we’re not suggesting that Islam is not the only group that doesn’t get it right!”

Other opponents believe the Temecula mosque will attract radical followers or be used as a terrorist recruiting center, even though there is no evidence to back-up such claims. In fact, a study this year from Duke University found that mosques in the U.S. can actually discourage the spread of radical Islamic through youth programs and anti-violence campaigns.

That didn’t deter activists tied to a Temecula Republican women’s group and local Tea Party factions from staging a protest outside the Islamic center during Friday payers last month.

Cynthia Daum joined about two-dozen protestors across the street from the Islamic Center. They hoisted signs that declared “Muslims Danced for Joy on 9-11” and “Mosques are Monuments to Terrorism.”

“I don’t care for their religion, don’t care for their politics and I don’t want them here. Don’t want ‘em,” said Daum.

She and other opponents believe building mosques here, in New York and elsewhere in the US is part of a larger conspiracy.

“I don’t want them here opening mosques in every city, trying to open one up on Ground Zero in New York where they killed thousands and thousands of people,” said Daum. “And if their mosque was used for religious reasons, that’d be one thing - but they’re not. This is where they do their little powwow meetings. They don’t belong here!”

Another protestor, Mano Bakh, is among a cadre of conservative authors and bloggers promoting such fears. Bakh fled Iran 30 years ago, and later penned a memoir called “Escaping Islam.” He advocates the stripping away of many civil liberties for Muslims in Temecula and across the US, He says they should be “isolated.”

“If they want to do business with you, don’t do business with them,” said Bakh. “If they want loan, don’t give them loan. If they want to start a business, don’t let them. Because they are against us!”

That believe is strong among opponents, despite the fact the Islamic Center of the Temecula Valley has lived peacefully in the community for twelve years and been praised by local leaders for its non-denominational charitable work. It’s also part of an interfaith council that includes Christians, Jews and Mormons.

“Part of the call of the Christian faith is that your neighbor is not just your friend or the people in your congregation,” says Murrieta pastor Joe Zarro - an interfaith council organizer. He helped organize a large counter protest to last month’s anti-Mosque demonstration.

“Jesus calls us to value “love of neighbor” above doctrine. He says “all the law and all the prophets hang on loving your neighbor, on loving God. If your religious beliefs foster intolerance or bigotry you have to hold it against that principal and if doesn’t meet that, it’s not of God.”

The anti-Muslim sentiment in Temecula puzzles one self-described “law and order” conservative: the Islamic Center’s Harmoush. A admirer of Ronald Reagan, he came to the US from Syria 25 years ago.

“That is why we are in the United States of America: for the democracy, the religious freedom,” says Harmoush. “But if someone violates the law, I am 100% conservative with the law and order of the land. But to tell me you (must) conform to this, you do not accept this, you are not from this or that group. That is really un-American, and has nothing to do with religion.”

The Islamic Center of the Temecula Valley’s proposed mosque project goes before the Temecula planning commission in mid-November.

Harmoush and Rench met recently to air out their differences. The Baptist church leader says his parishioners won’t publicly protest the mosque’s construction if it goes forward as planned. But he says they might try to convert Muslims – and he says his Muslim neighbors are welcome to do the same.