Rifts widen in Lodi’s Pakistani community
LODI: Twenty-year-old Nawaz Shah was tired of his community being invisible. So three years ago, Shah and a group of other Pakistani-Americans in this small agricultural town helped launched the annual Pakistan Independence Day festival, complete with kabobs, a fashion show with traditional clothing and dancing in the 100-degree (Fahrenheit, 38 Celsius-plus) heat.
“We wanted everybody to know we were here,” said Shah, last year’s master of ceremonies at the event to mark Pakistan’s independence from the British rule on August 14, 1947. There will be no such celebration this year, after the community was thrust into the spotlight by the arrests or detentions of five local Pakistanis who federal authorities accuse of terrorism-related activities.
“We didn’t feel it was quite the right time,” said Robina Asghar, a social worker who helped Shah and his friends plan past events. “Two of our religious leaders are in the jail. That’s a lot of stress on the community. It’s not a time to celebrate anything.” The festival’s cancellation illustrates how the federal terrorism investigation has affected Lodi’s Pakistani community. A local imam and his son were detained on immigration charges and have agreed to be deported. Another imam remains in federal custody on similar immigration charges, and a father and his 22-year-old son are charged with lying to federal investigators about the son’s attendance at an Al Qaeda terrorist training camp in Pakistan. The investigation and national attention have aggravated a pre-existing rift within Lodi’s Muslim community, sparked a bitter power struggle at the Lodi Muslim Mosque and cast suspicion on the community from some non-Muslims.
The Pakistani community in Lodi dates back to the 1930s, when Pakistanis came to the town founded by German farmers to work the fields. The farms surrounding Lodi are still pruned and picked by many Pakistani-Americans. The community kept close ties to their homeland and returned for weddings and holidays and to meet their spouses.
In Lodi, Pakistani-Americans often stood out but rarely drew attention to themselves. In recent years, a series of hate crimes spawned an effort to strengthen ties between the town’s growing minority groups and its Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities. Local leaders formed a hate crime task force and came together for an interfaith event called the Celebration of Abraham.
They credit these efforts with preventing a backlash against Pakistanis here as the terrorism investigation unfolded. Many in the Muslim community say they haven’t felt tension from the broader community. But these high-profile efforts don’t tell the whole story. Some non-Muslims say they are more suspicious of the Pakistani community since the arrests in June.
“I’ve never had any sort of prejudice against Pakistani people, however I’m starting to get that,” said Bryan Stamos, 54, adding that he thought that Pakistani leaders had remained too tightlipped after the investigation began. “To be honest with you, the silence tells you that there’s more going on. The silence is telling.” Stamos and others are questioning the intentions of an Islamic school that had been proposed by one of the arrested imams.
An FBI official has testified that the imam planned to use the center as a terrorism camp to train followers to kill Americans. Muslim supporters of the schools say the new skepticism is frustrating. “This is not a Saudi school. We’re in Lodi. This is Lodi school,” said Shujah Khan, a member of the Farooqia Center board. “I wish I could write well and tell them that.”
Nowhere has the terror investigation reverberated more strongly than within the Pakistani community. What some call a long-standing tension between more liberal and conservative leaders has developed into a bitter power struggle and a community-wide divide. Those loyal to one of the accused imams suspect the other camp of turning him in to federal authorities on a green card violation. Many say they’re uncomfortable worshipping at the mosque and have begun driving to another town to pray. The new mosque leaders say the imam had led the community astray. They say they’ve decided to hold a smaller independence day celebration on Sunday, in part to show the non-Muslim community that they have nothing to hide and will not be cowered by this controversy. “We would not cancel Fourth of July for a terrorist attack,” said mosque president Mohammed Shoaib. “We will celebrate.” ap