Imam Izzattullah Mojadedi slipped off his black sandals and walked slowly across the soft beige carpet. After a few steps, he stopped and pointed to a large shattered window that was covered from the outside with a sheet of plywood.
"This is an evil job," he said, leaning forward and carefully rubbing his fingers over several pellet holes in the window, "even if you are destroying the home of your enemy."
Mojadedi, religious leader of the Islamic Center of the South Bay, has been leading daily prayers at the mosque in Lomita since it opened last March. But between prayers this week, Mojadedi has been setting his holy books aside to conduct tours--for sheriff's investigators, repairmen, reporters and some shocked members of his congregation.
On two consecutive mornings last week, vandals struck the mosque, pelting the building with bricks and rocks and riddling two front windows with pellets. It was the first time the mosque--a remodeled home on Walnut Street tucked between a 7-Eleven store and a two-story apartment complex--had been "touched by hostility and prejudice," as Mojadedi described the attacks.
On the second morning, vandals also struck the Islamic Center of Southern California near downtown Los Angeles, sending warning signals throughout the area's Islamic community that the vandalism may have been organized--perhaps, members fear, as retaliation for terrorist bombings last month at airports in Vienna and Rome.
"We are concerned," said Zaffar Hassanally, president of the board of directors at the South Bay mosque, which has an active membership of about 100 Islamic families from 19 cities in and around the South Bay. "With it happening at two locations, it seems that it is more than just some kids in the neighborhood having some fun."
The mosque last week hired a private security firm to patrol the area, and workers have begun replacing several broken windows, two shattered sliding glass doors and a kitchen cabinet door that was hit by a brick. The vandals caused an estimated $3,000 damage.
But repairing the mosque will require more than glass and wood for new windows and doors, Mojadedi said. As senseless as the vandalism may seem, it has given his congregation a sense of purpose--alerting its leaders to the urgent need for a public relations offensive in the South Bay.
"Islam is not known to the people in this country, and that is our fault, not your fault," said Mojadedi, who came to the Los Angeles area several years ago after fighting with the resistance in his native Afghanistan. "Islam is a religion of peace. Some of the last words spoken by our prophet were, 'Be kind to your neighbors.' "
Board President Hassanally, a naturalized American citizen who moved to the United States from Pakistan almost 25 years ago, said the mosque has kept a low profile since it was organized by a group of families in late 1982 in the community room at the Courtyard Mall in Rolling Hills Estates. The religious community grew by word of mouth, eventually moving to the YMCA in Torrance and then to the Clark Stadium Community Building in Hermosa Beach.
Last year, a handful of families pooled their resources and came up with a down payment for the property in Lomita, Hassanally said. In March, as extensive renovations were under way to convert the house and its garage into a mosque and classroom building, the congregation moved into its first permanent home.
"It was very gratifying for us," Hassanally said, recalling the day when the religious community began holding its daily prayers at the new mosque. "We definitely felt there was a need for a mosque in the South Bay. People were driving to Los Angeles or Orange County."
Despite its growth from a few families to a congregation of several hundred people, the Islamic Center never made an aggressive move for new members, Hassanally said. Muslims from more than a dozen countries attend the mosque, as well as some American converts, and the center relied on the local Islamic communities to pass the word about the mosque and its programs. The South Bay center has never advertised in a local newspaper, he said.
"Most of the people tend to be shy and reticent when they first come to this country," Hassanally said. "It is a cultural thing. You don't want to draw attention to yourself."
But the low profile, Hassanally acknowledged in an interview this week, may have come to hurt the mosque. Not only has the center attracted just a fraction of the estimated 2,000 Muslims in the South Bay, but it has remained a relatively obscure institution to most non-Muslims in the area.
"Part of the frustration is that Islam is such a major religion in the world, but it is unknown, misunderstood and misperceived in this country," he said. "Muslims here are just like other Americans. They just want their religious freedom and the right to practice their own religion.