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Terrorism Probe Shakes Lodi and Its Pakistani Community

About 2,000 Muslims have put down roots in the farming town. Even after 9/11, ethnic tensions were minimal--until this week.

June 11, 2005|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

LODI, Calif. — 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.

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