Reporting from Madera, Calif. — This is a small mosque in a small town about as far as you can get — in more ways than one — from New York City.
Its minaret rises between a car lot and a veterinary hospital on Road 26, a couple of miles north of town. There are nothing but wide-open fields across the street from the recently vandalized Madera Islamic Center.
FOR THE RECORD:
Mosque hate crime: An article in Sunday's Section A about a hate crime at a Madera, Calif., mosque omitted the attribution for a quote. It was Marciela Garcia, the receptionist for Dr. Muhammad Anwar, who said: "I've seen these Muslim doctors help people who have no money, no health insurance; start free clinics; run food drives. Dr. Anwar is my boss, my friend and a caring person. I feel like I would lay down my life for him. But what do you say and who do you say it to?" —
The men praying here on a recent night included a cardiologist and a pediatrician from Pakistan; two grocers from Yemen; a part-time farmer from Morocco; the owner of a trucking company who was born a McAllister, a member of a black family that arrived in Madera during the Dust Bowl; and a 77-year-old retired mechanical engineer from Syria who takes a shortcut through the fence to get from his house to the mosque.
Many mosque members have lived in the community 30 years or more. There are some 200 Muslims in Madera, and about 20 of them are doctors. They've slapped the bottoms of newborns who are now grown-up community members and adjusted people's high blood pressure medicine.
"We're not travelers. We live here. We're Americans. We're Rotarians!" said Dr. Mohammad Ashraf, a cardiologist.
Yet it was here, in one of a series of events, that a brick almost smashed a window. A sign was left: "Wake up America the enemy is here." Then on Aug. 24, more menacing signs appeared, including "No temple for the god of terrorism."
The Madera County Sheriff's Department has classified the vandalism a hate crime. A group called the American Nationalist Brotherhood claims responsibility. Sheriff's officials said they have never heard of the group in this largely Latino city of 58,000.
"Obviously, people are connecting this to New York, the debate on whether they should or should not build a mosque near ground zero," said Erica Stuart, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Department. "But, still. Here? What in the world does any of that have to do with Madera County?"
Now the FBI is in town. The Islamic Cultural Center in Fresno, the nearest big city, held a news conference at the Madera mosque Thursday to combat what they say is growing anti-Muslim sentiment stirred up by the Manhattan debate, especially on local talk radio.
And a Central California farm town with laid-back ways is navigating exactly what it means to stick up for your friends and neighbors.
The day after the latest vandalism at the mosque, Denise Salazar, office manager for Dr. Muhammad Anwar, and Maricela Garcia, the receptionist, were initially silent. They had seen the signs at the mosque on their drive to work.
"I was riled up. But I was at work. I didn't feel it was right for me to bring it up," Salazar said.
"I've seen these Muslim doctors help people who have no money, no health insurance; start free clinics; run food drives. Dr. Anwar is my boss, my friend and a caring person. I feel like I would lay down my life for him. But what do you say and who do you say it to?"
That afternoon, Thomas Lewis, a 58-year-old retired delivery driver, showed up for his doctor's appointment.
"Can you believe those idiots?! That vandalism?! I cannot accept linking all Muslims to 9/11," he said, loud enough for everyone in the reception room to hear.
"He was so passionate," said Garcia. "I was glad he brought it up. After that everyone started talking about how terrible it was."
Lewis said he plans to correct anyone who draws a connection between the whole religion of Islam and terrorism.
"Me and the wife, if we hear somebody talking bad about Muslims, we speak up and say 'to me, that's un-American,' " Lewis said. "There are some people who are just mean-like, and they want to find a reason to hate. Most people are good, but they're silent. You have to speak out what you believe in your heart."
That same day, a Pepsi delivery driver heard a radio report about the vandalism. He back-tracked on his route to run in and tell Shaukat Mohammad, who works at the Union 76 Station, that he was sorry to hear what happened.
Mohammad had watched the faces of his sons, Qasim, 17, and Saim, 13, when they had seen the latest vandalism at the mosque the night before.
The Pepsi driver was the only one outside the Muslim community who expressed condolences to Mohammad.
"But it made him feel good. One person matters," Saim said.