In Southern California, a Very Local Mosque Dispute

  • Share
  • Read Later
Islamic Center of Temecula Valley

A rendering of the Islamic Center of Temecula Valley's proposed mosque

Temecula, Calif., has little in common with New York City. But the debate over a new mosque in the sleepy suburban town east of Camp Pendleton echoes many of the themes expressed in the controversy surrounding the Park51 Islamic center to be built near the World Trade Center site.

In Southern California, the question is whether the Islamic Center of Temecula Valley should be granted a permit to build a mosque on land it owns next to two established churches. The Islamic center currently holds prayer services in a warehouse next to a pipeline company, down the street from a smog-test station and a masonry-supply yard. During Friday prayers on July 30, around 25 local conservative activists stood outside shouting slogans of hate through a bullhorn, carried signs with messages like "No More Mosques in America" and brought along several dogs, hoping to offend Muslim sensibilities.

"We've never had a problem with anybody before this," says Imam Mahmoud Harmoush, the center's spiritual leader and a lecturer at California State University in San Bernardino. "It is common sense that you don't disrupt a religious service by creating noise and bringing dogs."

Some locals, however, rallied to the Muslim community's defense. "We had about 75 people in solidarity with the mosque," said the Rev. Joe Zarro, co-chair of the local interfaith council. "The Temecula area is very fair and tolerant. There are a lot of social conservatives but they mostly support the mosque. The people speaking out against the mosque don't have any relationship with Islam and are coming from a place of ignorance."

They certainly come from a place of paranoia: one of the anti-mosque protest leaders, Diana Serafin, 59, says Muslims want to take over the U.S. from within. "We have a constitutional right to freedom of religion," she argues. "But Islam is more than a religion. It is an ideology to enforce Shari'a law [Islamic jurisprudence] in America, and Shari'a law is in direct contrast to the American Constitution."

The proposed 25,000-square-foot mosque would be approximately the same size as the churches next door and would hold between 150 and 300 worshippers, say mosque officials and city planners. Assistant Temecula city manager Bob Johnson says the city will do a traffic study before the mosque goes before the Planning Commission for final approval in November. In addition to the protest and a petition drive against the mosque, the Islamic Center of Temecula must also contend with a church neighbor whose pastor is anything but friendly.

Pastor Bill Rench, whose Calvary Baptist Church sits just across the cul-de-sac from the mosque site, says Islam and Christianity are like "oil and water" and that Islam is "intolerant at its core." He argues that when Islam becomes dominant in a society, "you also see a repression of freedom of speech and religious expression. In my view, building a mosque in Temecula would act as a magnet. It would embolden the more aggressive acting on the beliefs." In an interview with TIME, Rench accused the Imam of refusing to disavow Islamic terrorism. Harmoush says this is patently untrue. "Unconditionally, I have explained to him [Rench] and others, that I disagree and condemn all sorts of violence by the mentioned organizations," Harmoush explains. On Tuesday, Rench and Harmoush squared off on CNN in an interview conducted by John King. They did not bridge their differences.

Ron Patterson, 65, says a lady recently canvassed his neighborhood with a petition to stop the mosque. She told him that 3,000 people would be attending the mosque with services three times a day. The retired mailman signed because he is concerned about increased traffic and about possible religious extremists. "I am sure most mosques are perfectly fine, but it is a natural concern." Patterson says he thinks the mosque will be built. "If the city says O.K., what are you going to do? It's freedom of speech and religion."

Antagonism toward Islam in Temecula breaks largely along generational lines. At a small, well-manicured park near the churches and the proposed mosque's site, a group of young adults playing basketball shrugs off the controversy. Finishing a jump shot, Dante Paez, a 29-year-old African American, says, "I am not religious, but it seems something like that should never be wrong. I say build it." Paul Lopez, 34, adds, "Why are people mad about something that brings joy to people. To each his own." Brianna Bowers, 16, has Muslim friends and said there had been discussions about the controversy at school and at her home. She says her Muslim friends observe that there are dozens of churches in town and wonder what is wrong with building one mosque. Bowers, who is African American and Latino, says, "I think it would broaden the culture in Temecula."

At a local shopping center, Disa Dearie, a 39-year-old mother of four and born-again Christian, is not hostile to the local project, although she opposes the New York City one. "I don't have a problem with the mosque down the street," she says. "[But] I have a problem with the mosque in New York at Ground Zero. The mosque in New York is an aggressive affront to our nation. I believe in religious freedom, but a landing gear fell on that site. Why not a nondenominational chapel?" She says opposition to the local mosque in Temecula comes from older residents, not from her peers.