For the past 12 years Southwest Riverside County’s Muslim community has worshiped in peace, in a building in Temecula’s business center hidden in the outskirts of the city. Their presence has gone mostly unnoticed, but when a public hearing was announced, the Islamic Center of Temecula Valley or ICTV, would build a nearly 25,000 square-foot mosque on a parcel of land on Nicolas Road and Calle Medusa in Temecula, a call to protest was dispersed through the Internet. The rally was set for June 30th and would coincide with the center’s regularly scheduled call to prayer. On Friday about a dozen protesters heeded the call.
The spiritual leader of ICTV, Imam Mahmoud Harmoush, a 20-year resident of California and professor at Cal State San Bernardino is credited with establishing the center over a decade ago.
“There were about 25-30 families, and now we have 150 families,” he said.
Harmoush sees the need for the center as nothing out of the ordinary and compares their need to other religious groups in the area that have outgrown their places of worship.
“As you see this place is a warehouse, it’s not really suited for our religious services at large and we are growing a little bigger and our children needed safe and interesting place like a backyard and grounds and so forth,” he says.
According to Harmoush there have been a few incidents of intolerance and says it’s nothing any place of worship in the area, or any other area for that matter, haven’t seen. He calls living in Southwest Riverside County “wonderful”.
“We have always been welcomed, the people (Temecula, Murrieta residents) are loving and supportive and have not really experienced any negativities,” he said.
Harmoush, who is also a member of the Interfaith Council of Murrieta and Temecula, is proud of the work they do at the ICTV, which he says includes helping those in need. A few years ago, giving to those in crisis meant reaching into their pockets to help victims of Hurricane Katrina, lately, because of the economic downturn, it’s closer to home and a lot more common.
“People are struggling to make ends meet,” he says. “Providing for those families in need, whether Muslims or not has been a priority for the center, that’s where our energy and focus should be right now.”
Harmoush was disheartened when he heard the news that people were planning to protest their building project, one, he says, his followers have worked hard for. When it comes building issues with the mosque, he looks to the City of Temecula for guidance, whose procedures he describes as very thorough, which is why he doesn’t understand the sudden uproar.
“We’ve owned the land for the past 10 years. We thought we better develop it and our people put in dollar after dollar to build that place,” he said. “And now, all of a sudden, after 2 years of engineering and following and meeting with the city planning commission and rules and regulations they gave us, the appointment for the public hearing, and all of a sudden people are standing against this project and really there is no practical, justifiable reason.”
We The People, the group that originally organized the protest, have posted messages on their website saying they will not tolerate Sharia Law, or radicals. Harmoush insists that the Muslims at the center have nothing in common with radical extremists and that he and the group are being accused of being what he preaches against and denounces. He says Muslims that adhere to practices that call for the killing of innocents and oppression of women, are following ancient laws and teachings that do not apply in modern times. He felt the community in Temecula had come together after the September 11, 2001 attacks but as a whole, the terrorist attacks have set the community back.
“These events were devastating to Muslims, because we are all labeled as somehow responsible for that,” he said. “This is a condemned act of violence, worldwide. Muslims in North America and we here community of Temecula condemn that act and any act that destroys human life and property.”
He shared that a friend of his was murdered because he was thought to be a Muslim Arab, he was Egyptian and a Christian.
“After that things became a little bit tight, because everyone with different accents, different looks, different faiths have become almost suspect,” he said.
Harmoush believes that politics is behind the recent wave of hate.
“Some movements, that lately, started popping-up in to the political and social scene seem like they want to get busy with somebody,” he says. “And they find whoever is vulnerable in the society and they will hit on them whether the scapegoat is the Muslim, the immigration issue, or maybe the health care plan or whatever is out there that they can criticize and make a move.”
When asked, if the shoe were on the other foot, would he be afraid, he answered, “We shouldn’t be afraid, we are in a country of democratic values and freedom,” adding, “we , our children and all communities should be free to worship God and committing themselves to the good values of our society and country. People who are practicing such harassment and intimidation, they should be concerned that they are violating the constitution.”
Harmoush asserts their record speaks for itself and says the center has always preached inclusion. He proudly points to flags of all nations that hang in the room adjacent to the prayer room, he says they’re a symbolic reminder of their call to unity. Harmoush urges anyone who is curious or doubts their intentions in the community to visit ICTV anytime, an invitation he says has always been extended. The group also holds a yearly “Open Mosque Day”, a two-day event where all people of all faiths and beliefs are encouraged to visit as a way to cultivate understanding among the community. Still, he says, there are some that would rather listen to hearsay and not see for themselves.
“Ignorance always closes the doors, and puts you in the darkness,” he said referring to anyone who uses any religion as an excuse to hate.
Harmoush is grateful for the kind acts being shown to his community during this trying time. Support has come from various religious leaders in the community but he says the ones that come from average citizens are the most meaningful.
“I got a letter from a gentleman saying that he regretted such acts were happening in the 21st century in our great country of the United States of America, this wonderful, beautiful place, he said (the letter), ‘I am willing to support in any way possible,’ and he wrote a check for $100.00 to the Islamic Center of Temecula Valley,” Harmoush said with a smile.
Harmoush hopes that with better understanding among people who believe in the same God, progress in peace can be achieved. When asked if he harbors any ill will towards the protestors he said, “We will pray for them, I will pray that God open their hearts,” he said. “We worship the same God, Allah is God in Arabic.”
One call to protest came in email form via emails sent to several print media announcing the rally, urging members to bring Bibles, flags, signs and dogs and singing voices. The dogs and singing were emphasized because they said, Muslims “forbid women to sing” and “hate dogs”. The second came by post on the national Tea Party Patriots event page from a member of We The People Southwest Riverside County Citizens In Action, a local conservative affiliate group.
Diana Serafin, nor anyone from We The People, returned email or phone messages requesting an interview or statement, but in an LA Times interview, Serafin, said she had nothing to do with coordinating the demonstration, but did plan to attend. In another, more recent interview with TPMMuckracker.com, she said she helped spread the word about the protest. An excerpt from TPM’s online article quoted Serafin as saying:
“They hate Jews, they hate Christians, they hate women, they hate dogs, (the idea of the new mosque) scares the daylights out of me.”
Still, Serafin insisted she’s no bigot.
“I want you to stress this — I’m not prejudiced,” Serafin told me. “I worked retail for nine years and I didn’t even know my manager was gay until someone told me. And when I found out, I didn’t care.”
Bob Kowell, president of the Murrieta-Temecula Republican Assembly, says Serafin organized the event, then she tried to cancel it.
This is the original post, which included her name and phone number (blackened here for privacy concerns):
The page also housed a link to the to the Temecula Tea Party Patriots, who has asked all postings be removed and denied any affiliation with We The People on its site and stated this in a press release:
“The organizers of the Menifee, Hemet, Murrieta and Temecula Tea Parties wish to emphatically state that they not involved in organizing any planned Mosque protest, but that they would strongly condemn the use of dogs to harass anybody, anywhere.”
Kowell also wants to make it clear that his group has nothing to do with We The People adding that as a Republican, he cannot condone any act that is against freedom. He is concerned, however, that building a mosque that large might attract new worshipers and believes this peaceful group of Muslims may become vulnerable to radical Islamists.
“In every group you get an element, we get an element, I mean in the Republican Party, that are really, super radicals and we say, ‘ok, well, you can’t be a part of it because you’re a racist,” he said. “So there’s these groups and sometimes you can’t control them, they’re inside the church, club, mosque or the synagogue that are underground, you don’t even know they’re there.”
We The People’s website does show it’s opposition to Islam. Prominent political conservatives like, Sarah Palin, who Kowell agrees with, have not shied away from expressing their views on a mosque proposed at Ground Zero known.
Kowell doesn’t mince words when asked what he thinks about a mosque built at Ground Zero.
“Putting it (the mosque) at Ground Zero, it’s just a slap in the face to the families of those who died (at Ground Zero on 9/11) there,” he said. “It’s obvious it’s meant as a slap in the face to the people of the United States, if people can’t see that, they need help because putting it at Ground Zero, is like putting a Nazi party in the middle of a Jewish neighborhood.”
Kowell is certain that democracy has no place in Islam and says countries like Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia are proof because they use Islam as a political system.
“The biggest thing I could say is that we are Republicans. The Republican Party was founded as the anti-slavery and anti-polygamy party in 1854,” he said. “Polygamy by men was considered slavery over women. I have noticed that the Muslims in other countries practice polygamy, thus slavery over women.”
When asked again, specifically about ICTV members and mosque Kowell emphasized, “I can’t speak for everyone, I just want to say we’re not opposed to any religion, so if they’re a peaceful religion that is not a problem.”
Leaders of the City of Temecula have remained all business, not commenting on the controversial aspect of the issue. The public hearing is scheduled for August 18th.