The largest mosque in Southern California is located in Culver City, just south of Beverly Hills, not far from the Sony Pictures movie lot.
The blue-and-white-tiled building—with an imposing four-story minaret that resembles a USAF Delta missile—was built on Washington Boulevard in 1998 to accommodate 2,000 worshipers. It sits in the middle of a working-class neighborhood whose bungalows were once occupied by defense workers, but have become increasingly gentrified over the past decade. My dental hygienist lives there now and has flipped several houses, at great profit.
On Sunday, Sept. 10, as the local streets were marked by realtors’ pennants indicating houses for sale by people trying to catch the last wave of the turning market, the neighborhood was also the site of a peculiar community event.
Last month, a political group called the United American Committee (“Keeping America Safe, and Working for a Better Tomorrow,”) challenged the mosque to issue a fatwa repudiating Osama bin Laden and other terrorists by name. When the mosque refused, the committee decided to press the issue and commemorate 9/11 by hanging bin Laden in effigy outside.
At 4 p.m., there were slightly fewer than 100 protesters from the U.A.C. on the west side of Huron Street (the mosque is located at the corner of Huron and Washington,) carrying American flags and chanting, “Remember 9/11! Remember 9/11!” It was a predominantly white, middle-aged crowd—a few blacks, a couple of Hell’s Angels, a handful of college kids (protesting for women’s rights in Islamic countries) and a smattering of paramilitary types. Occasionally, the chant would change to “No more jihad!” or a communal singing of “God Bless America.”
On the east side of the street, directly in front of the mosque, there were two distinct groups: First, 70 or so racially mixed counter-protesters of both sexes, many of whom identified themselves as being with the International Socialist Organization—in other words, old lefties in spirit if not age. Through a bullhorn, this group taunted the American flag-carriers with counter-chants, alternating between “Racists go home!” and “You are Nazis—can’t you see? Muslims aren’t the enemy!” Their banner du jour declared “U.S./U.K./Israel—The Real Axis of Evil.”
And separated from this group—again, on the mosque side of the street—was a scrum of clergymen, primarily from the United Methodist Church of Southern California, giving interviews to the press.
Curiously, there were no police in sight: not a single cruiser blocking the street, no cops standing around just in case. The only protection (in the loosest sense of the word) seemed to be that both sides had dozens of video cameras and were intent on scanning every face in the crowd for use later on, if need be.
After 20 minutes, a silver-haired minister stepped into the street to confront the protesters. He was wearing a long white robe that revealed a pair of blue jeans sticking out above his sandaled feet. “We need understanding,” he pleaded. “We need to be able to talk to each other.” At which point, a fortysomething man in olive combat boots and a Mossad T-shirt (though not Jewish) got directly in his face: “You’re a dupe!” he said, all but snorting. “Do you think they’d let you preach in Mecca? Tell me: How many churches, how many temples, how many Methodists are there in Saudi Arabia?” Rather than answer directly, the Reverend just repeated himself. “We need to be able to talk to each other.”
Nearby, a spokesman for the mosque, Usman Madha, watched with an unreadable smile. “Osama is a criminal,” he said. “We have absolutely nothing to do with him. We were the first mosque to condemn 9/11 and kicked out a few people who didn’t agree with us.”
Maybe. Because what I’ve out here is some the some back story on the King Fahd mosque. According to The Washington Post, it was funded by the King of Saudi Arabia and his son, for $8 million, to promote Wahhabism. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, two of the hijackers—Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid Almihdhar—spent time there while in Southern California. The National Review links the mosque to Sgt. Asan Akbar, who threw grenades at his fellow U.S. soldiers in Iraq in 2003. And according to the Los Angeles Times, the mosque’s former imam, Fahad al Thumairy, was deported that same year for terrorism links.
As the protest continued, the ministers, along with the mosque spokesman, gathered on a terrace overlooking the street, where Pastor Rich Bolin of Culver Palms United Methodist Church asked them all to join hands “in solidarity with our brothers” as he led the group in a chorus of “Amazing Grace.”
Watching this, two other things struck me as odd on this already odd afternoon: First, there was the apparent absence of an imam—a robed official, a clear authority figure, as opposed to a media spokesman—from the mosque; and second, there was a lack of what would (politely) be called “Middle Eastern men between the ages of 18 and 26.” They were nowhere in sight. At least not yet.
On the one hand, I can’t blame the mosque for not rising to the demands of a fringe group of protesters. They have no obligation to heed every call for them to repudiate Osama bin Laden. But on the other hand, I can’t help but feel that if this had been a Jewish temple or a Catholic church, the rabbi or priest would have been out there leading the way on that terrace. They wouldn’t have let someone else do their bidding.
At 4:45 p.m., a white U-Haul pick-up truck appeared with an improvised gallows and a Halloween-masked effigy of Mr. bin Laden. Standing in the back was Ted Hayes, a dreadlocked black Republican, an advocate for the homeless and former leftist who now preaches the Bill Cosby gospel of personal responsibility. “My fellow believers in God—Muslims, Christians and Jews—we bring you the terrorist who hijacked Islam,” he said. “Bin Laden betrayed the people—my people, your people. Come join us.”
“Racist!” the taunts came back. “No more lynchings!” Mr. Hayes smiled at his detractors. “The Arab street taught us to do this. To burn the flags, to hang the criminals.” As he said this, a handful of young, bearded, Middle Eastern–looking men emerged from inside the mosque, onto the terrace, to watch.
And so bin Laden was hung; shoes were thrown; “The Star Spangled Banner” was sung. Some of the young men on the terrace laughed, and others glowered, as if what they were witnessing was both a joke and irrelevant.
As the demonstration broke up, an LAPD helicopter appeared overhead; the protestors moved on to a 7-Eleven parking lot across Washington Boulevard; two blond, middle-aged Joni Mitchell types stood on the mosque terrace, holding their palms out toward the protesters to “deflect the negative energy.” This is California, after all.
On the way back to my car, I passed a silver Chrysler minivan parked in an alleyway facing the mosque. Inside: two Culver City police officers, taking pictures with digital binoculars. Not of the protesters, but of the men on the terrace.