Saturday, June 11, 2005

Mosque fire threatens legacy of High Desert Muslim leader

From: The Sun

ADELANTO - It's a wonder Shaikh Zaid Assfy chose this undeveloped High Desert plot for the sole Muslim cemetery in Southern California.

But, two decades ago, he did. On 35 acres, 3.8 miles north of where the town's main road turns to dirt, Assfy built the High Desert's first mosque and a sacred burial ground. Around it, an Islamic community grew to hundreds of families.

After the shaikh died in 2000, though, a mosque opened in Victorville. Without Assfy, many Muslims relocated their religious activities.

"That man was the cornerstone,' said John Bridges, 33, a Muslim convert and Assfy's last student.

A June 3 fire at the mosque, which mourners used for prayer and meditation, further threatens to diffuse the Muslim community here.

"The Muslims may start feeling safer to bury their dead in a multi-faith cemetery rather than an all-Islamic cemetery until things quiet down,' said Dany Doueiri, an Arabic studies professor at Cal State San Bernardino who plans to be buried there.

Authorities continue to investigate what caused the first fire at a Southern California mosque. But they lack evidence and they don't expect to find much.

"It is unlikely if we haven't found it by now,' said Chip Patterson, spokesman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

The FBI, sheriff's and fire officials have found no evidence to indicate a hate crime.

"Really, no one with certainty can say it is or is not, unless someone comes forward and says, 'I did it because I don't like Muslims,'' said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

"Unfortunately, it doesn't matter what it is anymore,' he continued. "What matters is what it is perceived to be by the victims.'

The cemetery's caretakers, Ali and Michelle Khawaja, said they don't want to "jump to conclusions.'

"People ask you, 'Oh, do you think it was hatred?' It's hard to think that when you feel so much love and support,' said Bridges, a gravedigger who said some residents visited this week to offer their condolences.

Before the blaze became international news, it flew under the radar of many Adelanto denizens.

"People here never even knew it was there. I've been here since '60 and the first time I heard of it was on TV,' Chuck Cawthorne, 67, said as he enjoyed an afternoon beer at the Amvets Restaurant on Adelanto Road.

The cemetery is at the northernmost end of Adelanto. Three miles to the south is Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville. Silver Lakes is five or more miles north, Highway 395 a ways west.

The only thing nearby to the east is an impromptu junkyard stacked with cars and single-wide trailers going nowhere fast; a worn yacht is sunk in the sand.

Assfy found and bought the land in the mid-1980s. On it Muslim families erected tents and set up camp.

They were separated from their neighbors by miles of rocks, sand and Joshua trees.

"We were all learning how to live in the desert,' said Barbara Howard, 68, whose small home three miles north of the cemetery is powered by solar panels, gas and propane.

Even after the Muslim campers left, the shaikh lived in the mosque. Since Assfy died, Ali Khawaja, the current caretaker, stayed occasionally. In recent years, the cemetery and mosque were repeatedly vandalized.

Authorities said the blaze may have been caused accidentally by a transient or transients. The fire was reported at 4:24 a.m. June 3. No traces of accelerants were found, Patterson said.

Insurance will cover the damage to the mosque, about $225,000, said Michelle Khawaja. A night-time security guard likely will be hired, she said.

About 500 people are buried at the cemetery. Another 2,000 plots are reserved, many by people who live hundreds of miles away.

The cemetery follows Islamic tradition. The dead are tipped on their side, facing east, toward Mecca. Bodies are cleaned but not embalmed. Shrouded in white, they are laid in the ground without a coffin.

Several cemeteries in Southern California have sections reserved for Muslims, but burial at those sites are forbidden by the state without a coffin, said Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council, which overseas Southern California mosques.

"The only reason this particular one is allowed, at least right now, is because it is out in the boonies ... and it does not affect running water,' he said.

Assfy's grave stands alone. While most are 500 feet from the mosque, Assfy, the shepherd even in death, lies near the former sanctuary, the blackened rubble filled with burned pages of the Quran.

"Whoever may have done this, God help them,' Syed said.