Muslims in the Valley
Knowing 'our neighbors, our friends'
Bloodshed persists among Muslims and Jews over land, religion and creed, killing and displacing thousands for decades in the Middle East.
But here in the San Ramon Valley, Jewish and Muslim families and other faith groups invite each other to their homes, share stories and forge close bonds that dissolve the veils of ignorance and illusion.
"When I came to America, I don't think I'd ever met a Jewish person," said Dr. Moby Rana, 50, a Blackhawk resident from Pakistan and the outreach coordinator for the San Ramon Valley Islamic Center. "People develop a certain kind of image of people of other faith groups and there is no basis."
"Once you get to know people, you realize there is no difference," he added. "We get the opportunity to interact with different faiths and get to know them. It's personal. That's tremendous. My better friends are Jews."
Rabbi Dan Goldblatt, of Beth Chaim Congregation in Danville, said the relationships take effort.
"We have worked at it," Goldblatt said. "It is a priority for us. We have taken the time to get to know one another and to do things together as communities. We built a level of trust that is the key to our ability to cooperate."
"There is a lot of energy in the Valley to find places of healing on these wounded issues," he continued. "We have done a lot of important work."
Around 250 Muslim families of the San Ramon Valley Islamic Center are celebrating Ramadan this month, a holy observance involving fasting, charity and self-accountability.
Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammed revealed their central spiritual book, the Quran, during Ramadan. At a group prayer service earlier this month, a Muslim scholar talked about the importance of detachment from material things, cleanliness, helping others and piety.
"This is a month of patience," the Imam said. "Patience is paradise."
Rana said other faith groups have prayed with Muslims during Ramadan.
"We feel blessed that people are celebrating with us," he said.
The center in San Ramom, created 15 years ago, offers children's classes, an open carpeted space for prayers, community events and senior nights. It also has youth classes, where Rana's 18-year-old son Saad participates. Rana said the youths gather together, read the Quran and then eat pizza.
"There is a fairly large community here," said Abid Faroo q, a center trustee and Danville resident. "Most of us have been here since 1977."
Members of the San Ramon Valley Islamic Center, Beth Chaim Congregation and other faith groups, such as Peace Lutheran Church, have been doing numerous activities together for several years.
Goldblatt mentioned that he and other faith leaders spoke in support of Muslims who wanted a permit to broader their usage at the center in 2002, a year after Sept. 11. They all spoke in front of the zoning board while residents made comments questioning their patriotism and wondering if they were associated with terrorism.
The Islamic Center was seeking zoning approval to expand its 1,200-square-foot building to 4,500 in November 2002, said Patricia Edwards, San Ramon city clerk.
"We felt compelled to stand up for them," Goldblatt said.
He recalled hearing people say, "I don't trust these people" and "This is a breeding ground for Al Qaeda." He added that the comments are public record.
"Their response was horrific," Goldblatt said. "It was ugly. It was really quite hurtful. There was a lot of pervasive fear. It was after 9/11. People were deeply upset. It was paranoia."
In addition to speaking at the zoning board meeting in San Ramon, the spiritual leaders in the area drafted a letter of support.
"We know these folks," Goldblatt added. "We worked with them. They are our neighbors and friends."
Board members approved the Islamic Center's request.
"They were appalled by the racist nature of the response they got," Goldblatt said.
Rana said the Muslim community appreciates the interfaith groups' support, especially after Sept. 11. The groups also supported the Muslims whose mosque was burned by arsonists in Antioch. The mosque also has suffered break-ins, hate crimes, according to media reports.
"How much do they know about Islam?" Rana asked. "Some people think Islam is radical and teaches fanaticism and violence."
"It's more out of ignorance," he added.
He noted he heard racial remarks about Muslims on this year's Sept. 11, but overall, the center and the Islamic community have been well-received.
"We have been fortunate to not have any hate crimes or such incidents in our center," Rana said. "We always gather and say our prayers in peace without any problems."
Rana said the interfaith community used to hold a "Sulha," which is an Islamic gathering for reconciliation. They held services at different locations each month and talked about peace in their religions.
"They've been very helpful," Rana said. "They came to us and said, 'What can we do? Please don't hesitate (to call us).' We know we have very good support from them."
Traditionally, Sulha mediators step in between two families who are tearing themselves or a village apart and strive to resolve the conflict. They remind them of their humanity, avoid talking about politics, and encourage them to break bread with each other, Goldblatt said.
At the Sulha in the Valley, each faith group shared one personal story that would touch others.
"I thought it was wonderful," Rana said. "We talked about religion. I learned that there are more similarities than differences. We highlighted the similarities. There is not that big of a difference."
He noted the annual Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County held its meeting at the Islamic Center and elected Rabbi Dan Asher as its president last September.
Rana said Muslims participated at Peace Lutheran Church's Holy Convergence, a meeting of different faiths groups, including Buddhist, Hindu, Baha'i and the Korean Church. This year's Holy Convergence will be Sunday, Sept. 30.
Also, Rana mentioned he invited families from religious groups to his home to get to know one another. Goldblatt and his wife, as well as Peace Lutheran Rev. Steve Harms, attended the event, he said. They talked about their families and how they were doing.
Additionally, all the faith groups participate in Thanksgiving activities in November.
Globally, the countries in conflict need to get together, Rana said.
"We are people of faith even though we are from different faiths," Goldblatt said. "We have chosen to gather to respond to the insanity in parts of the world where there are serious issues of not knowing and not trusting."
Warring nations need to form relationships and find a common ground, Rana said.
"That's going to make a difference," he said.
Rana was born and raised in Pakistan.
"It was very nice," he said. "My mother is still there."
He said 98 percent of Pakistanis are moderate Muslims.
"They don't believe in violence," he said.
But he said there are small areas that contain extremists.
"There are very few pockets that are radical," he said, noting the percentage has slightly gone up for a multitude of reasons.
He said Pakistan has a poor education system, and some children are not taught in regular schools and grow up with skewed perceptions. Additionally, there have always been religious zealots, he said, and because of the turmoil in the 1990s and after Sept. 11, they felt "America is trying to invade us and take our Islam."
"They are still in a minority," he said. "It's a group of people we need to do something about. This cannot go on happening. We need education or containment."
The extremists often live away from the cosmopolitan areas and dwell in rural and remote areas in Pakistan, he said. They had developed a following before Sept. 11 and gained political influence by getting elected to Pakistan's National Assembly.
Gen. Pervez Musharraf, president of Pakistan, has worked to control the radicals.
"To his credit, he is against all of this and trying to suppress it," Rana said. "It's worrisome."
"It's not good to be an extremist because it impedes progress," he said. "You can't be a throwback to 1,000 years ago and be able to compete."
Aside from his concerns about radicalism, he said he cherishes Pakistan and loves his family there. He recalled a Pakistani tradition that before a bride and groom married, the groom's entire family would go to his future wife's home and ask her hand in marriage.
"We want your whole family to be part of our family," he said, about the ritual. "It's such a nice feeling. You're all one. It's the most memorable."
He said his dad died when he was young, leaving behind his mother, sister, him and 25 first cousins.
"My mother raised us," he said. "She never married again and devoted her life to raising us. It's something that I greatly cherish."
He attended Christian elementary school and college and received his medical degree from King Edward Medical School, which was formed by the British.
"Isn't that something?" he asked.
He joined his sister and moved to the United States in the early 1980s for more opportunities. He did his residency at the University of Chicago Medical Center and UCSF Medical Center. He has been working at Kaiser Permanente in Walnut Creek since 1990. He, his wife and two children live in Blackhawk.
Rana personally has experienced and seen acceptance six years after Sept. 11. When he interacts with his patients, they feel there must be something good about his faith, he said.
His fellow Muslims sometimes feel that people may still have misperceptions about their religion.
"The media after 9/11 associated (Islam) with terrorism," Farooq said. "It is a religion of peace."