Monday night, at the Modesto Centre Plaza, roughly 300 people representing many faiths will converge for the Stanislaus Interfaith Council’s annual Thanksgiving feast.
It’s the event’s 19th year and will feature a video about freedom of religion along with a veteran who fought to defend it. Children will sing songs of thanks from their respective religions. A rabbi will bless the meal. It’s meant to bring people of all faiths together to break bread and break down walls.
The host of this year’s dinner? The Islamic Center of Modesto, and the timing couldn’t be more important, organizers said.
This month’s attacks on Paris by Islamic State operatives, followed by an attack on the Radisson in Mali on Friday morning, have created a nationwide backlash against Muslims in America, which some politicians are feasting upon. Donald Trump wants a Muslim database, something his detractors compare to Hitler making Jews wear patches.
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The House of Representatives on Thursday voted to suspend the program allowing Syrian refugees into the country, basing this on a fear that Islamic State infiltrators would be among them and replicate the Paris attacks in the United States. They claim background checks can’t possibly be thorough enough to ferret out terrorists.
President Obama vows to veto the bill, but with 47 Democrats voting for it, the Republicans would be close to the two-thirds needed to override his veto.
Members of the Stanislaus County Tea Party group plan on Tuesday to loudly urge county supervisors to tell Gov. Jerry Brown that California should join the other states insisting they don’t want to accept any of the 10,000 refugees who could eventually arrive in the U.S. Two faith-based groups already have resettled three dozen Syrian refugees in Modesto and Turlock.
Meanwhile, in Stockton, atheists are protesting Mayor Anthony Silva’s sponsorship of prayer events, accusing him of treating church and state interchangeably. All of this is pitting right-wingers vs. left-wingers; Christians sympathetic to those fleeing the turmoil in Syria vs. Christians who are adamantly anti-Muslim; and pro-gun people vs. the peaceniks. The attack by a lone knife-wielding Muslim student at UC Merced a few weeks ago has added to the fuel.
If the Islamic State’s goal is to create fear and division in the U.S., it seems to be working.
But how real is the Islamic State threat in this country?
The Atlantic, which wrote an elaborate and detailed piece on what the Islamic State wants a couple of weeks ago (forwarded to me as a “must read” by one of the most staunch conservatives I know) on Thursday followed up with a story assessing the chances of Paris-like attacks carried out by refugees on American soil. One of its sources, a refugee advocacy group, claimed that of the 784,000 refugees the U.S. has taken in worldwide since the 9/11 attacks, just three have been arrested for terror-related activities. Two, the article stated, were arrested while trying to go off to join terrorist cells elsewhere. None carried out an attack here.
The publication quoted a different immigration expert who said the refugee advocates omitted the Boston Marathon bombers or Somali immigrants who were given asylum in this country. Refugee vetting, the magazine reported, is more stringent than the vetting of those receiving asylum.
All of which makes it more important for people to understand that Islamic people have lived and worked in the Valley for decades and share the same basic values as everyone else, said Imam Ahmad Kayello of the Islamic Center in Modesto. He condemned the attacks during a peace vigil in Graceada Park a week ago, and he is very clear that Islamic State’s actions do not reflect in any way the Islamic beliefs he teaches.
“We were outraged they use the name of Islam to do their evil acts,” he said. “That is not Islam. We’re part of the community. What saddens the community saddens Muslims as well.”
Kayello added that Valley residents interact with Muslims daily, including at Memorial and Doctors medical centers, where many of the physicians they see are Muslims.
Kayello wears traditional Arabic clothing. And it saddened him when, as he waited in line to renew his car registration at the Modesto DMV recently, he was approached by a bigot.
“The guy came up to me and said, ‘Do you have a gun? Are you going to do something evil?’ ” he recounted. Kayello said he strongly suggested the man go back to his place in line but felt better when a bystander remarked that some people are just ignorant.
“The FBI comes to the mosque to visit regularly,” Kayello said. “I want you to know that if I’m here in the mosque or anywhere and I hear something (that sounds suspicious), I’m going to be the first to call.”
As the imam, he’s responsible for the security and safety of the mosque’s 250 families, he said.
“We are neighbors and friends,” said Mark Haskett, president of the Interfaith Council. The current wave of emotions stemming from the Paris attacks compelled organizers to contact the Modesto police and to have private security on hand for the Interfaith Council’s dinner event, he said.
Jews, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Muslims and others will unite under one roof for the same purpose: to give thanks, enjoy the meal and the moment, assuage some fears and check the politically charged insanity at the door.
They’ve been doing this every Thanksgiving week for nearly two decades, with the Islamic Center hosting this one.
“This year, I feel it’s our turn,” the imam said.