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  • Courtesy of David Washburn

    Above, the mosque soon after the blaze.

  • Courtesy of David Washburn

    Courtesy of David Washburn In scenes from "An American Mosque," a farmer, top, pauses in an orchard near the Yuba City mosque that was torched in 1994 and has been rebuilt. Above, the mosque soon after the blaze.

Documentary explores story of 1994 Yuba City mosque arson

Published: Sunday, May. 19, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 11AANDE
Last Modified: Sunday, May. 19, 2013 - 10:26 am

In the 26-minute documentary "An American Mosque," filmmaker David Washburn examines the effects of the 1994 torching of a mosque on the Yuba City Muslim community at the time and and since.

The documentary is a timely one, given the widely reported shooting last August at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, where six were killed, and the burning of a mosque in Joplin, Mo., that same month.

The issue of mosques and how they are accepted in communities is a hot-button issue, and likely will remain so, as there are roughly 2,100 mosques in the United States and the number is growing.

"An American Mosque" is less a hard- hitting treatment of who was responsible than it is an intimate and brief look at members of this rural and well-established Muslim community. The film focuses on prosperous, longtime Yuba City farmer Khalid Saeed, who was key in establishing the mosque by donating several acres of his farmland for the building.

The film examines what it means to be American and a follower of Islam in the 21st century, which has a lot to do with acknowledging what was wrought, good or bad, in the 20th.

Transcending fear proved crucial in Yuba City, the film suggests.

In a telephone interview, filmmaker Washburn, who lived in Woodland when he made the film, said he became interested in the topic when he was researching another project in the region.

His documentary shows how the then- 300-strong Muslim community in Yuba City was in shock after the Sept. 1, 1994, arson. Troubling incidents at the mosque – some rising to the level of hate crimes – had not been rare, including someone driving a motorcycle into the mosque and leaving skid marks in the prayer area and incidents of guns being fired at the building.

Today the Yuba City and Live Oak communities are home to more than 500 Muslims, many of whom remember the destruction of their 11,000-square-foot mosque, one of the nation's largest at the time.

Their sentiments form the core of "An American Mosque." Washburn uses both new and archival footage to tell the story. The effort to transcend the crime by rebuilding the mosque several years later serves as the film's coda.

The fire was ruled arson. Police and FBI investigations identified suspects who were subjected to polygraph tests. The state fire marshal's investigators spent more than 500 hours following up leads.

No one was ever arrested.

Ultimately, the film posits many unanswered questions, which suggest that the subject deserves more than can be told in 26 minutes.

One question that remains unanswered: Why was no one ever charged?

In a Bee article written a year after the blaze, state fire investigator Phil Porto was quoted as saying he did not find anything to connect the blaze to any other mosque fire, and that there was no evidence found to indicate this arson was a hate crime.

But others did not feel the same way. In the same Bee story, Sutter County Sheriff's Deputy Saleem Gorsi was quoted as saying, "We have to believe it was an act of hate."

Gorsi criticized investigators for not doing more to solve the crime.

Ultimately, the film, which is expertly shot, with rich photography of Yuba City farms and farmers working the land, comes up short by capturing only the views of the Muslim Pakistani community and its supporters.

In any community there is always more than one story to be told. Even in a rural community, there are bound to be dissenting views. None appears in the film.

As recent news bears out, Americans have proved they are more than willing to express their views and opinions on Muslims and the building of mosques.

The documentary ends on a triumphant note – with the community rebuilding the mosque to its original splendor. And what comes through best in Washburn's documentary is the resilience of the Muslim community and its belief that hate crimes are no match for the nobler aspects of the human condition.


Produced and directed by David Washburn

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday; 6 p.m. May 26

Where: "ViewFinder," on Channel 6 (KVIE)


Call The Bee's Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz..

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