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Islamic school furor

Out in the cornfields south of Lodi, only a faded yellow farmhouse and a prosaic metal shed stand on the 18-acre site of the Farooqia Islamic Center. But this is a field of dreams.

Or nightmares.

Take your pick.

Supporters of the center envision a small elementary school that embraces traditional Islamic values, a gathering place for Muslim women who are otherwise sequestered at home, a playground, a library and a site for worship.

"There's a huge need for it," said Pamela Parvez, a Lodi mother of seven who makes an 80-mile round-trip drive each weekday to ferry her fourth-grader to an Islamic school in Sacramento.

But federal attorneys and agents, mounting a counterterrorism offensive in Lodi, saw a darker future for the Farooqia Islamic Center. They have alleged in court that the facility's secret mission may have been to recruit and groom American Muslims for the jihad - the holy war against enemies of Islam.

In testimony at an immigration court hearing Aug. 9, FBI agent Gary Schaaf compared the Lodi school to militant madrassahs - Muslim seminaries - in Pakistan: "Our investigation has come across information that the (planned Lodi) madrassah is part of a long-term plan ... during which students would be spotted and assessed and maybe eventually be ready to commit acts of violence in the U.S."

Supporters of the Farooqia Islamic Center emphatically deny any connection with terrorism.

"The intent was for the school to teach kindergarten through fourth grade," said Taj Khan, a leader in Lodi's large Pakistani community and member of the center's board of directors.

"It was to be an independent charter school licensed by the state. How could it be a terrorist school? A 5-year-old terrorist? It is mind-boggling. God help the FBI if they think that right under the noses of the community such a thing could be established."

The FBI will not elaborate on its allegations, saying the investigation continues.

The terrorist accusation, stunning as it is, is not the only hurdle facing the Farooqia Islamic Center. Its neighbors on Lower Sacramento Road are appealing to San Joaquin County to quash the project on the grounds it will generate noise and traffic. County supervisors will consider the appeal at a hearing Sept. 27.

Planning commissioners approved the Farooqia project on a 3-1 vote, said Carrie Sullivan, the county's community development director.

"For us, this is strictly a land-use issue," she said. "The proposal is for a religious assembly type of use. The kind of religion is not germane to our analysis."

Meanwhile, a faction within the Lodi Muslim Mosque is suing the center's board of directors for $200,000. And the project's founder and fundraising spearhead, former Lodi imam Muhammed Adil Khan, was deported to Pakistan this month as part of the terrorism probe.

The idea for the Farooqia Islamic Center took root when Adil Khan, a religious scholar from Pakistan, joined the Lodi Muslim Mosque in 2001.

For a decade, the mosque had been working to raise money to open its own school - and had succeeded in purchasing a 7-acre site south of Lodi. Adil Khan meshed the mosque's effort with his plan to build a larger Islamic center. He solicited contributions from Muslims in the Bay Area and across the country.

Eventually, Adil Khan raised $420,000 - about a third of it from selling the mosque's 7 acres - to purchase the 18 acres on Lower Sacramento Road. He and his family moved into the farmhouse on the property.

But Adil Khan's intention to open the center to the community - he envisioned Christian and Jewish children attending as well as Muslims - irked more conservative members of the mosque, according to Taj Khan (no relation to the imam).

This faction sued Farooqia Islamic Center for fraud in March - and informed federal immigration officials that Adil Khan's religious-worker visa had expired.

Their lawyer, Joseph T. Rishwain Jr. of Stockton, said his clients want to be repaid the money from the sale of the land.

"The Farooqia people misused the money," Rishwain said. "We just want that money back."

The Lodi terrorist investigation broke in June, capturing international media attention. Two Pakistani Americans, Lodi father and son Umer and Hamid Hayat, were arrested and charged with lying to the FBI about their alleged involvement with a terrorist training camp in Pakistan.

During the Hayats' interrogations, FBI officials allege, they implicated Adil Khan and his protégé, Shabbir Ahmed, as ringleaders in a plot to recruit for the jihad. The two imams, who never faced terrorist-related charges, were arrested June 4 for visa violations. After being held in county jails for two months, they agreed to deportation rather than remain in custody while their immigration cases were decided.

Adil Khan and his family flew to Pakistan Aug. 15, leaving behind his dream for Farooqia Islamic Center - whatever that dream may have been.

Taj Khan said fundraising for construction will resume once the county issues a building permit. For the present, the center remains an architect's rendering depicting shining domes, arched entries and burbling fountains. Only a temporary library, in the converted tractor shed, is a reality.

One day last week, Pamela Parvez sat in the library, surrounded by hundreds of gilt-bound religious books gleaming on the shelves, and talked about what the center would mean to her and other Muslim women.

On a warm Lodi morning, she wore a lace-edged cloth over her blond hair, a long-sleeved tunic, and loose cotton pants. Traditional Muslim women live sheltered lives, she said, with their social interactions generally limited to their own families.

"I first got involved because of the plans for the school, but then I realized there is also a need for a place for Muslim women to learn and pray together," said Parvez, who is 48. The native Californian converted to Islam in 1986. "We're hungry for that kind of connection, and now there's no place for us.

"Muslim women live the old-fashioned Donna Reed stereotype - they stay at home and take care of the family and the house, and they regard that as the most important job they can do. They find it a challenge to live in a society not conducive to Islam. They tend to be shy and modest, and many are immigrants, far from their families."

Parvez said the elementary school, initially planned for 50, would fill another essential need.

"Several Lodi families who want a traditional Muslim education for our children drive our kids clear to Sacramento," she said. "Others home-school. We make that sacrifice because we believe it is important to make religious training part of their daily activity."

Many Muslim girls, she explained, are schooled at home once they reach puberty and must be shielded from contact with males. Eventually, backers of the Farooqia plan had hoped their school would grow to include upper grades, with separate classes for boys and girls.

Now, with the extraordinary happenings in Lodi, nothing is certain. Things are in Allah's hands, Parvez said calmly - though she does acknowledge some personal outrage.

"It's a real test of our faith and our patience right now," she said. "I'm angry at the people who brought this on us. I'm disappointed and sad. Sometimes we question what happens - but Allah knows best. Inshallah (God willing), the Islamic center will happen."

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