On June 7, 2005, national and international media attention focused on the small, agricultural town of Lodi, located approximately 40 miles south of Sacramento. The FBI arrested and detained two individuals, both Pakistani Americans, who they suspected had al-Qaeda affiliations. The investigation was presented as a “terrorism case” by the government and news sources. The initial affidavit released to the media said that U.S.-born Hamid Hayat, had attended a terror-training camp in northeast Pakistan along with “hundreds” of other terrorists, and returned to the United States intending to “attack … hospitals and large food stores.” This kind of detail resulted in a flood of sensationalized media coverage, portraying 23-year-old Hamid as a prospective mass murderer and his father, Umer Hayat, a 47-year-old ice-cream truck driver, as the financial supporter and mastermind of an alleged “Lodi terrorist cell.”
Neither allegation, however, was in the affidavit filed with a federal court in Sacramento the same day. The FBI retracted their affidavit alleging Hamid’s plot to attack domestic targets and began downplaying the seriousness of the presumed threat the men posed. Both Hamid and Umer were ultimately charged only with lying to federal investigators about Hamid’s visit to Pakistan in 2003.
Three other Muslim men from Lodi, among them two respected imams, were also detained on suspected visa violations. One of the imams had actually been the target of FBI surveillance beginning three years ago when a secret court used the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to approve wiretapping of Mohammed Adil Khan.
While the Justice Department has maintained that it was not deliberately trying to precipitate an anti-Muslim witch-hunt, the difference between the two affidavits—the one released to the media and the one filed in court—as well as recent FBI activity in Lodi, speak a different story. None of the five men have been charged with carrying out or planning to commit any act of violence. The many inconsistencies in the case and the hysteria it stoked coincided very neatly with Bush’s campaign to renew and expand the 2001 Patriot Act, which can only be justified if there is an ongoing “terrorist threat” and the public continues to fear that there are Muslim or Arab terrorists in their midst.
On June 14, we traveled to Lodi to assess the impact of the arrests and surveillance of the local South Asians, some of whom have been living in the town for three generations. Basim Elkarra, executive director of the Sacramento office of Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), has been diligently organizing in response to the arrests and interrogations of local Pakistanis by FBI agents swarming into town. He warned us prior to our arrival about the extent of surveillance and the fear the community felt. But no amount of warning could have prepared us for the state of near siege in the town. As soon as we stepped out of our car in Lodi, we were made aware of the FBI’s presence. They had interviewed many Muslim residents, sometimes without an attorney present, and also the attorneys and activists who are trying to ensure that constitutional rights are upheld. During our brief visit with Elkarra and civil-rights attorneys from the ACLU, a man with a large afro-wig in a blue SUV circled us and took photos. When we tried to approach him, he fled, only to return later to click more photos. His conspicuous appearance made us realize the extent of overt intimidation of the Muslim community by the FBI.
One of the attorneys we spoke to noted that the community feels “terrorized.” Residents believe that they are being interrogated by the FBI and placed under automatic suspicion because they are Muslim. Pakistanis who attended the “Know Your Rights” workshops held by CAIR in Stockton, Lodi, and Pleasanton were all subject to obvious FBI surveillance. One Muslim mother told an attorney that her young child was followed from her home to an ice-cream store by an FBI car. Others complained that they were taken out of their workplaces by the FBI for questioning and then could not return because their co-workers became suspicious of them. The most shocking of these reports was that of an incident where the FBI stormed the Hayat home, when only women and children were present, by ramming down the front door and putting a gun to a woman’s head. When her 11-year-old daughter passed out, she was denied medical attention, a gross violation of human rights that outraged even the local emergency care personnel.
We went to visit the Lodi mosque that is under FBI scrutiny. The mosque is a small, humble structure (a former Jehovah’s Witness church) next to a cannery where Pakistani men have worked as fruit packers for more than 30 years. South Asian and Latino children were playing basketball together across from the mosque while older South Asian men sat on the grass, presumably relaxing after a long day’s work. Most of the Muslims who attend this mosque speak Pashtu and are from the Northwest Frontier province of Pakistan. Some have family that had been in the area since as early as 1908, working on the railroads. They told us that the FBI began coming to Lodi immediately after Sept. 11, making “friends” with mosque members. One man described to us, without looking around, exactly where each federal agent’s car was parked; we saw three large, black-tinted SUVs just yards from the mosque and the courts where the young boys were playing. Another middle-aged man said calmly, “Let them come ask us questions; we have nothing to hide.” While this resilience was encouraging, we were reminded by another Pakistani man who had already been questioned several times that while he did not mind speaking to the FBI, it was frightening for his wife and children. In addition, this has led to a racist backlash by some Lodi residents agitated by the lurid media reports about Islamic terrorists and sleeper cells.
The government’s investigation in Lodi has been conducted in a way that does not respect the legal rights and dignity of the Muslim community. Perhaps equally disturbing, however, is that the general public has been given new reason to fear South Asians and Muslims as presumed terrorists. A community that has made this area home for a 100 years has been investigated, intimidated, and cast under a shroud of suspicion, all within days.
Veena Dubal is a JD/PhD student at the University of California at Berkeley. Sunaina Maira is an associate professor of Asian-American Studies at the University of California at Davis. Both are volunteers for Alliance of South Asians Taking Action (ASATA).