Federal agents extend hand to Modesto Muslims, hoping to get past distrust

FBI agents are introducing themselves to Central Valley mosques, telling Muslims that they're more interested in building relationships than spying.

The outreach is intended to repair ties with a religious group that often has felt scrutinized since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks almost nine years ago.

"Don't believe the false impression that we are targeting your community," U.S. attorney Benjamin Wagner said Friday at the Islamic Center of Modesto. Authorities are making visits to Northern California mosques, he said, trying to debunk racial profiling perceptions.

The outreach was well-received, said many in the overflow crowd on North Carpenter Road, some of whom said Muslims often feel apart in U.S. communities.

"We needed this kind of thing a long time ago," Jamal Ahmad said after the service. "When we see them come from Sacramento, we take it seriously."

Fahmi Alsumeri brought his sons, ages 4, 8, 10 and 11. "Before, everybody was scared of the FBI," he said, "but now they are our friends."

Drew Parenti, who heads the FBI's Sacramento office, conceded that agents draw suspicion when hanging around mosques. He introduced agents stationed in Modesto and Stockton to Friday's crowd, saying the FBI "is not hiding; we don't want to be mysterious."

Extremists in other countries have tried to "radicalize" people here, Parenti said, "and we don't want that. We want to keep the forces of hatred and evil overseas. The Muslim community wants the exact same thing as everyone else -- a safe community and freedom to pray."

Most speakers and those in the audience acknowledged strained relations between the FBI and Muslims.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations two weeks ago joined other civil rights groups in urging Congress to pass the End Racial Profiling Act, in the wake of Arizona's strict new immigration law.

Last year, the FBI suspended ties with the nation's largest Muslim civil rights organization, and a coalition of Muslim groups urged people to stop cooperating with authorities.

Closer to home, Hamid Hayat of Lodi was convicted in 2007 of lying to FBI agents about attending a terrorist training camp in Pakistan.

Getting to know one another helps break down walls, several said Friday.

Wagner said he spent years of his youth in Turkey and Lebanon, both Muslim countries, and studied Middle Eastern history before law.

"It's painful for me to watch, since 9-11, the way the Muslim community in the United States has felt distanced from society, particularly law enforcement," Wagner said. Parenti called mutual suspicion "a tragedy."

When Muslims asked how to overcome skepticism, Parenti encouraged them to open mosques for community events. "It's very difficult to be mistrustful of someone you know," he said.

The audience got to know Todd Irinaga, who runs Modesto's FBI office and whose wife was raised in Modesto. His grandfather was detained by FBI agents and interned in a Japanese-American camp during World War II.

"Civil rights are near and dear to my heart," Irinaga said.

Of four recent visits to Northern California mosques, Modesto's drew the largest audience by far, Irinaga said. Several people said the crowd was no larger than usual for a Friday, the day of prayer for Muslims, and that news of the FBI's visit didn't break until the day before.

Visits in other cities featured no local officials, while Modesto Police Chief Mike Harden joined federal authorities here. Harden asked for a "partnership" with the Islamic community.

"I'll tell you this, we have to lean on each other, we have to help our neighbors," Harden said.

Hasson Kassem said, "We've been American citizens for a long time, but we don't feel like everyone else."

The meeting helped smooth concerns, he said.

Zakaria Saleh asked how Muslims can avoid being detained by airport security and federal officers while traveling, and learned about a Web site for complaints.

Said Wagner: "Unfortunately, the promise of equality is not always instant. It's not always comfortable for people in the middle of the trajectory."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or 578-2390.