On a Friday afternoon in October, men in black security T-shirts and matching cargo pants roamed the parking lot and perimeter of the Islamic Center of Northridge as worshipers arrived for weekly prayers.
Several Los Angeles Police Department patrol cars were parked nearby as officers kept a watchful eye on a demonstration out front. About 30 men yelled and held up signs. One waved a small American flag as another denounced the mosque's religious leader as a devil.
Worshipers, looking uncomfortable, hurried past and into the building.
It's a scene reminiscent of others across the country where new and existing mosques have faced heated opposition in recent months. But the protests at the Islamic Center's main mosque in Granada Hills are different, not demonstrations by anti-Islamic groups but a struggle between rival Muslim groups over control of the institution.
The two sides, each made up mainly of Pakistani and Afghan immigrants, are battling in court over leadership elections and greater openness at the Granada Hills mosque and an older satellite center in Northridge. The dispute has taken on an ugly, ethnically charged tone, including heated rhetoric about which group is more American in dress, accent and behavior.
The parties have traded accusations of radicalism as each side tries to discredit the other, sometimes using comparisons and accusations that American Muslims are more accustomed to hearing from critics outside their communities.
In one lawsuit, a dissident group accuses the mosque leaders of methods that "resemble Taliban-style tactics one might presume to exist only outside the boundaries of the United States."
The suit also quotes a threatening, profane voicemail message it says was left for one of the plaintiffs, in which the caller allegedly said, "Don't … with us. We are Pashtuns. We will kill you."
Mitchell Young, formerly an attorney for the mosque's leaders, said the quarrel seems "tribal" at times. "The underpinnings of this conflict are very different than the particulars of the lawsuit," he said.
Such jockeying over who is more American is not uncommon in immigrant communities, said Kamal Sadiq, a UC Irvine political science professor who studies South Asian communities. Proving who is more assimilated is a way of establishing who has a bigger claim on the mosque, he said.
The legal case centers on specifics of California law governing nonprofit corporations, including board elections, open membership and financial transparency.
The plaintiffs, including former board members and their supporters, say some have been barred from membership at the mosque. A spokesman would not say how many members it has.
At a pre-trial hearing in Los Angeles this month, Superior Court Judge Michelle Rosenblatt ordered court-supervised elections for the mosque's board, a victory for those challenging the current leadership. A trial is set for Feb. 7.
The defendants in the case are the Islamic Center's two imams, Qazi Fazlullah and Qari Yousuf, along with board members and supporters, many of whom emigrated from Afghanistan or Pakistan's Pashtun region. The plaintiffs are mainly from Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, and from the country's Punjab region.
Manzar Qureshi, a former board member at the mosque who is acting as a spokesman for the plaintiffs, said many Pakistanis tend to blame those from the Pashtun region, which abuts Afghanistan, for the terrorism-related problems in Pakistan. Qureshi, a native of Karachi, acknowledged that the regional tensions have contributed to the dispute.
Fazlullah, a former member of Pakistan's parliament, has led the San Fernando Valley mosque since 1997. A spokesman said the imam would not comment on the dispute.
The struggle has divided the area's Muslim community and led some who feel uncomfortable with such vitriol at a religious institution to cut back their attendance or seek services elsewhere. The plaintiffs said some of their supporters were prevented from praying at the mosque during a recent religious holiday. They now hold their own services in a rented room at the nearby Granada Hills Masonic Center.
Mosque spokesman Mahmood Payind denied that attendance, which numbers in the hundreds, has dipped because of the dispute. But at two recent Friday prayer services, the parking lot seemed less crowded than it was last fall.
Payind, who is from Afghanistan, said the accusatory language used by the plaintiffs is geared toward gaining support for their case, especially in an American courtroom.