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Federal officials have yet to offer proof the foundation was indeed a front for Hamas, and Awad adamantly denies it. "The money went to help Muslims," he insists. "There were certain projects in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and Jordan. We were instructed never to talk about politics when we raised funds."
The Bush administration also froze the bank accounts of the Benevolence International Foundation and the Global Relief Foundation, two Chicago-based groups with ties to Osama bin Laden that were represented in Florida by Awad friend and fellow Masjid Al-Iman member Adham Hassoun of Sunrise. Hassoun, also a Palestinian, was jailed in June on suspicion he aided Padilla in the alleged bomb plot.
Awad echoes what many local Muslims say about Hassoun: He wasn't an extremist but he could, with his passionate pro-Palestinian and anti-U.S. foreign-policy stance, sound like one. "Hassoun was a member of my mosque, and he would give emotional speeches -- he was a firebrand," Awad recalls. "He was a very kind, very sensitive, very helpful man. He would help anyone. But he was passionate. I often told him: 'Your words will bring trouble upon you.'
"He was critical of the U.S. government, and I am critical of the U.S. government. I see American policy as one-sided with the Israelis. I see a double standard."
When Awad stepped down from his position as Masjid Al-Iman's imam, or prayer leader, in early 2000, he asked friend Mahdi, who then headed the Miami Gardens mosque, to take over the congregation. Mahdi, unlike Awad, wasn't born in the heat of Middle Eastern conflict. Rather he was brought up in Knoxville, Tennessee, in a family that worshiped at an African Methodist Episcopal church. It wasn't until 1978, when he was 24 years old, that he converted to Islam. A carpenter by trade, he helped found a group called the Muslim Community in Knoxville in 1984 and, four years after that, went to Saudi Arabia to study Islam. He returned in 1994 and ultimately became the imam of the Miami Gardens mosque. (Located at 4305 NW 183rd St., the mosque is one of the oldest in South Florida and boasts one of the largest congregations.) Mahdi accepted Awad's offer and took over Masjid Al-Iman, where he has been ever since.
Mahdi doesn't consider his mosque conservative or fundamentalist, just true to the religion: "Islam is Islam, and it has been since it was revealed 1400 and some odd years ago, and it is not the right of any individual to take it upon themselves to change it based on their own rationale or want or desire. We want to keep it in the truest form."
Mahdi sits behind his small desk in his cramped office at the back of his mosque on a recent Monday morning, a framed picture of Mecca beside him on the wall. A big man with a big black beard, he wears a flowing white robe and often ignores the high-pitched burbling of his phone, which sounds every few minutes. Occasionally he takes a call and speaks in rhythmic, fluent Arabic. Above his head is a shelf of religious volumes mixed with books on subjects like the Scholastic Aptitude Test and calculus. He uses the textbooks to educate some of his more underprivileged followers.
The 47-year-old Mahdi lives a simple life -- he eschews cable television, for instance -- and is dedicated to outreach in rough neighborhoods like the one that surrounds his mosque. He also counsels inmates in various Florida prisons and at the Broward County Jail. As he answers questions, he is rigidly circumspect, speaking in his smooth, deep voice only after carefully choosing his words.
Although he clearly has strong fundamentalist views, Mahdi doesn't promote political violence in Israel or America. He says he was sickened by the September 11 attacks, as were all other Americans. "It is impossible for me to understand how a Muslim would feel that carrying out the acts of 9/11 in some way is going to benefit Islam and Muslims -- there is no way it does," he declares. "So whoever would come to a conclusion to have some type of war against America, they have without a doubt deviated from any sense of proper understanding of the religion."
Mahdi criticizes the Jewish occupation of Palestine and America's unyielding support for Israel even when the Jewish state commits terrible human-rights abuses. He appeals to Americans to consider Palestinians' difficult lives under Israeli occupation before judging suicide bombers. "Is anyone really asking, seriously, how would a young person come to the mind frame that they want to blow themselves up and take along with them as many Israelis as they could?" he asks. "This, of course, is not a normal condition. So I think we need to look at why would that condition come about."
He also disagrees with what he perceives as America's inconsistent and hypocritical foreign policy toward oil-rich Saudi Arabia. "I think the perception that many Muslims have regarding [America] is that [it] supports unjust regimes, and many Saudis feel the Saudi government is unjust," he says. "Of course, those of us who are aware of the type of government in Saudi Arabia, we recognize that it is a monarchy where there is no election and there is no choice for the people."