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Mixed with these reasonable arguments is unmistakable fundamentalist rhetoric. For instance, even as Madhi condemns the 9/11 attacks, he qualifies it by saying that the death and destruction didn't "benefit" Islam. By that logic, it follows that, had the attacks helped Islam, they would have been justified. Further Mahdi says he isn't convinced that bin Laden was behind the attacks, despite the evidence that has been uncovered. He doesn't say bin Laden is innocent; Madhi wants the leader of al Qaeda captured and brought to trial. "I want to hear his side of the story," he explains.
As for suicide bombings, the imam says he has wrestled long and hard with the question of whether they are necessary and has ultimately come to the conclusion they are not a "viable military option."
"I don't know the infrastructure of Hamas or its mission statement, but in regard to freeing the occupied territories, I support their goal," Mahdi says. "Not being under the everyday pressure or reality of living in the occupied territories, I find it difficult to blanketly condemn [suicide bombings], although personally I don't see that it will bring about the desired goal.
"Most Muslims would not view Hamas as a terrorist organization, even though there is some debate in scholarly quarters of the Muslim world about the permissibility of suicide bombing as a military alternative. But even those who reject it ... view [Hamas] as being incorrect in their opinion, but not necessarily as terrorists." (Hamas's slogan, according to its charter, is: "Allah is its goal, the Prophet its model, the Quran its Constitution, Jihad its path and death for the cause of Allah its most sublime belief.")
Mahdi also implicitly defends the Taliban, saying pointedly that he can't understand why America bombed Afghanistan when fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. But Mahdi is as critical of Islamic governments as he is of his own. "There is no single government in the Muslim world that is ruling the country according to Islam," he asserts. "Even though you have the labels of 'Islamic Republics' in Iran, Pakistan, Sudan ... none of these governments are ruling the people according to the belief of the people."
The answer, Mahdi believes, is a return to "true Islam." He wants "the Muslim world to adopt the Islamic model." This may sound a little like the goal of bin Laden and the Taliban, but it isn't. He says he wants it done peacefully. "There would be no lottery, there would be no liquor stores, there would be no nude beaches," Mahdi hypothesizes. "But of course there would be the pursuit of education, the pursuit of wealth, the pursuit of happiness. But certain things would be regulated according to that which is the legislation of Islam."
And if a woman, say, wanted to wear Western-style clothes in this new country? Mahdi's answer is simple: "She would have the choice -- if people don't like the rules, then they can leave."
While Mahdi dreams of a Middle Eastern empire, Shafayat Mohamed professes his love for the United States, where he wants to see Muslims thrive. "I believe that a true Islamic state is when Muslims can live with everybody else," Mohamed says. "That is a true Islamic system, when Muslims can tolerate other faiths and other cultures."
The maulana, or Islamic scholar, doesn't agree with Mahdi on much of anything. Though Mohamed's Darul Uloom is just fifteen miles south of Masjid Al-Iman, the two mosques may as well be on opposite sides of the earth.
With its green-and-white painted façade and golden tassels adorning support poles, Darul Uloom is more reminiscent of Christmas than Ramadan. Located in a storefront on Pines Boulevard where a Great Value Supermarket used to be, the mosque was renovated a few years ago for two million dollars, Mohamed says. He boasts 700 worshipers, whom he may as well call customers, for Mohamed is not only a maulana; he is also a capitalist.
A big, friendly man with a quick smile and a salesman's good cheer, Mohamed sometimes sponsors automobile shows, with flashy Corvettes and Lamborghinis, in Darul Uloom's parking lot. He publishes a for-profit monthly Islamic newsletter, Al-Hikmat, with the motto "Only the Wise Advertise." Inside the institute is a souvenir shop, where everything from small models of Mecca to coffee cups (six dollars each) to toy trucks and talking alarm clocks are for sale.
A patriotic believer in the West, Mohamed displayed a U.S. flag in front of the institute after September 11. During a recent Friday sermon, he preached not about the evil of infidels but about the need to eliminate hatred from within Islam. Standing at his ornately carved pulpit of polished wood, he spoke into a microphone, the words amplified through several loudspeakers in the expansive mosque. Outside, cars jammed the parking lot, as they do for each Friday service. Wearing everything from traditional Islamic dress to Shell gas station T-shirts, his congregation packed Darul Uloom.
After the sermon, when the cars are gone, Mohamed, wearing a gold-threaded black robe, sits down on a simple folding chair not far from his pulpit. "I am on an antiterrorism campaign," he says, adjusting his spectacles. "We can come together. Jews and Muslims can work together."