A Tale of Two Mosques

Both are in South Florida and both attracted terrorists, but they could not be more different

Mohamed has done more than his part, forging strong relationships with rabbis and ministers and becoming active in several mainstream community boards. He's won awards for his efforts, and he seems to have been born to unite Islam with other religions. Growing up in Trinidad, his family flirted with Christianity and Hinduism, and his father owned a supermarket that served alcohol. "I'm an Islamic scholar, and my father ran a bar," he says with a mixture of mock disbelief and amusement. "At one point I prayed to Jesus as a child. We had a picture of Jesus in my house. I think that is why my picture of the world is so different."

It's a world-view that has provoked conservative Muslims to oppose him: "Some Palestinian guys threatened me last year when they were having marches. One of them told one of my friends: 'Tell Maulana Shafayat that he doesn't support us, he supports the other people, and we're going to get rid of him.' I get a lot of threat calls, cursing my views, but they are anonymous."

Many Arab Muslims have come to loathe him. "They wouldn't tell me that in my face, so they tell my friends that Shafayat does not like Arabs," he says. "Or that I don't support Palestine.... When they have [pro-Palestinian] marches and they invite me, I don't go. I don't believe in demonstrations. You don't need to go out and stand like a fool in the street. I don't like it. I think it's a backward operation."

Mahdi and Awad have both headed Masjid Al-Iman, one of the more fundamentalist mosques in South Florida (top). Raed Awad addresses a congregation at a Broward County mosque, Nur-Ul Islam,in the late 1990s (bottom).
Mahdi and Awad have both headed Masjid Al-Iman, one of the more fundamentalist mosques in South Florida (top). Raed Awad addresses a congregation at a Broward County mosque, Nur-Ul Islam,in the late 1990s (bottom).

Too many Arabs are driven by hateful politics, Mohamed says, and he refuses to fall into their trap. "They call me a hypocrite. They say, 'Are you [with us] or are you with them?'" he complains. "They say I am bought over by the Americans, that I'm bought over by the Jews, that I don't preach jihad. And I think: These guys have got to be crazy guys. I hope they can get a little more educated and stop thinking so foolish."

Mohamed is unambiguous in his support for America's war in Afghanistan ("It tells the world that the radical guys like the Taliban will not be tolerated") and denounces the killing of civilians and all acts of terrorism in America, Israel, and anywhere else in the world. "People say this is fighting for freedom; I say this is a coward's method," he maintains. "Islam totally prohibits the killing of innocent people."

Not surprisingly his congregation is from all over the world and includes, as Mohamed puts it, "only a handful of Arabs ... a handful who are intelligent and educated and ... left the craziness over there."

But the bloody conflicts and polemical politics of the Middle East infect all of Islam, including Mohamed's own Darul Uloom. The alleged "dirty bomber," Padilla, for instance, is of Puerto Rican descent and grew up in Chicago before converting to Islam. Mohamed says Padilla attended religious classes for a few months in the mid-Nineties. He recounts that Padilla was quiet and never spouted radical rhetoric at Darul Uloom. "He wound up amongst the Arabs," Mohamed laments. "And that's where he got his [terrorist] operation."

Another operation, however, started in Mohamed's own institute. Imran Mandhai, an immigrant from Pakistan, and Shueyb Mossa Jokhan, from Mohamed's homeland of Trinidad, were indicted on May 17 for allegedly conspiring on numerous terrorist bombings. In hindsight, Mohamed says, Mandhai also seemed to be an "extremist in practice." The teen once called a visiting imam an "infidel" and openly criticized Mohamed's liberal style. "But I had no reason to think that they were [aspiring terrorists]," he says. "They are just coming in here and praying, and they could have planned to shoot me for all I knew. Nobody knew what their agenda is."

According to the FBI, Mandhai's agenda was death and destruction in South Florida. The plot, according to federal prosecutors, began in 2000 when nineteen-year-old Mandhai befriended a Turk named Hakki Aksoy at Darul Uloom. Aksoy told Mandhai he had been a warrior for Islam in Turkey, had killed two people, and was "very much willing to ... engage in Jihad," according to court records.

The pair visited gun ranges and studied explosives. Then in November 2000 federal agents arrested the 36-year-old Aksoy, who was charged with possessing fraudulent immigration papers and a 9-millimeter pistol. Also found in Aksoy's Hollywood home were bomb-making manuals. Aksoy was convicted in February and is serving a ten-year prison sentence.

Mandhai also plotted destruction with a Hollywood man named Howard Gilbert, whom Mohamed converted in early 2001. "I open my arms to anybody. We converted him like anybody else," Mohamed explains. "I never asked Howard what his agenda was. I thought he was a good guy."

What Mohamed didn't know was that Gilbert was an aspiring federal agent, a cloak-and-dagger type who pretended to be a Muslim only so he could infiltrate the Islamic world, uncover militants, and report them to the FBI. Gilbert tricked Mandhai into believing he was in contact with bin Laden, or "Big Brother," as Gilbert called him. Mandhai, federal prosecutors contend, jumped at the chance to join forces with Gilbert and brought his friend, Jokhan, into the plot as well.

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