A Tale of Two Mosques
Shafayat Mohamed has a dream. He dreams that one day little Muslim boys and girls will join hands with Christian and Jewish boys and girls around the world and walk together as sisters and brothers. He really does. The mosque leader dreams that Palestinians and other predominantly poor and uneducated Arabs will pull themselves out of their own dark age and erase the hatred that has held them there. He hopes for the death of Islamic fundamentalism.
Rafiq Mahdi, another South Florida Muslim leader, doesn't see Islam in the same light; he is a fundamentalist. Mahdi envisions an Islamic empire, a place where, if you don't follow Muslim rules, you are free -- to leave the country. While Mahdi doesn't espouse terrorism in the Middle East, he sympathizes with Palestinian suicide bombers and refuses to call Hamas, which has sponsored the killing of hundreds of civilians, a terrorist organization.
The two men could hardly be more different. Mohamed is a gregarious, highly Americanized extrovert from the West Indies. Mahdi is a somber, highly Islamicized introvert born in Knoxville. Mohamed runs a large and liberal mosque called Darul Uloom in the middle-class suburb of Pembroke Pines in Broward County. Mahdi oversees a small, fundamentalist mosque, Masjid Al-Iman, in a low-income black neighborhood of Fort Lauderdale. Mohamed waves a United States flag; Mahdi denounces American foreign policy.
It would seem the two men have only their black beards and a belief in Allah in common. But there is another thing: Both of their mosques have gained international notoriety for links to alleged extremists and would-be terrorists. Between them they've been tied not only to José Padilla, the so-called "dirty bomber," but also to a pair of immigrants plotting a South Florida jihad and to two Muslims who raised funds for companies that allegedly serve as fronts for terror groups.
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Although Mahdi convincingly says he would report to authorities any Muslims he suspected of planning violence, it's not surprising that extremists would be attracted to his mosque. The explanation for the liberal Mohamed's association with terrorism at his Islamic institute is perhaps more frightening. It seems that if you build it, the extremists will come. Welcome or not.
While the war on terrorism inches along, another secretive battle is being waged within South Florida's Islamic community. Mohamed and Mahdi embody the conflict. Mohamed complains that fundamentalists have threatened his life and that some local Muslims, including Mahdi, are increasingly intolerant of his views. Mahdi, for his part, doesn't approve of Mohamed's liberal pronouncements, which he believes are an affront to true Islam. These differences are typical of the internecine fight within Islam, a growing battle for power between liberals and fundamentalists, Arabs and non-Arabs, and those who embrace the secular world and those who want to retreat into the strictures of old Islam. The outcome could mean the difference between peace and war.
José Padilla, whom the Bush administration alleges was plotting to detonate a radioactive bomb in the United States for al Qaeda before his arrest, attended religious classes at the liberal Darul Uloom, but his real spiritual home after converting to Islam in 1992 was Masjid Al-Iman.
A plain, neatly kept little building across the street from a small public park, Masjid Al-Iman attracts roughly 250 people for the weekly Friday sermon. African Americans founded the mosque about twenty years ago. (It is located just west of I-95 south of Sunrise Boulevard.) During the past decade, though, it was headed by an Islamic fundamentalist Palestinian named Raed Awad, who counted Padilla as one of his faithful followers.
During a telephone interview from his new home in Alabama, Awad says Padilla never stood out as an extremist before he left for Egypt in 1998. "He was a polite person, very reserved, he was a -- what is it? A shy person. He hardly asked any questions," says Awad, who left South Florida last year. "I was surprised he would like to travel, because he wasn't that type of outgoing person."
The only private time Awad says he spent with Padilla was when he counseled the young man on his marriage (a dubious undertaking for Awad, who is divorced and whose former wife repeatedly accused him, in local police reports and court papers, of physically abusing both her and their children).
Before Padilla left for Egypt, Awad and members of Masjid Al-Iman raised money to help pay for the trip. Awad certainly has a knack for fundraising. From 1998 through 2000 he served as the registered agent in Florida for the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, a Palestinian charity group based in Texas. With a briefcase full of checks, he traveled the United States and Latin America raising money from Muslims for the foundation. Although he refuses to estimate how much he collected, he doesn't deny it was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
It was dirty money, however, according to the Bush administration, which froze the foundation's bank accounts this past December. For years the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been scrutinizing the Holy Land Foundation for alleged ties to Hamas, Awad says. On February 24, 1998, terrorism expert Stephen Emerson testified before Congress that the organization funded terrorism, paid martyred suicide bombers' families, and held rallies "calling for jihad and death to the Jews."
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."
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."
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."
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.
Mohamed says he saw some subtle signs of extremism from Gilbert, who took the Muslim name Saif Allah, or Sword of Allah: "Gilbert gave a talk here once, and I thought it was a little extreme -- it seemed a little emotional. I think he said something like: '[Americans] hate us Muslims.'"
If Mohamed was naive about extremists in his presence before September 11, he isn't anymore. He says he is now in regular contact with the police and FBI regarding "suspicious Muslims." "I called the cops and told them that I need protection -- that there are extremist guys who pass through here," he says. "We all hope and think Padilla was made [a radical] when he went to Egypt. But if he was made here -- whew, that could mean danger for everybody, for me and you and everybody."
The differences between liberals like Mohamed and fundamentalists like Mahdi have likely been around since Islam began more than 1400 years ago. But it was the attacks on America that sparked the open conflict between the two men. "The liberal people were cool and happy and not thinking of all this craziness," Mohamed says. "But when the September 11 thing happened, the time came to draw this line and say who we are, rather than let extremists tarnish everybody."
The liberals outnumber the fundamentalists, says Walid Phares, an associate professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. Phares, a Maronite Christian from Lebanon and leading South Florida expert on the Middle East, estimates that about fifteen percent of Muslims in the United States are fundamentalist and that another twenty percent lean in that direction. The rest, a strong 65-percent majority, are moderate to liberal. The fundamentalist "activists," however, have dominated the public face of Islam in America. "While moderates were out there working -- as everything from top engineers to 7-Eleven managers -- the fundamentalists were focusing on the religious institutions," Phares says. "The fundamentalists have been busy taking over the religion."
Mohamed agrees with that assessment and calls for all moderates to publicly denounce the radical wing of their religion. But discerning the line between those with spiritual fervor and those who may plan to commit political violence isn't easy. "You have three kinds of people: You have those Palestinians with emotions, you have orthodox conservative Muslims, and you have people like al Qaeda," Mohamed says. "And I am myself confused with the lines between them. I just don't know. The more you get into the extremism thing, the more political it gets. It is raw politics."
Mahdi says he wants to meet with Mohamed but doesn't want to discuss their differences publicly. Asked whether he disagrees with Mohamed's liberalism, Mahdi pauses for two beats before saying, "Well, I'm sure I have said some things [Mohamed] doesn't agree with as well. It is not necessarily a conflict. As Muslims we have to be aware what we say ... because when we speak, we are speaking for the Muslim community."
Mahdi concurs it is not a personal conflict. "I think all of us need to be concerned about the perception we give the public about Islam while keeping true to the tenets of our religion," he says.
Mohamed, however, refuses to meet with Mahdi, saying he has nothing to discuss. "Have you ever heard the old saying, 'Never touch trouble until trouble touches you'?" Mohamed asks. "Well, I believe in that."
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