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.

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.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman

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