Muslim McCarthyism

Going to meet the imam

It was 10:00 a.m. on a steamy, sunny morning just a few days after American soldiers began dying in Iraq. Zuhrah Abdu Akmed opened the door of her tiny Miramar house. She squinted as the aroma of curry and eggs wafted into the yard and mixed with exhaust from nearby State Road 7. A beautiful toddler, her grandson, pasted his face to the screen.

"Something is very fishy in all of this," she said to me, flashing a quizzical yet angry look, her slim form covered by long robes and her head wrapped in a pretty white scarf. "They just go after Muslims. Why? And we can barely leave our house, not even to get milk!"

Then she sent me away. Her husband, a respected Muslim cleric named Gulshair El'Shukri-Jumah, wasn't home. And she had seen enough reporters, television cameras, and also lawmen. She would soon even find herself dissatisfied with leaders of the mosque next door.

Four times since 2001, FBI agents searching for information on terrorists have visited Zuhrah and Gulshair's squat stucco house on SW 27th Street. The G-men recently raided the nearby home of their daughter, Hana, carting off a computer and correspondence in Arabic.

And with much foreboding, authorities have twice informed the press that they are searching for the couple's eldest son, Adnan, a plump-cheeked 27-year-old and Broward Community College graduate. "[Adnan] El shukrijumah is possibly involved with al-Qaeda terrorist activities and, if true, poses a serious threat to U.S. Citizens and interests worldwide," the bureau pronounced in a March 20 press release.

Crummy grammar and they misspelled the name, but nobody ever said the feds were linguists.

Guilt by association

The proclamation struck a chord in South Florida. The region, after all, was a stopover for fifteen of the nineteen September 11 terrorists. Anthrax was discovered here in the mail of Boca Raton's American Media, Inc. soon after the World Trade Center disaster. And three accused terrorists and acquaintances of Adnan El'Shukri-Jumah have also lived here: José Padilla, who allegedly planned to explode a radioactive dirty bomb; Imran Mandhai, who last year was convicted of attempting to explode power plants; and Adham Hassoun, a Sunrise computer programmer whom the federal government is holding because of alleged terrorist ties.

In case all that wasn't enough, the agents told reporters -- off the record, of course -- that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a top lieutenant to Osama bin Laden who was recently captured in Pakistan, had identified Adnan's picture.

The feds were soon comparing him to Mohamed Atta.

So TV trucks crowded the family's front yard for days. News of the FBI search ricocheted around the globe, like a lethal silvery pinball. New Zealand, Australia, France, Germany, Pakistan, Uzbekistan. "Feds beat the Bush for Saudi thug," crowed the New York Daily News.

I'm suspicious. Adnan El'Shukri-Jumah's friends and relatives in South Florida and Guyana, where he once lived, have told reporters he was neither fundamentalist nor radical. And federal sources have said that El'Shukri-Jumah demurred when an FBI mole tried to recruit him to commit acts of terror in 2001. (Adnan's friend Mandhai, who was ensnared by the mole, suggested his name.) Moreover, the timing of the FBI's announcement, on the very first full day of President George W. Bush's jihad against Saddam Hussein, smells like a way to panic the public into supporting an unpopular war.

It wouldn't be the first time the Bush administration considered more than just facts when releasing information that would put the public on guard. "The timing surprised us," says Parvez Ahmed, chairman of the board for the Florida Council of American-Islamic Relations. "Announcements like this have always surprised us. Last time the alert level was raised [on February 7], it was timed to coincide with the Hajj [a religious period related to the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca]. These are times of spiritual introspection. To think you could have terror alerts timed to something like this is terribly offensive to many Muslims."

Ahmed, of course, has no idea whether President Bush used the announcement of the search for Adnan as a scare tactic. And no one outside the government can be sure of this. That's the problem with the secrecy that dominates America at wartime.

But we can be convinced of one thing. Just the specter of terrorism hanging over the El'Shukri-Jumah family has caused injury. The most damaged individual so far is Gulshair, a bearded, handsome 73-year-old man with a Trinidadian accent, a long history of service to his community, and no alleged ties to fundamentalists.

The afternoon following my first visit to the family home, on March 24, he was fired from his job as part-time imam at the Al Hijrah mosque, which is located in a white stucco house next door and serves about 200 people. When I came by the next morning, Gulshair answered the door and invited me to sit on his small, concrete porch. He wore cotton pants that appeared to be pajamas, a soiled shirt, and he looked tired.

Then, in a low Caribbean lilt, he told me the story of his life. Gulshair's grandparents are from Yemen, but he was born in Guyana, where his father, Mohammad Jumah, ran a kind of general store, selling hats and textiles. In his teens, Gulshair -- one of eleven kids -- developed an interest in the Arabic language, and began working as a tailor. When he was 32 years old, he moved to Cairo, then to Medina, where he studied for ten years at an Islamic university.

In the Middle East, he met Zuhrah and they married. In 1975, when Zuhrah was only sixteen years old, Adnan was born. Gulshair, then 47, finished his studies in 1978. Three more children would be born in Saudi Arabia before the family moved to Trinidad, where Gulshair received a $1500-per-month stipend to work as a missionary in the Caribbean.

When Zuhrah's parents became ill in 1982, she returned to Saudi Arabia with the children. "She was the only daughter," Gulshair explained. "They needed her." Adnan, he says, was happy to be back in Arabia. "Adnan is a nice boy, not an extremist. After a few years passed, he used to go to the mosques to train people just like I do."

In 1986 Gulshair moved to Brooklyn. He worked as imam of Masjid Nur Al-islam, a mosque on Church Avenue where the Sun-Sentinel last week reported that terrorist Abdul Rasheed had worshipped. Rasheed was convicted in 1996 of plotting to blow up the Holland Tunnel and United Nations building.

In 1995 Gulshair retired and moved to South Florida, buying the small house where he now lives, for $78,000. A naturalized American citizen, he brought his family here from Saudi Arabia and worked at several South Florida religious institutions before settling at the tiny mosque next door.

His son helped him to raise the family. As the Miami Herald pointed out, cops were called once in 1997. A neighbor dialed 911 after Adnan scolded a sister for leaving the house a mess. No charges were filed. And the boy raised money for Bosnian refugees through a charity, Global Relief Fund, that has been linked to terrorism. But there doesn't appear to be any evidence that Adnan knew of a connection.

Soon after graduating from Broward Community College with an associate's degree in computer engineering in May 2001, the young man left for Trinidad. He was selling Islamic vestments, his father said. Press reports say he moved on to the Middle East.

After September 11, FBI agents came to the El'Shukri-Jumah house. They showed Gulshair a photo album of possible terrorists. "I hadn't seen any of them," Gulshair recalled. "Three months later they returned and said they wanted to know the whereabouts of my son." He couldn't tell them. His son calls irregularly, he said.

Gone but unforgotten

The agents kept coming back, once in 2002, then again just before announcing that they were looking for Adnan in March. "The FBI and the media are trying to link him with these wicked guys," Gulshair said. "He knew some of them, yes, but this is not just. He did nothing."

When the press barrage began, threatening messages started to pour into a Website that Adnan set up for his father to sell Arabic-language tapes, www.Masterarabic.com. There were dozens of them.

It was soon after that Al Hijrah elders decided to fire Gulshair. "The mosque leaders said I must step down; I didn't want to," he told me. "They said my son's name is published in all of the papers. I said I am accused of no wrongdoing, but they said that didn't matter.

"Now I can't sleep at night."

Bizarrely, though Gulshair enjoys virtually universal respect in the Muslim community, even moderates support the move. "He was there a long time," says Shamikh Sahadat, a student at Darul Uloom, one of the area's largest mosques. "But if we were in a situation like that, it would be the best thing."

Shades of McCarthyism. Virtually no proof. No charges. Not much practical evidence. Yet this war is causing American Muslims to turn on one another just as it has caused our nation's allies to assail us. It's becoming increasingly obvious that the bloodletting in Iraq has only begun. Less obvious is the degree to which Americans, including Muslims, will start to suspect and punish one another, as was the case in the political and entertainment worlds of the 1950s.

One way to reduce the collateral damage of Bush's jihad is for the FBI to make its investigations less public. Fewer press conferences. More cooperation with the American Muslim population. "They need to gain the confidence of the community," CAIR's Parvez Ahmed says. "The whole community feels it is under siege now, possibly by elements inside itself, and outside as well."

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