From the Chicago Tribune comes a fascinating story of how Muslim radicals gained control of a mosque in Bridgeview, Illinois. (Thanks to Bassam Madany and Paul Weyrich.)
There is a great deal to this. It’s all worth reading, but here are some highlights:
Among the leaders at the Bridgeview mosque are men who have condemned Western culture, praised Palestinian suicide bombers and encouraged members to view society in stark terms: Muslims against the world. Federal authorities for years have investigated some mosque officials for possible links to terrorism financing, but no criminal charges have been filed.
Mosque leaders deny encouraging militancy and have denounced terrorism, including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. They shun the fundamentalist label, saying they follow the true form of Islam and others do not. They point out that an elected board sets mosque policy; if the worshipers wanted a more liberal mosque, they would vote for one.
“It’s an election, a democratic process,” mosque President Oussama Jammal said.
The mosque now attracts thousands of worshipers–most of them Palestinian-Americans–by offering pro-Palestinian sermons, a spiritual refuge and a strict version of Islam. The ultraconservative Saudi Arabian government partially pays the salary of prayer leader Sheik Jamal.
Moderate Muslims still pray at the mosque, but some say conservatives have created an environment that is overly political, too rigid in its interpretation of Islam and resistant to open debate. These members also worry that the Muslim Brotherhood, a controversial group with a violent past, has an undue influence over the mosque. Despite these concerns, the critics largely remain silent, fearful of being called “unIslamic” by mosque leaders.
That is precisely the problem in so many places. The hard-liners can take the Islamic high ground, adducing numerous texts in support of their views. The moderates are thus effectively silenced.
In this story, the moderates who founded the mosque
practiced a form of Islam that allowed Muslims to socialize freely. They viewed their religion as an important part of life, but not all of life. Men and women could mingle. The women wore short sleeves and did not cover their hair. The men sometimes ran liquor stores even though many Muslims believed Islam forbade selling alcohol.
This is why they are on the defensive. When someone comes saying, “Religion should govern all of life,” especially in the context of a law-intensive religion like Islam, many Muslims fall susceptible. And soon these “moderate” trappings are swept away.
And where did this Islamic awakening come from? You guessed it:
The 35-year-old Najib, the only Muslim lawyer mosque leaders knew, became the mosque’s attorney and helped write its constitution. Other mosque officials fired off telegrams overseas and traveled to the Middle East several times, targeting countries such as Saudi Arabia, which had started giving away its new oil wealth to help spread its rigid form of Islam.
One mosque fundraising brochure warned that Chicago’s Muslims were at risk of “melting in the American society, culture and lifestyle.” A plea to a Saudi charity asked for money “before it becomes too late and we may lose our children because they are living in an unIslamic society.”
Such pleas illustrate the tug of war that faced many mosques in America–between the forces of assimilation and Islamic traditions, between the new country and the old.
The money poured into Bridgeview, more than $1.2 million in all, according to mosque records. Kuwaiti donors gave $369,000. The Saudi government donated $152,000. The religious ministry of the United Arab Emirates contributed $135,000.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which I show in Onward Muslim Soldiers to be the root of modern Islamic terrorism, was also involved.
Then the mosque leaders asked religious authorities in Jordan to send an assistant prayer leader. The authorities sent Masoud Ali Masoud, a 57-year-old Palestinian who worked for Jordan’s religious affairs ministry.
He also belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that believed in spreading a strict form of Islam and creating states governed by Islamic law.
The Brotherhood had gained notoriety for repeatedly attempting to overthrow the Egyptian and Syrian governments. It spawned two violent Islamic groups: the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, offshoots created by former Brotherhood members who believed the Brotherhood was not militant enough. And Brotherhood members would go on to form the militant Palestinian group Hamas, designated a terrorist group by the U.S. in 1995.
But the Brotherhood also organized political protests and ran charities, and many supporters, including Masoud, saw the group as a peaceful movement aimed at restoring Islam’s greatness in the world. The Brotherhood did not operate openly in America, though its members quietly influenced some Muslim groups.
Soon, mosque leaders–adhering to a strict interpretation of Islam–told the congregation’s women to cover their hair and wear looser clothing. During social events, the women were separated from the men.
Meanwhile, mosque attendance is booming. Friday prayers are so crowded that dozens cannot get inside, forcing them to place their prayer rugs on the front lawn. As many as 2,000 attend Friday prayers. Bridgeview remains one of the most popular of the Chicago area’s 50 mosques.
Sheik Jamal and other mosque leaders still pursue a controversial agenda.
In March 2002, the mosque hired a new assistant prayer leader–the same man who had run the local office of an Islamic charity until it was closed by the federal government for alleged terrorism ties. Even a few board members questioned whether he should have been hired so quickly.
At a prayer service last May, Sheik Jamal raised $50,000 for Palestinian activist Sami Al-Arian, a former professor at the University of South Florida who is charged with being the U.S. leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad. To rally donors, the sheik called Israel “a foreign, malignant and strange element on the blessed land.”
Al-Arian denies the charges against him. Oussama Jammal, the mosque president, defended the fundraising for Al-Arian. “We raised for his legal defense. That’s allowed under U.S. law,” he said. “If people were against this, they wouldn’t have paid.”
In December, at an Islamic conference in Chicago, Sheik Jamal said that Muslims should not listen to contemporary music and that women should not travel long distances without chaperones. He also praised Sayyid Qutb, whose writings helped lay the foundation for Muslim Brotherhood beliefs.
The mosque remains so conservative, several former leaders said, because more and more mosque officials are Brotherhood members.
Mosque leaders declined to comment on the Brotherhood, but director Bassam Jody noted that most of the mosque’s 24 directors belong to the Muslim American Society–a group with strong ties to the Brotherhood. The mosque vice president runs the society’s local chapter.