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Story Publication logo December 4, 2005

Muslims feel the pressure of terrorism crackdown


The following article ran as part of a seven-part series by Jon Sawyer and Tim Townsend, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch December 4-11, 2005.


As Sheikh Shaker el Sayed stood before his congregation for the start of Friday prayers last month at Dar al-Hijrah Mosque, he looked out upon a community that was in distress but strong in faith.

Off to one side, seated on the prayer carpet beneath the mosque's circular skylights, was Allam al-Alami, an engineer from suburban Virginia, grieving over the loss of five close relatives killed the previous week in a suicide-bomb attack at a wedding party in Amman, Jordan.

On the floor to al-Alami's left was Abdelhaleem Ashqar, a former business professor at Howard University, awaiting trial on charges that he helped the militant Palestinian group Hamas over a decade ago. On his ankle: an electronic monitoring bracelet that records his every move.

In the upstairs prayer room for women, wearing a full hijab that covered her face except for her eyes, was Mirsada Stabancic, 27, a mother of four. Her husband, former St. Louisan Randall "Ismail" Royer, is serving a 20-year sentence for supporting Kashmiri Muslims in their violent struggle for independence from India.

And in the main prayer room, directly in front of el Sayed, stood Omar Abu Ali, solemn and distinguished, a Jordanian-American computer programmer in a pinstriped suit.

Abu Ali had come to prayers from the federal court in Alexandria, Va. A jury had begun deliberations that morning on the most serious of charges - that his son Ahmed had joined an al-Qaida terrorist cell in Saudi Arabia and conspired to assassinate President George W. Bush. Five days later, he would be found guilty, on all counts.

No wonder, then, that on this day the imam urged his congregation to look beyond the trials of this life, to reflect that "no judgment in this life will be final. There will be a review. And the review is not going to be in the appeals court or the Supreme Court. . . .

"So today, if you are wronged - if you cannot speak, if you cannot make your point because in this life a judge has made up his mind or her mind to do injustice because of whatever reason, don't be sad," el Sayed said. "You are only wronged for the few days in which we are living, and those count for nothing in comparison to eternity."

"We are in love with this country"

Imagine a community of faith devoted to its members but also open to outsiders, a big-hearted place that sponsors schools, comforts the afflicted and cares for the needy - the sort of place that could raise $12,500 cash at a single service for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Place that community just outside the nation's capital. Make it the biggest mosque in the region, drawing several thousand people to prayers each week - among them, newly arrived immigrants as well as established professionals and diplomats.

Then imagine sustaining that community, and its faith, amid a series of federal prosecutions - terrorism- related cases that the Bush administration hails as landmark victories but that members of this community view as either ill-conceived or outright abuse of government power.

Dar al-Hijrah ("Land of Migration") mosque was established in 1983, in a house in this suburb of Washington. The house still stands, but services are held in a larger building next door that was completed in 1991 with financial help from the Saudi government. The mosque has no current Saudi support but does have close links with the Muslim American Society and the Islamic Society of North America.

The mosque picked up notoriety when it was disclosed that two of the 9/11 hijackers had worshipped there, for a period of several weeks in spring 2001. El Sayed, who took over as imam in July, has been the target of criticism himself for public comments - made as general secretary of the Muslim American Society - praising Palestinian resistance to Israel.
El Sayed, 54, an Egyptian immigrant, complains that media accounts often convey false impressions, so often that he almost despairs of doing interviews.

"This is an open mosque," he says, referring to the apparent presence here of the hijackers. "Anybody could go through the doors at Dar al-Hijrah and come out, without any of us knowing they were there. . . . Yet, the more this story is reported, the more it is asserted one way or another, it suggests that Dar al-Hijrah is somehow a haven for unsavory personalities - which is not correct. A total distortion.

"Wherever I go, there is always the question, that we have not condemned terrorism enough," he said. "Should I just make a condemnation song, a CD of it? We quote it on our Web site, we speak it to the media, yet people are not willing to take our answer for what it is."

El Sayed says that amid all the tension since the 9/11 attacks, too many forget that Muslim Americans are both - Muslims and Americans, committed to faith and country alike.

"We are in love with this country," he said. "We have a vested, personal and community interest for this country always to be safe. We will never waver on that issue. Even if the government does the most awful things to us, we will not waver on that."

Crackdown, or overreaching?

After 9/11, the Justice Department proclaimed that the gloves were off, that it would seize every opportunity to go after suspected terrorists.

"Let the terrorists among us be warned," then-Attorney General John Ashcroft declared in late 2001. "If you overstay your visa, even by one day, we will arrest you. If you violate a local law, you will be put in jail and kept in custody as long as possible. We will use every available statute. We will seek every available prosecutorial advantage."

Nowhere has that strategy been applied so forcefully, or successfully, than in the eastern district of Virginia. U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty, a former Ashcroft aide, has racked up more terrorism-related convictions and guilty pleas than any other prosecutor. He was recently nominated as deputy attorney general, the No. 2 post in the Justice Department.

But to many of the estimated 40,000 Muslims who live in the Washington area, those same cases look like overreach, in a climate all too permissive of attacks on Islam itself.

They recall the comment by President George W. Bush, quickly retracted, referring to the U.S. anti-terrorist war as a "crusade." They note the incendiary remarks from well-known Christian evangelists - the Rev. Franklin Graham's depiction of Islam as "a very evil and wicked religion," for example, or the Rev. Jerry Falwell's description of the Prophet Muhammad as "a violent man, a man of war" and "a terrorist."

There was also the statement by Ashcroft himself, in an interview with columnist Cal Thomas in late 2001: "Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for Him. Christianity is a faith in which God sends His Son to die for you."

Guilty pleas and long sentences

Prosecutors referred to the series of cases over Kashmiri independence, including that of St. Louisan Royer, as the "Virginia Jihad" local Muslims refer to it dismissively as the "paintball" case because of allegations the defendants trained at a local paintball course.

The charges were based on alleged violations of the Neutrality Act, a rarely enforced statute dating to 1794 that bars U.S. citizens from joining military action against countries with which the United States is not at war. Participants were accused of taking part in training exercises, with the aim of joining Lashkar e-Taiba, a militant Muslim group fighting for Kashmiri independence from India.

Six of the 11 defendants pleaded guilty, three were convicted at trial and two were acquitted. Two of the defendants got reduced sentences after pleading guilty to charges that the group also contemplated fighting with the Taliban against U.S. forces; the others denied any such intent.

The paintball group had attended lectures by a charismatic Iraqi-American imam named Ali al-Timimi, at a storefront mosque in downtown Falls Church. Al-Timimi, who was also a Ph.D. cancer researcher, was convicted this year of inciting others to levy war against the United States. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Abu Ali's conviction on conspiracy charges was based almost entirely on a confession he made while in custody of the Saudi Arabian security service. His claim that he confessed only after being tortured was rejected by the jury.

U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema presided over most of the "Virginia Jihad" cases and also that of Ali al-Timimi. She called the mandatory sentences that federal guidelines required her to impose - life for al- Timimi and up to 85 years in the "paintball" cases - "appalling."

A Palestinian activist

Another case that has fueled resentment among Muslims is that of Abdelhaleem Ashqar, the former Howard professor charged with helping Hamas.

The indictment alleges that in the early 1990s, when Ashqar was a graduate student at the University of Mississippi, he helped launder and disburse about $1 million to further the aims of Hamas.

His alleged that actions in support of Hamas all took place before 1995, the year Hamas was officially designated a terrorist group by the United States. The indictment also cites his refusal to testify about Hamas before federal grand juries in 1998 and 2003, despite an offer of immunity.

The evidence against him came from pre-1995 FBI wiretaps and a break-in at his Mississippi apartment, both conducted as intelligence operations that required no court warrants.

Ashqar and two other Hamas supporters were charged in August last year, a week before the Republican National Convention, in a case that Ashcroft hailed as a major success for the USA Patriot Act provisions that made it easier for intelligence information to be used in law enforcement.

The indictment relied on the Racketeering and Corrupt Organizations statutes, originally aimed at organized crime. The Justice Department's announcement noted that these were allegations only. Other parts of the government were less careful:

"Three Hamas Terrorists Indicted for Racketeering" was the headline on a State Department Web site.
Ashqar, 47, lives in suburban Virginia with his wife, a teacher. He has been under house arrest since shortly after his arrest. Trial is scheduled for October in Chicago. In the meantime, he is confined to home except for two hours each weekday morning and afternoon and for Friday prayers.

Despite his confinement, Ashqar registered as a candidate in the Palestinian presidential elections in January - and came in fourth.

Ashqar grew up in the West Bank, in a family of political activists. In the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, the Turks jailed his grandfather, an agitator for home rule. In 1936, the British authorities then governing Palestine jailed his father, an outspoken cleric. Ashqar himself was jailed - and tortured, he says - by the Israelis. Prosecutions like his are merely a continuation in this country of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he believes. He considers the Virginia Jihad case as an equally miscast part of the war on terrorism.

"The only case that is different is Abu Ali," Ashqar said, referring to the alleged conspiracy to assassinate the president that ended in conviction last month. "But that young man grew up in this community," he said. "Everyone knows him. They simply don't believe the charges."

Could friction over such prosecutions end up alienating Muslims in communities such as Falls Church? Could there be an American version of Leeds, England, hometown of the second-generation Pakistani Muslims who blew themselves up in the London suicide attacks in July that killed 56 people and wounded 700?

Ashqar said he doesn't think so, that in his opinion American Muslims are more integrated into the broader society than Muslims in Europe and more willing to seek out constructive political power. What worries him is the generation of younger Muslims who come to mosque infrequently, if at all, and who view their situation through an American prism.

"For us immigrants, I compare the situation here to the situation in Israel or I compare it to the situations where Muslims live under dictatorship, and for me it is still tolerable here," he said.

"But for the younger generation, who have lived only here, it often feels intolerable. They insist on standing up now."

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