Mosque seeks a normal life after a member was convicted for helping bin Laden

May 18, 2009

Area mosque’s leaders try to end rift
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Friday, November 9, 2001

Saturday’s open house and other outreach efforts reflect mosque leaders’ attempts to put controversy behind them with careful mediation among disputing members.

ARLINGTON — Leaders of the Islamic Society of Arlington thought they had finally healed their fractured mosque.

A battle over the ouster of a controversial spiritual leader had cooled. The high-profile trial of a former mosque member who worked for Osama bin Laden was coming to a close.

And attendance at the 600-member mosque was returning to normal.

Then hijacked planes slammed into the Pentagon, World Trade Center towers and a Pennsylvania field.

The terrorist attacks that set every mosque in the nation on edge hit particularly hard at the Center Street mosque, resurrecting ghosts of former members who put it in the national spotlight when their ties to bin Laden were revealed.

“Before Sept. 11, the community was congealing. They were coming together. Attendance was at an all-time high,” mosque President Najam Khan said.

Mosque leaders quickly and publicly denounced the attacks. They presented $40,000 to the Red Cross for the Sept. 11 victims. The new imam, or spiritual leader, said he wants to visit area churches to talk about Islam. And on Saturday, the mosque is hosting an open house.

The open house aims to debunk stereotypes about Islam. But some say the event also is designed to restore the reputation of Tarrant County’s largest mosque.

“This mosque is going extra steps because we were in the limelight for some time,” said Hanif Akuly, who has been worshipping at the Islamic Society of Arlington for more than 10 years.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations has encouraged mosques to hold open houses, and Mohamed Elmougy, president of CAIR’s Fort Worth-Dallas chapter, said an open house is particularly important for the Center Street mosque.

“I think that mosque really has a bigger obligation to open their doors,” Elmougy said. “We’re here as Americans, and it is an obligation on us as Muslims to educate the general public who we are, otherwise we have no excuses. That’s the lessons that we’ve learned.”

A National Case

The Islamic Society of Arlington, commonly known as the Center Street mosque, grew out of the Muslim community at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Construction of the house of worship was completed in 1989, and Moataz al-Hallak became its first imam.

As the city’s only mosque for nearly a decade, it flourished, attracting immigrants representing every corner of the Muslim world: North Africa, the Middle East, India and Asia. Services are conducted in Arabic, and Islamic education is available for all age groups.

Sajjad Haider, a Muslim who started attending the mosque when he was a student at UT-Arlington, said he gets up at 4:30 a.m. and drives from Mansfield to join fellow Muslims in prayer at the Center Street mosque.

“It gives you very a spiritual, clean mind when you leave from the mosque,” Haider said. He said it is more meaningful for him to pray with his fellow Muslims.

Khan said the mosque’s first priority is to promote Islam and teach local Muslims about their religion.

Ihsan Bagby, lead researcher on a study of American mosques that was released this year, said Islamic houses of worship have a special place in this country.

“The mosque in America, unlike the mosque in the Muslim world, serves as the community center in the Muslim community. … It is where Muslims worship, but more so it is where they socialize,” Bagby said.

A severe test for Arlington’s bastion of Islam started after Wadih el Hage, a Lebanese convert to Islam, moved here from Kenya in 1997. El Hage, bin Laden’s former personal secretary, moved to Arlington after the FBI, working with Kenyan officials, confiscated papers and a computer from his home and reportedly advised his wife to leave the country.

Federal scrutiny of el Hage intensified after truck bombs ripped through the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. He was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury in New York that was investigating the terrorist attacks, believed to be the work of bin Laden.

El Hage subsequently was arrested and a lengthy legal process began, involving several Arlington Muslims, including al-Hallak.

Al-Hallak and Khader Ibrahim, el Hage’s former boss at a Fort Worth tire shop, testified before a grand jury, and Essam al-Ridi, another member of the mosque, testified at the trial.

The 76-day trial led to el Hage’s conviction on charges of conspiracy to kill Americans. Before being sentenced to life in prison last month, el Hage proclaimed his innocence. His statement drew sympathy from some in Arlington’s Muslim community.

“A lot of people know him. They know what kind of person he is. He’s a really peaceful person,” said Abdullah Jibaly, a mosque member who said he’s among many who believe el Hage is innocent.

During el Hage’s trial, FBI agents began contacting members of the mosque. FBI spokeswoman Lori Bailey said the contacts were routine community outreach efforts.

Al-Hallak’s attorney, Stanley Cohen, said his client believes the agents were meddling and sowing seeds of division.

Tarrant County Medical Examiner Dr. Nizam Peerwani, an original member of the mosque who has since moved on to become head of a Fort Worth Islamic school, said the trial hurt the mosque.

“I think the reputation was somewhat damaged because of what took place,” Peerwani said. “But I think the Muslims in Tarrant County do know now that the mosque is pretty stable, and they’re willing to support the mosque, and they’re willing to associate with the mosque.”

Internal disputes

While el Hage was facing legal problems, the mosque administration decided not to renew al-Hallak’s contract as imam.

Former Chairman Hasan Ali said it was because of poor performance, but he would not elaborate. The administration filed a civil suit against al-Hallak and his supporters, seeking a court order to temporarily restrain them from a host of disruptive activities, from allegedly assaulting and threatening board members to tampering with mail. The case is expected to be dismissed Nov. 15.

Supporters say al-Hallak was espousing a traditional interpretation of Islam, but his critics contend he was a divisive leader guilty of favoritism. Al-Hallak eventually gave up his fight to stay on as imam and moved to Maryland.

Main Al-Qudah, a 32-year-old who had lectured on Islamic studies in Saudi Arabia, was hired to replace al-Hallak, a new board was elected, and the new leaders set about trying to heal the wounds.

The first step was to ban all feuding and controversial members from leadership positions. Only those deemed Islamic scholars by the mosque’s religious leaders would be allowed to speak.

Further mediation laid the groundwork for a panel – yet to be formed – to hear banned members’ pleas to be eligible for leadership roles again.

Khan and Al-Qudah said these steps, attempts to carry on the normal work of running a mosque and the simple passage of time, had helped mend the rifts.

“There was a dispute and argument here … but now everything is OK,” Al-Qudah said.

Jibaly, who is named as a defendant along with al-Hallak in the civil suit, said the disputing parties now greet each other, but have little else to say.

Sept. 11

Sept. 11 put the mosque under intense media scrutiny once again. The FBI was looking for al-Hallak for questioning. The former imam, who sometimes visits Arlington, was leading prayers at the Center Street mosque two days before the terrorist attacks.

One of al-Hallak’s supporters, Mohamed Abdo of Arlington, was arrested in a national dragnet of people the FBI wanted to question about the attacks. Abdo, a defendant in the civil suit, is being held on immigration charges in Denton County Jail. He and his wife have declined interview requests.

Members worried that their mosque would become a target of hate crimes. They are installing surveillance cameras.

Mosque leaders have publicly denounced the attacks.

“We don’t encourage any kind of terrorism,” Al-Qudah said. Islamic law requires Muslims here to obey U.S. laws, he said, because they have accepted visas or become citizens.

Al-Qudah said he’s tried to maintain a sense of normalcy in the mosque since the attacks and will try to do Islam justice at Saturday’s open house.

Khan hopes the open house will put the controversial days further in the past.

“We’re trying to get away from that,” Khan said. “Instead of focus on any internal politics, focus on the faith.”