This is a tale of two news stories. They both pertain to Islam and culture clash in the post-9/11 world, but they take place in parallel universes: the first in a world where hard facts are prized like battle stars, the second in a milieu where reality's sharper edges require plenty of padding.
The first story is big stuff: The federal government is making the case that the prominent Yemeni cleric Muhammad Ali Hassan al-Mouyad used the Al Farooq Mosque in Brooklyn to help funnel millions of dollars to Al Qaeda -- $20 million to Osama bin Laden personally, according to what the cleric supposedly told an FBI informant. (Incidentally, the Al Farooq Mosque is also where Egyptian radical Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman -- convicted in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center that killed six and wounded more than 1,000 -- served briefly as imam.) As The New York Times put it, federal authorities see the Yemeni imam's arrest as one of the major financial busts since 9/11 "in terms of both the amount of money involved and the direct connection alleged to Mr. bin Laden himself."
Rita Katz, a specialist in terrorism finance, explained the case's significance this way: "It shows that Islamic clerics are having a lot to do with funding and assisting Al Qaeda." They are? To be sure, the government says that this particular cleric has. Have others? And what about the worshippers at Al Farooq? Do some number of them support Al Qaeda in particular, or just "jihad" in general? Or were they all duped into scraping together hundreds of thousands of dollars for some unknown cause?
These and other questions remain not only unanswered but unasked, unspeakable ciphers on the boundaries of acceptable national discourse. There is no help in sight from Brooklyn mosque officials, of course, who profess to be "very, very, very surprised" by the government's charges. Meanwhile, Yemeni leaders huffily point to Mr. al-Mouyad's respected role as a charitable imam who works in the Yemeni ministry that oversees mosques. (This last bit is not necessarily confidence-building given a recent government-broadcast out of Yemen's Grand Mosque: "O God, destroy the unjust sons of Zion and the arrogant Americans. O God, shake the ground under them, instill panic into their hearts and disperse them. O God, destroy them, for they are within your power.")