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.")
Which leaves us exactly where? Left to wonder why the Islamic advocacy groups in the United States fail to rejoice in a successful government sting operation against what certainly appears to be an unholy holy man who gives Islam a bad name. And we're left to wonder why Islamic moderates remain incapable of bringing off a good old-fashioned schism to divide their peaceable selves from their violent-minded co-religionists. Do such moderates attend the Dallas Central Mosque, where a fund-raiser for five brothers charged with doing business with the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas was held last month? How about the Islamic Center of Greater Cleveland, where mosque officials have decided to retain an imam linked by reports to the federal indictment against suspected Islamic Jihad leader Sami Al-Arian? One has uncomfortable questions, too, about the moderate views of worshippers at the Islamic Community of Tampa Bay, where Mr. Al-Arian remains imam and president.
But such questions aren't being entertained. Which brings us to the second news story, as promised above. It has to do with Lois McMahan, a bespectacled, pearl-necklace-wearing, Republican state representative who declined to take her seat in the Washington legislature this week until after Olympia imam Mohamad Joban finished opening the "session of the House of Representatives in the name of Allah...."
Why? Calling it an "issue of patriotism," she told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "The Islamic religion is so ... part and parcel with the attack on America. I just didn't want to be there, be part of that. Even though the mainstream Islamic religion doesn't profess to hate America, nonetheless it spawns the groups that hate America." To Washington state's Sun newspaper, she said, "I'd die for their right to believe what they want to believe; that's America. But the Islamic leaders of this country have not been vocal enough about their criticism of the enemies of this country."
One news cycle later, Rep. McMahan was making headlines again, only this time to recant. "I apologize for offenses given and would like to ask for forgiveness to any whom I have offended," she said, addressing her colleagues from the legislature floor. And soon, she added, she would be delivering her apologies "personally" to the imam on an upcoming visit to his mosque.
What will she say? Something like, "I'm sorry for observing that certain Islamic groups hate America religiously"? Or, "I'm sorry for noticing that Islamic leaders have been tepid in their condemnations of terrorist organizations"? "I'm sorry for raising a serious concern in the hopes of fueling an honest exchange"?
I'm sorry, too.