Reign of the radicals

Posted: Feb 06, 2006 12:05 AM
Omar Najib doesn't cut an imposing figure, with his white hair and disarming smile, but the 62-year-old Palestinian immigrant has placed himself at the front line of the battle to reclaim the faith he loves. Mr. Najib is not the only moderate Muslim fighting Islamic fundamentalists, but the ones he is up against at his suburban Chicago mosque are considered to be among the most radical in the nation.

Situated in Bridgeview, Ill., the mosque has been on the radar of federal authorities for more than a decade. In the last seven years, the U.S. government has taken legal action against several former officials and other prominent members for funding and participating in terrorist organizations. The mosque itself has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into three charities that were closed shortly after 9/11 for financing terrorism.

From the early '70s, the predominantly Palestinian immigrant community in Bridgeview had been trying to raise funds to build a mosque. They had little luck--until newer immigrants raised $1.2 million, mostly from wealthy Gulf countries. The older, more moderate Muslims--whose men were clean-shaven and whose women wore short sleeves and no hijabs--handed over control of the mosque to the principal fund raisers. One day later, the old guard sued, claiming they didn't know who was behind the new order--radical Wahhabists who ran the North American Islamic Trust.

Shortly after the suit was filed, the new leadership fired the longtime prayer leader, a moderate (and proud American), and replaced him with a fundamentalist, Ahmad Zaki Hammad, who was imported from Egypt. The court sided with the fundamentalists, saying it had no role in determining who controls a mosque. Mr. Najib represented the mosque—and thus, the fundamentalists who controlled it—in the two-year battle. At the time, he says, many on the mosque board were more moderate.

Within months of helping them, however, Mr. Najib realized his mistake. He raised questions about Mr. Hammad, and, as a result, lost his seat on the board. Mr. Najib's worries were eventually confirmed. The prayer leader was the founder of the Quranic Literacy Institute, whose assets were frozen in 1998 by federal authorities for terror financing. Six years later, QLI was found by a civil court to have funneled money to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.

In the two decades since, Mr. Najib has written numerous letters to the imam and the board of directors, expressing deep concern with the mosque's extremist positions. He distributed the letters to other congregants, but had been unable to gain support. Since 9/11, however, his criticisms, have been printed in the Chicago Tribune and other local papers. Mr. Najib's last letter, dated February 2005, in which he threatened a lawsuit, came on the heels of a local bank closing the mosque's account. Bridgeview had sent $10,000 to the Islamic American Relief Agency, which was later designated a terrorist organization by the Treasury Department.

This was not the first instance of the mosque's questionable donations. Between 1991 and 2001, the mosque gave a total of almost $400,000 to three Islamic charities: the Global Relief Foundation, the Holy Land Foundation and the Benevolence International Foundation. All had offices near the mosque and shared many of its leaders. When the charities were closed after 9/11 for financing terrorist activities, the mosque leaders thumbed their noses at the government, re-electing GRF officer Mohamed Chehade to its board and hiring Kifah Mustapha, who had run the Chicago-area HLF office, as its new prayer leader.

Other prominent members of Bridgeview have ties to terrorist groups too. Muhammad Salah, who was on the mosque's executive committee until 1993, is under house arrest, pending trial on charges of laundering millions to fund Hamas. Bridgeview's imam was the treasurer in the mid-'90s for Al Aqsa Educational fund, described by the FBI as a front for Hamas. The list goes on.

Mr. Najib is disturbed not only by the external ties of the mosque to these terrorist groups but also by the culture inside Bridgeview. "I have never heard one word of criticism--and I have been going there 25 years--of Wahhabism, the Taliban or suicide bombings." A strong supporter of the Palestinian cause and of a Palestinian state, Mr. Najib is nonetheless careful to voice support for peaceful resistance. He states unequivocally, “I am against all suicide bombings.”

Mr. Najib has waged five campaigns in recent years to regain the board seat he lost in 1984. Each has been unsuccessful, at least partly because the board rigs the elections by handpicking the small fraction of members allowed to vote.

Notwithstanding Mr. Najib's protests, the current leadership seems quite popular. An estimated 2,000 people attend Friday prayers, a 20-fold increase from 1983. The ever-expanding contingent of mosque-goers appears to consist largely of fundamentalists in sync with the leadership's worldview, which seeks a return to "pure Islam" and preaches withdrawal from secular society. By Mr. Najib's count, the majority of men at the mosque have religious beards and almost every woman is covered from head-to-toe. Stepping foot through the door, he says, "is like walking inside the Taliban."

While most Americans believe--or, at least, hope--that all but a handful of their Muslim countrymen find radical Islam noxious, Mr. Najib's tale is not encouraging. Not only has no one at the mosque publicly backed his reform efforts but "you can count on less than two hands the number of people who have supported me privately," Mr. Najib laments. "It's been a lonely fight."

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