AP Interview: Top imam sets new course after leaving mosque

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Posted: Jun 09, 2015 5:02 PM
AP Interview: Top imam sets new course after leaving mosque

DEARBORN HEIGHTS, Mich. (AP) — One of the nation's top Shiite Muslim leaders says a "clash of ideas" caused his departure from one of North America's largest mosques, and he's forging ahead with a new congregation and plans for a mosque, media channels and other projects to reach those inside and outside of his faith.

Imam Hassan al-Qazwini, who spoke Monday to The Associated Press after months of public silence, said by year's end he hopes to have a permanent home for his new congregation. Many come from his former mosque, the Islamic Center of America in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, which has one of the largest and oldest Arab-Muslim communities outside the Middle East.

"The issue with the board was mostly ... a clash of ideas and mindset," al-Qazwini said. "I have a bigger image for my mission and the center I serve than the board has. They feel that their mission mostly pertains to the local community, in Dearborn. I believe that the name, Islamic Center of America, implies much more."

Qazwini, 50, spoke in a small office in Dearborn Heights, a couple of miles west of the large, ornamental edifice he helped open in 2005. He served for 18 years as the imam, or prayer leader, of the Islamic Center before resigning last month.

The departure capped months of acrimony, including anonymous letters accusing al-Qazwini of mishandling money and using donations from congregants for projects run by his father in Iraq, such as an orphanage and planned hospital for the poor. Leaders of his former mosque wanted to use the funds to cover mosque debt and local work.

Al-Qazwini, who comes from a family of prominent American Shiite scholars and is of Iraqi descent, said some people misunderstood the mission and his motives.

"Everything was legal," he said. "Some members of the congregation donated to the orphanage. ... Some board members had an issue with that."

Al-Qazwini, a husband and father of six children ranging in age from 8 to 30, leads Friday prayers in Detroit at the Az-Zahra Center, the former home of the Islamic Center. Al-Qazwini says the services typically draw between 400 and 500 "mostly young, American-born, American-educated" Muslims.

Ron Amen, an Islamic Center board member and chairman during al-Qazwini's final months, said some people followed the former imam but "they've been replaced by a much larger group." A recent fundraising dinner drew a large crowd and some congregants have posted on social media using the hashtags #dearbornfirst and #BacktoBasics.

Amen said al-Qazwini's family projects are worthwhile but the emphasis should be paying a mosque loan of about $1 million. He also wants to focus on needy congregants, adding that he signed "thousands of dollars a month in charitable donations" to them.

Al-Qazwini, gently running prayer beads through his hands, said he seeks to balance local and global aims as his new congregation looks for a home. He's created a youth association and plans a media division to produce videos and Internet- and satellite-based programming aimed "disseminating the message of Islam."

Longer-term goals include establishing a private Islamic high school and higher education institution.

"In addition to having responsibility as an imam to lead congregational prayer for my own community, I have a duty to educate Americans about my religion," he said.

Amen said he believes both congregations can coexist. The mosque has hired the first of three imams planned to replace al-Qazwini.

"We had some unsolvable differences," Amen said. "But we're definitely going to miss him at the Islamic Center."

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Follow Jeff Karoub on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jeffkaroub. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-karoub