While the attention of most Americans, and much of the Islamic world, has been focused on the scandal of American soldiers' conduct at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, other events signal a deepening and dangerous crisis for American society and its relationship to Muslims who live within the borders of the U.S.
One such development is the detention on Thursday, May 6, of Brandon Mayfield, a 37-year old lawyer from Portland, Ore., as a possible material witness or "person of interest" in the conspiracy to perpetrate the horrific Madrid metro bombings of March 11.
Mayfield, who became a Muslim after marrying an Egyptian woman in 1989, now joins the list of "new Muslims" (a term Muslims consider preferable to "convert") who have become notorious to Americans since the thin, bedraggled John Walker Lindh, barely out of his teens, was pulled from the battlefield of Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan late in 2001. A soldier in the Taliban, Lindh shocked an America that never before knew such types even existed. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Then came José Padilla, a former gang member and petty criminal in his early 30s, and an associate of various Islamic extremists, held as a "dirty bomb" plotter, and therefore as an enemy combatant, for the past two years.
After him the case of the Portland Seven emerged, involving a terrorist cell in Oregon that included at least two "new Muslims." The group tried to get to Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban in the wake of September 11, 2001. Jeffrey Leon Battle, 34, and Patrice Lumumba Ford, 32, were sentenced to 18 years each in February of this year for conspiracy to levy war against the U.S. Battle's ex-wife, October Martinique Lewis, 27, was previously sentenced to three years for providing financial support to the group.
Next was Randall Todd Royer, 31, of northern Virginia, who pled guilty to weapons and explosives charges, and received 20 years in prison, following a notable public career that included harassing and threatening various critics of Islamic extremism (myself included) as well as organizing support for a jihadist terror group active in Kashmir. His group included other "new Muslims."
And now comes Mayfield, whose fingerprint may have been identified on a plastic bag containing detonators found in Spain after the atrocity there. Mayfield had represented Portland Seven member Battle in a child custody case when the latter was arrested.
Mayfield's biography includes other troubling items. As a law student at Washburn University, in Topeka, Kan., he helped organize a branch of the Muslim Student Association of the U.S. and Canada (MSA), which was set up by agents of Saudi Arabia's official Islamic clerical establishment to propagate the extremist doctrines of Wahhabism.
The Bilal Masjid (Mosque), which Mayfield attended in Beaverton, Ore., was the same institution favored by the Portland Seven. Its website, at www.bilalmasjid.com, includes a set of links supporting Islamist radical advocacy and organizations. While the website promises "Bilal Masjid doesn't necessarily endorse the contents of any of the links," they include a disabled link to The Meaning of Qur'an by Syed Abul Ala' Maududi. Maududi (1903-1979), was one of the primary ideologists of violent jihadism.
In addition, the site offers links to extremist Islamic relief groups. They include the Benevolence International Foundation, the Global Relief Foundation, and the International Islamic Relief Organization, the latter an arm of the Saudi-government -- all of which have been shown to have participated in the funding of al-Qaeda -- as well as the Holy Land Foundation for Relief for Relief and Development, shut down by the U.S. authorities. Other links lead to the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) a Pakistani-American movement inspired by Maududi and known for intimidating dissident Muslims in America. The Bilal Masjid thus appears to be a fairly typical Wahhabi-controlled mosque.
Twelve years ago, when his middle child, a daughter, was born, Mayfield doubtless did not think a time would come when the name chosen for her, Sharia, would seem menacing. But it certainly puts a different construction on statements by a professor at Washburn, Pakistan-born Ali Khan, that "Mayfield connected his religion with his legal studies."
As so often these days, media find ordinary Americans anxious to swear to the normality of Brandon Mayfield -- just as other reporters in other heartland communities found relatives and friends that sprang to declare the soldiers accused of abusing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib to be nice people. However, Mayfield's relatives appeared awfully anxious to declare the case to have proven the USA Patriot Act a failure; their response was not exactly nonideological.
Mayfield has yet to be charged with anything, and must be considered innocent until proven guilty.
If he is found to have had a link with the Madrid conspiracy, nobody anywhere should be surprised. Innocuous, obscure Americans like him are precisely the sort of people extremist conspirators would seek to involve in their activities. Mayfield and his family say he never visited Spain or Morocco, the centers of the Madrid bombing conspiracy, but it is in the nature of a global conspiracy to be, well, global, and to call on participants far from the places in which actions are carried out.
But unfortunately, many ordinary Americans will find in these cases evidence that the whole religion of Islam, and anyone who accepts it, is a seditious enemy of the democratic order. Cases of ultraradical "new Muslims" are not limited to America, but also include the "shoe bomber" Richard Reid, and various "new Muslims" in France, Spain, and elsewhere. The phenomenon of religious converts who seek to prove they are more extreme, and therefore better, in their adopted faith, is well-known to psychologists, and seen among Christians and Jews as well as Muslims.
But the cases of individuals like Brandon Mayfield are dangerous to the rest of America's Muslims, who are clearly loyal adherents of "Islam as a religion of peace" -- not because the civil rights of the latter are threatened by the authorities, but because the failure of American Muslims to produce a definitively American leadership inevitably isolates and alienates them from their non-Muslim neighbors.
As I have written and otherwise argued so often since September 11, 2001, it is up to Muslims -- especially Muslims in America -- to demonstrate that Islam is a religion of peace, of support for democracy, and of loyalty to legitimate authorities, non-Muslim as well as Muslim. Now is the moment for American Muslims to form new organizations, independent of the "Wahhabi lobby," and actively committed to these principles. Indeed, time is running out for American Muslims, whether born to or new to the faith, to free themselves of the suspicion of terrorist sympathies.