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Islamic Hardliners in the Heartland By: Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune | Monday, February 16, 2004


Sheik Jamal Said stood before the packed mosque and worked the crowd like an auctioneer.

Speaking Arabic, the prayer leader asked for a donation of $10,000. No one responded. He asked for $5,000, and three men raised their hands.

Hundreds of men sat cross-legged before him in the main prayer hall. Women filled the basement, listening over a loudspeaker. All but the youngest girls wore head scarves.

When Sheik Jamal lowered his request to $2,000, more hands shot into the air. The crowd declared, "Allahu Akbar" or "God is great." $1,000? More hands. $500? Even more. In less than five minutes, he raised $50,000.

While religious leaders often mine congregations for charity, this scene at the Mosque Foundation in suburban Bridgeview stands out for two reasons.

The recipient of the worshipers' generosity was Sami Al-Arian, a Palestinian activist accused by the U.S. government of aiding terrorists. And the prayer leader's passionate appeal is a reflection of the ascendancy of Muslim hard-liners at the mosque, one of the most outspoken and embattled in the U.S.

The mosque did not become this way without a struggle. Relying on hundreds of documents and dozens of interviews, the Tribune has pieced together the details of a bitter fight in Bridgeview that saw religious fundamentalists prevail over moderates

Among the leaders at the Bridgeview mosque are men who have condemned Western culture, praised Palestinian suicide bombers and encouraged members to view society in stark terms: Muslims against the world. Federal authorities for years have investigated some mosque officials for possible links to terrorism financing, but no criminal charges have been filed

 

The mosque now attracts thousands of worshipers--most of them Palestinian-Americans--by offering pro-Palestinian sermons, a spiritual refuge and a strict version of Islam. The ultraradical Saudi Arabian government partially pays the salary of prayer leader Sheik Jamal.

Moderate Muslims still pray at the mosque, but some say radicals have created an environment that is overly political, too rigid in its interpretation of Islam and resistant to open debate. These members also worry that the Muslim Brotherhood, a controversial group with a violent past, has an undue influence over the mosque. Despite these concerns, the critics largely remain silent, fearful of being called "unIslamic" by mosque leaders

 

The prayer leader

 

An imposing man with a bushy brown beard, Sheik Jamal mesmerized worshipers with his eloquent sermons and ardent pleas to help oppressed Muslims. He was greatly admired by mosque-goers, who frequently came to him to settle everyday domestic disputes.

As a child, he was inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood. Growing up on the West Bank, he learned about a nearby graveyard for Brotherhood members who had died fighting for a Palestinian homeland. He later brought his own children to the cemetery to pay homage to the fighters, according to a tape of a speech he gave at a Muslim conference in 2000.

During the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, his family moved to Jordan, where he would always maintain ties, eventually building a large house in an upscale neighborhood in Amman.

After studying Islam at a Saudi Arabian university, he came to Chicago to teach Arabic to African-American Muslims. In 1985, at age 28, Sheik Jamal became prayer leader in Bridgeview. Part of his salary would be paid by the government of Saudi Arabia--a stipend that totaled about $2,000 a month by 2004, according to Saudi Embassy officials in Washington.

Many at the mosque were already familiar with his views. As a guest speaker several years earlier, he had given a memorable sermon in which he criticized the mosque women for not dressing modestly.

As prayer leader, he preached that America was a land of disbelievers, where families were not valued, according to mosque-goers. He told worshipers that they should not celebrate Valentine's Day and Thanksgiving because those were not Islamic holidays. He told teenage boys and girls not to mingle.

Over time, Sheik Jamal developed a national reputation and easily attracted prominent Muslim activists to Bridgeview.

Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden's spiritual mentor, visited the mosque in the mid-1980s as part of a national tour to recruit supporters for the U.S.-backed Afghan war against the Soviet Union. At least three Bridgeview men signed up.

Sheik Jamal also raised money with skill, collecting as much as $1 million in a year from worshipers. Most of the money was passed along to Muslim charities, which then sent it overseas, according to the mosque's annual reports.

His congregation was most willing to contribute to Palestinian causes. Many worshipers felt that America blindly supported Israel and ignored the plight of Palestinians. Some had fled the fighting or lost relatives in the ongoing conflict.

For many Palestinian Muslims throughout the world, the battle for a homeland had changed from a secular movement to an Islamic one. Sheik Jamal tapped into that philosophical switch, preaching in support of Palestinians.

He raised money at one national Islamic conference by asking people to donate in the memory of a Palestinian suicide bomber, according to his speech in 2000, taped by terrorism researcher Steven Emerson and translated by the Tribune.

Within the mosque itself, using violence to win a Palestinian homeland caused debate; not everyone supported suicide bombers or militant groups such as Hamas.

One of Sheik Jamal's fellow mosque leaders, Muhammad Salah, drew scrutiny for his Palestinian fundraising activities. In 1993, while part of the mosque's eight-member executive committee, Salah was arrested at a Gaza Strip checkpoint and accused of financing Hamas military operations. He was sent to an Israeli prison for five years.

In a statement to Israeli authorities that he later retracted, Salah said a religious leader in America recruited him into the Muslim Brotherhood, which led to his involvement in Hamas.

The man he named: Sheik Jamal

 

The mosque today

 

At a prayer service last May, Sheik Jamal raised $50,000 for Palestinian activist Sami Al-Arian, a former professor at the University of South Florida who is charged with being the U.S. leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad. To rally donors, the sheik called Israel "a foreign, malignant and strange element on the blessed land."

Al-Arian denies the charges against him. Oussama Jammal, the mosque president, defended the fundraising for Al-Arian. "We raised for his legal defense. That's allowed under U.S. law," he said. "If people were against this, they wouldn't have paid."

In December, at an Islamic conference in Chicago, Sheik Jamal said that Muslims should not listen to contemporary music and that women should not travel long distances without chaperones. He also praised Sayyid Qutb, whose writings helped lay the foundation for Muslim Brotherhood beliefs.

The mosque remains so radical, several former leaders said, because more and more mosque officials are Brotherhood members.

Mosque leaders declined to comment on the Brotherhood, but director Bassam Jody noted that most of the mosque's 24 directors belong to the Muslim American Society--a group with strong ties to the Brotherhood. The mosque vice president runs the society's local chapter.

In an interview in Cairo, Brotherhood leader Mohammed Mahdi Akef said he and other Brotherhood members helped create the society and that it follows Brotherhood philosophy. The society said it is independent but influenced by the Brotherhood and other groups.

Sheik Jamal declined to be interviewed for this article. Several times in the past few months, he has told worshipers that those who criticize mosque leaders to outsiders are "hypocrites"--a condemnation that in Islam could cause someone to be shunned.

With the sheik setting the tone, the mosque community is more radical than ever




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