IMAM MOATAZ AL-HALLAK, THE SPIRITUAL LEADER OF THE CENTER STREET mosque in Arlington, is an imposing man with burly shoulders, olive skin, dark brown eyes, a prominent nose, and a coal-black beard that he wears long and untrimmed, in the traditional Muslim fashion. He almost always dresses in a floor-length caftan and a knit skullcap. Last September 16, Imam Al-Hallak was at home when he got a phone call from a woman named April Ray. She was nearly hysterical; her husband, Wadih el Hage, a devoted member of the Center Street mosque, had just been linked to the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa a month earlier. “Wadih used to come on a daily basis,” Imam Al-Hallak told me later. “He was very helpful. I am the only full-time employee, so volunteer work is very needed. When we heard what he was being accused of, we were very surprised.”
Others were not so surprised: The Federal Bureau of Investigation believes that el Hage has long been a close associate of Saudi businessman and alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden, who is suspected of planning the attacks. El Hage is awaiting trial in New York on charges of perjury and conspiring to kill United States nationals. Subsequently, Imam Al-Hallak was described by a federal prosecutor as a go-between for the bin Laden organization. When the Dallas Morning News splashed a story about the imam across its front pages, many people in the Metroplex wondered what sinister activities might be going on in the Center Street mosque.
For most Westerners, the crimes Wadih el Hage is accused of evoke an idea as old as the Crusades: that Islam spawns fanatics willing to commit violence against non-believers in the name of Allah. But these fears are matched by those of the 100,000 or so Muslims who live in the Metroplex. Some of them are American-born, many are not Arabs, and most are not swept up in global politics. In the wake of the bombings, whether the truth about their rather normal selves would prevail became the central question in their lives.
THE CENTER STREET MOSQUE IS AN ATTRACTIVE TWO-STORY redbrick building set back from the road in the heart of Arlington. It does not look especially Middle Eastern: It has no mosaics, no dome, no minaret. Most Texans think of Arlington as the archetypal suburb; a mosque in these parts seems wildly out of place. Why would tens of thousands of Muslims end up here, halfway around the globe from the countries where they were born?
I first visited the mosque on a Friday (devout Muslims pray five times a day, but on Fridays the weekly sermon is delivered). It was November, shortly after the arrest of el Hage. Like most mosques in the Metroplex, Center Street is affiliated with the Sunni branch of Islam (as opposed to the Shiite branch, which prevails in Iran), so it operates without mullahs or ayatollahs. Sunni mosques are run by democratically elected associations that appoint a spiritual leader of their choosing. Imam Al-Hallak, who emigrated from Syria in 1986, has led the congregation ever since they used to meet in a rented house more than a decade ago. Later he helped raise money to build the mosque, which now attracts up to six hundred worshipers to some services. Among his followers, Imam Al-Hallak is revered for having memorized the entire Qur’an. He practices a conservative strain of Islam known as Salafi, and from time to time, less-orthodox Muslims living in the area have criticized his fundamentalism. Unlike many other imams in the Metroplex, Al-Hallak does not possess any degrees in Islamic studies. Growing up in Damascus, where his family ran an import-export business, he studied airplane mechanics. Once he moved to Arlington, however, other Muslims were so impressed with his ability to recite from the Qur’an that they asked him to lead them in prayer on a regular basis.
Islamic law requires women to clothe themselves modestly, so I wore a long dress, a tweed jacket, and a scarf. At most mosques, men and women worship separately; I avoided the front approach and walked in through a set of doors labeled “Sisters Entrance.” Inside a sunny anteroom was a door with a sign that said, “Brothers Only.” The mosque consisted of a large sanctuary, several classrooms, and a couple of offices. Being forbidden to enter the sanctuary, I went upstairs. The women’s prayer room was long and narrow, like an enclosed balcony, with windows that look down onto the men’s space. There was no furniture. After taking off my shoes, I sat down on the floor near a fair-skinned woman in modest attire (hijab), a white dress with black cuffs and collar. In traditional Muslim fashion, it completely obscured her figure. Her black scarf covered all her hair, leaving just her pale face exposed. She was reclining on the carpeting, studying a leather-bound Qur’an. Additional women filtered in wearing colors from the same drab palette, and I found myself assuming that Islam had some prohibition against bright colors. Then a dark-skinned Indian woman appeared in a billowing outfit of canary-yellow silk, and another woman entered dressed in searing purple. After them came a woman dressed in a tunic and pantaloons made of stone-washed denim—an East-meets-Southwest look that struck me as the perfect metaphor for the phenomenon of Islam in Texas.
Shortly before prayers began, two more women appeared. They were dressed head-to-toe in charcoal gray, and their faces were masked by opaque black veils, except for slits across their eyes. As I watched them climb the steps, their severe robes flapping like birds’ wings, I guessed they must be from Saudi Arabia, a country that favors repressive interpretations of Islam. As the women entered the room, however, the taller of the two pointed at me and said, “I know who you are,” in a broad American accent. “ Salaamu alaikum. Be right with you.” It was Njeri Abdul-Munit, the principal of the mosque’s school,