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, who is known as Umm Hamza. Umm Hamza went over to the windows and made a series of inexplicable gestures, pointing downward fiercely and slicing her hand across her neck. Removing her veil as she walked back, Umm Hamza revealed an attractive African American face with dimples and a gap between her two front teeth. “Glad to know you,” she said, shaking my hand. “Welcome to Center Street.” Umm Hamza is from Brooklyn, and her personality is a compelling mix of natural warmth, street sense, and strict devotion to Allah. Lines of girls soon paraded into the room, their bright faces in all skin colors peeping out from their head scarves. As one after another looked up at Umm Hamza, she repeatedly flashed a thumbs-up sign.
After veiling her face again, Umm Hamza took me over to the windows. About two hundred men were sitting cross-legged on the green-carpeted floor. Some wore caftans and skullcaps, some wore Western clothing; all were barefoot. Umm Hamza pointed out the rest of her charges—a squirming pack of boys who’d been the audience of her earlier pantomime. Just then a bearded man in a white caftan, white trousers, and a red-and-white checked headdress picked his way through the cross-legged believers. He was a visiting sheik from Egypt and was going to deliver the khutbah, or “sermon,” that day. The cleric mounted a wooden footstand at the front of the room and addressed the congregation. His nasal, lilting Arabic was piped over speakers to all parts of the mosque. A translator repeated his message in English.
The sermon centered on the Qur’an’s teaching that belief renders one strange. “We the Muslims are living in a state of strangeness, being strangers among the people, even in other countries,” came the voice over the speakers. “But you here are in an even stronger strangeness. My advice to you is: Do not melt into this society. Do not be enchanted by these nonbelievers and their worldly life.” Many Muslims are concerned with purity, and those who had settled in Arlington were especially concerned with how to maintain their purity in the midst of a hypermaterialistic culture. “This life is only a temporary enchantment,” counseled the sheik. “The nonbelievers will be tortured by their wealth. Their deeds are like a mirage in a dry place, which the thirsty person mistakes for water. But in truth, there is nothing there.”
The sheik represented the voice of the past; he was a spokesman for worlds that the congregation had left behind. While he urged them not to assimilate, other forces silently tugged at them to blend, to merge, to become less strange. I found that this question of how American to become preoccupied Muslim immigrants. So did concerns about how their new neighbors viewed their faith. Whenever I visited the Center Street mosque, women greeted me warmly, then inquired if I was Muslim. After I explained I was not and told them who I was, they invariably responded with gently scolding lectures on the failings of the press. Why, they asked, did reporters find it impossible to write about Islam without writing about terrorism at the same time? Did crimes committed by Christians prompt the same study of churches?
After the sermon, the congregation made a series of prostrations. They bowed, knelt, then leaned over until their foreheads touched the carpet. This motion was repeated over and over again, the women’s backs lifting and falling in unison like ocean waves. When the service was finished, Umm Hamza came over. We were joined by a slight blue-eyed woman dressed in a navy robe and a white scarf. A fringe of blond hair peeped out from below her scarf, and her accent revealed her to be a native Texan. “Are you a teacher here?” she asked.
“Well, I’m the principal of the school,” replied Umm Hamza. “Are you interested in classes for children?”
“No, for me,” replied the young woman. She explained that she was married to a Muslim who attended services at the mosque.
“Oh, you’re a new Muslim,” crooned Umm Hamza.
“Well, I haven’t, you know, proclaimed that I’m Muslim yet,” the young woman responded with embarrassment.
“Oh, you haven’t said shahada!” cried Umm Hamza. She proceeded to deliver an impromptu sermon on the joys of Islam. (“Islam softens the heart!” she proclaimed.) Religion had changed Umm Hamza, and with fervor she asserted that faith would transform her listener too. (“Once you become Muslim, you will have all these Muslim sisters that you see around you. We’ll be closer to you than your blood relatives!”) Before I realized what was happening, the woman decided to convert. As an Arabic-speaking woman coached her, she stumbled through the foreign words of the shahada, a pledge of devotion to Allah. Afterward, her face grew red, and she started blinking repeatedly, overcome by the experience. Watching her, I realized that all of my ideas about Arlington were too static. People born on the other side of the world sometimes borrow from this place, as with the woman in the blue-jean hijab. And sometimes, as with this woman, the opposite happens: Arlington becomes more like its newest residents.
CENTER STREET BISECTS ARLINGTON on a north-south axis. Along the way, it passes through a tableau of suburban innocence: Here are modest brick homes, one after another, part of Arlington’s endless plain of strip malls, chain stores, and tract houses. In the forties the town had 7,500 residents; today it is home to 300,000. Tom Vandergriff, a former radio personality and car dealer, served as mayor for more than two decades beginning in the fifties (he’s now a Tarrant County judge). “We’re the dash in Dallas—Fort Worth,” he told me, the phrase sounding like an old campaign slogan. While he was mayor, bulldozers carved out Interstate 20 and Interstate 30, bringing all kinds of development, including Six Flags Over Texas, to Arlington; at night the panoply of colored lights attached to the towering Ferris wheel and roller coaster rides lend the Arlington skyline a loopy, manic quality. Still, many intersections feature white clapboard churches, outcroppings of the Christian faith that underpins the town like bedrock.
The rapid expansion created thousands of new jobs, which is one reason that the city has become home to an enormous pool of immigrants. Several other factors also played a role. “The first Muslims came for education,” said Yusuf Z. Kavakci, a Turkish scholar who is the imam of a mosque in Richardson. “They were thinking they would go back, but where they came from, people become rulers by force or the army dictates how the country is run. Muslim countries unfortunately are like that. So when people tasted the beauty of freedom, they stayed.” Beginning in the seventies, when the U.S. loosened immigration laws for non-Europeans, Muslims started arriving from India, Pakistan, Turkey, Afghanistan, and various other countries that are not part of the Arab world. They also started arriving from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Kuwait, which are predominantly Arab. The newcomers settled first in Richardson and Fort Worth, and later in Arlington, which attracted many newcomers because of the growth of a humble institution once known as Grubb Self Help and Vocational School into a branch of the University of Texas.
Another factor often cited is climate. Syed Ahsani, a courtly gentleman who once served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Brazil and several other countries, lives in a well-to-do subdivision in Arlington. From the outside, Ahsani’s handsome brick home looks exactly like any other in the tract. Walking through his front door, however, I felt transported to his native land: The spacious rooms were carpeted in a series of Persian rugs and large throw pillows were strewn about to sit on. “Arlington has the same weather as Islamabad,” Ambassador Ahsani observed. Later he introduced me to a Pakistani friend who first settled in New York, where he found it horribly cold. “I took out my globe, and said, ‘Okay, here is Lahore, where I am from,’” his friend recounted. “I turned the globe around, ran my finger along that latitude, and said, ‘Aha! Dallas!’”
A concentration of people who share the same traditions is the kind of phenomenon that snowballs. “One invites the other,” said Aziz Shihab, who was born in Palestine. “In my case, I brought my brothers.” Shihab grew up in Jerusalem, but left to go to school in the U.S. His family home has since become a yeshiva for students of Judaism. After moving to Texas, Shihab became an editor at the Dallas Morning News, and he now publishes a weekly in Arabic and English. (His daughter, Naomi Shihab Nye, is a well-known poet.) In the late seventies Shihab helped build the mosque in Richardson, which he still attends. The city council wasn’t keen on a minaret, feeling it was out of step with the local aesthetic. “I told them I was going to do a nasty story in the Morning News,” said Shihab. “They said, ‘Okay, you can have a minaret, but only of a certain height.’” In time the Richardson mosque became the mainstay of the community, attracting tens of thousands of Muslims to its annual festivals.
Lately, charities have placed hundreds of Muslim refugees in the area, attracted by the existing immigrant population. Most recently Bosnians and Kurds have flooded the region. One evening I visited a Kurdish family in an apartment complex in south Arlington. Jian Abdulrahman, who knew the most English, acted as the family’s spokesperson. Jian, who is seventeen, has tawny skin and reddish-brown hair. She wore a turtleneck, stretchy bell-bottoms, and platform shoes. “Everybody thinks I’m Mexican,” she said. Despite her composed appearance, Jian told unsettling stories—of exodus, of watching her uncle die, of living for three years in a Turkish refugee camp. In 1993 World Relief brought the family to Fort Worth. “All we heard back in Turkey was ‘America, that’s where you could get freedom, that’s where you can make it,’” said Jian. Seated on a sofa across the room, bewildered by the indecipherable conversation, her parents retained the weathered look of peasants. Jian’s mother wore a capacious aqua-colored dress and a mauve head scarf, and her father wore baggy gray trousers that bunched at the waist, a white shirt, and a gray vest. While we talked, a gold plastic mosque on top of the TV suddenly emitted the sound of Arabic chanting. “It goes off when we’re supposed to pray,” explained Jian. “It’s like an alarm clock.” After her parents said their prayers, she gave me a lift in her fiery red 1997 Pontiac and left me pondering the contradictions of her Kurdish roots and her American lifestyle.
Whenever I asked how individuals from so many nations worshiped harmoniously together, I received long-winded replies on the miracle of Islamic fraternity. In truth brotherhood is sometimes more of an ideal than a reality. “I went to a meeting recently,” recounted Aziz Shihab. “By the time I got there, chairs were flying and people were screaming. It seems there was a very beautiful Pakistani girl who was supposed to sing. I saw her, and she was beautiful. But she didn’t get to sing. All the Pakistanis wanted to hear her, but the Iranians said, ‘Absolutely not!’” Culturally, Iran is far more conservative than Pakistan; allowing a young girl onstage would have violated Iranian sensibilities. Such clashes born of differences in home cultures have kept the immigrant Muslim community divided. Recently, however, leaders have been trying to forge greater unity. To this end, Ambassador Ahsani and others have formed the American Muslim Caucus to give Muslims a greater voice in politics. Both parties have given them a favorable reception, despite the fact that many Muslims hold conservative views. Ahsani, for example, enjoys listening to Christian radio because of the talk about things like “family values.”
POLITICS IS NOT A PRIMARY CONCERN of most Muslims in the Metroplex, but there are enough exceptions to the rule that the community has become a force back in the Middle East. One of Arlington’s most fervent activists is a Palestinian American named Hasan Hasan-Ali, who works as an engineer at Parkland Hospital. One evening, he invited me over for a traditional Arab meal. He explained that he had been born in Kuwait, but because of his Palestinian ancestry, he was not considered to be a citizen, not allowed to vote, and couldn’t study what he wanted to at university, so he moved here. “When I became an American citizen, I realized I could go and vote for somebody who was running for president, or mayor, or anything,” recalled Hasan-Ali. “This to me was like candy.” He now organizes voter registration campaigns among Arab Americans. His wife, Tammy, who is from Honey Grove, a small town northeast of Dallas, converted to Islam before they married. “I don’t think people realize that we worship the same god as Jews and Christians,” she told me. “They hear Allah and they think it’s a medieval god or something.”
When the conversation turned to Jerusalem, where his family lived until the creation of the modern Israeli state, Hasan-Ali abruptly left the table. He came back with a heavy set of wrought-iron keys, which used to open the doors of his family home. It has been demolished. Many Palestinians in the Metroplex have similar souvenirs, and after a while keys that do not unlock anything came to stand for the Palestinian predicament in my mind. Feelings of loss, distance, and alienation, combined with the high incomes they now earn in the Metroplex, had made these immigrants the world’s most lavish contributors to the Palestinian cause of nationhood.
One week later, Hasan-Ali invited me to a fundraiser for the Islamic Association for Palestine. The IAP produces videotapes and a newspaper, called Al Zaytoma (The Olive), that present the Palestinian perspective on the conflict with Israel. Similar organizations in the Metroplex (most famously a charity called the Holy Land Foundation) have been accused of funneling money to Hamas, an organization that engages in terrorism, but Muslims have vehemently denied the accusations. The FBI has looked into the matter, but no charges have been brought against any charity in the area. Those who contribute have been assured that the money will be spent on orphans, widows, and the elderly.
At the fundraiser, five Palestinian men took the stage to sing virile, foot-stomping songs of their homeland. Then organizers dimmed the lights for a slide show aimed at stirring sympathizers into a generous mood. Images of children being raised in tents, of boys being shot at, and of homes being destroyed flashed across the screen. I sat with a family from Richardson who were extremely welcoming. “I don’t tell people I’m from Texas or the United States,” their twelve-year-old told me. “I say I’m Palestinian.” He has never lived in Palestine. “I want to go over there and fight someday,” his eleven-year-old brother chimed in. “I hate the Jews.”
At the end of the night, a man known as one of the most prolific fundraisers in the Metroplex took the podium to cajole money from the crowd. Hasan-Ali and seven other men walked among the tables with plastic baskets to collect the checks. “We are here for one reason,” the speaker told the audience. “To establish a connection between our hearts and Jerusalem! Jewish organizations have raised $300 million to establish a connection between Jews in this country and the Holy Land! We are here for the same reason! We want you always to be in touch with your brothers and sisters in Palestine!” And the people gathered together in the Metroplex, so far away from their birthplace, wrote checks to buy the connection of which he spoke. Some paid $5,000, many more paid $1,000, and others paid $500 or $250. In total the IAP raised $55,000, which, I was told, was a slow night.
BELIEVING THAT ASSIMILATION INTO AN infidel society leads to the loss of Muslim identity, many who worship at Center Street argue that it is necessary to retreat from the world around them—a stance that differentiates the mosque from others in the Metroplex. After the Friday services I attended, Umm Hamza knocked on the door that separated us from the upstairs part of the men’s side. A male voice answered. Osama Al-Assad, a member of the mosque’s governing board, unlocked the door and invited us to cross over. We all sat down in a small office. Al-Assad is originally from Kuwait, but in 1978 he moved to Oklahoma to study civil engineering. He now owns an electronics business. His manner was polite and even friendly, though he stared at the ßoor during our entire conversation. (Men who worship at Center Street take literally the Qur’an’s directive to lower their eyes in the presence of women.) “In this mosque, our way is that we don’t interfere in politics,” he explained, studying his feet. “We don’t get involved in politics, even back home.” Getting involved in politics means a person has become caught up with earthly matters.
Like many other Muslims whom I asked about Wadih el Hage, Al-Assad said that few people at Center Street had any idea of his ties to Osama bin Laden. The FBI, however, knew all about el Hage’s past. Immediately after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the bureau created eighteen joint terrorism task forces with local law enforcement officials to prevent anything like it from ever happening again. The Justice Department rarely opens investigations of religious organizations, and FBI officials told me that none of Arlington’s mosques are under investigation. “Somebody’s religion, whether they are Catholic or Muslim or anything else, does not constitute a likelihood that they will become a suspect,” FBI supervisory special agent John Fraga told me. “We’ve gone to great effort to dispel the notion that we’re out to open investigations on all Muslims or all Arab Americans.” Having worked for an alleged terrorist does attract scrutiny, however, and Wadih el Hage had once been the private secretary to Osama bin Laden. El Hage is a 38-year-old Lebanese Christian who converted to Islam. In 1978 he came to America on a student visa to get a degree in urban studies from the University of Southwestern Louisiana. In 1985, while living in Tucson, he married April Ray, an American, and four years later became an American citizen. The following year, the couple moved to Fort Worth, where el Hage committed his first infractions of the law, writing $2,400 worth of bad checks to 22 businesses over a two-week period.
After being charged with the crimes, el Hage disappeared, taking his wife and children with him. His roundabout journey took him first to Pakistan, to visit his ailing father, who had suffered a stroke. Later he surfaced in Brooklyn, where he filled in as the director of the Alkifah Refugee Center, an organization that recruited Muslims to fight in the Afghan war. (Today prosecutors allege that the center was largely funded by bin Laden.) From there, the family moved to Khartoum, Sudan, where el Hage served as bin Laden’s private secretary. After a few years, they moved again, to Nairobi, Kenya, where el Hage worked as a gem dealer, though prosecutors allege that he doubled as bin Laden’s prime operative in that country. Several individuals el Hage associated with in Nairobi were later charged with playing key roles in the bombing of the U.S. embassy there.
Wadih el Hage moved back to Texas in 1997, settling in Arlington. He opened a business called Lone Star Wheel and Tires and became a regular at Center Street. Though most in the congregation were unaware of his past, el Hage did tell the imam about his former employer. “Wadih told me that he knows bin Laden,” Imam Al-Hallak recalled, “but this is my impression: It was a business relationship.”
Federal prosecutors paint an entirely different picture. Members of the Dallas terrorism task force questioned el Hage when he moved to Arlington and again, after the embassy bombings. When the FBI summoned him to New York for further questioning, he denied knowing bin Laden’s inner circle and was charged with perjury. Days later he was also charged with conspiring to kill United States nationals. In a rare interview with Time, bin Laden subsequently appeared to take responsibility for the bombings. “Hostility toward America is a religious duty, and we hope to be rewarded for it by God,” he told the magazine. “I am confident that Muslims will be able to end the legend of the so-called superpower that is America.” But the Saudi billionaire said el Hage was not involved in the attacks. Patrick Fitzgerald, the lead prosecutor, argued otherwise: In a New York federal court he suggested that bin Laden considered el Hage a particularly valuable aide. By coordinating the businessman’s legitimate operations, el Hage supposedly helped finance his illegitimate activities. “In short, Your Honor,” Fitzgerald told the judge, “Mr. el Hage has served as a front man for the bin Laden organization for years.”
Non-Muslim Arlington was stunned to learn that it had been harboring a figure now viewed as a terrorist. “It’s hard to believe that someone from here was involved in something of such magnitude halfway around the world,” marveled Tom Vandergriff. “It’s just another reminder that people from all over the world have seen fit to join us. We have to accept the fact that they have brought all kinds of philosophies and sentiments into the community. It’s impossible to categorize us as purely a little corner of Texas anymore.”
Among his fellow worshipers, el Hage’s arrest caused consternation of a different kind. Many worried he would not receive a fair trial. They also fretted about his family. (In a letter to Imam Al-Hallak, which the imam read aloud one Friday, el Hage told the congregation not to worry about him—that he would use the time to memorize the Qur’an. But he asked that the congregation pray for his wife and their seven children, who are all below the age of thirteen.) Other Muslims also feared they would be confused with el Hage—that the rest of Arlington might mistake them all for terrorists. Many have run into this type of blanket suspicion before. After the Oklahoma City bombing, when the immediate speculation was that Muslims were responsible, the Center Street mosque received so many threats of retaliatory violence that its leaders had to cancel all services over the weekend.
Confused, insulted, and afraid, Arlington’s Muslims sought cover from the frenzy of attention. Unfortunately, some outsiders assumed from this silence that the Muslim community condoned the bombings. In fact, I found the opposite to be true. When we met, Osama Al-Assad (the man who averted his eyes from me) pointed out that terrorist acts are forbidden by the Qur’an, which prohibits the killing of women, children, or the elderly under any circumstances, even in war. Many Muslims explained that the word “Islam” means “peace.” “We share the same stories,” Ambassador Ahsani had said. “We share the same Abrahamic tradition. Give this message to America: We are children of the same prophets. From 5:32 Qur’an: To kill one man, you kill all of mankind.”
Imam Al-Hallak also condemned acts of terrorism. “I am absolutely against all forms of violence, whether it is from Muslims or non-Muslims, from governments or individuals,” he told me. “I don’t think this is the answer to any of our problems. It is a matter of conviction for me; it is not a matter of opinion. Killing the innocent is prohibited in Islam.”
CENTER STREET WAS THE FIRST OF arlington’s mosques to be built, and from the beginning, its worshipers have been embroiled in arguments over how open to be, how engaged to be, and what defines a good Muslim. As the mosque’s congregation grew, Imam Al-Hallak started a small school beside the place of worship. He has ambitious plans to quadruple the size of the school and to start an institution that would teach Arabic, essential to the study of the Qur’an. As the rest of the Muslim community has become more mainstream, however, the Center Street mosque has become more isolated. Other Muslims talk about finding the mosque too extreme or too rigid in its interpretations of Islam. Ten years ago, Imam Al-Hallak also alienated some members of the Muslim community by his vocal support of the war in Afghanistan, where Islamic mujahedin were battling Soviet troops. Imam Al-Hallak deemed the conßict a jihad. Muslims use the Arabic word, which simply means “struggle,” in everyday conversations, usually in the sense of struggling to lead a moral life. But the word also means “holy war.”
Sometimes differences of opinion have caused worshipers to leave Center Street. Years ago, Hasan-Ali, the Palestinian activist, helped build Center Street, but after a while he started attending Dar El Salaam in north Arlington as well because that mosque is more tolerant of political activity. The two mosques maintain a friendly but wary relationship, like brothers who don’t see eye-to-eye on an essential family matter. Last November, however, Hasan-Ali was elected to an important committee of Center Street after a friend persuaded him to run. So were other rebels. Ambassador Ahsani, who had favored greater engagement with the rest of the world, sent me the following e-mail: “In the Executive Committee—which carries out day-to-day activities of the mosque—about half are ‘agents for change.’ It is hoped there will be more social, economic, and political activities around the first mosque in Arlington.”
Before Center Street could throw its doors open to the world, however, the world did something that appeared likely to drive the mosque’s members back into seclusion. In a February bail hearing el Hage complained of conditions at his Manhattan jail, where he is being held under a special law that prohibits contact with anyone to prevent future acts of terrorism. He asked to be allowed to call Imam Al-Hallak, but prosecutors opposed his request. “Moataz Al-Hallak has served as a contact between members of the bin Laden organization,” Fitzgerald told the court. The following week, the Morning News ran its front-page article about Imam Al-Hallak. A banner headline on the continuation page read, “Muslim leader linked to terrorist in FBI files.” The link to bin Laden: Imam Al-Hallak’s name and telephone number were on a computerized mailing list of the Alkifah Refugee Center. The imam chose not to talk to the paper, so the charge went unrebutted. It had been difficult enough for the Metroplex to accept criminal allegations against one member of the Center Street congregation; the idea that the mosque’s spiritual leader might also be involved was too much for many Muslims to accept. Other Muslim leaders immediately attempted to broker a meeting with the beleaguered imam. Seeking to preserve their good image, they wanted to issue a statement condemning or defending the orthodox cleric; Imam Al-Hallak felt under siege and refused to meet with them. The group issued no statement. In the uneasy calm that followed, leaders wondered: Were they sheltering a bad man? Or had they narrowly avoiding destroying one of their own?
Subsequently, Kavakci, the imam of the inßuential Richardson mosque, did talk to Imam Al-Hallak. He urged the troubled leader to seek legal counsel and then speak out publicly. By March the imam had found a lawyer, Stanley L. Cohen, who fired off a letter to the U.S. Attorney’s Office denouncing “ . . . a recent public attack upon my client’s reputation by various unnamed federal officials who, by smoke and mirrors, have attempted to connect him to the alleged misdeeds of Osama bin Laden.” Later Cohen arranged for me to meet the imam. I found him to be a proud man. He seemed insulted by all the scrutiny and inclined to think he should not have to explain himself; he was deigning to do so at the urgings of others. He denied abetting bin Laden in any way. “It is not true at all,” he said. “I mean, I don’t know this person, I have never met him, I have never spoke to him, I have never received any message from him through a third party.” As far as acting as a conduit between bin Laden operatives, Imam Al-Hallak said: “Never. The only person that I know is Wadih.”
Imam Al-Hallak conceded that he was familiar with the Alkifah Refugee Center but asserted that such familiarity was not unusual. “We used to receive the literature from them, as did every masjid in the United States,” he told me (using the Islamic word for “mosque”). “My understanding is that it was a legitimate charity organization. I don’t know anything, if this is true, about its being connected to Osama bin Laden. All charity organizations have mailing lists, so I don’t think this means anything at all.
“I’ve been living in this area for probably twelve, fifteen years,” he added, “and my message is very clear. Hundreds of people know this message. They know what kind of masjid I give the people. I say that our goal here is to set an example, to provide the American people with a model, so that they will know that every Muslim is an honest, straightforward, loving, caring person.”