An American Imam

Monday, Nov. 14, 2005

Moderate Muslim clerics in the U.S. tend to their faithful–and help the FBI fight terrorists

Source: TIME

IT WAS ON SEPT. 10, A DAY SHY OF THE fourth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center, that Imam Mohamed Magid met terrorism’s victims face to face. He was presiding at the funeral on Long Island for the daughter and son-in-law of Bangladeshi Americans from his Sterling, Va., mosque. The children, who were at work in the North Tower, perished in the Sept. 11 attack, but not until this past August had medical examiners identified enough of their charred tissue and bone fragments for the parents to hold a funeral. Staring at the two wooden boxes covered with green embroidered cloth and surrounded by grieving family members, the Muslim cleric was gripped by both sadness and rage. “The terrorists who kill in the name of Islam claim they are the martyrs,” Magid told TIME later, the anger still roiling him. “But the victims are the martyrs. The terrorists are the murderers, and God will deal with them on Judgment Day.”

From his mosque in Virginia, Magid, like many of the some 600 full-time imams across the country, is fighting his own war against radicals trying to hijack his religion. For Magid that has meant not only condemning terrorism but also working closely with the FBI in battling it. He regularly opens doors for agents trying to cultivate contacts in his Muslim community, and he alerts the bureau when suspicious persons approach his congregation. That puts him in a precarious position: How does he maintain credibility as a spiritual adviser while, in effect, he is informing on fellow Muslims? To understand that balancing act, TIME spent two weeks following Magid as he raced from prayer to prayer, meeting to meeting, in the strange new world of American Muslim ministry.

Breaking with tradition hasn’t bothered Magid. Born 40 years ago in the northern Sudanese village of Alrakabih along the Nile River, he studied Islam under African Sunni scholars, who included his father. Magid immigrated to the U.S. in 1987, when his ailing father came seeking medical treatment. Unlike many foreign imams, who find America’s open society too jolting and withdraw to their mosques, he reveled in the cultural diversity. “I never had a Jewish friend until I came to the U.S.,” says the gregarious imam. “And the questioning of all religions here helped me strengthen my own beliefs.”

Magid reached out, taking college courses in psychology and family counseling, teaching classes on the Koran at the Islamic Center and Howard University in Washington. One of his African-American students at Howard–Amaarah Decuir, who had recently converted to Islam from Catholicism and was getting a master’s degree in education–eventually became his wife and educated him on women’s issues. In 1997, Magid became imam of a mosque just west of Washington called ADAMS, an acronym for All Dulles Area Muslim Society. An imam can be a layman sufficiently versed in the Koran to lead daily prayers, but larger, more established mosques hire professional imams, comparable to Christian ministers or Jewish rabbis, who are trained in Islamic seminaries or mentored by scholars.

Of the some 1,500 mosques in the U.S., ADAMS is one of the more progressive. Its $5 million center in Sterling serves 5,000 mostly middle- and upper-middle-income Sunni and Shi’ite families from more than a dozen ethnic backgrounds. In many mosques abroad and in the U.S., women are required to pray in rooms separate from the men. At ADAMS, women not only pray in the same room with the men (although in a partitioned-off section in the back), they hold four of the 13 seats on the mosque’s board of trustees and chair a majority of its committees.

An American imam becomes de facto mayor of his Muslim community. A line of congregants often stretches outside Magid’s office filled with followers asking for all kinds of help. Finding love, for example, can be difficult for observant Muslims scattered in U.S. cities; Islam forbids physical contact in dating or cruising for mates in nightclubs that serve alcohol. A breathless young man once phoned Magid in the middle of the night to ask if he could perform a marriage in a parking lot “right now” so the suitor and the woman in his car wouldn’t feel guilty about what they wanted to do next. “I’m not a 7-Eleven,” the imam barked into the phone. To help with romances, Magid and his wife run a matchmaking service, holding daylong retreats at which young Muslim men and women can mix under the watchful eye of chaperones.

Magid has no qualms about grappling with problems that Muslim families often don’t deal with openly. He has organized mosque programs to treat depression among Muslim teens and stocks the women’s restroom at ADAMS with brochures on where to get help if they have an abusive husband. Teenagers and young adults come to him with questions about everything from underage drinking to premarital sex to whether the Koran allows a woman to have a bikini wax. He advises abstaining from alcohol and sex before marriage but knows his advice won’t always be followed, so he also counsels on safe sex and the health dangers of binge drinking. As for the bikini wax, Islam’s rules on female modesty allow it, he decided–if a wife’s husband will be the only one to see the result. “He’s not some big, scary imam sitting in his office passing judgment,” says Zohra Atmar, a 25-year-old legal assistant who is a mosque member.

But Sept. 11, 2001, “changed the role of the American imam for good,” Magid believes. Muslims in this country found their religion under attack. His female congregants who wore the hijab, or traditional scarf, on their head were harassed at shopping centers. Last year a man shouted “Terrorists!” at the mosque’s Girl Scouts as they sold cookies at a nearby grocery store. And since 9/11, the ADAMS center has been vandalized four times and the graffiti GO HOME painted on its walls.

But this is home, and Magid began mobilizing his mosque to protect it. “There’s no way you can be a quarter-citizen in this country,” he told his congregants during Friday prayers soon after the Sept. 11 attacks. “You have to be a full citizen and defend it.” For Magid, that meant working with the FBI. In early 2002, leaders of two Arab-American organizations who had been conferring with the agency on counterterrorism programs asked Magid and other local imams if they too would work with the bureau. The lawmen badly needed contacts among Washington’s Muslims to help them check out leads and alert them to anything out of the ordinary, but they were getting nowhere in setting up those ties because “there was so much fear and animosity toward the FBI in that community,” says an agent.

Magid was willing to cooperate, but he knew he would have to convince his congregation that getting cozy with the FBI was in their interest. Some members–particularly those who had come from countries with repressive regimes where the security service was an organization to be avoided–were uneasy. The imam invited agents to the mosque to explain how Muslims could help, but the initial meetings were heated, and the lawmen had to sit through “some very harsh questioning,” says Uzma Unus, vice president of the ADAMS board of trustees. The congregants vented about law-enforcement profiling, which they felt targeted all Muslims as suspects. Agents were showing up at their workplaces to make routine inquiries about anyone they might want to report, and some Muslims were fired because of the public stigma of being questioned by the FBI.

The agents promised to be less heavy-handed in investigations, and over the next three years relations improved. Now Magid often serves as an intermediary, coaxing reluctant congregants who might have useful information about unusual activities in their neighborhoods into meeting with the FBI and advising the bureau on how to be more culturally sensitive–for example, by having male agents schedule interviews with women only when their husbands could be present. Magid regularly tips off the bureau when a stranger with a questionable background wanders into his center. In one case, mosque members alerted him to a newcomer who dealt only in cash and wanted to list the ADAMS-center address as his home on his driver’s license application. The next time the imam saw the man in his mosque, he kept the newcomer in his office until agents showed up to question him. In the end, the FBI cleared the man. It turned out he had gone through a messy divorce in another state and was simply trying to start a new life in Virginia.

So far as Magid knows, no terrorist has tried to infiltrate the mosque, but he always worries that one might. ADAMS prides itself on being an extremist-free zone. Newcomers who mutter thoughts of jihad quickly discover they are not welcome. During Ramadan, guest speakers for evening prayers were carefully screened to make sure they preached religious tolerance.

Magid keeps close watch on younger members of the mosque who might be drawn to the diatribes of radical clerics. Before 9/11, he recalls, a teenager who had read a fatwa on an extremist website walked into his office and asked whether the Koran sanctioned suicide bombings. “Absolutely not!” he sternly told the boy. Since the attacks, no young person has approached him with that kind of question, but Magid constantly lectures in Koran classes: “Don’t blindly follow how any religious leader interprets Islam–even me.” After last July’s bombings in London, which were carried out by young British-born Muslims who had turned to extremism, ADAMS parents came to him fearful that their children could be similarly swayed. Magid says he convened more classes with his younger congregants to talk “about using democratic means–not violence–to convey their frustrations and disagreements with U.S. foreign policy.” As riots by mostly disaffected young Muslims swept France this month, he preached the same message of nonviolence in his youth classes.

Distrust remains. The collaboration between the FBI and the imam “has not been popular in certain wings,” concedes Michael Rolince, the Washington field office’s special agent in charge of counterterrorism. The bureau has come under fire from hard-line pundits, who charge that it is reaching out to American Muslim leaders sympathetic to extremists. “They are providing an endorsement of these individuals, which enhances their credibility,” says Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, a conservative think tank in Philadelphia. (The FBI insists it works only with moderates like Magid.) But some ADAMS members are still uncomfortable about their imam’s talking to an intelligence service, while other conservative clerics have complained to Magid that he is selling out. Although they keep those reservations private for fear they will be investigated, Magid says, “they ask, ‘How can you open a dialogue with the government when it has been so hostile to Muslims?'”

But progressive imams like Magid realize they are on the front line between the Muslim community and a country awakening–often fearfully–to the knowledge that it has a Muslim community. “It’s time for Islam in America to be American,” he says. For the FBI, that kind of thinking may be one of its best weapons in the war on terrorism.

Imam Magid’s Clarification and Response to Time Article 

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Author: Ify Okoye

Muslim woman, RN, & rebel with a cause.

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