Hard-liners won battle for Bridgeview mosque
by Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah
February 8, 2004
(Kim Barker, Laurie Cohen, Stephen Franklin, and Sam Roe also authored this story)
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.
The story is a rare look inside the transformation of an American mosque, the role of Middle Eastern money in shaping Islam and the tensions many Muslims feel as they try to create enclaves in the U.S.
It also provides insight into the wave of fundamentalism sweeping many parts of the world, creating divisions between East and West, between Arab governments and militants, and within Islam itself.
Some critics inside and outside the religion charge that Islamic fundamentalism fosters intolerance and militancy, and that religious leaders have not done enough to distance Islam from terrorist acts.
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.
Mosque leaders deny encouraging militancy and have denounced terrorism, including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. They shun the fundamentalist label, saying they follow the true form of Islam and others do not. They point out that an elected board sets mosque policy; if the worshipers wanted a more liberal mosque, they would vote for one.
"It's an election, a democratic process," mosque President Oussama Jammal said.
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 ultraconservative Saudi Arabian government partially pays the salary of prayer leader Sheik Jamal.
Moderate Muslims still pray at the mosque, but some say conservatives 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 struggle over the mosque can be seen through the lives of three men: Khalil Zayid, a simple peddler who raised money for the mosque going door to door; Jamal Said, the charismatic prayer leader who believes that true Muslims should not listen to modern music or celebrate Thanksgiving; and Omar Najib, a former mosque attorney who once helped hard-liners take control of the mosque but now regrets what he did.
"I feel sorry," Najib said recently. "My faith has been hijacked by a few extremists."
The peasants' story
The story of the mosque begins thousands of miles away, in the Palestinian village of Beitunia, where olive trees grow on stony hillsides and pines are bent by the wind.
Hundreds of peasants left the village for Chicago in the early 1900s, hoping to make a better living. They earned money as salesmen, shopkeepers and factory workers. Many could not read or write English. Beitunia farmer Khalil Zayid arrived in 1939 and rented a room along 18th Street in the heart of the Arab community on the South Side. The 27-year-old did not speak English and had never rung a doorbell, but friends from Beitunia gave him a suitcase filled with women's undergarments and taught him how to sell door to door.
As the oldest of four brothers, Zayid sent much of his money back to Palestine. "That was one of the goals--make money so you could buy more land back home," recalled Miriam Zayed, one of Zayid's daughters.
Like many in the Islamic world at the time, Zayid and the other Beitunia immigrants practiced a form of Islam that allowed Muslims to socialize freely. They viewed their religion as an important part of life, but not all of life. Men and women could mingle. The women wore short sleeves and did not cover their hair. The men sometimes ran liquor stores even though many Muslims believed Islam forbade selling alcohol.
While they wanted to succeed in America and fit into society, they also wanted a place of their own to practice their religion and hold on to their culture. But in all of Chicago, there was no real mosque or official religious leader for Arab Muslims.
In 1954, about 30 families from Beitunia, including Zayid's, decided that something needed to be done. They formed the Mosque Foundation and started raising money for a proper place of worship.
Zayid stepped forward to become the group's first prayer leader, holding services in a storefront. He had no formal Islamic training, but he considered himself a religious man.
He became a justice of the peace so he could perform Muslim weddings. He learned to wash the dead in the Islamic tradition, cleansing the bodies with water, wrapping them in white cloth and dabbing them with perfume. He asked his brother back home to mail him the long jacket and tall white cap worn by Palestinian sheiks.
Zayid could not drive, so his daughter Miriam shuttled him from house to house to ask for money to build a mosque. The women held bake sales and sold candy bars in front of grocery stores. The money trickled in.
In the early 1970s, Zayid and the other immigrants started looking for property. They settled on Bridgeview, a village just southwest of Chicago with six Christian churches and plenty of inexpensive land.
There, Zayid and others drove down a bumpy dirt road to look at a piece of property, between railroad tracks and a trailer park, in the shadow of heavy industry. Through his thick glasses, Zayid surveyed an empty lot covered with garbage.
After 19 years of work, this was all the Beitunia families could afford.
A new wave
Eventually, a mosque was built--but not because of the Beitunia immigrants, the bake sales and the candy bars.
It took a new wave of immigrants. These people were more political and educated--doctors, not farmers; scientists, not salesmen. A few were Islamic scholars.
They were among the hundreds of thousands of Muslims immigrating to America in the 1960s and 1970s. Some had been uprooted by Israel's 1967 takeover of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, a traumatic defeat for Muslims that rippled through the Middle East. After facing such humiliations and living under oppressive Arab regimes, they increasingly turned to Islam for political strength.
When the new immigrants arrived in Chicago, they vowed to restart the Bridgeview mosque project by raising money from their wealthy connections in the Middle East. Those promises helped them win election to the mosque board of directors, and by 1978 they led the building effort. The Beitunia families welcomed the newcomers' help.
One of the new leaders was a Palestinian named Omar Najib, who had studied in Egypt and earned a law degree at DePaul University. He frequently carried a briefcase and always wore a jacket and tie to prayers on Fridays, the holiest day of the week.
The 35-year-old Najib, the only Muslim lawyer mosque leaders knew, became the mosque's attorney and helped write its constitution. Other mosque officials fired off telegrams overseas and traveled to the Middle East several times, targeting countries such as Saudi Arabia, which had started giving away its new oil wealth to help spread its rigid form of Islam.
One mosque fundraising brochure warned that Chicago's Muslims were at risk of "melting in the American society, culture and lifestyle." A plea to a Saudi charity asked for money "before it becomes too late and we may lose our children because they are living in an unIslamic society."
Such pleas illustrate the tug of war that faced many mosques in America--between the forces of assimilation and Islamic traditions, between the new country and the old.
The money poured into Bridgeview, more than $1.2 million in all, according to mosque records. Kuwaiti donors gave $369,000. The Saudi government donated $152,000. The religious ministry of the United Arab Emirates contributed $135,000.
Soon, a small group of Beitunia men and newcomers, including Zayid the peddler and Najib the attorney, held a groundbreaking ceremony. Afterward, Najib invited everyone to his home for a traditional Palestinian celebration meal of lamb, cauliflower and rice.
In the fall of 1981, just in time for Ramadan, the holiest month of the Muslim calendar, the mosque opened its doors. It was a modest building, white brick with a copper dome and a prayer hall facing Mecca, surrounded mostly by empty fields.
The Beitunia families finally had realized their dream. Or so they thought.
Almost immediately, the new mosque leaders made major changes.
They removed Khalil Zayid as prayer leader and replaced him with someone who had more training, Ahmad Zaki Hammad, a conservative Islamic scholar from Egypt. He quickly angered the congregation's women by chastising them for smoking.
Then the mosque leaders asked religious authorities in Jordan to send an assistant prayer leader. The authorities sent Masoud Ali Masoud, a 57-year-old Palestinian who worked for Jordan's religious affairs ministry.
He also belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that believed in spreading a strict form of Islam and creating states governed by Islamic law.
The Brotherhood had gained notoriety for repeatedly attempting to overthrow the Egyptian and Syrian governments. It spawned two violent Islamic groups: the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, offshoots created by former Brotherhood members who believed the Brotherhood was not militant enough. And Brotherhood members would go on to form the militant Palestinian group Hamas, designated a terrorist group by the U.S. in 1995.
But the Brotherhood also organized political protests and ran charities, and many supporters, including Masoud, saw the group as a peaceful movement aimed at restoring Islam's greatness in the world. The Brotherhood did not operate openly in America, though its members quietly influenced some Muslim groups.
Soon, mosque leaders--adhering to a strict interpretation of Islam--told the congregation's women to cover their hair and wear looser clothing. During social events, the women were separated from the men.
As the rift deepened between the two mosque factions, Najib, the lawyer, prepared documents that would turn the deed of the mosque over to the North American Islamic Trust. A non-profit organization based in Indiana, NAIT sought to help build and preserve mosques, often lending them money and taking title to their properties. The group would eventually hold the deeds to about 300 U.S. mosques--1 in 4 in the nation.
Najib argued that giving the mosque's deed to NAIT would forever preserve the building as a mosque. He urged a group of old-timers--the American Arabian Ladies Society, which had gained part ownership of the mosque property through bake sales and other fundraisers--to sign on to the plan.
But the old-timers did not want the mosque turned over to an outside group with a growing reputation for fundamentalism. "We felt very bad," recalled Soraya Shalabi, one of the Beitunia immigrants. "It was like a broken heart."
Increasingly distressed, the Beitunia families decided to fight back.
The battle became emotional and violent. In November 1981, police were called to the mosque when opponents of the new leadership allegedly surrounded and harassed the leaders. One foe threatened to put 30 silver bullets in the mosque president's head, a mosque leader said in a letter to police.
Soon after, a meeting at a nearby restaurant turned into a fist fight. Another time, 80 opponents forced their way into the mosque in a dispute over whether they could hold a meeting there. One man allegedly wielded a knife.
An anonymous group of Beitunia sympathizers put out fliers. "Islam is our religion," one said. "It is the Islam of flexibility and commitment to faith rather than fundamentalism and tension." Another flier alleged that "the essence of NAIT is the [Muslim] Brotherhood," which had started its "deliberate and distorted means of dividing the community and tearing down what we have been attempting to build for one-half of a century."
The Beitunia faction began a whirlwind membership drive. They wanted to sign up hundreds of new members to force mosque officials to drop plans to align with NAIT.
But mosque leaders did not immediately accept new members, arguing that they had the authority to screen applicants to ensure that they were devout enough, court records show.
In the fall of 1981, the NAIT deal was signed. The same day, the mosque women's group sued to block the agreement. The women and their male supporters said the new leaders had deceived members about their true agenda.
"It is obvious that the board stole the mosque from its members," one filing said.
Najib represented the mosque in court. In filings, he said the lawsuit was based on a "personal and tribal vendetta." He argued that Zayid was uneducated, could not read English and lacked the qualifications to be the mosque religious leader.
The case featured evidence rarely heard in a Chicago courtroom, including the mosque leadership's view of what made a good Muslim. Hammad, the mosque prayer leader, testified that if men missed more than three Friday prayers in a row without a valid excuse, they would no longer be considered Muslim.
After 26 days of testimony, a Cook County judge ruled in 1983 that the newcomers had not acted improperly. In a later hearing, he described the case as simply a "bitter factional dispute between two religious corporations."
The hard-liners were now firmly in control.
Years of growth
Over the next dozen years, Muslims flocked to the Bridgeview mosque. In 1982, only 75 people went to Friday prayers. By 1993, 800 people would attend.
A whole new community sprang up. The area became an upscale enclave, featuring new houses with Arabic script over the doors and sparkling chandeliers.
Mosque leaders built two schools and started a youth center for basketball and religious classes. New clothing stores, groceries and restaurants opened in Bridgeview. A floor-covering store turned into a Middle Eastern restaurant. A music store became an Islamic hair salon.
Men who attended the mosque grew their beards and traded their T-shirts for long tunics. Women draped themselves in loose, ankle-length robes.
Cook County was fast becoming home to more Palestinians than any other part of the nation. And the mosque was now one of the area's largest Islamic centers.
Village leaders knew little about Muslims and their religion. Bridgeview was populated mainly by Christians, and its trustees often referred to the mosque as "the Muslim church."
Most non-Muslims moved away from the mosque neighborhood, frustrated by traffic jams on Fridays and the call to prayer that rang out over mosque loudspeakers. Muslims were happy to take their places.
"It was convenient to live here," recalled Zakaria Khudeira, who moved in two blocks from the mosque. "You could dress the way you wanted. The children wouldn't be called names."
Some immigrants moved there to be near relatives. Some felt persecuted by the backlash against Muslims during the first gulf war. Others wanted to protect their families from what they saw as the increasing immorality of American culture.
Jeanean Othman came to the mosque because of her oldest daughter. Othman worried about the 3rd grader's fitting in at a public school and enrolled her in one of the mosque Islamic schools. Othman, who had only prayed at home before, started attending the mosque and covering her hair. "I started to understand that this was a way of life," she recalled. "For me, this mosque became a place of tranquility."
Still others joined the mosque because they liked the pro-Palestinian politics, sermons in Arabic and what they saw as its authentic interpretations of the Koran, the Muslim holy book.
"The community was serious about Islam," worshiper Seema Imam recalled. "It was easier to practice the faith here."
But another major draw was the mosque's fiery, young religious leader, Jamal Said, known to worshipers as Sheik Jamal.
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.
With more and more questions being raised about Hamas fundraising, the mosque neighborhood turned into a surveillance site.
By the late 1990s, federal agents were knocking on doors, trading leads with investigators in other cities and flying to Israel to interview authorities. At FBI offices in Chicago, investigators hung on the wall a 30-foot-long chart listing the names of people and organizations nationwide believed to have ties to Hamas.
Muslims in Bridgeview complained that they were being treated unfairly. Rumors flew that FBI agents were spying on residents, cruising the neighborhood in unmarked cars.
Agents wanted to investigate the mosque itself, viewing it as a "gold mine" of information that could help their inquiry into terrorism financing, recalled Mark Flessner, the former prosecutor who led the investigation. But higher-ups at the Justice Department rejected probing the mosque. "The department was afraid of political controversy and backlash from Islamic groups," Flessner said.
Still, the government took several steps. A Chicago grand jury started hearing evidence about alleged Hamas fundraising. The government designated Salah a terrorist, seized his money and filed a lien against his home. Authorities also seized the bank accounts of the Oak Lawn religious group where Salah worked, the Quranic Literacy Institute, founded by Hammad, the former mosque prayer leader.
But no criminal charges were filed, and the investigation stalled. Only after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks did the government's interest in Hamas--and mosque leaders--pick up.
The grand jury investigation restarted, and the FBI reinterviewed mosque members, asking about Salah and others.
Federal officials also closed three Islamic charities operating near the mosque that were suspected of aiding terrorists. All three received donations from the mosque, and the head of one of the charities was a mosque director. No criminal terrorism charges were filed against the charities.
The government prevented another mosque director from returning home from Jordan. Authorities said that he was a security risk and that the south suburban organization he headed, the Islamic Association for Palestine, was part of Hamas' propaganda wing. No charges were filed against him or the organization.
Mosque President Oussama Jammal blasted the government actions as a witch hunt, saying a "Zionist agenda" was behind the moves. "The majority of Palestinians are living here in the south side of Chicago. That's why they are targeting us."
More than ever, the mosque community felt under siege. The day after the Sept. 11 attacks, a pro-American rally in nearby Oak Lawn turned into an angry march on the mosque. About 100 police officers were called to cordon off the area, keeping protesters two blocks away.
Many Muslim parents kept their children home from school the next day, and Sheik Jamal urged the women not to leave their houses.
In October, Chicago's top federal law-enforcement officials drove out to the mosque for an unusual town hall meeting. Five hundred people crowded into the basement, men on one side, women on the other. They listened as authorities explained that they were there simply to promote better relations with the community.
But when questioned, the officials made a statement that some in the audience found unsettling: They would neither confirm nor deny that they were investigating the mosque. To comment, the officials said, would violate government policy.
The mosque today
Most of the Beitunia immigrants who had dreamed of their own mosque are now gone. The congregation's first prayer leader, Khalil Zayid, worshiped there until he died in 1988. He was never allowed to lead prayers at the new mosque.
Many of the early leaders' children attend other mosques or pray at home. Leila Diab, the daughter of a founder, rarely prays in Bridgeview. She said she tried to meet with Sheik Jamal several years ago, but he insisted that she cover her hair, and she refused.
"This face of Islam is not representative of Islam," she said. "It is very detestable to me." Meanwhile, mosque attendance is booming. Friday prayers are so crowded that dozens cannot get inside, forcing them to place their prayer rugs on the front lawn. As many as 2,000 attend Friday prayers. Bridgeview remains one of the most popular of the Chicago area's 50 mosques.
Sheik Jamal and other mosque leaders still pursue a controversial agenda.
In March 2002, the mosque hired a new assistant prayer leader--the same man who had run the local office of an Islamic charity until it was closed by the federal government for alleged terrorism ties. Even a few board members questioned whether he should have been hired so quickly.
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 conservative, 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 conservative than ever.
Many women believe that not even three hairs should show beneath a head scarf. Men and women are often separated at weddings. Many worshipers refuse to finance their homes with mortgages, believing that interest payments are banned in Islam.
Some mosque members worry that their children are being taught to reject American society. They also complain that the mosque remains focused on what goes on abroad at the expense of local issues, such as drugs and domestic abuse.
The mosque youth center, which once featured basketball games, is now a neglected building with broken windows. A sticker on a door advises, "Don't Get Caught Dead Without Islam," but the center was shut down last year because of building and fire code violations.
When Najib was mosque attorney in the 1980s, he believed that the newcomers would keep the mosque free of politics. Now he regrets ever representing them. "It was just plain blind stupid," he said.
He is uncomfortable with Sheik Jamal's social and political views, especially his calls for Islamic states.
Yet he still hopes the mosque will change. In April, he ran for a seat on the board, typing up his platform and handing it out to mosque members. It was the fifth time he had run.
Each time, he vowed to be a voice for the moderates. Each time, he lost
Reader comments on this item
Religous freedom for all
Apr 4, 2011 16:55
If they are so sdetermined to live by religous laws why do they come here to america for religous freedom and then want to make everything here their religion they want us to accept there veiws yet kill us for not believeing the way they do. I think we should all have the right to religous freedom if you respect us well respect you. You cannot ask for respect but not give any.