Anwar al-Aulaqi’s death reopens wounds for Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church

September 30, 2011

At the Northern Virginia mosque where Anwar al-Aulaqi once preached, the news of his killing ripped open a wound that congregants wish would heal.

For a decade, Dar al-Hijrah has been haunted by its association with Aulaqi, who was the imam at the Falls Church mosque on Sept. 11, 2001, but had yet to publicly embrace the anti-American extremism that would make him a target of U.S. drones.

Tariq Nelson, an active member of the mosque, expressed weariness Friday at trying to explain Aulaqi’s apparent shift from moderate interfaith activist to violent jihadist.

“When you feel like you’ve been continuously embarrassed,” Nelson said, “it’s painful and humiliating.”

Imam Shaker Elsayed acknowledged Aulaqi’s death at a crowded Friday afternoon prayer service. “May Allah give him mercy,” the imam told dozens of worshipers, noting that “when anyone leaves this life . . . their judgment is reserved by Allah.”

Those who killed Aulaqi, Elsayed added, “need to equally prepare for that moment” when they also will be judged by Allah.

Aulaqi is an uncomfortable subject at Dar al-Hijrah, where people emphatically reject his advocacy of violence but agree with his criticism of U.S. foreign policy and heavy military presence in the Middle East.

Many complain that they have endured suspicion because of Aulaqi’s past ties to the mosque.

“I know for a fact that my attendance has been documented” by the government, said Sandra Amen-Bryan, a psychologist from Arlington County. “I’m not breaking the law. I’m coming here to worship. What I resent is the mindset that because this individual is guilty then the rest of us are guilty by association.”

Jennifer Rogers, 32, said she was uncomfortable with the government-sanctioned killing of an American citizen — a sentiment echoed by mosque leaders and a number of Muslim organizations.

“They should have at least brought him back here and put him through this judicial system,” said Rogers, an Alexandria resident who converted to Islam in 2000. “It’s his right as a citizen.”

In a statement, mosque officials called the killing of an American “an assassination.”

They stressed that when Aulaqi preached at Dar al-Hijrah 10 years ago, he “was known for his interfaith outreach, civic engagement and tolerance in the Northern Virginia community.” It wasn’t until he left the United States and was allegedly tortured by Yemeni authorities, the statement said, that he began preaching violence and encouraging “impressionable American Muslims to attack their own country. With his death, Al-Awlaki will no longer be able to spread his hate speech over the internet to our youth.”

Aulaqi was hired in 2001 to be the imam at Dar al-Hijrah, where more than 3,000 worshipers from more than 35 countries pack into the prayer hall every Friday.

Bassam Estwani, one of the mosque’s early founders, said he “never saw any sign of extremist thinking. He was a scholar, spoke both languages, Arabic and English, very well. I wondered to myself afterward, is he the same person who spoke here?”

Right after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Aulaqi was in demand as an articulate spokesman for American Islam and interfaith understanding. He did a chat about Ramadan on washingtonpost.com and allowed a Post videographer to chronicle a day in the life of an American imam.

Eventually, however, federal investigators learned that  two of the Sept. 11 hijackers had briefly worshiped at Dar al-Hijrah when Aulaqi was the imam. Their appearance at the mosque “may not have been coincidental,” the federal 9/11 Commission concluded.

In 2002, Aulaqi declined an offer from two Dar al-Hijrah leaders to return to the mosque. He was seriously considering running for parliament in Yemen, he told Hossein Goal, a former member of Dar al-Hijrah’s executive committee, and Imam Johari Abdul-Malik. He also was mulling hosting a TV show in the gulf or landing a teaching job at an Islamic university.

Staff writer William Wan contributed to this report.

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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