Imam serves as public face of an embattled mosque

September 18, 2011

After nine years of interviews, Imam Johari Abdul-Malik has learned to wait for the questions.

If he waits long enough, the reporters inevitably ask about Anwar al-Aulaqi, the radical cleric who once led the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque. They want to know about Maj. Nidal Hasan, the alleged Fort Hood shooter, and the two Sept. 11 hijackers who also once worshiped there. And they often come with a list of other terrorism suspects who have been connected in some way with the Northern Virginia mosque.

But having defended Dar Al-Hij­rah for so long, Abdul-Malik knows what they’re really asking: What exactly is going on at this mosque? Is this a breeding ground for terrorists?

It is a suspicion that nearly all Muslim institutions have faced to some degree since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. But none more so than Dar Al-Hijrah.

As its critics often point out, almost no other mosque in the country has been linked to so many cases of alleged terrorism. The notoriety has gotten to the point where after each attack or arrest of a Muslim suspect, the mosque often finds TV crews camped outside its doors.

They are usually met by Abdul-Malik, who was hired to be Dar Al-Hijrah’s public face. Charged with rehabilitating its image, he has become ubiquitous in the media, appearing on the major networks and holding countless news conferences.

His answers, honed by repetition, are always confident and unequivocal: Aulaqi led their mosque for only one year, and there were no signs then of any radical, anti-American theology. As for Hasan, Abdul-Malik said, he was simply a man who snapped mentally.

“There is nothing at Dar Al-Hijrah, no ideology or preaching, that somehow leads people to violent extremism,” Abdul-Malik declared. “We condemn terrorism.”

But there is also much he doesn’t say.

He doesn’t always express the outrage within his mosque over the indignities suffered by Muslims throughout America’s war on terror. He doesn’t linger on the distrust harbored by many worshipers toward the government. He doesn’t lay out the divisions among the mosque’s leaders on how to handle such issues.

And when it comes to Aulaqi, Abdul-Malik only rarely mentions the ties that once connected the two of them. How before Aulaqi became an operative for al-Qaeda, before he became a target on the CIA’s kill list, he and Abdul-Malik had been companions for one of Islam’s most sacred rites. How in those early days he and others had considered Aulaqi a respected colleague, an admirable leader, perhaps even a friend.

He says none of this because in this new battlefield of perception that has emerged since Sept. 11 — where ammunition consists of past associations, loaded words and fear — there is seldom space for nuance.

‘A lot of anger’

The mosque’s name means “land of migration,” and every Friday more than 3,000 worshipers from more than 35 countries pack into Dar Al-Hijrah’s prayer hall. Doctors from Pakistan kneel next to hotel workers from Sudan. Refugees from Somalia pray alongside naturalized citizens from Egypt.

It was founded by a group of Arab college students in the 1980s. Through local fundraising drives and assistance from a few foreign donors such as the Saudi Embassy, the congregation bought 3.4 acres in Falls Church and began constructing a $5 million prayer hall.

Today, its immense stone facade — chiseled with a verse from the Koran and adorned with a minaret and domes — is just off Leesburg Pike, hidden by evergreens.

Its members are, for the most part, intensely committed to their faith and deeply conservative. Monday through Thursday, when many Muslims pray at home or near work, Dar Al-Hijrah regularly draws 200 to 400 worshipers, with many rising before dawn to get to prayer.

Women must enter through a back door so as not to be seen by men, and they sit in a separate area. Sermons at the mosque often touch unapologetically on the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy, with sometimes fierce statements of support for the Palestinian cause.

For years, the most serious accusations leveled at the mosque were neighborhood complaints about street parking. That changed, however, the day federal investigators realized that two of the Sept. 11 hijackers — Hani Hanjour and Nawaf Alhazmi — had briefly worshiped there in 2001. And the imam at the time was Aulaqi, who had not yet begun preaching the extremist theology he would become well-known for.

Ultimately, the FBI and the federal 9/11 Commission were unable to determine whether Aulaqi saw with the hijackers at Dar Al-Hijrah in 2001. But they noted that he and some of the hijackers had met the year before at his former mosque in San Diego.

The way the commission’s report put it, the two hijackers’ appearance at Dar Al-Hijrah in 2001 “may not have been coincidental.”

That whiff of suspicion was seized upon by bloggers and authors, who dubbed Dar Al-Hijrah the “9/11 mosque” — a slur that its leaders have been fighting ever since.

In those early days, the mosque often felt like an institution under siege. Its office received menacing calls. Several members’ homes were raided in the months after Sept. 11. And many believed that the FBI had the mosque under surveillance.

“There was a lot of anger there,” said Michael Mason, former head of the FBI’s Washington field office who visited Dar Al-Hijrah as part of a region-wide outreach effort. “Sometimes you would go to mosques where people were overly polite because you’re the FBI. That was not the case there.”

At one early FBI town hall meeting, one Dar Al-Hijrah congregant essentially called Mason a liar, saying he wouldn’t believe anything Mason said.

“I said, ‘I didn’t come here to be spoken to like that,’ ” Mason said. “Afterward, he came up and apologized, and I told him: ‘I’m a black man. I know something about being treated for what you are rather than who you are.’ ”

Mason and Michael Rolince, the field office’s former head of counterterrorism, said their agents never came across any information that the mosque was somehow encouraging terrorism. But Rolince qualified it this way: “I’m not willing to say anyone was radicalized there or recruited there. But I’m not willing to say it didn’t happen, either. You look at the litany of people coming through there, and whether it’s through bad luck or bad timing or by design, you don’t know.”

An outsider’s struggles

The man hired in 2002 to change that perception was in many ways an un­or­tho­dox choice. Unlike Dar Al-Hijrah’s mostly immigrant members and leaders, Abdul-Malik was African American and a convert to Islam.

Now 55, with a salt-and-pepper beard and solid frame, he almost always dresses in a traditional robe and Kufi hat. But Abdul-Malik grew up as Winslow Seale Jr. in Brooklyn, where he and his family worshiped in Episcopal churches.

He converted to Islam as a graduate student at Howard University in the early 1980s during the waning days of the black power movement. Before Dar Al-Hijrah, he worked as a biomedical researcher at the university’s hospital and served as Howard’s first volunteer Muslim chaplain.

But even then, he was gaining prominence, sparring with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News just weeks after Sept. 11 on whether the Koran promoted violence. Other Muslim leaders took note when Abdul-Malik turned the questions on O’Reilly, asking him whether the Bible was violent because it was used as justification by the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.

“We needed a native Muslim American like him, someone who could speak in unaccented English and articulate who we are to the outside world,” said Hossein Goal, who persuaded Dar Al-Hijrah’s board to hire Abdul-Malik.

Too often, the mosque’s leaders felt that when they aggressively defended themselves, it was seen as proof of anti-American sentiment. But Abdul-Malik presented an alternative. In interviews, he talked of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and how nothing could be more American than Muslims standing up for their rights.

In some ways, Abdul-Malik was a replacement for Aulaqi, who had led Dar Al-Hijrah during the worst days right after Sept. 11 before leaving the country.

Aulaqi also spoke perfect, unaccented English and had a charisma that appealed to the world outside the mosque as well as to the younger generation within.

In fact, just months after Abdul-Malik was hired in 2002, he and Goal met with Aulaqi at a nearby cafe to try to persuade him to come back to the mosque.

Aulaqi had been frustrated during his time at Dar Al-Hijrah by all the media demands. Their pitch was that he and Abdul-Malik would work as a team. Abdul-Malik would handle the media; Aulaqi would focus on spiritual matters. Ultimately, Aulaqi decided to return to Yemen, leaving Abdul-Malik to press on by himself.

“It was not easy at first,” Abdul-Malik said.

Some at Dar Al-Hijrah saw him as an outsider. Others saw no reason for the mosque to change.

One member warned him after Friday prayers: “You know the leaders here are just using you, don’t you? They only bring you out to fundraise or to talk to reporters.”

“Brother, I came here to be used,” Abdul-Malik responded.

At the first interfaith event he organized, almost no one from the mosque showed up.

“I had to explain to some, these churches are not inviting you so that they can convert you,” he said. “I had to give a few sermons to tell them these are not the Christians you know as occupiers and imperialists.”

He also pushed the mosque to cultivate allies among local politicians and police. But when Fairfax County Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason) visited during prayers to thank members for participating in a local cleanup effort, one man jumped up and loudly objected to the fact that a woman was standing in front to address them.

“The man said: ‘There are no women allowed here. What you’re doing is wrong,’ ” recalled Gross, who remains a mosque supporter. “I think the leaders were a little embarrassed afterward. I told them I’ve dealt with political hecklers before.”

Most of all, Abdul-Malik tried to reshape the mosque’s defensive posture toward the media.

“The board kept saying, ‘When are they ever going to write a good story about us?’ ” Abdul-Malik said. “I told them, do you not realize the good we could do in these ‘bad stories?’ Each one gives us the chance to start crafting our own narrative again.”

Given a free hand to speak for the mosque, he raced to respond to controversy instead of avoiding it and coached others to talk to reporters. Most weeks, between media interviews and interfaith events, the calendar on his MacBook looked like that of a presidential candidate, filled to the brim and lined with talking points.

Today, he likens his job to that of a lightning rod — to redirect attacks on the mosque. But in the process, he has become almost as controversial.

The same critics who once dubbed Dar Al-Hijrah the “9/11 mosque” now denounce Abdul-Malik as a radical cleric. They scour his sermons, looking for controversial quotes to post.

A favorite, which Abdul-Malik argues was a misquote, is from a 2001 speech in which he said that if groups such as Hamas attack Israel, they should limit their targets to infrastructure such as bridges or utilities to avoid hurting innocent people.

Last year, when Abdul-Malik was invited to give the opening prayer at the Virginia legislature, opponents flooded the offices of delegates with serious complaints.

“I don’t think anyone has a problem with this being a Muslim prayer,” Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said at the time. “This particular imam and this particular mosque have been a flashpoint for controversy because of the teachings they promote and the connections they have had.”

Despite the uproar, when Abdul-Malik arrived to give the prayer, fewer than 10 protesters showed up.

“It shows you that there are people seizing control of the narrative here,” he says. “That’s why we have to draw another narrative for the media to follow.”

Defending Muslims

It is hard to gauge exactly how much Abdul-Malik has been able to change Dar Al-Hijrah’s relationship with the outside world.

Interfaith events these days are routine and fairly well-attended. Community leaders and local police are now regularly invited to dinners honoring them.

But the mosque leadership remains deeply suspicious of federal authorities.

Many believe that the phones are tapped. Some attribute their hassles at airports and at banks to FBI interference. And most believe that Dar Al-Hij­rah and other mosques are the target of infiltration by the FBI — a charge denied by the agency.

“Any suggestion that the FBI sends agents roaming through mosques is not true,” a spokesman responded. “The FBI investigates people, not places.”

Hostility toward the media remains equally strong.

“We have never had difficulties explaining ourselves to the public,” said Shaker Elsayed, the mosque’s head imam and top spiritual leader. “It was an inept and biased media that twisted our message. And it was an inept FBI who instead of admitting their failures on 9/11, looked around and found places like this mosque to blame as their culprits.”

Elsayed says he has been repeatedly and deliberately misrepresented by The Washington Post, the Associated Press and other media outlets.

One 2005 story showed him preaching: “Islam forbids you to give allegiance to those who kick you off your homeland, and to those who support those who kick you off your homeland. We do have license to respond with all force necessary to answer our attackers.”

He says such quotes are deliberately taken out of context to make it look as though he encourages terrorism, when he and the mosque have condemned it.

“I was talking of the right of Muslim nations, not individuals. Even if we are talking about the case of individuals, if any man is attacked, not just Muslims, can he not defend himself?”

But other area Muslim leaders worry that some who worship at Al-Hijrah could misinterpret such rhetoric as well as the mosque’s antagonistic attitude toward authorities.

“One of the main issues all mosques are grappling with now is home-grown terrorism,” said one leader from another mosque, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of frequent work with Dar Al-Hijrah staff. “There is a sense sometimes in collective meetings that Dar Al-Hijrah is in deep denial about this, that they are skeptical it is even an issue at all.”

Elsayed and other leaders are aware of such talk. “There is a false construction that there are ‘good Muslims’ who work with the FBI and authorities and ‘bad Muslims’ who question the authorities,” Elsayed said. “We are painted as the bad guys so they can be the good.”

Many of the same Muslim leaders who criticize Dar Al-Hijrah acknowledge that it is often the first to stand up for the civil rights of accused Muslims despite the political heat.

“To this day, every time I go to mosque people give me hugs and ask about my son,” said Anthony Benkahla, whose son is serving a 10-year prison sentence.

Sabri Benkahla, who grew up attending Dar Al-Hijrah, was one of 11 men accused of training for jihad abroad in part by playing paintball in the Virginia countryside.

Nine of the 11 were convicted or pleaded guilty in highly publicized trials. Benkahla was acquitted but was later brought back by the prosecutor for questioning before a grand jury. He was then convicted for making false statements during that second round of questioning.

His father, who has attended Dar Al-Hijrah for almost two decades, said fellow worshipers raised money for Sabri’s legal defense, wrote letters to the judge and tried to organize carpools to visit him after he was transferred to a North Carolina prison.

Publicly supporting his son and others couldn’t have been easy, said the father, who maintains his son’s innocence and believes that he was brutalized during a month-long detention by Saudi authorities before being handed over to U.S. agents.

“There was a lot of pressure, I’m sure,” he said, “but people there know what’s right is right.”

The mystery of Aulaqi

Questions about cases such as the Virginia paintballers have begun to fade with time and outreach, Abdul-Malik said. But the one that has simply refused to go away is Aulaqi.

In his office on a recent day after prayers, Abdul-Malik described Aulaqi the way one would a ghost — a man long gone whose presence continues to haunt.

When pressed, in especially combative interviews, Abdul-Malik often notes that he was hired after Aulaqi had left. “I never really knew him as the imam of Dar Al-Hijrah,” he said.

But that is not the whole story, he said. In 2003, the year after Aulaqi left, Abdul-Malik embarked on a pilgrimage to Mecca with his wife and children — one of the most important acts in a Muslim’s life — and ran into Aulaqi in Saudi Arabia.

They wound up spending the entire tour together, eating together and sleeping in the same places for two weeks. Their wives chatted while Abdul-Malik and Aulaqi took turns leading fellow sojourners through the rituals of the pilgrimage, or hajj.

“I’ve seen anger in other leaders before. But I never saw that in him, even with all the stresses of leading a group of that size through hajj,” Abdul-Malik said. The only words of condemnation he heard were when their bus passed a group of beggars and someone asked how poverty could exist in such an oil-rich country.

“He said to me, ‘This is a country that takes the wealth of a nation to feed one family,’ ” Abdul-Malik recalled. “I remember admiring the word craft in what he said. It was a critique of the royal family, but there was no venom in it, just sadness and compassion.”

But in the years that followed, Aulaqi’s sermons became increasingly radical and violent. Media reports surfaced that during his time in San Diego, Aulaqi had been arrested on allegations of soliciting prostitutes and was once spotted in Washington with escorts.

The mystery of his transformation confounds Abdul-Malik. And it has made him wonder whether a kind of darkness existed in his predecessor all along, a poison that made him into this man of violence, this man who could praise the Fort Hood shootings and work for al-Qaeda. This man whose every action abroad sends reporters scrambling to Dar Al-Hijrah with still more questions.

To their cameras, Abdul-Malik unequivocally condemns Aulaqi’s words and his actions.

“But that does not mean I hate him,” he said quietly. “I weep for him. I pray for him.”

What those reporters don’t realize, Abdul-Malik said, is that all their questions are the same ones he and others at the mosque have asked themselves.

And in the end, the only answer he has to give is: “We don’t know.”

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

William Wan is The Post’s China correspondent based in Beijing. He served previously as a religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent.
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