The evening at Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center began cordially, with a dinner of lamb and rice for the head of the FBI's Washington field office and seven of his agents. But the mood grew tense after the guests were escorted to the prayer room of the Falls Church mosque for a town hall meeting.
"We need to know the definition of terrorism and terrorists," one mosque member told the agents. Why, asked another, had the FBI raided a Muslim organization that had helped him go on a pilgrimage to Mecca?
About 3,000 people pray at Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center each Friday. Congregants are from around the world; about 60 percent are Arab.
(Photos Michael Lutzky -- The Washington Post)
About This Series|
Three years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. government has undertaken extensive efforts to root out Islamic terrorists around the world and to defend the U.S. homeland. Articles today and tomorrow are part of a series looking at the elusive nature of the threat and the problems authorities confront in battling it. Today's story examines a worldwide Islamic movement that has been linked to terrorist groups but also has produced some of the most influential and moderate Islamic institutions in the United States. Tomorrow's report looks at how a mosque that grew out of that movement fares in the world after Sept. 11. Previous parts of this series can be found at www.washingtonpost.com/nation.
A third member of the congregation said the FBI's informants were unreliable. He ridiculed its agents for warning his friend, a taxi driver who works 16 hours a day, that he was "moving around too much."
"Takbeer!" shouted the audience of about 80 people. "Takbeer!" The mosque official moderating the meeting quickly explained to the guests that the word "is a Muslim 'Hallelujah!' "
At some mosques, the angry questioning might have been considered imprudent. But not at Dar Al Hijrah, whose leaders have been outspoken in criticizing U.S. law enforcement actions against Muslims and U.S. policies in the Middle East.
Officials at Dar, one of the Washington area's oldest and largest mosques, know firsthand about U.S. government scrutiny. The FBI and the federal 9/11 commission concluded that two of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers briefly worshiped at the mosque after one of them befriended its imam in San Diego. FBI officials have said they found no evidence that the imam, who has since resigned and left the country, had prior knowledge of the attacks, and the commission's report said it was unable to reach a conclusion about his relationship with the hijackers.
Dar stands out among mosques in the Washington area for another reason. It is closely affiliated with the Muslim American Society, a 12-year-old organization committed to promoting Islam in the United States. Several of the group's founders had been active in the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement started in Egypt in the 1920s that advocates a purer, more restrictive form of Islam throughout the Middle East. Although the Brotherhood favors establishing Islamic law in predominantly Muslim countries, many of its members say they see no conflict between Islam and democracy.
Some U.S. government officials say the Muslim Brotherhood has dangerous links to terrorism, while others argue that most of the movement is moderate and should be enlisted as an ally against Islamic radicalism.
In many ways, Dar Al Hijrah illustrates the challenges of adapting a conservative, foreign-grown Islamic ideology to an American setting.
The mosque's leaders said their main focus, especially in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, is not Middle Eastern politics but community involvement that will serve to educate non-Muslims in this country about the Islamic faith and demonstrate that U.S. Muslims embrace American values.
"We are stepping up our civic participation and outreach efforts to make up for years of isolation that put us in vulnerable position: being a largely unknown community and therefore easy target of stereotyping," Souheil Ghannouchi, who is president of the Muslim American Society and serves on Dar's board of directors, wrote in a recent online chat. "Our main priority is to . . . develop viable models for American Muslim personality and for Islamic life in America."
The mosque, which opened in 1991, has pursued American Muslims' interests by holding candidate nights with Northern Virginia politicians, offering tours for schoolchildren, engaging in interfaith discussions and sponsoring voter registration drives.
But many younger Muslims have shied away from active involvement in the mosque's affairs, viewing its aging leadership as secretive and cliquish and objecting to its strict segregation of men and women. Although about 3,000 people attend Dar's three Friday prayer services -- perhaps the highest attendance for any mosque in the area -- its last internal election attracted only 120 voters.
Some members have begun to challenge the founders' attitudes. There is "no question" that the mosque leadership needs to be more open and inclusive of younger people, including women, said Esam Omeish, 36, a surgeon who lives in Alexandria and who is the youngest member of Dar's board. "The bottom line is that this is a mosque that is in the heart of Washington," he said. "Our goal is to make the congregation reflect that reality."