Give me, ya-Allah, Give me Iman and victory.
Give me, ya-Allah, give me strength to set us free,
As we struggle on your path,
Five years ago, Aaron Wolf and I first heard these lines being sung by Muslim children as young as six years old when we spent a day at the Muslim school and mosque here in Rockford. I’ve written about our experience numerous times since then, from the April 2002 issue (“Through a Glass, Darkly,” The Rockford Files) to my column last month (“When You’re Alone, You’re Alone”). Those articles led to appearances on radio shows to discuss Islam in the heartland and speeches delivered as far away as North Carolina and Belgrade, Serbia. By the end of last year, however, I had begun to think that, even though I believe the growth of Islam in the United States is one of the most important issues facing our country today, the lines have already been drawn, and my articles weren’t likely to open the eyes of anyone who wasn’t already convinced. Perhaps it was time to move on to other topics.
Then came the arrest, on December 8, of would-be terrorist Derrick Shareef in the parking lot of one of Rockford’s five Wal-Marts. (See “By Their Fruits,” American Proscenium, February.) Suddenly, Islam in the heartland was back in the news. The more interesting story, as I wrote last month, happened three months later, on March 7, when the FBI arrested Hassan Abujihaad in Phoenix, Arizona. Like Shareef, Abujihaad is a convert to Islam; unlike Shareef, who might have killed a few dozen people at most (and probably far fewer), Abujihaad was once in a position to do a lot of damage, having been a Navy signalman on a destroyer in the Persian Gulf. To anyone who examined the two cases closely, it became clear that the object of Shareef’s arrest was the capture of Abujihaad, who, in the months leading up to September 11, had passed information on his naval battle group to the operators of jihadist websites.
Through all of these developments, something puzzled me. The media, both locally and nationally, refused to discuss any possible connection of the Shareef case to the local mosque, despite the evidence that I had reported five years earlier that those who ran the mosque and school held, and were propagating, what the media would consider radical Islamic beliefs. On the day of Shareef’s arrest, one local TV station took almost an hour of footage of me discussing the local mosque but, in the end, used none of it. Another station, WIFR, had me on live to discuss Shareef, but when I made the connection to the views of the current president of the local mosque (who also serves as chairman of the board of the school), the anchorman interviewing me suggested that an American Muslim expressing admiration for Osama bin Laden was like a late-18th-century Englishman praising Benedict Arnold—not unexpected, and clearly nothing to get excited about.
Before my appearance, WIFR played a portion of a taped interview with Shpendim Nadzaku, the latest imam at the local mosque, who denied that anyone there had any knowledge of Shareef—a statement that is almost impossible to believe, since Shareef worked in Rockford and would certainly have gone to the mosque to pray. Moreover, Shareef’s main place of worship was the mosque in DeKalb, whose president is the son of Magdy Kandil—the president of the Rockford mosque at the time that Aaron and I visited, and still one of the leaders there.
Why the silence on the larger question of what the presence of an Islamic community in Rockford and Northern Illinois signifies? Even more importantly, why the seeming lack of interest in the possibility that there might be a deeper connection between Shareef’s stated desire to wage “violent jihad” and what is being taught at one or both of these mosques?
I am puzzling over these questions on Saturday, March 17, when I receive an e-mail with a simple subject line—“Hello”—and a salutation that will become quite familiar in the following weeks. “Hello sir”:
as you see know one knows who i am now until i have spoke to you, i am very secretive in this matter, But i must say that i never thought that i would be shunned by this community this bad, even though we some muslims here have left the community due to the politics and their ties with the ideology of Syed Qutb and Zindani and Mawdudi.
The e-mail (which, along with subsequent e-mails, is reproduced here exactly as received) continues in this vein, describing the author’s expulsion from the local mosque and offering specific and astonishing details of the ideology being taught at the mosque and school. In what follows, I shall refer to the e-mail’s author as Abdul.
Over the course of several e-mails, Abdul reveals that he is an old-line German-American (his family immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1746) and, therefore, a convert to Islam. He is a Salafi Muslim; the Salafis believe that they adhere to the earliest and purest form of Islam, as practiced in the days of Muhammad and the immediately succeeding generations. (The more familiar term Wahhabism is, depending on whom you talk to, either applied to a particularly fundamentalist and puritanical form of Salafism or used to denigrate Salafism.)
Abdul and a few other Caucasian converts are a distinct minority of Muslims in the Rockford area:
In this community we cannot even say the word salafi or it will cause friction, the ideology that is taught in arabic with these people is called in arabic hakimiyyah. which is the revolutionist ideology, To claim there is no Muslim state so there for the muslims should establish one . . .
Tawheed Al-Hakimiyyah is the belief in the unity of Allah’s judgment. In other words, it is a universalist conception of Islamic law—sharia—applicable at all times, everywhere, and taking precedence always over merely human law. Salafis would say that hakimiyyah is what Khalid Siddiqui, the chairman of the board of the Rockford Iqra school and the current president of the mosque, was referring to when I asked him whether Muslims want to see sharia imposed in the United States. As I wrote in the April 2002 issue,
[Siddiqui] does not answer the question directly. Law, he says, is supposed to be “beneficial to mankind,” but “human history from Adam to now is about the concentration of power. Who has the power made the laws.” Since Islam views all men as equal in the sight of Allah, it is wrong for the powerful to make law to their advantage. “Who is superior to us? Only God. If He made the laws, then He can be unbiased.”
Abdul, on the other hand, while never concealing the fact that he would like to see all mankind convert to Islam, would rather see such conversions come as hisdid, through persuasion instead of through force. He refers to the version of Islam espoused at the Rockford mosque, and at most mosques around the country, as “political.” In several e-mails, he expresses respect for our constitutional tradition and, in one, proudly details the history of his Christian forefathers who fought in every major American war from the Civil War to Vietnam. He calls himself “a typical american i travel to maine to hunt, and i love to fish very family oriented, i write books on history local history i belong to the historical society.”
Abdul has sought me out because he has been reading my articles on the Shareef and Abujihaad cases on ChroniclesMagazine.org, and, at the time of Shareef’s arrest, he had seen my interview on WIFR:
So sir the only reason i spoke with you is i did see your Tv interview on the local news. And i do not feel that other News agencies would really care about my situation it is all about getting the story, but you seem genuine, and personally it is hard on me, because it is apart of our religion to be able to go to the masjid [mosque] and pray in a group.
When Aaron and I visited the school in 2002, Dr. Siddiqui told us that Islam is like a pendulum, which can “swing to the extremes and come back to the middle, but you are still within the boundaries of Islam.” (He used this as a justification for not condemning radical Islam.) The principal at the time, an Egyptian named Atteya Elnoory, proudly proclaimed that the school was open to all ethnicities, who were tied together by their common belief in Allah. Abdul presents a different story: In the wake of Shareef’s arrest, the leaders of the mosque closed ranks, called Abdul a kafir (an unbeliever) because he does not subscribe to a political understanding of Islam, and expelled his children from the school.
Similar actions had led him and a handful of others, back in 1998, to try to form another masjid for Salafis. Their attempt failed because of attacks on their property (broken windows and slashed tires) and, he believes, because of intervention by influential Muslims associated with the mosque, which resulted in them being denied the necessary permits to operate a mosque in the building they had chosen. The leaders of the local mosque, he argues, do not want any competition for their very profitable operation.
Abdul is eager to present his story in person and asks to meet with me on a Sunday. Our church is celebrating the Feast of St. Joseph with a traditional St. Joseph’s Altar, a Sicilian custom that has become increasingly popular among Catholics in the United States (and not just Italian-Americans). I let Abdul know that I will be busy all day and won’t have time to meet, but I’m also concerned about meeting with him alone. Details that he has revealed (which I haven’t discussed here) have given me every reason to believe that he is being honest and straightforward with me, and I have no reason to fear for my safety, but, when discussing a topic so sensitive, it seems prudent to have a second person present to verify what both sides have said.
I ask to meet him later in the week, and he offers to have me to his home for tea and to meet his family. We settle on Friday, and he tells me that he will let me know his address. I am under the mistaken impression that he lives in toward the Chicago suburbs, but on Thursday, he sends me an address in Rockford that is only ten minutes away from the offices of Chronicles. I reply late on Thursday night, suggesting that we meet at The Rockford Institute so that Aaron can join in our conversation. I don’t hear from him until Friday morning: “hello sir im on my way i see you are on 928 n main ill be there at 9 or 9 15 thank you.”
I get the e-mail while I am still at home, a 20-minute walk away, so I commandeer the van (a rare treat). When I arrive, Aaron (to whom I had forwarded the e-mail) is waiting, and, as I’m gathering up a reporter’s pad and searching for a pen, our door signal beepbeepbeeps. Abdul is in the house.
Aaron goes down to meet him, and I join them once I’ve finally found a pen that works. We introduce ourselves and head into the Clyde and Marian Sluhan Memorial Press Room to talk.
“Well,” Abdul says, as we sit down at the Richard John Neuhaus Memorial Conference Table, “nice to see you in person, instead of seeing you on TV.”
And so, just when I thought that my involvement with Islam in Rockford was coming to an end, the story, it seems, has only now begun.