When confronted with an American convert to Islam who has studied overseas, it’s hard not to think today of the celebrated case of John Walker Lindh, “the American Taliban” captured by U.S. troops in Afghanistan and brought back to the United States to stand trial. “Abdul” knows that, yet he’s chosen to be brutally honest with Aaron and myself, admitting that, on his first trip overseas, he studied under Shaykh Usaamah Al-Qoosee, a follower of Sayyid Qutb, the most important leader in the history of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimin), an organization that practically defines radical Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood dreams of establishing a new caliphate, which would have the power to declare a jihad, binding on all Muslims, against the infidel.
Studying with Al-Qoosee was not Abdul’s decision alone; he had relied, he says, on the advice of Magdy Kandil, one of the leaders of the Rockford mosque, who had helped guide Abdul’s conversion. Kandil had studied under Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the most prominent ideologists of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qaradawi has even been offered the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood on several occasions, but he has always preferred to remain more of a religious leader than a political one. That’s not to say that his religious actions don’t have political consequences: During the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006, Qaradawi issued a fatwa declaring support for the Shiite Hezbollah mandatory for all Muslims, including Sunnis. (One does not have to regard the Israeli attack as just in order to recognize that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization.)
Barred from entering the United States since 1999, Qaradawi caused quite a stir in London in 2004 when he went on the BBC’s Newsnight to defend Palestinian suicide bombing:
I consider this type of martyrdom operation as an evidence of God’s justice.
Allah Almighty is just; through his infinite wisdom he has given the weak a weapon the strong do not have and that is their ability to turn their bodies into bombs as Palestinians do.
When asked about the killing of Israeli civilians by suicide bombers, Qaradawi replied that “an Israeli woman is not like women in our societies, because she is a soldier.” The BBC did not report what, if anything, he said about children.
Qaradawi founded IslamOnline, the second-most popular Islamic website worldwide (according to Alexa.com), and he regularly issues fatwas in response to questions posted in the “Ask a Scholar” feature of the “Living Shari’ah” section of the site. One such fatwa, issued on April 14, 2004, declared that a boycott of both Israeli and U.S. products is morally obligatory on all Muslims (including those living in the United States):
“Israel’s” unjustified destruction and vandalism of everything has been using American money, American weapons, and the American veto. America has done this for decades without suffering the consequences of any punishment or protests about their oppressive and prejudiced position from the Islamic world.
As Abdul tells us of Magdy Kandil’s connection to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, I can’t help but recall Aaron’s and my conversation with Kandil in February 2002. Discussing the position of Muslims in the United States after September 11, Kandil argued that there has been a backlash against Islam, which came “from some minority in the U.S. who now feel threatened by a new minority.” As I wrote at the time:
When I ask him whom he means by the older minority and add that politicians and religious leaders have seemed unusually eager to embrace Islam, Kandil looks at me in disappointment—and, perhaps, with a touch of annoyance. He knows that I know that he means Jews.
After several months in Egypt studying under Al-Qoosee, Abdul returned to Rockford. He intended to go back to Egypt to complete his license in fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), but he had begun to have second thoughts about studying with an adherent of the Muslim Brotherhood. While pondering his next move, Abdul dated, his first marriage having ended a few years before. Soon, he met a woman a couple years younger than he. She was of Dutch extraction, and her family had settled in Winnebago County in the first decade of the 20th century. The East High running back had found his high-school cheerleader, from one of the small farming communities to the west of Rockford.
Abdul’s future wife, a nursing student, knew nothing about Islam. The first time he broached the topic with her, Abdul says, “She thought it was a country.” I laugh, recalling for Abdul and Aaron the time in the mid-80’s when the girlfriend of one of my father’s childhood buddies announced to us that she opposed Ronald Reagan’s Central America policy because she didn’t want her boyfriend dying in “some place like Guacamole.”
The cheerleader’s family was nominally Christian, but nonpracticing. That would change when she married Abdul and converted to Islam, adopting the burqa—the head-to-toe robes worn by traditional Muslim women. Her parents returned to church, and it would take some years—and grandchildren—before they made an uneasy peace with the religion of their daughter and son-in-law.
In 1997, Abdul returned to Egypt to complete his studies in fiqh, but this time, he avoided the Ikhwanis and studied under a Salafi scholar. (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 word derives from as-salaf, “the worthy ancestors.”) Earning his license in fiqh, he returned to the United States; but the next year, he went overseas again, to study with a Salafi sheikh in Yemen.
As Abdul explains it, Salafism eschews political interpretations of Islam, focusing instead on the individual believer conforming his life to those of Muhammad and the first three generations of Muslims. The emphasis is on placing the various passages of the Koran and the hadith (the sayings of Muhammad) in historical context. That’s not to say that all who are called Salafis agree with this interpretation, or even all who call themselves Salafis; in fact, some Ikhwanis use the term. But the general thrust of Salafism is away from the political action that characterizes the Muslim Brotherhood overseas and its related organizations in the United States.
That is not true, however, of the mosque in Rockford, as Abdul realized when he returned from Yemen. The imam (spiritual leader) at the time was Abdool Rahman Khan, a graduate of the school of sharia at the Islamic University of Medina. (The current imam graduated from the same university.) Rahman Khan had come to Rockford from Guyana, where he had served as the principal of the Guyana Islamic Institute; and he was, Abdul tells us, an Ikhwani.
Abdul believes that the hiring of Rahman Khan was no coincidence. Rockford has a small but relatively wealthy Albanian Muslim population (many popular diner-style restaurants in the area are owned by Albanians), and, at that time, the violence in Kosovo was heating up. Inside the Muslim Community Center, which houses the mosque and the Rockford Iqra School, Albanians were raising funds for the Kosovo Liberation Army and attempting to recruit warriors for the Kosovo jihad—including, Abdul says, himself and two of his friends, all Caucasian converts to Islam. As far as Abdul knows, they succeeded in recruiting at least two, including a tall, well-built white guy named Mike, who had run the gamut of non-Christian religions before settling on Islam.
Mike wanted to be a good Muslim, but, he told Abdul, “I just can’t keep away from the pork!” His weakness was likely made moot when he went off to Afghanistan to train in an Al Qaeda camp before joining the jihad in Kosovo. Abdul never saw him again.
Around the same time—1999—the Rockford mosque, Abdul says, was raising funds from local Muslims to support the Pakistani jihad in Jammu and Kashmir. A friend of his, another Salafi, tried to convince the leadership of the mosque to give the money to indigent local Muslims. When they refused, he stole the cash and distributed it himself. The mosque had him arrested, but the charges were dropped.
By now, tensions were running high between the local Salafis—mostly Caucasian converts—and the leadership of the mosque, primarily Pakistani, Albanian, and Egyptian immigrants. When Aaron and I spent a day at the mosque and school in February 2002, we noted in the community library radical Islamic books and videotapes, many from the Islamic Propagation Centre International, an organization funded, in part, by the Bin Laden family and whose founder had met several times with Osama bin Laden himself. What we didn’t know, at the time, was that there had once been many more.
Sometime in late 1999 or 2000, Abdul and a few of his Salafi friends learned of a fatwa issued by a Salafi scholar, declaring that materials that advocated offensive jihad and the Ikhwani political version of Islam were to be destroyed. Putting their faith into action, they “removed” as many as 400 to 500 books from the library—and burned them. The reaction of the mosque’s leadership, not surprisingly, was anger and outrage—yet this time, they did not contact the police. It’s not hard to guess why.
No longer welcome at the mosque, Abdul and his friends attempted to start a Salafi masjid of their own. They secured a location on Broadway Avenue—once one of Rockford’s most impressive shopping districts, but now a struggling neighborhood dominated by Fort Turner, a former public school turned abortuary. They developed plans to make their masjid the center of a neighborhood revival, but the leadership of the mosque wasn’t interested in competition. According to Abdul, they threatened him and his friends, and one prominent member of the mosque—a local doctor—was caught slashing the tires and busting the windows on a car owned by one of Abdul’s fellow Salafis.
More dangerous than threats of physical violence, however, were the political connections of the mosque’s leadership. While Muslims in America frequently vote Republican because of their stance on social issues, the local leadership had been very supportive of Rockford’s three-term Democratic mayor. A necessary zoning change was denied, and the Salafi masjid never opened its doors. Eventually, Abdul and his friends were allowed back into the mosque to worship, and Abdul even enrolled his children in the school. Despite continuing tensions, an uneasy truce had been reached.
Then, at 8:46 a.m. Eastern Time on September 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 plowed into the 94th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, and suddenly, everything changed.