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Muslims divided on other faiths

Some build ties; others see heresy

BY YONAT SHIMRON, Staff Writer

Published: Aug 16, 2009 03:39 AM Modified: Aug 16, 2009 04:23 AM

RALEIGH - A fissure in Raleigh's Muslim community emerged nearly a year ago, long before last month's indictments of eight men on federal charges that they conspired to commit terrorist acts.

It happened in early October when Hamdy Radwan got up to give the Friday afternoon sermon at the Islamic Association of Raleigh.

The Egyptian-born physical therapy professor and part-time prayer leader was known in the community for advocating stronger ties with non-Muslims.

On this particular Friday, he challenged Muslims to go a step further.

Using a verse from the Quran, Radwan said they must love their non-Muslim neighbors.

 

Midway into the sermon, Jude Kenan Mohammad, 20, now wanted by authorities for his supposed role in the terrorist plot, leaped up and yelled, " Kufr! Kufr!" using the Arabic word for "heresy."

Two other men then joined in and declared that Radwan had misinterpreted the meaning of the verse. They argued that God requires Muslims only to deal fairly with their neighbors, not to love them.

Suddenly the khutba, as the usually sedate Friday sermon is known, erupted into a shouting match. Within minutes, a team of mosque security men swooped in to bring the service back to order.

The incident, a minor one by most people's accounting, crystallized a struggle at the heart of this Muslim community: To what degree may Muslims form friendships and even show love to people of other faiths?

The question is particularly pressing in light of the July 27 arrests of seven Triangle-area men charged with conspiring to commit terrorist acts abroad. The arrests stunned many Muslims who had assumed the community was incapable of mounting such a conspiracy.

"I think there's a consensus that interfaith work is not only recommended -- it's required," said Ali Zelmat, a member of the Raleigh Muslim community.

But in light of the arrests, many Muslims are now wondering whether that viewpoint is widely shared. The question confronts other U.S. Muslim communities that have wrestled with allegations of homegrown terrorists.

Hours after the sermon scuffle, Mohammad, who so flagrantly interrupted the speaker, boarded a jet at Raleigh-Durham International Airport and flew to Pakistan. Days later, he was arrested by Pakistani intelligence agents for trying to enter tribal areas close to the Afghanistan border.

According to a federal indictment, Mohammad planned to engage in violent jihad while he was there. A Fuquay-Varina High School dropout, Mohammad is the eighth man named in the terrorism conspiracy. He is a fugitive, thought to be in Pakistan.

Mohammad and his mentor, Daniel Boyd, alleged to be the ringleader of the group, advocated not only separation from non-Muslims but war against them.

'You have left Islam'

For Boyd, called "Saifullah" by his recruits, those who advocate loving their non-Muslim neighbors have abandoned Islam.

That's the picture that emerges from government exhibits presented this month during a two-day hearing to determine whether the seven men suspected of terrorism could be released before their trial. A judge ruled they could not.

In these exhibits, which include taped conversations recorded by an undercover informant, Boyd denounced non-Muslims and members of his own faith.

Boyd, a 39-year-old father of five who lives in the Johnston County community of Willow Spring, talked derisively of Muslim immigrants in the United States who want nothing more than to be comfortable and earn money.

"These people are tripping and have left Islam," Boyd said during a conversation taped July 3. "If you live among the kufar [an Arabic word for non-Muslims] and they are comfortable with you, you have left Islam."

An American convert to Islam, Boyd spent time on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan in 1989. He returned to the U.S. a few years later and moved to North Carolina in 1995. Federal agents said he stockpiled guns and ammunition and was collecting money for overseas missions.

Boyd described his passion for jihad -- a religious obligation often known as waging war but also understood by Muslims to mean "struggle," as in a struggle to improve oneself.

"Allah knows, I love jihad," Boyd said in one of the recordings taped June 26. "I love to stand and fight for the sake of Allah."

In a conversation with Anes Subasic, one of the other men arrested, Boyd conceded his frustration in finding men who would join him in waging jihad. According to the indictment, Boyd said he cried in the night because he could not find good brothers. He also bemoaned his estrangement from area mosques, which he called by the Arabic word masjid.

"Why can't we meet in a normal masjid?" Boyd said. "Because of the kufar [non-Muslim] and the things the other Muslims are going to say. ... This should make you beside yourself with fury."

Boyd stopped attending services at Raleigh-area mosques because of "ideological differences," the indictment said. Community members said he no longer was attending when his recruit Jude Kenan Mohammad interrupted the sermon Oct. 3.

But it is difficult to gauge just how different Boyd's separatist stance was from the views of rank-and-file Muslims in the Triangle. Boyd's seven recruits all attended the Islamic Association of Raleigh mosque on Atwater Street, near N.C. State University. Indeed, some grew up there.

A diverse mosque

Nowhere in the Triangle is there a more concentrated version of the United Nations than at Friday prayers in the Raleigh mosque.

Amid the long, neat lines of men and women performing their obligatory prostrations are Algerian immigrants rubbing shoulders with Pakistanis, Indonesians with Egyptians, and Jordanians with Bosnians.

These mostly immigrant adherents bring different cultural, political and educational perspectives to the Raleigh mosque. In its carpeted prayer hall, cafeteria and basketball court, those attitudes and traditions are nurtured and passed along to the younger generations.

The spiritual leader of the mosque is the mild-mannered Imam Mohamed Baianonie. The prayer leader, 56, a native of Syria, has been a fixture at the mosque since 1985.

Baianonie is fond of saying that he been able to practice his faith with greater freedom in the United States than anywhere else. He has been a champion of interfaith relations and has established warm ties with ministers, priests and rabbis in the Raleigh area. A few years ago, he attended the installation ceremony for a rabbi.

But not everyone at the mosque shares his openness and his commitment to neighborly relations. For some, Islam is a more exclusive faith that forbids social engagement with so-called unbelievers.

"This is a big struggle in Islam," said Ebrahim Moosa, professor of Islamic studies at Duke University. "In different mosques, you'll find pockets that hold such views."

Even those who have dipped their toes in interfaith dialogue display some hesitancy.

"I think multifaith dialogue with the mosque is still at a rudimentary level," said Raachel Jurovics, associate rabbi at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh. "My sense is that Muslim participants are figuring out how open they can be to learning about other faith teachings, while wanting to be part of the conversation so that their faith isn't defined from the outside."

After the government indicted the eight Raleigh-area men on terrorism charges, the mosque's leadership team prevented Baianonie from speaking to the media.

New rules issued last week bar reporters and photographers from mosque premises unless they sign a document restricting their movements and acknowledging the threat of legal action if they violate the agreement. The News & Observer has refused to sign the document.

Mosque leaders may be trying to protect themselves from possible legal action related to the indictment. But some have asked whether they can protect their relationship with the wider world.

 

yonat.shimron@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4891.

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