Escape from a Brooklyn Mosque
ESCAPE FROM A BROOKLYN MOSQUE
Bos Smith in front of Masjid At-Taqwa
Don't snap a photo of the Masjid At-Taqwa in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn unless you want to be hauled away by a group of angry Muslims in Islamic attire to the basement of the facility where a group of twenty "security guards" in karate suits will interrogate you.
This might sound preposterous.
But it happened on Saturday, April 24, at 3:00 in the afternoon.
Ali Kareem, the head of security for Siraj Wahaj's mosque, conducted the grilling. A small, muscular man with a wispy black beard that has been dyed red with henna, Kareem demanded to know the reason why a trio of kafirs had dared to photograph the building on a public street without securing his permission.
He further insisted on securing our identities and obtaining our motives for such a violation of Islamic space.
Being surrounded by a group of militant guards in a mosque basement from which there is no means of escape is not a comforting place to be for a Wall Street financier.
We tried to explain that we found the neighborhood with its halal meat vendors and food stores; Islamic dress shops, featuring the latest styles in burqas and hijabs; Muslim souvenir outlets, replete with bumper stickers stating "Don't Be Caught Dead Without Islam"; and Middle Eastern restaurants offering a variety of goat dishes to be rather quaint and interesting.
This explanation was not sufficient.
Kareem was impatient and did not want a detailed explanation of the reason for our excursion (simple sight-seeing) or a graphic account of the sights we had seen and photographed.
"I ask the questions here," he said, "and you provide the answers."
Realizing that we were in a bit of a pickle, my companion explained that we were interested in various religions and knew Siraj Wahaj, the imam of the mosque, was a prominent Muslim figure whom we would like to interview for a news outlet.
This didn't work too well since we could not produce a business card from a wacko blog, let alone credentials from a national publication.
At last, we blurted out that we were admirers of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad (Peace and Blessings Be Upon Him) and wanted to obtain information about conversion. We were even knowledgeable enough to blurt out "Salaam" and "Allahu akbar."
The last utterance seemed to be the "Open Sesame" that got us out of the basement and back to Bedford Street, where we managed to take a picture of the mosque before hailing a cab and making a getaway.
The experience was disconcerting. Surely, anyone who takes a picture of St. Patrick's Cathedral or the Riverside Church is not hauled off to a basement for questioning by a threatening figure in a karate uniform and a band of Ninjas.
What is taking place within Masjid At-Taqwa?
And what about Siraj Wahaj, the celebrated imam of this mosque who claims to be a moderate?
Masjid At-Taqwa at 1226 Bedford Street was an abandoned clothing store, which Wahaj purchased at an auction in 1979 for $30,000 with cash from oil-rich Saudis. The interior is divided into spacious, windowless rooms that have been painted green and beige.
At Friday afternoon prayers the meeting room is crammed with hundreds of congregants. Some show up in do-rag stocking caps and Sean John sweatshirts; others wear finely embroidered, authentic-looking Muslim caps and flowing robes of crimson and gold. About half of the attendees are African-Americans. The others are immigrants from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. Worshipers range from Brooklyn street bums to the local celebrities, such as former heavy-weight champion Mike Tyson.
The place has played host to a number of notorious exponents of radical Islam, including Clement Rodney Hampton-El (Dr. Rashid), a key player in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Mr. Hampton-El is presently cooling his heels in a federal slammer since he was found guilty of seditious conspiracy. Mr. Hampton-El, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, fought as a mujahadeen under Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in the holy war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Upon his return, Hampton-El was hailed as a hero by members of the mosque. Imam Wahaj has said that he was sought out by young and old alike for spiritual advice as an "elder" in the community. Wahaj, in fact, appeared as a character witness for Hampton El when the former mujahadeen stood trial before Judge Michael Mukasey in New York's Federal District Court on charges of seditious conspiracy and attempted bombing.
Hampton-El is currently serving thirty-five years in a supermax prison for America's most dangerous inmates.
Bos Smith at Masjid al-Farooq
Blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman visited Masjid At-Taqwa on many occasions while serving as the imam of the nearby Masjid al-Farooq at 554 Atlantic Avenue, several blocks from Masjid At-Taqwi. On the second floor of Rahman's mosque, al Qaeda had opened an office under the name of the al-Kifah Refugee Center. It became a favorite haunt for members of Wahaj's congregation.
Rahman also spoke on occasion at Masjid At-Taqwa. In one speech, the fiery sheikh suggested that Muslims should rob banks to benefit Islam.
In 1995, Sheikh Rahman was hauled into court as the alleged architect of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and for planning to blow up the United Nations, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, the George Washington Bridge, and buildings throughout Manhattan. At his side was his good friend Siraj Wahaj who provided testimony of the sheik's sterling character.
In a Feb. 2, 1995, letter to defense lawyers in the landmarks-bombing case, then-U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White named about 170 people as "un-indicted persons who may be alleged as co-conspirators." Imam Wahaj was on the list.
Other infamous characters reportedly have made their way to the Bedford Street mosque, including Imam Gulshair el-Shukrijumah, whose son Adnan has been singled out by the Justice Department as "the next Muhammad Atta." Gulshair, it turns out, served a stint as imam at another radical Brooklyn mosque - - the now defunct Masjid Nur a-Islam, at 21 Church Street.
Another visitor, according to informed sources, was Sheikh Gilani, the founder of Jamaat ul-Fuqra, who served as the imam of yet another Brooklyn mosque - - the Yasin Masjid at 777 Saratoga Avenue. This infamous mosque is now a beauty salon. From 1980 to 1995, it served as a recruiting center for the jihad and for paramilitary Islamic compounds that remain in existence throughout the country.
Since the time of its inception, Jamaat ul-Fuqra has been responsible for more terror attacks on American soil (30 and counting) than all other terrorist groups combined. Members of ul-Fuqra, which maintains headquarters in Pakistan, have been convicted in US courts of such crimes as homicide, conspiracy to commit murder, firebombing, gun smuggling, grand theft, counterfeiting, and workers' compensation fraud. Others remain leading suspects in criminal cases throughout the country, including ten unsolved assassinations and seventeen fire-bombings. Some of the better-known adherents of ul-Fuqra are Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, and John Allen Muhammad, the Beltway sniper.
But what of Wahaj? Is he an exponent of radical Islam - - a man who poses a threat to millions of Americans?
He is a well-known and welcome figure in Washington DC. He was the first Muslim cleric to offer the invocation at the opening session of Congress. He has dined with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and serves on the boards of no less than five major Muslim organizations. He has received commendations from the Brooklyn police for eradicating crime from the Bedford-Stuyvesant area. In 2003, Siraj Wahaj Day was celebrated in Brooklyn in recognition of what one borough official called a "lifetime of outstanding and meaningful achievement."
But the proof of the real Wahaj is in the proverbial pudding.
In one of his sermons, Wahaj announced that the "real terrorists" are the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency. In another, he said, "In time, this so-called democracy will crumble, and there will be nothing. And the only thing that will remain will be Islam." He proclaimed that a society governed by strict Islamic law, in which adulterers are stoned to death and apostates beheaded, would be vastly superior to American democracy.
To a Muslim audience in New Jersey, Wahaj advocated the idea of Muslims forming a coup to take control of the federal government. "If we are united and strong," he said, "we'd elect our own emir [leader] and give allegiance to him. Take my word for it, if six to eight million Muslims united in America, the country will come to us."
His so-called "moderate" interpretation of the Qu'ran became clear by this remark: "If Allah says 100 strikes, 100 strikes it is. If Allah says cut off their hand, you cut off their hand. If Allah says stone them to death, through the Prophet Muhammad, then you stone them to death, because it's the obedience of Allah and his messenger -- nothing personal."
Wahaj informed an audience of black women wearing Muslim head coverings in Orlando, Fla., that Islam condones a man's marrying up to four wives, and that this rule, when introduced in the seventh century, served as a restriction on arrangements involving even more wives per husband.
And there are the national Islamist organizations to which Wahaj has been affiliated. He served as emir (president) of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), which has been charged with funneling millions to terror groups, and as an advisory board member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which has been labeled by author and counter-terrorism expert Steven Emerson as a "radical fundamentalist front group for Hamas."
All this may be well and good, save for the fact that Wahaj and his mosque retains a small army not of brown-shirts but black-belts who now claim the right to collar ordinary citizens on the sidewalk and to haul them off for interrogation.
You're only safe in Brooklyn at this writing if you say your prayers - - meaning, of course, the Basmalah.
(Bos Smith holds a law degree from Wake Forest University. He serves in the securities division of a major Wall Street investment bank. The research for this article was conducted in preparation of his soon to be released book; Within the Belly of the Beast: Jihad in America. Questions and comments may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org).