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Saudi form of Islam wars with moderates

Some Muslims say Wahhabism, the fundamentalist version of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, is intent on stamping out all other sects.

By MARY JACOBY and GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2003


TAMPA -- In May 1987, more than a dozen people stormed a Ramadan service at the mosque that would later become a spiritual and political base for Sami Al-Arian, accused of being the North American leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

The dissidents tried to drive out the worshipers, according to a Hillsborough County sheriff's report. A woman identified as Hala Al-Najjar swung a large purse, knocking over a pregnant woman who later miscarried.

At the time, this newspaper called it a "scuffle between two Moslem sects." In hindsight, the "scuffle" was one in a dramatic series of struggles at mosques throughout the country between fundamentalist and moderate Muslims.

The battles, which continue today, are part of a Saudi-financed missionary project to spread the kingdom's harsh and highly political version of Islam, known as Wahhabism, experts on Islam say.

"We feel this is very much a war for the heart and soul of our religion," said Jamaluddin Hoffman of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, which represents Muslims who practice the mystical Sufi tradition.

Wahhabism, the state religion of Saudi Arabia, claims to revive the original practice of Islam from the time of the prophet Mohammed and views other Muslim traditions as heretical. Critics call Wahhabism puritanical and intolerant and say its fundamentalist outlook has led to the repression of women.

In the United States, Wahhabis are known for strident political views. Some Muslims say Wahhabis are trying to crush them.

"They are going around telling people that we are heretics," said Agha Jafri, a leader of the Shia Muslim community in New York. "That we are the product of a Jewish conspiracy and we are not Muslims. Nobody is Muslim to them except themselves. They just hate us."

For more than three decades, Saudi-backed organizations have poured billions of dollars into the United States and other countries to fund Wahhabi mosques, Islamic schools, conferences and education for imams, or Muslim spiritual leaders.

Some money comes directly from the Saudi government. Other funds come from wealthy Saudis, investigators say. In the United States, some of the money flowed through a web of Islamic organizations now under investigation for financing terrorism.

But the main clearinghouse for Wahhabism in the United States is a group not known to be under investigation, the Islamic Society of North America. ISNA is subsidized by the Saudi government.

An ISNA subsidiary called the North American Islamic Trust owns about 27 percent of the estimated 1200 mosques in the United States, says a report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

In 1989, two years after the melee in Tampa, the trust took title to the mosque in Temple Terrace. The trust also owns the Islamic Academy of Florida, the school founded by Al-Arian, indicted Feb. 19 for his alleged leadership role in the Islamic Jihad.

It is unclear whether Al-Arian would call himself a Wahhabist, but in taking over the Tampa mosque, his disciples appeared to follow the Wahhabi script. They drove out moderates, handed title of the mosque to the Islamic trust, and received secret funding linked to Saudi Arabia, documents show.

Similar scenarios took place in California, Illinois, Texas and Arizona.

Moderate Muslims filed a lawsuit in the early 1980s in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the Wahhabi takeover of their mosque in Bridgeview, Ill. The fundamentalists "infiltrated our community," the lawsuit said, "tearing down what we have been attempting to build for half a century."

A law professor at the University of California-Los Angeles, professor Khaled Abou el-Fadl, told the New Republic magazine last year that radicals once chased him out of a mosque in Austin, Texas, owned by the Islamic trust. He says they threw a shoe at him.

Khalid Duran, an Islamic scholar and author, said the trust wants "all the mosques to be ideologically pure in their own Wahhabist line. They want to prevent others from having influence."

Duran and others said the trust often takes title to a mosque after extremists have seized control. Soon, Wahhabi literature shows up in the mosques and related Islamic schools, only Wahhabi-oriented speakers are allowed to talk and often women are separated from men for services.

Dr. Bassam Osman, president of the Illinois-based trust, and Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed, secretary general of ISNA, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

But ISNA board member Monem Salam, 30, said the society promotes mainstream Islam. He said it does not proselytize Wahhabism, which he refers to as Salafism, a term for the broader pan-Islamist movement.

"There's a lot of different nuances. If you think Wahhabi equals Osama bin Laden, then I don't think there are very many of them in the U.S.," said Salam, a financial planner in Dallas.

He said it would be unfair to label Salafists as extremists. "It's like you have evangelical Christians who are not in favor of abortion, and then you have evangelical Christians who go out and bomb a clinic," Salam said.

As for Tampa, it is hard to know what happened in 1987 because no one involved will talk.

Magda Ahmad, the woman who miscarried after being knocked down in the 1987 scuffle, declined to comment.

"I don't want to talk about anything because I don't trust anybody and I want peace of mind," said Ahmad, who now lives in Winter Park.

But a conflict now playing out in north-central California shows the confrontational nature of Wahhabis, said Abdul Kabeer Krambo, secretary of the Sufist Islamic Center of Yuba City.

Last August, two strangers showed up at his mosque, Krambo said. One man was from Chicago and the other from New York. Soon, the men began making a ruckus during services.

"They created scenes in the mosque. Standing up and making up some words against somebody and starting a free-for-all," Krambo said. "They'd yell, 'These aren't proper beliefs! This is forbidden. You can't do this in Islam!"'

The insurgents in Tampa in 1987 fit the same pattern. Obscure at the time, their names are now well known.

The person charged with assaulting the pregnant woman was Hala Al-Najjar, sister of Mazen Al-Najjar, Al-Arian's brother-in-law who spent more than four years in jail on the basis of secret evidence the government said linked him to Islamic Jihad.

The sheriff's report also shows that Mazen Al-Najjar and another sister, Nahla, were among the rabble rousers. Nahla is married to Al-Arian.

The report shows a Muhammed al-Khatib was questioned as well. A man with the same name was indicted with Al-Arian as a leader of Islamic Jihad.

Only Hala Al-Najjar was charged in connection with the incident, and those charges were dropped, records show.

The indictment against Sami Al-Arian alleges that the Islamic Academy of Florida was part of the infrastructure supporting him as he helped lead the Islamic Jihad.

Two incorporators of the islamic trust that owns the Islamic Academy of Florida were Jamal Barzinji and Hisham Al-Talib. Both men also served as directors of the International Institute of Islamic Thought, one of the groups raided last March whose money is suspected of coming from Saudi Arabia through the SAAR Foundation.

The indictment, in turn, says the International Institute of Islamic Thought funded several organizations to which Al-Arian was connected -- the Islamic Academy of Florida, the World and Islam Studies Enterprise (or WISE), a think tank Al-Arian once headed at USF and the Islamic Committee for Palestine, a charity that he once ran. Tax records from 1994 show the institute gave $8,000 to the academy and $10,000 to WISE at a time when, according to the indictment, the Islamic Jihad was struggling financially.

Letters seized in the 1995 raid on Al-Arian's USF think tank and his home further illustrate the relationship.

One letter, dated Nov. 6, 1992, is from the president of the International Institute of Islamic Thought, Taha Jaber Al-Alwani. Alwani appears to be described in the Al-Arian indictment as unindicted co-conspirator number five.

Al-Alwani wrote Al-Arian:

". . . The matter of the financial support was never the basis of our relationship, for our relation added to the brotherhood of faith and Islam is an ideological and cultural concordance with the same objective. . . ."

Other correspondence describes tens of thousands of dollars in grants made to the Tampa group. In another letter, Al-Arian refers to a meeting he had with another official at an ISNA conference in which the person agreed to give him an additional $20,000.

Although the transaction was discussed at an ISNA conference, there is no evidence the society was a conduit for cash to Al-Arian.

Hoffman, the Sufi Muslim spokesman, said it is difficult to speak out because Wahhabis target dissenters with vitriol.

But he wanted Americans to understand the difference between Wahhabism and other Muslim traditions. Not doing so could endanger "the civil rights and civil liberties of Muslims in America," Hoffman said.

-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

What is Wahhabism?

Wahhabism claims to be an ideologically pure form of Islam dating to the time of the prophet Mohammed. It preaches against "un-Islamic" borrowings from Christianity, such as worshiping at tombs of Muslim saints or praying for divine intercession.

Wahhabism is named after Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, a cleric whose alliance with the Al Saud dynasty in the mid 18th century formed the basis of modern Saudi Arabia.

Followers of al-Wahhab considered Muslims who engaged in different religious rituals to be infidels. This is the historical source of tension between Wahhabis and Muslims from the Sufi and Shiite traditions.

Today, Wahhabis prefer to call themselves Salafis, a reference to a pious generation of Muslims who succeeded the prophet Mohammed.

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