Muslim retreat sparks threats
A retreat for young Muslims was to be held at a Presbyterian camp, until a blogger alleged a speaker was linked to al-Qaida.
By S.I. ROSENBAUM
Published December 31, 2005
LITHIA - Death threats have closed a church camp where a Muslim youth retreat was planned this weekend, after an Internet blogger alleged that a scheduled speaker was linked to al-Qaida. Mohamed Moharram, president of the Muslim American Society of Tampa, said the three-day event at Presbyterian Cedarkirk Camp and Conference Center was supposed to teach young Muslims leadership skills as well as the core tenets of Islam.
Then, four days ago, the threatening phone calls and e-mails began.
"We got threats to be burned, to be destroyed," he said. "It's appalling."
The Rev. Debbie Bronkema, Cedarkirk's director, said she also received threats.
Some were severe enough that she called the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and the FBI, and decided to close the center for the weekend.
On Friday, Moharram said the retreat would go forward at an alternate site. But he wouldn't give the address, citing security concerns. The retreat is for about 50 young adults, ages 18 and up, organizers said. Cedarkirk Camp is a conference center in a nature setting in rural eastern Hillsborough County.
What sparked the threats?
Apparently, articles about the upcoming retreat began to appear on right-wing blogs around Christmas, including americansagainsthate.com and frontpagemag.com. The most-linked blog article alleged that one of the scheduled speakers, Mazen Mokhtar of New Jersey, had ties to al-Qaida. Other bloggers picked up the theme.
"Nothing rings in the new year like bringing your kids to hang out with a bunch of terrorists," one blogger wrote on a site called Ace of Trump.
Another posted an obviously doctored photo showing a masked terrorist standing in front of the Cedarkirk sign.
On Thursday, blogger Joe Kaufman appeared on Fox News' show Your World with Neil Cavuto to talk about the retreat.
On the air, Kaufman said that Mokhtar had run a Web site to recruit al-Qaida fighters.
"I don't believe this person should be teaching any children," he said. "This person should be behind bars in shackles."
In fact, federal agents searched Mokhtar's New Jersey home in 2004, after a man in London was arrested for using a Web site to fund terrorist groups.
An identical Web site was registered under Mokhtar's name. But he was never arrested.
On Friday, Mokhtar, a computer programmer, said he ran a business selling server space to host Web sites. He never knew what was contained on the site in question, he said.
On his Fox News program, Cavuto also read what he said was a quote from Mokhtar: "Suicide bombing should be encouraged because it's an effective way of attacking the enemy."
Although Cavuto did not say where the quote was from, a 1996 post on the online discussion forum Usenet, signed with Mokhtar's name, contains the words "effective method of attacking the enemy" in a discussion of whether suicide bombing is prohibited by Islamic law.
Mokhtar said Friday that he did not remember writing those words.
"It is not my position now nor has it ever been my position that a Muslim should ever attack an innocent person," he said.
He said he was frustrated at having to proclaim his innocence.
"It's really, really sad that I have to keep repeating this," he said.
"The fact that people flew planes into buildings in New York has nothing to do with me. I wasn't one of them. I don't belong to that school of thought."
The Rev. Bronkema said that when the allegations against Mokhtar surfaced, she called the FBI and the Sheriff's Office to ask if she should cancel the retreat.
"They informed us that there was nothing about the scheduled speakers or this group that should cause us to not allow (them) to come on retreat," she said.
"That was before the threats," she added.
After receiving threats, the contents of which she would not specify, she called the FBI and the Sheriff's Office again - this time to file a complaint.
Meanwhile, Moharram said, he tried to explain to each angry caller that his organization was nonviolent. He also responded to every abusive e-mail, he said.
"I'm exhausted," he said Friday. "I took calls until midnight last night, replying to e-mails: "What are you guys doing? This is totally a mistake. This is totally out of context."'
With one caller, he said, "I told him we are trying to help the government and the U.S. citizens, the average people, to keep them from witnessing another disaster like what happened in 9/11.
"We're teaching the youth and the young kids the real Islam, the true Islam. Not the extremist Islam."
[Last modified December 31, 2005, 01:10:53]
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