TCS Daily

Islam in Conflict in Cleveland

By Stephen Schwartz - February 24, 2004 12:00 AM

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- An historic series of events is taking place in the largely-hidden world of Islam in America, and in a place many people would consider unlikely: Cleveland, Ohio.

The incidents in question involve Imam Fawaz Damra, 41, a Palestinian-born religious officer of the Islamic Center of Cleveland -- described as the biggest mosque in Ohio.

In December 2003, Imam Damra was arrested on a federal indictment for seeking U.S. citizenship illegally. The indictment (available here), charges that in 1993, when he first sought naturalization, he failed to disclose his affiliation with a number of Islamic extremist groups. These included the Al-Kifah Refugee Center, an operation linked to al-Qaida, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. He also denied ever engaging in incitement or other hateful activities based on race, when in reality he had advocated lethal terrorism against Jews.

In addition, money raised in Imam Damra's mosque went to the Holy Land Foundation, which the federal authorities have closed as a Hamas front. (I have elsewhere called it the Holy War Foundation). Damra has been associated with former University of South Florida professor Sami al-Arian, who has also been indicted as a leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Indeed, Damra has been described as an unindicted coconspirator in the Al-Arian case.

Following his arrest, Imam Damra pled not guilty and was released on $160,000 bail.

In a recent visit to Cleveland, I had the opportunity to gauge reactions to the Damra indictment among some unlikely interlocutors: leaders of the local Jewish community who had participated with the imam in interfaith activities.

Much of an unsavory nature about imam Damra had already been disclosed in the wake of September 11, 2001, when a video in which he threatened and insulted Jews was broadcast on television. But Damra then apologized for his remarks, and thereafter worked mightily to cultivate an image of moderation.

Jewish leaders nevertheless expressed shock to learn that the imam with whom they had engaged in extensive dialogue was charged with al-Qaida involvement.

The sincerity of the Cleveland Jewish leaders in seeking interfaith civility with the city's Muslims cannot be doubted. But even more interesting about the Damra case is that it has brought about a significant split within the Islamic Center.

Members of the mosque's board of trustees suspended Damra after the indictment was handed down. He rejected the suspension, and his opponents appealed for support to the civil authorities. At one point, police from the community of Parma were called to the mosque to assure order when Damra appeared, although no violence occurred.

However, resolution of the controversy between Imam Damra and his critics was deferred until next month by a compromise under which he could continue to perform marriage and funeral services, but could only preach in the mosque on alternate Fridays in February -- Muslim collective prayer occurs on Friday afternoon.

Final disposition of his situation now remains in the hands of the mosque's general assembly.

But to emphasize, the real story in Cleveland is less the exposure of an extremist imam, than the willingness of mosque congregants to stand up and call for his removal.

Islam in America suffers from the domination of radical leaders, grouped in organizations I have called "the Wahhabi lobby" -- mainly, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Authoritative sources in the Muslim community have long argued that up to 80 percent of the main mosques in America are controlled by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), which has been targeted for a tax investigation by the U.S. Senate Finance Committee as a probable recipient of funds from outside the U.S. -- i.e. from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

ISNA and the mosques it controls work day and night to maintain ideological dominance over Muslims in America, in the interest of Wahhabism -- the official Saudi sect, which preaches hatred and violence against non-Wahhabi Muslims, who are the vast majority in the U.S. and in the Islamic global community or ummah. A similar group, the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) functions among Pakistani-American Muslims to enforce conformity to jihadist ideology.

This does not mean 80 percent of Muslims in America are radicals, They are not. But even after September 11th, Muslims in America were reluctant to stand up and challenge the virtual dictatorship of the Islamist ideology. This was not because of sympathy for Wahhabism, but because of more complex sociological issues.

Immigrant Muslims come to America to escape Islamist radicalism, and are shocked and intimidated to discover the extent of extremist influence in their community. Most of them would never have believed, in the countries from which they came, that the American authorities would permit an Islamist conspiracy to take control of their faith on our shores.

Further, they are naturally concerned that if they openly oppose extremist influence, their relatives in their countries of origin, as well as their families right here, will suffer threats and worse, since it is not unheard of for dissident Muslims in America be killed.

But the two-and-a-half years since September 11th have begun to wear down the habits of submission and conformity that have been drilled into American Muslims. An understandable fear of government sanctions and a simple weariness with having the jihadist ideology on their backs has finally induced some Muslims to step forward.

I recently obtained a letter from mosque congregants in Cleveland that plaintively, but eloquently, expressed the dilemma facing the local Muslims. The authors, whose names cannot be disclosed, wrote, "our community is being tested to its limit. May Allah help us all in this time of turmoil... In September of 2001 when issues surfaced with the media and Imam Damra, there was a great deal of dissent and upheaval about the retention of Imam Damra as the Imam of the Center... The Board decided to retain the Imam and as a result a great deal of tension and upheaval occurred within our Community... On Tuesday, January 13, 2004, Imam Damra was arrested at his home and indicted... After the presentation and discussion the joint Boards voted 10 to 4 to ask Imam Damra to take a voluntary paid leave of absence until his legal issues are resolved. Imam Damra rejected the decision and the Board was then forced to place Imam Damra on an involuntary paid leave of absence. The decision to ask the Imam to temporarily step down was a difficult one for the Board to take, and when it was defied we were left with no alternative but to seek legal recourse."

Most Muslims came to America seeking economic opportunity, security, and a better education for their children. Most of them want the chance to become real Americans, to affirm their loyalty and to participate according to the rules that govern the country as a whole. They should be assured of that chance. Muslims in Cleveland have, by calling for the removal of Fawaz Damra, demonstrated that they have had enough of the politicization of their faith, and deserve the support of all Americans. Their action may mark a necessary turning point in our country's recent history.

Stephen Schwartz is a frequent TCS contributor. He last wrote for TCS about "when are terrorists not terrorists?"


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