By Hillel Aron
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By Jill Stewart
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Islam is not always political — two weeks after the Friday prayer service, I heard al-Yaqoubi deliver a far milder, actually quite charming sermon on the subject of entertainment, complete with puzzled references to Eminem ("He had a hit song about killing his mother with a shovel. Can you believe it!") — but it’s an open question whether it’s possible to become a Muslim in America without being influenced by inherently adversarial, anti-democratic Islamic politics. (Sufi Muslims would appear to be the exception, though al-Yaqoubi is strongly influenced by Sufism himself.) "Mosques in Western countries are permeated with Wahhabi ‘jihad’ rhetoric, encountered the minute one walks in the door," Stephen Schwartz writes in The Two Faces of Islam. "Some imams preach jihad; some tolerate it sympathetically; some oppose it privately but are intimidated into permitting it. But it is everywhere. If the imam does not advocate jihad, activists hang out on the premises or on the sidewalks and in the parking lots nearby, spreading the word."
Following his sermon on entertainment, al-Yaqoubi led the assembly in a prayer for the just deceased Palestinian leader, Yasir Arafat. It did make me wonder whether the same would happen if Osama bin Laden passed away — or Saddam Hussein, or al-Zarqawi, the head-chopping leader of the totalitarian, imam-approved Iraqi "resistance." I asked Bruce Randall, the convert who attends Friday prayers at the 96th Street mosque, if he was at all bothered by being asked to say a prayer for the late PLO leader. "Arafat’s a prominent Muslim," he replied. "Why wouldn’t we pray for the death of a prominent Muslim? A couple of weeks ago we did a prayer for the death of a prominent scholar in Medina. We pray for scholars, we pray for leaders."
Randall also disagreed with the idea that al-Yaqoubi’s statement about American troops had a political motivation. "I can understand how an outsider would interpret those words in a different way," he allowed, though he himself had only been an "insider" for a month at the time of the sermon. "When I hear the sheik say that, I’m hearing a leader of my religion saying that God will protect the people who are following his righteous path. To my ears, it’s not a political statement, it’s a religious one. God will not let Islam be struck down. If there are Muslims being attacked somewhere in the world, He will protect them."
When I pressed him further on how he felt about listening to a Syrian imam implicitly call for the defeat of American troops in the middle of Manhattan, Randall answered, slightly frostily, that "In America we have this thing called the First Amendment."
And no doubt the sheik is well aware of it. Listening to him I had the sense that certain Muslims have studied liberal Western society the way a military general assesses an enemy position — probing for strengths and weaknesses, deciding where and how and at what cost penetration can be achieved.
On the subject of Islam and politics, Vincent seems to be in serious denial. The phrase "Islamic terrorism" is an oxymoron, he once told me, and from my conversation with his Torrance buddy Joshua, I gather Vincent’s Muslim friends had already given him their own version of Fahrenheit 9/11 — with Jews, rather than Saudis, as the principal actors — long before Michael Moore came up with his own. But should one expect anything else, given the world he moves in? Two weeks after 9/11, Sheik Muhammad Gemeaha, then the imam of the mosque on 96th Street, abruptly moved back to Cairo, where he promptly told the Arab media that Muslim children were being poisoned by Jewish doctors in American hospitals, and that Zionists had masterminded the attacks on the World Trade Center and on the Pentagon.
In Vincent’s eyes, Islam can do no wrong because Islam is wonderful and his own discovery of it a "miracle." I sometimes think about his passion for this religion, to which he is far more dedicated than the average Muslim, and wonder how it’s all going to end up. "A lot of Muslims don’t know a damn thing about the political side of Islam," says Peter Leitner, a counterterrorism expert in Washington, D.C., meaning that they are unaware of the extent to which the religion has been infiltrated for political purposes. "Politicization is almost always part of the package," says the Islamic Supreme Council of America’s Mateen Siddiqui, referring to hardcore Islamic converts. But if al-Yaqoubi feels comfortable saying in front of 1,300 people in the heart of mainstream American Islam that American troops will be defeated wherever they go, then what might be said in Arabic in small, obscure mosques in Brooklyn, Queens and elsewhere with a translation murmured into a pale, friendly, naive American ear?
But perhaps there is no need to say anything. When I asked Vincent what hethought about al-Yaqoubi’s statement, he answered, with a touch of defiance, that he felt just fine about it. "I dowish the American troops would be defeated," he told me, adding, "I’m a Muslim first, and I just live in this country." (If he could find a bumper sticker that read "AGAINST THE TROOPS," he said, he’d put it on his cab.) And were he ever to find himself in the Middle East, let’s say Iraq, would he fight against American soldiers? "If there was a jihad," he replied evenly, "I don’t see how I could not join in."