THE SYRIAN ISLAM-SPREADER
The floor of the mens room in the 96th Street mosque was awash in water. To the left of the entrance stood a huge basket of mismatched flip-flops and sandals, to be put on before going inside. Along one wall men sat on marble blocks in front of taps for people to perform their ablutions washing feet, arms up to the elbow, rinsing nose and eyes in preparation for prayer. There were no urinals, just a row of cubicles complete with a tap on one side (for more ablutions) and a plastic bucket on the other. Talking in the mens room is strongly discouraged. Achieving cleanliness before God is a serious business.
It was Friday prayers, the Islamic Sabbath. One Muslim among many, Vincent found a place on the vast carpeted floor of the main prayer room, and was soon swallowed up by the crowd. Topped by a dome, the mosque feels light and airy and comfortable, like the worlds biggest yoga studio. There is an upstairs balcony for the "sisters," a mihrab a kind of understated altar and a minbar, or pulpit, an upright latticed box at the top of five carpeted steps from which the imam delivers the khutba, or sermon. There are no pews, no chairs, no furniture of any kind at all just an immense plush carpet, a calming green with geometric splashes of color, large enough to accommodate several tennis courts. With its informality and stretches of empty space, the mosque can make a church or a cathedral look pointlessly elaborate and ornate, and it feels curiously modern and user-friendly. Except during specific prayer times, you dont have to be silent in a mosque, and if a cell phone goes off, nobody makes a fuss. On the contrary, two people can sit and talk while, nearby, someone else prays.
By 1:30 or so, the mosque, both upstairs and down, was packed to overflowing, which meant there were at least 1,300 people there with more lining up outside. (Carpets had been laid out on the grounds to accommodate those who couldnt get in, and a mountain of castoff shoes was piled up outside the front door.) A slender young woman, veiled in unusually filmy black, rushed in through a side entrance, slipping off a pair of silver-mesh slippers before continuing barefoot on her way up to the balcony. The shoes were inlaid with a beaded flower pattern, and the label on the insole said "SWEET." Lying on the marble floor, inches from the carpet, they looked deliciously sinful.
Sheik Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, a Syrian preacher with green eyes, milk-white skin and a clever face framed by a bushy ginger beard (people at the mosque joked that he and Vincent were brothers) ascended the stairs to the pulpit to deliver the sermon. Vincent had heard al-Yaqoubi before and approved. "Hes pretty blunt," he told me, suggesting that the Syrian, unlike some preachers, wasnt afraid to speak his mind. Al-Yaqoubi wore a white hat that looked like a tassel-less fez, and a long, pale, hooded Moroccan robe. Holding a pair of black worry beads in one hand, clutching the stair railing with the other, he made a strikingly archaic and authoritative figure. For a while he spoke in Arabic, then switched to English.
Al-Yaqoubi, who spends every Ramadan at the New York mosque but is also a regular visitor to California (he is staying in Orange County this week and will be at the Zaytuna Institute in the Bay Area later in the month) is what might be termed an itinerant Islam-spreader. Based in Damascus, he is the son of a celebrated scholar and delivered his first khutba at the age of 14. He was the imam in a mosque in Gothenburg, Sweden, for several years (in 1999, he was made mufti of Sweden), and has worked and preached in England, Canada and Scotland. He has been to the United States 25 times, and, given the cost of the average flight between New York and Damascus, not to mention Stockholm and Edinburgh and Strasbourg and L.A., someone must be funding him handsomely.
Multilingual and media savvy (he quoted Lancets estimate of 100,000 war-related deaths in Iraq to me hours after it first surfaced on the Internet), al-Yaqoubi is optimistic about Islams prospects in the West. He estimates that he gives shahada to approximately 100 Americans (of whom 20 will be white, the rest African-American, Hispanic and Asian) every Ramadan in New York, and has had quite a lot of success with whites in the San Francisco Bay area. The diversity of American society makes it easier for Islam to take hold, he believes, because there is no dominant culture to repel it. In England he has had less success, but in Scandinavia "we have lots of the native people coming, but slowly."
The theme of his sermon, which was titled "The Ongoing Battle But Who Is the Enemy?" was jihad. Jihad as self-defense, as peaceful dissemination of Islam and as self-struggle. Although the 96th Street mosque is the largest and best-known in the United States, and therefore presumably a showcase for moderate Islam in America, the sermon was both moderate and inflammatory in tone, switching from one to the other almost sentence by sentence.
"Anyone who extends peace to us, we extend peace to them," al-Yaqoubi barked over the heads of the seated congregation. "We fight for the sake of Allah . . . We fight those who oppress us, who take our property and our freedom of speech . . . The media depict us as monsters, that we love to fight No!"
Parts of the sermon were openly political. Al-Yaqoubi, who is considered a moderate, spoke approvingly of jihad in the battlefield, of "fighting in order to liberate your country, as the Iraqis are doing." (Asked about this afterward, he told me that it is natural to fight against an invading army. As to why Arabs so rarely rise up against their own Arab oppressors, he said it was un-Islamic to use violence against a local government.)
From the pulpit, al-Yaqoubi claimed that the early Muslims who came to countries like Egypt and Syria and Iraq and North Africa did so "not to occupy land, but to liberate people who were oppressed by their governments." As for spreading Islam by force, he said, Americans should understand the concept better than anyone, since "America feels she has the right to impose democracy all over the world" and "to throw away governments that dont agree with her policy." But whereas the desire to disseminate Islam "is based on the divine," the American approach to spreading democracy "is based on greed."
Having said that, al-Yaqoubi once again took a more conciliatory approach. "This doesnt mean that we are going to practice jihad in America. We have to show our neighbors respect. We love people around the world and want them to become Muslims."
Most intriguing of all, perhaps, were al-Yaqoubis remarks about the role of the Muslim immigrant in the West. While many Muslims have come here to earn money and live a better life, he said, they can justify their decision to live in a materialistic, non-Islamic country by acting as messengers for Allah. "What justifies us living in America, other than trying to convey the Message?" he asked rhetorically.
The sermon built to an impassioned, rapid-fire crescendo, in which, almost shouting, al-Yaqoubi seemed to divide jihad into foreign and domestic spheres, with appropriate action for each. "Wherever the American troops are wherever they are, they are going to be defeated," he yelped. But "here in this country," he instructed Muslims to "leave jihad to those who are fighting jihad," and "work peacefully" to represent Islam.
The end of the sermon signaled the time for prayer, and the atmosphere in the mosque became electric. An usher, massive and rotund as a bouncer, rushed around pushing the congregants into precise rows like Japanese commuters being squeezed into a Tokyo subway car, forcing them to stand shoulder to shoulder in line after line after line, from the back of the mosque all the way to the front. There must be no gaps that wily Satan could slip through, sowing division. As the prayers commenced, thousands of faces touched the floor with choreographed precision.
"Its a beautifully simple and elegant religion. Its extremely sensible," I was told by Bruce ("al-Baraa") Randall, a personal trainer and student of South Asian history from Northern California who recently converted to Islam and attends Friday prayers at the mosque. Looking at the hundreds of bent bodies, you could see what he meant. From an observers viewpoint, it was rather like a bizarre sartorial demonstration look, here are the backs of a thousand jackets and the seats of a thousand trousers! Swatches of fabric in every color joined to form an immense patchwork tapestry stretching from one end of the room to the other. To a Christian, it could look strangely alluring. No hymns no pretending to be singing. Even the prayers, though in Arabic, were brief and required only minimal call-and-response. Curiously, while demanding what to a Christian might appear to be excessive uniformity and obedience, Islam seemed to permit the individual a considerable amount of personal breathing space too. And if you were a non-Arabic speaker, listening to prayers in a foreign language would, I suppose, be similar to a Catholic attending services held in Latin.
With the prayers under way, there was almost no room for the unbeliever. Two mild-mannered cameramen from Indias STAR channel, who were standing next to me filming the proceedings, hurriedly folded up their tripods and disappeared. I decided to go with them. I squeezed my way to the back where the mountain of shoes was surrounded by more mountains, hundreds of Merrills and Nikes and Adidas and lace-ups and sandals flung down on top of each other. Outside more men were praying on the carpets provided, all in equally precise rows, and two men in wheelchairs had made a mournful duet of their own.
Afterward, as the mosque emptied, I ran into Vincent, who was shaking hands and saying "Salaam alaikum, alaikum salaam" to people left and right, many of whom he knew by name. He looked happy, a big smile of belonging on his face. Though it has put him at odds with ordinary American society, becoming a Muslim has also given him a sense of community unavailable to him when he was just another white dude into loud music, parties and girls. It has brought him distinction. The mosque was full of young Arab and South Asian men, sharply dressed businessmen with neat beards, cabdrivers in baseball caps, diminutive Bangladeshis in white robes and trousers and religion came as naturally to them as breathing. They were entirely unselfconscious about it, and it was obvious that they considered it a source of unity and solace and power. Not for the first time I found myself wondering how it is that so many urban whites have managed to turn their own religion into an object of scorn, even a source of shame, while everyone around them continues to reap the benefits of organized faith. And, since the religious impulse shows no sign of dying out, should we be surprised if spiritually inclined urban whites decide to join a religion which, unlike Christianity, seems to be alive?
"I consider that absolutely the best day of my life," Vincent said, his face bright with happiness when I asked him about the day he took shahada three years ago in this very mosque. "The way I describe it is, it seemed like physically and symbolically the people were emptying into me. This entire room was still full. The imam said, Is there anyone here who wants to take shahada? and my friend stood up and said, Cmon, cmon. I said, Now? Here? In front of everybody? And he brought me up, and I took shahada with another guy. All I remember of that day is that no one seemed to have moved in the room. The amount of people you saw today? They still remained when I finished saying, I testify there is no god to be worshiped except for Allah, and Muhammed is his messenger."
"Thats all you had to do?" I asked, just making sure.
Vincent laughed. "Why, are you ready?"
EVERYBODY LOVED HIM AT THE MARRIOTT
For Vincent, Islam has brought meaning, ethics, discipline, purpose and hope to a life that obviously contained too little of those things before, even if nobody else seemed to notice. Over the phone, his 38-year-old brother, Mike, who works in the computer industry, kept using the word nice to describe his kid brother.
"Chuck, for some odd reason, was extremely nice compared to the rest of us," he said musingly, as if he were still scratching his head over it after all these years. "When we were younger, me and my friends used to say, How did he become so nice when all the rest of us are so aggressive? One thing I can see when hes with his Muslim friends is he goes out of his way with the kids fathers to help them with English. Hes just always been nice."
Joshua Rhodes, a buddy from Vincents Torrance days, described the L.A. Vincent as "a real fun guy. In high school there were cliques, and he had freedom to roam within all the cliques. A little rebellious, not in a political sense, but he had a wild haircut sometimes, jewelry, more of a punk or Goth. He liked hard punk, Sisters of Mercy. Everybody loved him over at the Marriott."
And now everybody loves him at the mosque. Vincent is nice. He is thoughtful, kind, polite, well-meaning and intelligent, and he has a good sense of humor. Still, I have to confess Im a little worried about him. Though he is quite articulate, when he talks about the Moroccan usually referred to vaguely as "my friend" or "my roommate at the time" rather than by his name he becomes evasive and speaks stumblingly, as if he were trying to protect not only the Moroccan from scrutiny but also himself. Several times I asked to meet his friend but was told that he had no interest in meeting me. The same went for Vincents roommate, who is Egyptian and, like the Moroccan, also a strict Muslim. (Both attend Hunter College the Moroccan studies physics, the Egyptian biochemistry. According to Vincent, they intend to return home as soon as they have their degrees.) Nor was I permitted to come to the apartment, which is in a Pakistani-owned building where, he claims, the FBI not only taps the phones but occasionally sends an agent over to say hello in person. His roommates mother was visiting from Egypt, Vincent explained, and it would therefore be awkward to have me there. Vincent himself wont stay in the apartment if his roommate isnt present, since being alone with the mother wouldnt be "respectful."
Lately, Vincent and the Moroccan have been going to a mosque in Queens housed in what was until recently a liquor store. It is, I gather, a particularly austere-looking mosque in which a particularly austere form of Islam is preached. Because the people at the mosque follow sharia the code of law based on the Koran theyre considered "extremist," he told me. The sermons there are in Arabic, but someone is usually on hand to translate. The 96th Street mosque, though it is one he will always go to because it happens to be near his apartment, is too mainstream for him. A fortnight after hed spoken approvingly about al-Yaqoubi, Vincent had changed his mind. The Syrian was too open to innovation, to allowing stylistic changes to the religion, and in Islam that is haram, forbidden, he said.
The fanaticism, though its expression is muted (its not really possible to be an openly fanatical Muslim in America), is undeniable. He told me how last year he and the Moroccan complained to the sheik at 96th Street because there were some photos on display in the mosque showing Jordans Queen Rania on a visit, and there are not supposed to be any pictures in mosques. As Vincent remembered it, she may even have been unveiled another outrage. When they told the imam about it, the imam gently waved aside their objections on the grounds that every religion needs about 5 percent room for deviation, and occasionally you have to bend the rules. According to Vincent, the Moroccans jaw nearly hit the floor when he heard this. Even as he related the story, sitting over a plate of post-Ramadan sushi in a restaurant, Vincents eyes widened in appalled amazement. "Bend the rules!" he said. "I couldnt believe he would say something like that! I was so stunned I didnt even want to shake his hand afterward!"
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 its an open question whether its 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. "Arafats a prominent Muslim," he replied. "Why wouldnt 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-Yaqoubis 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, Im hearing a leader of my religion saying that God will protect the people who are following his righteous path. To my ears, its not a political statement, its 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 Vincents 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 Vincents 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 its all going to end up. "A lot of Muslims dont 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 Americas 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 he thought about al-Yaqoubis statement, he answered, with a touch of defiance, that he felt just fine about it. "I do wish the American troops would be defeated," he told me, adding, "Im a Muslim first, and I just live in this country." (If he could find a bumper sticker that read "AGAINST THE TROOPS," he said, hed put it on his cab.) And were he ever to find himself in the Middle East, lets say Iraq, would he fight against American soldiers? "If there was a jihad," he replied evenly, "I dont see how I could not join in."