Just two Saturdays ago, the Islamic Center of Raleigh was a joyous place. A long-planned open house at its mosque and school in the Method neighborhood near N.C. State University drew such high-level guests as N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper and State Treasurer Janet Cowell. FBI and SBI officials also attended, marking an important step toward their hosts' goal of good relations between law enforcement and the Muslim community as memories of 9/11 recede.
So Muslim leaders were shocked the following Monday, when the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office in Raleigh announced that seven local Muslim men had been arrested, charged with a terrorist plot to commit murder in foreign countries. An eighth suspect was being sought abroad. "It was like a bomb went off," said Jihad Shawwa, a member of the mosque and an officer of the Muslim American Public Affairs Council (MAPAC) in North Carolina.
He wasn't the only one who was rattled.
Officially, the Muslim community reacted cautiously to the arrests, professing their trust in the federal justice system while also warning, in the words of Khalilah Sabra, executive director of the Triangle chapter of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation (MAS-Freedom), against "a rush to judgment" by the press and public.
But within the community, many received the news with mistrust or fear. To one another, they questioned why the FBI pounced so soon after the open house, asking if the arrests weren't a deliberate effort to ruin the goodwill the event created. Some who read the 14-page indictment called it flimsy, full of vague accusations that the defendants were plotting "violent jihad" and their own suicides, but with no details about where or against whom they planned to strike.
Was the indictment backed up by evidence of crimes, they wondered, or merely the result of loose talk by the suspects combined with the authorities' ethnic stereotyping? And if the latter, would it serve to alienate newly arrived Muslims, many of them refugees, as they try to adapt to a new and foreign culture in America?
The distrust was palpable when Shawwa and I ate lunch in the cafeteria at the Islamic Center three days later. A man Shawwa knew sat down and with little prompting recited a list of "plots" previously charged by the FBI that were dismissed for lack of evidence. The man, a well-established academic in the University of North Carolina system, said he knew Daniel Boyd, the alleged ringleader from Willow Spring. He didn't know him well, he acknowledged, but other members of the mosque who knew him better had remarked about how Boyd "was the nicest guy you'd ever want to know."
Don't use my name, the man said.
As he left, another of Shawwa's friends sat down and decried the "media frenzy" in the case. Why did reporters continually talk about suspected "Muslim terrorists?" the second friend asked. "No one ever called Timothy McVeigh a Christian terrorist."
The friend was especially angry that the FBI, according to published media accounts, lured Boyd's wife from their home and searched it by telling her a false story about one of her sons having been injured in a car crash. One of the Boyds' sons died in a car crash two years ago, he remembered. "It [the trick] was very, very hurtful," this man said. "I heard about it, and I cried."
This second man, also employed in the UNC system, said he's known one of the younger suspects since he was a little boy. "I can vouch for him," the man said. "He's innocent, naive maybe, but he would never hurt anybody."
Like the first friend, though, he didn't want his name used.
At his friends' reticence, Shawwa just shook his head. He's not afraid, he insisted, to question the quality of the evidence or to point out, as the FBI itself said in a press release, that the defendants are innocent—until proven guilty.
On the other hand, he said, stories and rumors are being passed around in the Muslim community alleging that FBI agents are knocking on doors, questioning innocent people, including children, and harassing them. "So people are scared," he said, shrugging. "I've had calls from people, they're afraid to come out of their house."
The next day, Friday, was the traditional day for midday prayer in the Islamic faith, and the Raleigh center, the largest of some six mosques in the Triangle, was filled for three successive services—more than 2,000 worshippers in all. As each service ended, kids headed for the gymnasium or lined up to leave on a weekend camping trip. Adults, meanwhile, went outside to socialize or patronize the vendors—fellow Muslims—who were busy selling clothing, produce and books.
Except for the Arabic iconography and the women's headscarves, this might've been a scene from any church anywhere. Members greeted one other, and every guest, with a smile and a wish, in Arabic, for peace. "Assalamu alaikum," they said. Loosely, it means "peace go with you."
If the worshippers seemed at ease, however, mosque leaders were not. Men in security vests watched every visitor. Two reporters who came were told not to interview people in the building or on the grounds. All questions were referred to a spokesman, a baby-faced architect named Imran Aulchil.
Aulchil insisted that the center is an "open and welcoming" place, with just 200 recorded, or official, members but thousands of unofficial members, including a steady stream of newcomers each week. But he was unapologetic about the day's clampdown.
Members were free to express their views, he said. But they should do so somewhere else, not at the mosque, where something they said might be misconstrued as the view of the community. "We don't want any trouble with the law, obviously," he said.
In the first prayer service, Imam Sameh Asal addressed the tension members were feeling. The charges in the case, he said, were "afflictions, trials and tribulations" that are felt by the whole community. "If any member of the body is hurt," the imam said, "every member of that body shares in the hurt."
The imam, though, counseled patience to his listeners. Everything that happens on Earth, he preached, is preordained by Allah—God—who visits trials on his people as a way of strengthening their faith. God reserves his greatest tests for those with the greatest faith, who are destined to be the prophets in heaven, the imam went on. Thus Muslims should accept their afflictions "with pleasure."
A guest speaker from Oakland, Calif., who led the third prayer service, however, offered a more strident view. Abdel Malik Ali called on the youth in the community to "speak up and speak out" together against harassment and intimidation by the FBI. "Your parents are living in a state of insecurity," Ali said, his voice rising. "What are you going to do about it?"
When the FBI asked him about potential terrorists in the community, Ali went on, he told them Muslims are peaceful, and any terrorists must therefore be agents who were planted by them.
When he did, Ali said, they went away. "I promise you this. If you show fear to them, and you show them that you are weak, you are inviting harassment," he warned.
Off the grounds, Moe El-Gamal, MAPAC president and the owner of an information technology company, preferred the imam's advice. "Of course you have to stand up for yourself, but in a good way," the easygoing El-Gamal said.
Mohammed the Prophet showed how, he went on, by refusing to retaliate against his persecutors, even when he'd gained the strength to do so. "This is the principle of Islam. We love our neighbors. We also love our enemies. This is the same as in the Bible and in the Torah."
El-Gamal acknowledged that Muslims here are afraid to speak out, fearing that to do so will bring them to the FBI's attention and open them up to false accusations by others who are under pressure to name names.
"Yes, it's the land of the free," Hamdy Radwan, director of outreach in the Triangle for the Muslim American Society, agreed, "but people do feel a little bit cautious" and are on guard about saying too much in the wrong place.
El-Gamal and Radwan each gave voice, in separate interviews, to the whispered fears of other Muslims that the FBI's timing was meant to hurt the community, that the facts stated in the indictment are sketchy and that the younger defendants were indicted for the purpose of pressuring them to give evidence against Boyd.
Both, though, expressed confidence in the American justice system, and the American people, to sort out the facts.
Muslims are indeed under scrutiny here, El-Gamal asserted, but even so, they have more freedom to follow their beliefs, and get a fairer shake in court, than in any of the world's repressive Muslim-majority nations. "I can't tell you how much I love this country," he continued, smiling broadly. "This is the best country in the world, especially for Muslims."
On Sunday, Jihad Shawwa was still bemused by the fact that his two highly educated, well-positioned friends had refused to let their names be attached to their doubts about the arrests and the evidence to support them. If they are afraid, he said, imagine how the masses must feel—the poor and poorly educated Muslim refugees who've been relocated here from places like Iraq, Afghanistan and African countries, such as Somalia and Malawi wracked by civil war.
Shawwa, an N.C. Department of Transportation employee, could joke about his father's choice of a first name. "Jihad," he said, means struggle in the sense of striving to be better and more faithful to God—there's nothing violent about the word at all, he said. But his name, combined with the fact that he's a Muslim born in Gaza, "means that I am struggling all the time. That's why I'm happy."
But Shawwa worried that, though he's happy to struggle, question authority and speak his mind, most Muslims aren't so sanguine—and the efforts of Muslim leaders like him to involve them in civic affairs are threatened whenever the FBI starts showing up on Islamic doorsteps.
"I'm struggling not to make a prejudgment in this case," he says, seriously now. "The FBI has an important job to do, and I can see the dilemma of their job," trying to stop violent acts before they occur. "But think of the people who go home, and they've been harassed. How do you think they would feel? It's scary."