WASHINGTON — Recent allegations by federal prosecutors that a prominent American Muslim leader attempted to smuggle hundreds of thousands of dollars to terrorist organizations have triggered a deep crisis in the organized Muslim community.
The arrest of Abdurahman Alamoudi, president of the American Muslim Foundation and founder of the American Muslim Council, is embarrassing Muslim community leaders and roiling their diverse constituency.
Alamoudi’s arrest followed a series of recent arrests and indictments of other American Muslims on suspicion of contacts with terrorists. It also comes on the heels of the arrest of a Muslim United States army chaplain and an Arabic translator who are suspected of spying at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba.
The high-profile arrests and charges have placed national Muslim groups on the defensive, with some accusing the United States government of targeting Muslims indiscriminately. But the charges have also fueled already-existing discontent within the larger Muslim community with the national organizations, which critics allege rely on funding from abroad and are therefore beholden to foreign agendas.
American Muslims “are livid because they feel they have been deceived by their leadership,” said Muqtedar Khan, a liberal Muslim activist of Pakistani origin and author of last year’s “American Muslims: Bridging Faith and Freedom” (Amana).
Alamoudi, an American citizen born in Eritrea, was stopped by British customs agents at London’s Heathrow Airport August 16 on his way from Libya to Syria carrying $340,000 in 34 bundles of sequentially numbered bills. American authorities suspect that the money was intended for terrorists in Syria. British authorities handed him over to the United States last week.
Critics have long charged that leading figures in national Muslim organizations, such as the American Muslim Council and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, have ties to Islamic extremists.
Alamoudi, who helped start the military’s Muslim chaplain program, first made headlines in 2000 after George W. Bush’s presidential campaign and Hillary Clinton’s senatorial campaign returned donations from him because he had praised Hamas and Hezbollah at a Washington rally earlier that year.
Federal prosecutors recently said that Alamoudi had praised the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Argentina as “a worthy operation,” The New York Sun reported.
At least one prominent Muslim group has rushed to Alamoudi’s defense. The northern-Virginia-based Muslim American Society called Alamoudi’s arrest an example of a government “witch hunt.”
Khan, who is a political scientist at Adrian College in Michigan, said that national Muslim organizations are trying to stir up popular support by accusing authorities of conducting a witch hunt, but that many Muslims resent the groups’ actions.
“These organizations are so confused that they don’t know what they are defending,” Khan said. “They are becoming apologetic for every person who gets arrested or indicted. People don’t appreciate that.”
Prominent Muslim activists generally avoid publicly criticizing national Muslim organizations, with some privately explaining that they do not want to be accused of causing rifts or divisions within the community.
Khan, however, points to Muslims’ giving patterns as evidence that dissatisfaction with the national organizations is widespread. He said that Muslims are giving less money to national groups and more money to local causes such as mosques, schools and domestic charities.
Other Muslim activists, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that there has been a drop in giving to the national organizations. They variously attribute this to American Muslims’ fears that donating to national Muslim groups will expose them to scrutiny from federal authorities or a desire not to be associated with some of the more radical figures involved in national organizations.
Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, America’s most prominent Muslim civil rights group, said that there has been no drop-off in giving to his organization. To the contrary, he said, fundraising is up. If there is any criticism at all from constituents, Hooper added, it is not for being too alarmist or outspoken, but rather for “being too wishy-washy on both domestic and foreign issues.” He also noted that his organization did not issue a statement defending Alamoudi and had only said that Alamoudi deserves a fair trial and the presumption of innocence.
Hooper, however, has lashed out at some who have raised concerns about Islamic extremism. In recent remarks to Cybercast News Service, he accused lawmakers who are calling for an investigation of terrorist infiltration of the military of trying to “demonize all Muslim groups and all Muslims in America.” Of one such legislator, New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, who is Jewish, Hooper said: “It’s really sad, particularly coming from a man like Senator Schumer, to see him trying to demonize a religious minority. He should know what happens when religious minorities are demonized; and it’s not a good thing.”
The sense of persecution within the Muslim community is now quieting Muslim organizations, or at least causing them to tone down their rhetoric, said Omer Bin Abdullah, who edits Islamic Horizons, a magazine published by the Islamic Society of North America.
Bin Abdullah noted that Muslim organizations were very vocal in supporting Sami al-Arian, a University of South Florida computer science professor who was indicted in February on charges that he was a leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In contrast, he said, when Muslim groups learned of Alamoudi’s detention, most did not rush to his defense.
“Since the al-Arian arrest, the scare level has been going up. People say: ‘We don’t know who may be next.’ So people don’t want to comment,” Bin Abdullah said. “They are taking a cautious approach, and some are even criticizing the Muslim leadership” for not being more restrained.
More than anything, said Khan, the liberal Muslim activist and author, the current crisis in America’s Muslim community underscores internal rifts. “We are still living under the shade of 9/11,” he said, an event that has highlighted divisions within the community. The most important of these, he said, is between “those who feel that America is their home” and those whose sense of home is determined by their national origin.
“For those who are obsessed with Israel and Palestine, for those who are obsessed with Jews, they see things through the paradigm of America vs. Islam,” Khan said. He added, however, that this is a notion that most American Muslims do not accept. Instead, he said, most Muslims want to reconcile America with Islam.
“So what you have, in the eyes of many Muslims, are organizations which are alienating them from the society in which they chose to live,” Khan said.
“The way I see it is that we must choose whether we work for the future of our brothers” in the Muslim world “or for the future of our sons” in America, he said. “For many, particularly in the Arab community, who think of nothing but the Arab-Israeli issue, they are willing to sacrifice the future of their children in America for the sake of their brothers in Palestine.”
Over time, however, Khan added, those Muslims who are more concerned about the future of their children in America are bound to prevail.