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Siraj Wahhaj

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Siraj Wahhaj is the imam of the Masjid al-Taqwa mosque in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York City. He is Amir (leader) of the diwan (executive committee) of the Muslim Alliance in North America.

Born an American citizen named Jeffrey Kearse, he traced a spiritual path from the Baptist church, to the Nation of Islam where he was known as Jeffrey 12X, into Sunni Islam. He has been described as representing "two intertwined components of African-American Islam: a constructive do-for-self philosophy and a conspiratorial antagonism toward government and the white establishment."[1]

Many consider him an effective antidrug activist and community leader; he is regularly accused of terrorist ties in conservative media, and was the first Muslim cleric, in 1991, to address the U.S. House of Representatives. After giving the invocation, he dined with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. [2] Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz proclaimed 15 August 2003 "Siraj Wahhaj Day," in honor of his "lifetime of outstanding and meaningful achievement."

He is also, however, regularly linked to Islamist and terrorist thinking, primarily in conservative media. The Wall Street Journal quoted one of his sermons as stating "In time, this so-called democracy will crumble, and there will be nothing. And the only thing that will remain will be Islam." The same report said "In sermons, he often denounces terrorism and encourages law-abiding behavior. But he also praises Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman," convicted in 1995 of plotting to bomb landmarks in New York City, and considered the spiritual adviser to the group that carried out the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The Journal quoted him about Osama bin Laden, "I'm just not so sure I want to be one of the ones who say, 'Yeah, he did it. He's a horrible man.' "

Recent activities

Claiming partial inspiration from his recent recovery from prostate cancer, he is starting a series of health clinics.[3] Islamist Watch, a subsidiary of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, sent a letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer, to correct the impression "that Wahhaj might be anything other than a warm, fuzzy philanthropist...If David Duke launched health clinics for low-income Americans, you could be sure that reporters covering the story would not fail to mention that Duke is a leading white supremacist...A radical providing health services is still a radical. Readers and future patients deserve to know the ugly truth about this man."[4]

Along with Rev. Jesse Jackson, he spoke at a 2009 Council on American Islamic Relations event. Steven Schwartz, a Muslim convert and executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, said "He's a hatemonger, there's no question about it,. He's the No. 1 advocate of radical Islamic ideology among African-Americans. His stuff is very appealing to young Muslims who are on a radical path."[5]

Schwartz's group describes Wahhaj as one of several Wahhabi imams who have gained control of Muslim chaplaincy in the U.S. federal prison system.[6] Wajjah denied Wahhabi dies in a 2003 interview with the Wall Street Journal, and "that the Saudi-funded programs he attended years ago were "definitely not what you would call Wahhabism." American Muslims, he says, "have never looked to Saudi Arabia for guidance, especially African-Americans.""

Nation of Islam

Born in Brooklyn, New York, he described his hero as Martin Luther King, Jr.. After Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, Wahhaj wanted more militancy, and, while admiring Malcolm X who had broken with the Nation of Islam before his assassination in 1965" "Malcolm was bodacious," the imam says. "He was bold, courageous: 'Look at him, talking to the white man like that!' That's appealing to the African-American, when usually the African-Americans are bowing to the white man."

In 1969, he joined the Nation and changed his name to Jeffrey 12X. "It wasn't the theology that attracted me to the Nation of Islam at all," Imam Wahhaj says. "It was the kind of do-for-self black pride." Still, he took religious classes from Louis Farrakhan and rose quickly to become a minister himself, running Temple 7C in Brooklyn.

It was an article of faith among Elijah Muhammad's followers that he would live for generations to come. When he died in 1975 at age 77, "his teachings began to unravel in my mind," Along with Elijah Muhammad's son W.D. Muhammad, many moved more to Sunni orthodoxy.

Attraction to Sunnism

Attracted to Saudi teachers coming to the U.S., he changed his name to Siraj Wahhaj, which means "bright light" in Arabic. A talented artist in his youth, he stopped painting portraits, to follow Muslim doctrine against human images. He joined, in 1978, a Saudi-sponsored religious training in Naperville, Illinois. Of the 50 in his class, he and four others were sponsored for advanced religious instruction in Mecca.

Masjid al-Taqwa

He started his own mosque in 1981 in a friend's Brooklyn apartment. They moved the furniture from the living room to the bedroom so that 25 people could pray toward Mecca. Soon afterward, the congregation, known as Masjid At-Taqwa, bought an abandoned clothing store at a city auction for $30,000 and converted it into a mosque. The congregants had to chase away the junkies who were using the property.

He both participated in anti-drug patrols, but also with non-Muslim groups that protested police brutality. "He's very effective, particularly within the Muslim community and very respected in the community at large," says one activist, the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, of Brooklyn's Pentecostal House of the Lord Church.

Fighting drugs became one of the missions of Taqwa, which means "God consciousness" in Arabic. In January 1987, the imam led a group of his followers to oust crack-cocaine dealers squatting in a nearby building. The Taqwa group banged on the door, and Imam Wahhaj says he announced, "It's the Muslims. We're here to recover the property." Behind the door, he could hear someone say, "It's the Muslims. Don't do anything stupid."

The dealers promised to vacate, and the Muslims retreated to a car parked outside to wait. But instead of leaving, the drug dealers called the police, according to the imam. He and four of his followers were arrested on weapons-possession charges. A state court later dismissed the sole misdemeanor count of illegal possession of a knife filed against the imam.

Within the confines of his mosque, according to the Wall Street Journal, he presents Islam as "a faith of personal responsibility but one that is sometimes at odds with mainstream life in the U.S. He glorifies hard work, even if it means sweeping the streets, and exhorts the stream of black men who adopt Islam while behind bars to avoid crime, liquor and drugs.But his preaching also suggests a yearning for the religion as it was practiced centuries ago. He has said of thieves and adulterers: 'If Allah says 100 strikes, 100 strikes it is. If Allah says cut off their hand, you cut off their hand. If Allah says stone them to death, through the Prophet Muhammad, then you stone them to death, because it's the obedience of Allah and his messenger -- nothing personal.'"

His views resonate with Talib Abdur-Rashid, imam of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem (New York City), and a fellow member of the executive committee of the Muslim Alliance of North America, "We don't trust the American government and the way that it does things and sets people up,"

Stephen Schwartz, blames Imam Wahhaj for spreading Wahhabism. "People like Wahhaj went from Nation of Islam to Saudi Wahhabism, and they preach those extreme views to their followers Wahhabism is hostile to all 'nonbelievers,' to secular society, certainly to American society, and it can fit with black radical thought." Wahhaj denies Wahhabi ties. He says he regrets the tone of some of his harshest comments about democracy. His anticipation of its collapse, he says, "is similar to a Christian saying eventually God's kingdom is going to come." He notes that "obviously, in the American context, we can't cut off the hands of thieves." He says that he hopes Americans one day will be persuaded -- not coerced -- to embrace Islamic law."

Afghanistan-related

Clement Hampton-El, an African-American Muslim who in the 1980s fought with the Muslim resistance against the Russians in Afghanistan, regularly worshipped at the mosque, and, according to Wahhaj, was "sought out by young and old for his advice as an 'elder in the community.' [2]

Early 1990

DiscoverTheNetworks reported that in September 1991, he said that the Gulf War effort to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait was "one of the most diabolical plots ever in the annals of history." Moreover, he predicted that America would fall unless it "accepts the Islamic agenda." He also said
And [Allah] declared 'Whoever is at war with my friends, I declare war on them.' ... Your true friend is Allah, the messenger, and those who believe.... Hear what I'm telling you well. The Americans are not your friends ... The Canadians are not your friends ... The Europeans are not your friends. Your friend is Allah, the Messenger and those who believe. These people will never be satisfied with you until you follow their religion ..." said[7]

Senator Chuck Schumer (D-New York) told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism and Government Information that Wahhaj, then a board member of the Islamic Society of North America, was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.[8]

In a Feb. 2, 1995, letter to defense lawyers in the landmarks-bombing case, then-United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York Mary Jo White named about 170 people as "unindicted persons who may be alleged as co-conspirators." Imam Wahhaj was on the list, but was never charged. Ms. White declined to comment. [2]

The bombing plot charged eight defendants, including Abdel-Rahman, Hampton-El, Ibrahim El-Gabrowny and Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali, whom Wahhaj had known. He testified that it had been an honor to host Sheik Abdel-Rahman, describing him as a "respected scholar" known for having memorized the Qur'an. "He is bold, as a strong preacher of Islam, so he is respected that way," Imam Wahhaj testified. The imam called Mr. Hampton-El "one of the most respected brothers" in his congregation. He also testified that he had met a third defendant, All four were convicted and sentenced to prison terms. [2] Siddig Ali pleaded guilty, testifed for the prosecution, and was sentenced to 11 years; the others received longer sentences,. [9]

1998 bombing trial

In March 2001, the imam returned to the same court to testify as a religious expert at the trial of four Muslim extremists convicted in the 1998 bombings of U.S. Embassies in Africa. He testified that holy war could never justify such bombings.

References

  1. Paul M. Barrett (2007), American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion, Farrar Straus Giroux
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Paul M. Barrett (24 October 2003), "One Imam Traces the Path Of Islam in Black America", Wall Street Journal
  3. Don Sapatkin (25 March 2010), "A call to help Muslims in need of health care", Philadelphia Inquirer
  4. David Rusin (16 April 2010), "Siraj Wahhaj Starts Health Clinics, Enjoys a Media Whitewash", Islamist Watch
  5. "Controversial Imam to Join Jesse Jackson at Muslim Group's Banquet", Fox News, 20 October 2009
  6. Black America, Prisons and Radical Islam: a Report, Center for Islamic Pluralism, September 2008, p. 12
  7. Siraj Wahhaj, DiscoverTheNetworks
  8. Terrorism: Growing Wahhabi Influence in the United States, Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism and Government Information, June 26, 2003
  9. Benjamin Weiser (16 October 1995), "Remorseful Terror Conspirator Gets an 11-Year Sentence", New York Times