The Magazine

The Mosque and the Imam

Washington's Islamic Center is riven by scandal and lawsuits.

Dec 1, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 11 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Islamic Center in Washington, D.C., is among the most prominent and opulent Muslim prayer houses in America. It displays the national flags of Muslim countries out front and makes obvious to thousands of passing motorists that the faith of Muhammad has a place in America.

That was the message delivered by President Dwight D. Eisenhower when the mosque was opened in 1957. The chief executive (accompanied by his wife, Mamie, who unlike later American first ladies Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush saw no need to don an Islamic head covering) declared,

The countries which have sponsored and built this Islamic Center have for centuries contributed to the building of civilization. With their traditions of learning and rich culture, the countries of Islam have added much to the advancement of mankind. Inspired by a sense of brotherhood, common to our innermost beliefs, we can here together reaffirm our determination to secure the foundations of a just and lasting peace.

Eisenhower concluded,

Our country has long enjoyed a strong bond of friendship with the Islamic nations. .  .  . Under the American Constitution, .  .  . this Center, this place of worship, is as welcome as could be any similar edifice of any religion. Indeed, America would fight with her whole strength for your right to have your own church and worship according to your own conscience. Without this, we would be something else than what we are.

The Islamic Center was built at the suggestion of the Egyptians, but with support from Christian and Muslim Arabs and Turks in America, along with Afghan, Pakistani, Iraqi, Indonesian, Syrian, Turkish, and Iranian diplomats and the Saudi royal family. The Nizam of Hyderabad, a fabulously rich Muslim dignitary in India, and the Aga Khan, global leader of the Ismaili Shias, were solicited for large contributions. Later assistance came from Kuwait, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, and Tunisia. And U.S. corporations with interests in the Muslim world-Bechtel and the Arabian American Oil Co. (later Saudi Aramco), among others-kicked in. According to an official History of the Islamic Center issued in 1978, construction was slowed by the diversion of Arab attention to the fight against Jewish immigration to the state of Israel. Yet the mosque was completed and remains an impressive showpiece.

Since the late 1980s, however, the Islamic Center has come to be representative of the corruption of American Islam under the domination of the radical Wahhabi sect and its Saudi patron.

In 1978 the director of the mosque was Ardeshir Zahedi, ambassador of the shah of Iran. With the overthrow of the monarchy in Tehran the next year, the mosque fell into the hands of pro-Khomeini extremists, who became involved in one of the earliest and worst incidents of radical Islamist terrorism on American soil.

On July 22, 1980, Ali Akbar Tabatabai, a former employee of the Iranian embassy in Washington and opponent of the dictatorship of the ayatollahs, was shot to death at his home in Bethesda, Maryland. The killer was an American convert to Islam, David Belfield, known as Dawud Salahuddin, who confessed to the crime in an interview with ABC television's 20/20 in 1996. Belfield had been active in Islamic outreach (da'wa) to African Americans in U.S. prisons. Having killed Tabatabai, he fled to Iran, and in 2001 he appeared in the Iranian film Kandahar acting under the pseudonym Hassan Tantai.

In 1983, after much internal controversy, the Islamic Center was taken over by Saudi officials. The next year, a new director, or chief imam, was sent to the mosque-Saudi subject Abdullah M. Khouj. Khouj's credentials, which became public in a messy lawsuit beginning in 2006, were, in retrospect, problematic.

Khouj represented the Muslim World League (MWL), founded in Saudi Arabia in 1962 as an international agency for the propagation of Wahhabism. In 2006, relief branches of the MWL in Southeast Asia would be designated by the U.S. Treasury as financing fronts for al Qaeda. In addition, Khouj was admitted to the United States as a diplomat, allegedly serving as an attaché at the Saudi Embassy, but actually dedicated to advancing the most radical interpretation of Islam in history. His diplomatic visa allowed Khouj to receive a tax-free monthly personal salary of $10,920. He also received $50,000 a month to run the mosque, which he kept in his personal account. The State Department, from 1998 to 2001, pressed the Saudi embassy to explain why its purported attaché was running a major mosque.

And Khouj's résumé betrayed yet another lapse: While the bylaws of the mosque called for its chief imam to hold a doctoral degree in Islamic studies, Khouj had training only in psychology.

Still, Khouj was a thorough Wahhabi, and that was what counted for his Saudi masters. Until 2002, his monthly budget of up to $50,000 was provided by the Saudi government. The Religious Affairs Department of the Saudi embassy also oversaw the calendar of preaching at the mosque, with an emphasis on Wahhabi extremist content.

In 2002, the State Department prevailed on the Saudis to change Khouj's visa status to the one normally assigned to a religious worker. (Thus, Khouj was not among the 70 Saudi subjects using diplomatic visas as cover for Wahhabi da'wa who were ordered to leave the United States in 2003-04.) The imam then declared to U.S. tax authorities an income of no more than $40,000 a year, a gigantic reduction. In further violation of U.S. visa regulations, however, Khouj failed to disclose that he was an employee of a foreign government.

Khouj had other bad habits. He came to the United States with a wife and two children, but his wife soon returned to Saudi Arabia. The imam then acquired at least two new wives-Debbi Estrada and Noufisa Zourhi-both of whom he supported out of mosque funds. He also got himself in trouble in 1986 when he precipitously proposed marriage to a young woman interested in Islam, consummated the marriage, and then tried to hold her captive in his residence. The woman, whose identity remains undisclosed, threatened to call the police, but was appeased by a payment of $5,000. In a Washington Post op-ed in 1988, Khouj had recourse to a common Wahhabi defense of Saudi oppression of women, writing, "In what way is adultery, as practiced in the West, superior to a legal married state of polygamy?"

In other ways, too, Khouj kept the Wahhabi banner flying at the Massachusetts Avenue mosque. He sought to bar women from the main prayer space during mosque services, for instance, a typical Wahhabi stricture. And he welcomed Osama Basnan to the Islamic Center. In 2002 Basnan was deported to Saudi Arabia for visa fraud and on suspicion of terrorist ties. A sympathizer of Osama bin Laden, Basnan carried money from Princess Haifa, wife of former Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan, to two of the September 11 hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf Alhazmi (see "The Princess and her 'Charities,' " December 9, 2002). Khouj also invited Ali al-Timimi to preach at the Islamic Center. In 2005 al-Timimi was convicted of soliciting others to wage war against the United States and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Wahhabism, visa deception, promotion of extremism, polygamy and other mistreatment of women-the whole distasteful package began unraveling in 2005. With an aspiring, often-thwarted reformer preparing to ascend the Saudi throne that year, Khouj was suddenly confronted with a demand for an audit of his expenditures, which would have exposed his use of mosque funds to maintain his wives.

Khouj did not want an audit conducted by an outside accountant, and made plans to leave the United States. No audit was carried out. Since his arrival in Washington, Khouj had entrusted delivery of money for his wives to Farzad Darui, a companion of the murdered Iranian dissident Ali Akbar Tabatabai. Darui had assumed security duties at the mosque after 1980, working (often unsuccessfully, given the Saudi influence) to oppose discrimination against women and to exclude radicals. Darui had served as a volunteer until the mosque's board of directors put him on the payroll.

In 2005, a conflict broke out between the mosque board, backed by Darui and non-Saudi Muslim diplomats, on one side, and the Saudi embassy's Religious Affairs Department on the other, over an attempt to replace Khouj. After the uproar, the Saudi embassy began circulating rumors that Darui had been stealing money from the mosque. In November 2006, the mosque, represented by the firm Williams & Connolly, sued Darui for embezzlement. Khouj alleged that hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of checks he had written for legitimate mosque expenses had been altered by Darui for payment to Darui's businesses, Blue Line Travel and Zaal, Inc., an investment and management company.

Darui said Khouj had written the checks to pay for the needs of his wives. The original suit was dismissed, but the U.S. government, with Khouj as its sole witness regarding alteration of the checks, then charged Darui with nine counts of mail fraud, interstate transportation of stolen property, money laundering, and theft, alleging that he had rented a U.S. Postal Service box to divert stolen funds by manually changing the names in the payee lines of the checks. Darui, who has gotten rich on his own and has no need to steal from the mosque, retained the prominent Washington lawyer Victoria Toensing, of diGenova & Toensing, to defend him.

Improbably, the government argued that Bank of America, which honored more than 200 checks, totaling $430,000 from 2000 to 2006, submitted and supposedly altered by Darui, never detected such tampering. The government presented not original checks but Xerox copies as evidence at the trial. Court filings revealed that on some of the cashed checks notations in the memo line stated that their purpose was to pay for housing, rent, and similar expenses seemingly inconsistent with the payee line.

To cite but one of 23 Xeroxed checks entered into evidence and originally written to pay Estrada's rent, a check dated August 15, 2002, showed the payee as "Travelers," an insurance company. The copy furnished by Bank of America had the payee as "Zaal, Inc." The memo line on both included the word "Housing," a peculiar basis for payment to an insurance company.

During the trial, Khouj testified that in 2003-04 he donated his newly declared salary of $2,563 per month to the mosque. But defense lawyers showed that Khouj had deposited all 24 bimonthly checks from the period to his personal account. Khouj told the FBI that Darui had cashed two checks issued to Khouj by the Saudi embassy. The defense produced deposit slips showing that those two checks also had been deposited to Khouj's account.

In May of this year, the first prosecution of Darui ended in a mistrial. But the U.S. authorities refiled the case. DiGenova & Toensing then filed a post-mistrial brief alleging that the Saudis and Khouj, rather than the defendant, had altered the checks, perhaps by using Photoshop technology. The defense lawyers further charged that Khouj had committed many acts of perjury and obstruction of justice in the case. All of the foregoing is documented in public court filings.

Khouj's secretary at the mosque, Fatoumata Goodwin, did not respond to an email request for comment on the case. The question remains: Why should the U.S. government side with a Wahhabi cleric and the Saudi reactionaries, with their long career of contempt for American morality and law, in a manner that seems to impeach the competence of a leading American bank, while persecuting an opponent of radical Islam?

Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.