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
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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.