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An Imam in America

To Lead the Faithful in a Faith Under Fire

Published: March 6, 2006

The F.B.I. agent and the imam sat across a long wooden table at a Brooklyn youth center last August.

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James Estrin/The New York Times

"Whoever is afraid of dialogue is hiding something," Sheik Reda Shata said of the Muslim duty to assist the authorities.

A Delicate Balance

Second of three articles

Part 1: A Muslim Leader in Brooklyn, Reconciling 2 Worlds (March 5, 2006)

Part 3: Tending to Muslim Hearts and Islam's Future (March 7, 2006)
James Estrin/The New York Times

Sheik Reda Shata begins a seminar in cultural sensitivity at the 68th Precinct in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Through these kinds of efforts, the imam hopes to foster better understanding between law enforcement and his fellow Muslims.

James Estrin/The New York Times

Mr. Shata, center, joined more than 1,000 Muslims in Manhattan last month to protest cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Insults, the imam said, can breed alienation and anger among Muslims.

James Estrin/The New York Times

Fadi Alkhatiba, 23, like other young Muslims, has embraced his Islamic identity more fully since 9/11.

Would the imam, the agent asked, report anyone who seemed prone to terrorism?

Sheik Reda Shata leaned back in his chair and studied the agent. Nearly a year had passed since the authorities had charged two young men, one of whom prayed at Mr. Shata's mosque, with plotting to blow up the Herald Square subway station in Manhattan.

The mosque had come under siege. Television news trucks circled the block. Threats were made. The imam's congregants became angry themselves after learning that a police informer had spent months in their midst.

At the meeting, the imam chose his words carefully. It is not only the F.B.I. that wants to stop terrorism, he answered; Muslims also care about keeping the country safe.

"I would turn him in to you," Mr. Shata finally said, pointing his finger at the agent, Mark J. Mershon, the top F.B.I. official in New York City. "But not because I am afraid of you."

The moment captured one of the enduring challenges for an imam in America: living at the center of a religion under watch.

Mr. Shata is under steady pressure to help the authorities. At the same time, he must keep the trust of his congregants, who feel unfairly singled out by law enforcement.

The balance is delicate. It requires a willingness to cooperate, but not to be trampled on; pride in one's fellow Muslims, yet recognition that threats may lurk among them.

"It's like walking a tightrope," said Mr. Shata, 37, speaking through an Arabic translator. "You have to give Muslims the feeling that the police are not monsters. And you have to give the police the feeling that Muslims are respectful and clean."

Months spent with Mr. Shata, both around the city and in his mosque, the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, revealed the vastly complex calling of imams in the United States.

In the Islamic world, imams are defined as prayer leaders. But here, they become community leaders, essential intermediaries between their immigrant flocks and a new, Western land. When Islamic traditions clash with American culture, it is imams who step forward with improvised answers. Outside the mosque, many assume the public roles of other clergy, becoming diplomats for their faith.

But in the years since Sept. 11, diplomacy has given way to defensiveness. For American imams, no subject is more charged than terrorism. While under scrutiny themselves, imams are often called upon to usher the authorities past the barriers of fear that surround their communities. Many are reluctant. They worry that their assistance will backfire in unwarranted investigations, or a loss of credibility at the pulpit.

At Mr. Shata's mosque, people can recite a list of dubious cases as easily as popular verses of the Koran: The three Moroccan men in Detroit who were falsely accused of operating a terrorist sleeper cell; the Muslim lawyer Brandon Mayfield, who was mistakenly linked to bombings in Madrid; the two teenage girls from New York City who were held for weeks but never charged after the F.B.I. identified them as potential suicide bombers.

At the same time, imams must contend with their own mixed reputation, which is marked by a few high-profile cases, like that of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric who was convicted in 1995 of plotting to blow up New York landmarks.

Imams like Mr. Shata — men who embrace American freedom and condemn the radicals they feel have tainted their faith — rarely make the news.

The authorities are well acquainted with Mr. Shata, and speak highly of him. The officers of Mr. Shata's local police precinct often turn to him for help when Muslims in Bay Ridge refuse to be questioned. The senior F.B.I. counterterrorism official in New York, Charles E. Frahm, described his interaction with Mr. Shata as "very positive."

Mr. Frahm was in the room last August when Mr. Mershon challenged the imam. Mr. Shata and other Muslim leaders had agreed to meet the agents at the Muslim Youth Center in Bensonhurst in an effort to improve relations between the two camps.

"I have been impressed with his desire, as he's expressed it to me, to do good and do right," Mr. Frahm said.

Yet for Mr. Shata, cooperation brings conflicting emotions. He can charm a class of rookies at the 68th Precinct in Brooklyn, turning a perfunctory cultural sensitivity seminar into a comedy hour. But he is quietly outraged that an unmarked car shadows a respected Palestinian board member of his mosque.

The imam is saddened to see so many Muslims leave America, pushed out by new immigration policies, intimidation or despair. He also fears for those who have remained: for the teenage boy in his mosque who is suddenly praying at dawn, having drifted from a high school that left him alienated.

Still, Mr. Shata said, the anger and fear, no matter how deeply felt, are tempered by something greater: the devastating impact of Sept. 11 on non-Muslim Americans.

"It will take them a while to come to terms with us," he said.

A Necessary Dialogue

The competing demands on Mr. Shata became plain when he arrived in Bay Ridge about a year after Sept. 11.

Crisis gripped the city's Muslim neighborhoods. Law enforcement agents searched businesses and homes, and held hundreds of men for questioning. Women were harassed in the subway. Elementary schools lost Muslim children as their families packed up and left.

Mr. Shata's predecessor, Mohamed Moussa, was drained. "I needed a change or I would destroy myself," said Mr. Moussa, who now works as one of three imams at a well-funded mosque in Union City, N.J.

Like many mosques in struggling immigrant neighborhoods, the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge had little choice but to search abroad for a replacement. America produces few imams with the qualities sought by foreign-born Muslims: fluency in Arabic, and a superior command of the Koran and the laws that codify Islamic life.

Mr. Shata was an enticing candidate. Like Mr. Moussa, he had trained at Al Azhar University in Cairo, a citadel of Islamic scholarship. Through an Azhar professor, Mr. Moussa found Mr. Shata in Germany, where he had been working as an imam.

The men who sit on the mosque's board were pleased to find charisma in their new imam. The white brick mosque on Fifth Avenue in Bay Ridge survives largely on the donations of its congregants. Only a riveting speaker can draw them.

But soon after Mr. Shata arrived, he became aware of another, less visible audience. In mosques around the city, informers were hidden among the praying masses, listening for what officials call "double talk" — one voice of extremism inside the mosque, and another of tolerance outside.

The attention did not worry Mr. Shata, he said, because he had nothing to hide. "My page is clean," he said.

But when the authorities came seeking his help, he faced a choice. He could welcome them and improve the mosque's public standing, or he could rebuff their inquiries at the risk of seeming obstructionist.

"There's a wall of silence around these mosques," said Representative Peter T. King, a Long Island Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. "It's not necessarily the imam himself who is actively engaged, but he looks the other way or allows activities in his mosque that could be dangerous."

Mr. Shata viewed cooperation as his Islamic duty. "Whoever is afraid of dialogue is hiding something," he said.

Mosque Under a Microscope

The greatest test of Mr. Shata's relationship with the authorities came with the arrest of a young Muslim congregant who was accused of plotting terrorism.

Shahawar Matin Siraj, 23, was a chatty Pakistani immigrant who worked in the Islamic bookstore next to the mosque. On the job, he was sometimes seen talking to James Elshafay, 21, a soft-spoken Muslim American from Staten Island. In August 2004, both were charged in Brooklyn federal court with conspiring to blow up the 34th Street subway station at Herald Square.

The men had been videotaped discussing the plot and scouting the subway station with a paid police informer who told them he belonged to an Islamic "brotherhood."

In the days after the arrests, reporters swarmed into Bay Ridge. Anonymous threats were called in to the bookstore, Islamic Books & Tapes. One letter to the store read, "You're all dead meat."

The imam and others at the mosque soon realized they knew the informer: a gray-haired Egyptian who called himself Osama Daoudi and said he lived in Staten Island.

"He used to say, 'My name is Osama, like Osama bin Laden,' " Mr. Shata recalled.

Mr. Daoudi had surfaced at the mosque a year earlier, said Mr. Shata. He tried to interest the imam in a real estate deal, proposing that Mr. Shata use his influence over Muslims to collect money owed to Mr. Daoudi in exchange for a secret cash commission, Mr. Shata recalled.

The imam wanted nothing to do with the scheme, he said, and kept his distance. He found Mr. Daoudi off-putting. He claimed to be the son of a famous Egyptian sheik and was known at the mosque for weeping when he prayed. But he also smoked.

"Piety in Islam forbids smoking," Mr. Shata observed.

Most striking was the anti-American sentiment that Mr. Daoudi espoused, Mr. Shata said. During visits with the imam, Mr. Daoudi complained that Americans might fear him because he had a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering. He also said that the F.B.I. wanted to search his home, the imam recalled.

"I told him, 'As long as you do nothing wrong, open your house and your heart to people,' " said Mr. Shata.

The imam said he believed that after Mr. Daoudi found him uninterested, he turned his focus to Mr. Siraj and Mr. Elshafay.

Starting in September 2003, the informer spent months drawing Mr. Siraj into the plot, teaching him about violent jihad, said Mr. Siraj's lawyer, Martin R. Stolar.

The authorities would say little about the case, which is set for trial next month. Efforts to locate Mr. Daoudi, whose name was provided by Mr. Stolar, were unsuccessful.

The Police Department's chief spokesman, Paul J. Browne, dismissed Mr. Stolar's claim that the police had manufactured the plot. "We didn't propose that," he said. "We took action to stop it and there's a big difference."

Mr. Siraj had an "interest in violence" that was known to the authorities prior to an informer's involvement, Mr. Browne added.

For the imam, the informer's supposed maneuvering was not surprising. Mr. Shata shares a view common among Muslims in Bay Ridge that confidential informers are untrustworthy because some have criminal records or work for pay.

This perception irks Mr. Frahm, the F.B.I. official. Informers' reports are closely vetted, he said, and their motives are irrelevant if they provide correct information.

Mr. Frahm devotes much time to building trust among Muslim leaders. But he also warns them not to turn a blind eye to questionable activity. "You can't play part-time American," he said.

'From the Stones of Insults'

Anger at the authorities came easily at the mosque. But a quiet, if disturbing, question soon followed: Entrapped or not, what had caused these young men to entertain thoughts of terrorism?

The imam looks for answers on the crowded sidewalk outside the mosque.

The worn cement slabs along Fifth Avenue have long been divided into two social camps. After the Friday prayer, the section in front of the mosque fills with the neighborhood's Arab pioneers, gray-haired and balding Palestinians and Egyptians.

Several feet south, under the marquee of a movie theater, the neighborhood's Arab teenagers gather. Before Sept. 11, the groups rarely mingled. But in the years since, many of the younger set have returned to their faith.

The imam now rises to deliver his Friday khutba, or sermon, before rows of young men, some in low-hanging jeans and baseball caps turned backward. Many have come to learn more about their religion so they can defend it at work or at school. Others no longer feel at home elsewhere. They have been passed over for jobs, or stopped and questioned by the authorities too many times.

It is these men, and their sense of alienation, that most worry Mr. Shata. The mosque is not their only refuge. A new crop of sheesha cafes opened along the avenue after Sept. 11, filling with male chatter and the sweet smoke of water pipes.

"I once read a Spanish proverb," Mr. Shata said one evening. "The wall of hatred was asked, 'How were you built?' And the reply was, 'From the stones of insults.' "

Over the last three decades, the European immigrant enclave of Bay Ridge has given way to Gazan barbers, halal butchers and Egyptian jewelers. But the newest settlers have not always been welcome.

"It became, 'This ain't Bay Ridge anymore, it's Beirut,' " said Russell Kain, a retired community affairs officer from the 68th Precinct.

America has brought the imam his own share of taunts. A woman on a plane once asked him if he was Muslim and then demanded to change seats. Mr. Shata grew up wearing the long robes of his Egyptian homeland. He now travels in a suit.

But in Bay Ridge, he fights alienation with an open heart. He is increasingly a blend of East and West, proudly walking to the mosque in a robe and sandals, while warding off the cold with a wool Yankees hat. "I feel like I'm living in my country," he said.

It is a message he repeats everywhere he goes, one he says is the antidote to hatred. He meets with Muslim youth groups at mosques around the city, telling them not to wait for an invitation to embrace America. Even if Muslims feel singled out, Mr. Shata often says, America is still the freest country in the world.

The imam plans to stay for "as long as God wills it," he said. He got his green card in November.

Mr. Shata knows most of his congregants by face, and the 400 who pray daily by name. If he sees a young person taken by sudden devotion, his impulse is to probe. Is the person driven by faith or isolation? He can't always be sure.

The imam's concerns are shared by the F.B.I. Several officials said the bureau had recently focused its surveillance on the city's Muslim youth after learning that the London bombings last July were mostly carried out by South Asians raised in Britain. Mr. Shata and the authorities agree that young Muslims are most captive to the messages of militant sheiks.

"Islam is a religion based on intellect," he tells his young listeners. "Islam says to you: 'Think. Don't close your eyes and just follow your emotions. Don't follow the sheik. Perhaps you have a better mind than his.' "

"If you do wrong," he says, "you do wrong to the whole Islamic world."

One Imam, Many Audiences

One evening in July, Mr. Shata sat in the neat, air-conditioned living room of a brick row house in Queens. An Egyptian family had invited him over to bless their newest member, a 5-week-old girl.

The infant, swathed in soft pink cotton, slept in a car seat on the floor as her mother and grandmother offered tea and pastries. On a wide-screen television, Al Jazeera flashed news that two Algerian diplomats had been killed in Iraq.

Mr. Shata was bothered by the killers' description of the victims as "infidels." The world, he said, needed to agree on a definition of terrorism. "What I may see as terrorism, you may not see that way," he said.

Few subjects pose a more complicated test of loyalties for Mr. Shata than the struggle between Arabs and Israelis. Many Palestinians attend his mosque. When he discusses the conflict, one gets the sense that he is, again, speaking to several audiences.

Like Arabs around the world, Mr. Shata disagrees profoundly with the United States' steadfast support of Israel, and views the militant group Hamas as a powerful symbol of resistance.

When Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, was killed by Israelis in March 2004, Mr. Shata told hundreds who gathered at a memorial service in Brooklyn that the "lion of Palestine has been martyred."

Mr. Shata is also acutely aware that the United States classifies Hamas as a terrorist group. In the same speech, he condemned all violence. "We don't hate Jews," he recalled saying. "To kill one man is to kill all mankind."

Yet in another sermon, the imam exalted a young Palestinian mother, Reem Al-Reyashi, who blew herself up in 2004 at a crossing point between Gaza and Israel, killing four Israelis. Mr. Shata described the woman as a martyr.

When asked about the speech, Mr. Shata seemed unusually conflicted. He has forged friendships with rabbis in New York — something he never imagined in Egypt. Engaging in a discussion about the Arab-Israeli struggle would invite controversy, he said, both within his mosque and outside it. "I worry this will cause trouble with my Jewish brothers," he said. He rarely broaches the topic in sermons and addressed it only reluctantly in interviews.

"I do not accept suicide operations that target civilians at any time or place," Mr. Shata said. But striking Israeli soldiers "as a means of defense" was justifiable.

The Israelis, he said, have "killed Palestinian women, destroyed their homes, taken their land and materials and made them into refugees," while Palestinians lack the military means to fight back. Islamic law forbids suicide, he said, but the Koran says Muslims can defend themselves if attacked. Ms. Al-Reyashi killed two soldiers, a border police officer and a security guard, though Palestinian and Israeli civilians were hurt.

Mr. Shata acknowledged that his opinion, while common among Arabs, is strongly opposed not only by many non-Muslims, but even by some of his congregants. "Some Muslims, if they hear this, would make me out to be a nonbeliever because they see that all these suicide operations are a must," he said. "And there are other Muslims who feel that all of these operations are forbidden.

"My nature is always to be in the middle," he said. "It's always the person in the middle who ends up being the enemy of the right and the left. I don't want to open up two fronts against me."

Mr. Shata is forceful in his condemnation of terrorism in the West, a message he feels is rarely heard. After the suicide bombings in London last year, he and other Muslims called a news conference in Brooklyn to denounce the violence. Nobody came.

In his sermons, Mr. Shata repeatedly makes the point that terrorism violates the tenets of Islam. "I feel that I breathe underwater, or that I cry in a desert," he said recently. "That nobody responds."

It was part of Mr. Shata's annual Sept. 11 speech, a tradition he began in 2003. Recordings of the sermon, titled "What Muslims Want From America," sold out at the mosque overnight.

The three Sept. 11 speeches echo the imam's journey in America. His first speech was conciliatory in tone; a treatise on the peaceful nature of Islam. In 2004, he urged Muslims to respect the law, and trust that America is not "the enemy." Last September, his message hardened.

"We want the U.S. to be just in dealing with our issues," Mr. Shata declared. A man "should not feel that he is under surveillance for every word he says, every move he makes and every piece of paper he signs."

Muslims feel isolated, yet crave acceptance, he said, likening them to their ancestors 14 centuries ago, who sought refuge from the king of Abyssinia.

"O king, we have come to thy country having chosen thee above all others," he said, reciting the words of the group's leader, Jafar Ibn Abi Talib.

"It is our hope, o king, that here, with thee, we shall not suffer wrong."