Mosque ownership item of political power struggle
Who Controls The Infrastructure
Controls The Organizational Capacity Of The People
"The State Shall Not Interfere With Religion Only Shall It Provide
The Framework In Which Recognized Religions Can Operate"
- Belgian legislation, based on Napoleons law -
Afghan Mosque's Founders Say Imam Who Ejected Them Must Go
By COREY KILGANNON
Published: July 3, 2004
everal days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks - with the words "Taliban," "Afghanistan" and "Osama" flashing red-hot across TV screens and the public consciousness - a power struggle erupted at the city's largest Afghan mosque, amid accusations of money being funneled to Taliban militants.
Mohammed Sherzad, the popular imam of the temple, the Hazrat-I-Abubakr Sadiq mosque in Flushing, Queens, publicly accused a group of its founders of sympathizing and doing business with Taliban leaders and funneling congregants' donations to them.
The imam ejected the group, which denied the allegations. Group members accused Imam Sherzad of seizing on post-9/11 hatred of the Taliban to demonize the very leaders who had hired him and to wrest control of the mosque.
The group of leaders decided to fight back in the courts. They filed a lawsuit in 2001 in Queens Supreme Court to regain the mosque and oust the imam.
The case caused much hand-wringing in the Afghan community, and on June 25, State Supreme Court Justice Phyllis Orlikoff Flug declared that the mosque indeed belonged to the ousted group, known as the Afghan Turkistan Islamic Foundation in America. In a ruling first reported by Newsday on Thursday, Justice Flug said that the foundation had formed a corporation to buy the property in 1987 and had built the current mosque, which opened in 1999.
The president of the foundation, Rahman Jalili, 53, a civil engineer from Farmingdale, on Long Island, said his group would select a new spiritual leader. Imam Sherzad, he said, must leave the mosque by the end of this month.
"He turned the mosque into his own political base," Mr. Jalili said, adding that the foundation had hired the imam when it founded the mosque, only to be betrayed by him. "He formed a mob-rule gang, and he changed the locks on us so we could no longer worship in our own mosque."
Sitting in his office on Thursday, staring at his cellphone and prayer book, Imam Sherzad said it was Mr. Jalili's group that did wrong by bringing chaos to a thriving, peaceful mosque that thousands of Afghan immigrants have come to rely upon as a religious and social center.
"It's very sad: People are coming to me and asking, 'Where are we supposed to go now?' " he said.
Imam Sherzad said that he built the mosque into one of the most influential Afghan institutions in the United States, with 1,400 members and as many as 3,000 visitors on holidays. Almost all of them, he said, were loyal to him and would follow him if he leaves. That, he said, would lead to upheaval in the Afghan community.
The imam said that as the father of the mosque, he planned to meet with his worshipers to decide whether to appeal the case. "Whatever the court decides, I have to respect," he said, "but it would not be fair to take the mosque away from the people."
The Abubakr mosque is a gathering place for many of the roughly 20,000 Afghan immigrants in the New York area. Located alongside several Korean churches on 33rd Avenue, a quiet suburban street, the mosque's facade is a blend of ancient Muslim arching designs and a smooth gray marble. A sign at the entrance says, "Enter ye here in peace and security."
But since opening five years ago, the mosque has been in turmoil, much of it reflecting the ethnic divisions and tensions that plagued Afghan mosques across the country as the Taliban rose to power in Afghanistan. Matters got worse after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Mr. Jalili said that he and other prosperous Afghan immigrants bought a single-family home on 33rd Avenue in 1987 and turned it into a modest mosque. To avoid ethnic tensions, they wrote bylaws that prohibited political activity. He said they had hired Imam Sherzad as a spiritual leader but discovered he was vocal about his support for certain warlords who were fighting the Taliban.
Imam Sherzad began collecting donations from the congregation and tried to take over formal ownership, Mr. Jalili said. The group tried to fire him, but the imam, popular with the congregation, refused to leave and effectively seized control from the founders. He changed office locks and hired bodyguards and security to keep out foundation members, Mr. Jalili said. In April 2001, the foundation sued to have him removed and to regain the mosque.
"This is an employee who basically took over the business," said Joseph Ortego, a lawyer for the foundation.
Right after the 2001 terror attacks, Imam Sherzad condemned the Taliban, who were helping to hide Osama bin Laden, and accused foundation members of supporting, doing business with and funneling mosque contributions to Taliban leaders. He also blamed them for a speech at the mosque given years ago by the Egyptian cleric Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a blind fundamentalist Muslim serving a life sentence for conspiring to blow up New York landmarks.
The imam's accusations made headlines. Foundation members soon found themselves unwelcome and began praying in the basement or outside the mosque. After episodes of physical conflict between the two sides, the founders eventually left.
This week, Mr. Jalili dismissed the Taliban allegations and said that the group had vacated the mosque in order to "leave everything in the hands of the law." He accused the imam of essentially using the 9/11 attacks to seize control of the mosque by harnessing the anti-Taliban fervor to intimidate and slander the foundation.
This week, Imam Sherzad reiterated his belief that foundation members harassed and tried to fire him because of his denunciation of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. It was mosque members who selected him leader and financed the mosque, not the foundation, he said.
Mr. Jalili said that the current congregation, but not Imam Sherzad, will be welcome at the mosque.