Deportations & Mosque Closings: The War on Terror's Domestic Toll
The following is excerpted from the forthcoming Mohamed's Ghosts: A Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland by Stephan Salisbury, published by Nation Books. Copyright © 2010 by the author.
The Abco Body Shop was not really an Abco Body Shop and hadn’t been one for years. It was the home of the Ansaarullah Islamic Society, a small mosque established in January 2002 by Mohamed Ghorab, a mechanical engineer, mediocre businessman, passionate student of Islam, and Egyptian national who had dreamed of starting his own mosque since before he came to the United States from Alexandria in 2000.
The building wasn’t disguised; it wasn’t posing as Abco to obscure some mysterious and sinister agenda. The congregation simply could not afford to remove the old Abco sign post, and besides, they were only tenants and given the huge monthly rental for the property, over $4,000, there always seemed to be more pressing needs. That became increasingly the case as 9/11 receded and the war on terror ground its way across the American battlefield, sowing apprehension daily. By late 2003, more often than not, congregation bail and legal matters needed immediate attention, sucking up the financial resources of everyone connected with the mosque. Why bother with the Abco sign?
The bedraggled house next door served as the imam’s residence. He lived there with his first American wife, or at least they lived there together part of the time. But life between them became difficult, and after their divorce, Mohamed Ghorab lived there with his much-loved second American wife, Meriem Moumen, a Morocco-born U.S. citizen. They settled in, even as the house, with its porous, failing roof and kitchen ceiling, gradually collapsed around them—like much else in their world.
I looked up at the house and tried to imagine Ghorab and Moumen coming out the front door. She is dark and veiled, holding their baby; he wears a white galabiya and whispers something funny in her ear. She laughs as he pulls the door closed. But Ghorab had hardly a chance to begin his ministry and life with Moumen when, in March 2003, he was arrested for his supposedly fraudulent first American marriage. Then, a year after he posted a $50,000 bond, Ghorab was again arrested in the massive May 2004 raid. He was never released after that, never charged with any criminal wrongdoing, kept in solitary confinement for long periods of time, never granted bail. He was simply held, first at York County Prison, south of Harrisburg, where the federal government leases a huge wing to hold immigration violators and terrorism suspects, and then at Pike County Prison, in northeastern Pennsylvania, far from Philadelphia, an untenable drive. He was alone. Meriem was alone.
In November 2005, after enduring one disappointing and incomprehensible hearing after another, after getting repeatedly ineffective and costly legal advice, Ghorab gave up his fight to remain in the United States and was deported to Egypt in December. Moumen went too, taking their American-born eighteen-month-old daughter. But her thirteen-year-old daughter by a previous marriage, also American-born, refused to leave the United States, rending the family like brittle paper and rocking Moumen to her psychic core. Husband or daughter? America or Egypt? Depression or death-in-life? Meriem’s choice. By that time, not surprisingly, the Ansaarullah Islamic Society had closed, unable to pay its bills, unable to retain its congregation, unable to function at all. The mosque shut down, itself a victim and, in the eyes of many, a target of the war on terror. Did Ansaarullah represent anything more than a battered old city corner revived by the devout? Did it embody some kind of inchoate threat, a threat invisible to all but those who knew what no one else seemed to know? What is known and incontrovertible is that months after the mosque was incorporated in January 2002, congregants began to face waves of legal troubles as the federal anti-terror campaign fired up. At least half a dozen members were arrested for purported immigration violations. A half dozen more were detained and released. Still more were questioned. Some were told their immigration problems might disappear if they provided the right kind of information to authorities. They began working with immigration and law enforcement officials, reporting back on the daily life of the mosque. Several congregants found themselves in deportation proceedings, unable to meet bond, unable to help their families, unable even to understand the labyrinthine and increasingly hostile immigration system.
The president of the mosque, a U.S. citizen, confronted by extensive scrutiny from law enforcement and federal revenue agents, finally sold his house and left the country for Dubai. He was never charged with any violations or crimes. Other members of the mosque, fearing the taint of this fated place, simply vanished. As late as the fall of 2006, long after the mosque had closed, long after Ghorab had left the country, federal authorities were still pursuing former Ansaarullah members, forcing them out of the country. Even in 2008, the mosque, so obscure during its functioning life, was invoked in immigration papers as the site of threats and intimidation directed against a man seeking American citizenship.
I once asked a savvy federal prosecutor why authorities showed such obsessive concern with Ansaarullah.
“Don’t you wonder why so many bad guys are hanging around the place?” the prosecutor responded.
“Why do you say ‘bad guys’? Scratch the surface of any immigrant group, and you’re going to find immigration violations. They aren’t crimes,” I said.
“That’s probably true. But are we supposed to ignore them?”
“But why go after these guys? They probably represent a tiny fraction of immigration violations around the city,” I said. The conversation ended in a circle.
“Immigration goes in there. They find one guy, then another and another and another. We can’t ignore them.”
Besides, the prosecutor said, eerily echoing many anti- Communist prosecutors in the early 1950s and many other prosecutors in supposed U.S. terror cases of the twenty-first century, “You don’t know what we know.”
What is the essence of “knowing”? Is something true if all believe it is true? If something hasn’t happened, does that mean it has been prevented? Is the absence of an event proof that it was stopped, erased before written? When is nothing something? What shadows are cast by nothing?
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pondered the question in February 2002 at a Defense Department press briefing: “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” By the time Ghorab was deported, Ansaarullah existed only in memory, a dead dream that left no visible trace on the Frankford Valley landscape. In the lives of those associated with it, however, the mosque and the federal onslaught on it left a scarred trail of crushing debt, broken families, bitterness, psychological dislocation, bewilderment, and abiding fear. Mosque members lost their homes and their livelihoods. They mistrusted each other. Native-born American citizens—children and teenagers—were driven from their country and from their parents. The neighborhood, not rich in social resources to begin with, lost a safe haven for children and a source of charity freely given to poor families, Islamic and non-Islamic alike. Anxieties and rumors were stoked by what happened at Aramingo and Wakeling—even though details of what actually happened were not widely known—and spread far beyond the narrow Frankford Valley streets.
I began stopping in at Ansaarullah during Friday prayers in June 2005, drawn by conversations I had been having with Muslims in Philadelphia and with immigration attorneys. After writing extensively for the Philadelphia Inquirer about the impact of 9/11– inspired security measures on the physical landscape of the city, I now wondered how the war on terror had affected ordinary people in the Muslim community. You should visit that mosque up in Frankford or someplace up there, people said. There’s something going on there. A big raid. Taliban or terror. Don’t really know. There was some problem with the imam. Maybe there still is. Maybe you’d better keep away from him.
No one seemed to know, though vague rumors abounded. In a large city, a small dying dream barely stirs the waters, but ripples of rumors spread endlessly. And since Islam lacks a priestly hierarchy and a bureaucracy—each congregation operates independently— information about a mosque and its doings is often a matter of what gets passed along by word of mouth, sometimes a dark exercise in whisper down the lane. No central authority issues statistics or totes up congregants. Large mosques with hundreds and hundreds—even thousands—of members are publicly visible, but many congregations are much smaller, and except for those in attendance, news of their activities and fates exists in the grey of rumor and gossip. What was this Ansaarullah, I wondered, after learning the name of the mosque, and I made my way to its pulled-up bay door.
What I found, just a few months before the mosque closed, was the remnant of what had once been a lively and fairly substantial multinational congregation of two hundred or so. The first Friday I visited, twenty-four worshippers showed up—Somali cab drivers, Jordanian ice cream truck vendors, Palestinian workers on break who hurriedly kicked off their shoes and rushed in a few minutes after 1:00. That June afternoon was hot, and half a dozen ceiling fans turned slowly, stirring the humid air. I was welcomed by Meriem, completely covered in grey with a black veil and hijab, a cell phone constantly in her hand, conversations continuously ongoing in English, French, and Arabic. She was too busy to talk to me as she arranged for afternoon prayer, spoke with a congregant about appeals for donations, and cajoled what I took to be creditors on the phone. After prayer it was the same: more phone conversations, multiple languages, a creased, grim brow. The next week, attendance was down to nineteen. At the end, perhaps half a dozen men turned out on the last Friday in July—and as many children. No matter what seemed to be transpiring in the adult world, no matter what the sorrows or the drama, there were always children at Ansaarullah, hopping on bouncy balls, playing with foam blocks, rolling on the mismatched green and grey and brown carpet remnants covering the concrete floor.
“We will miss it,” said Oma, a reedy, friendly girl of nine who lived in the neighborhood and had no other indoor place to go, really. Moumen and Ghorab had befriended her family and helped them with food and child care, and Oma and her playmates often wandered through the raised bay door during Friday prayer and in the evenings.
“Who are you?” she asked me. I told her I was a reporter simply visiting the mosque.
“What are you reporting? Are you a policeman?”
“No, I’m just visiting the mosque, and I may write about it. That’s all.”
“Do you like it?”
“Yes,” I said. “Everyone is very friendly. Do you like it?”
“Of course I do! We come here all the time. I can play basketball!” She picked up a small yellow ball, tossed it at a tattered net leaning next to a wall, and ran over to pick it up, only mildly encumbered by her long grey abaya. A little boy grabbed the ball, and they both came over to me.
“The mosque is closing,” I said. “Will you miss it?”
A look of concern passed over her small face. The little boy just stared at me.
“Yes, we will all miss it. Everyone will.”