Senior members of a mosque in Arlington, Virginia have accused supporters of an extremist Islamist organization of trying to turn the institution they lead into an outpost for Islamism. They allege that the activists are trying to turn Baitul Mukarram Mosque into a beachhead near the nation's capital for the Muslim Ummah of North America (MUNA).
MUNA promotes the agenda of the Bangladeshi branch of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) whose leaders were convicted last decade of murdering civilians during that country's 1971 war for independence.
"Their intention is to capture this mosque," said Amar Islam, a longtime member of the mosque who worked as a prosecutor for the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) between 2011 and 2014. In addition to talking to him, Focus on Western Islamism (FWI) has spoken with two other members of the mosque who have affirmed Islam's narrative. (These members have requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.)
The emergent evidence suggests a worrying trend in which Islamist organizations with bloody records are seeking to organize on American soil.
Established in New York in 1990, MUNA professes to be a benign non-profit group devoted to "social service" and developing the "personal, moral and social quality of human life."
This portrayal is undermined by the regular presence of Bangladeshi supporters and leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, a violent South Asian Islamist movement founded in India by the Islamist theorist Abul Ala Maududi, at MUNA events.hu
Maududi's ideas about Islamist conquest helped shape the development of groups like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Jamat-e-Islami helped Pakistani forces commit dozens of war crimes against Bangladeshis and unarmed civilians during the 1971 independence war.
In 2010, MUNA organized a picnic with Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, JI's assistant secretary general, as the guest of honor. A few years later, in 2013, a Bangladeshi War Crimes Tribunal sentenced Kamaruzzaman to death for his role in the murder and torture of unarmed civilians, including the massacre of 120 unarmed farmers, during the Bangladesh Independence War.
In 2013, one of its former leaders, Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin, who currently lives in England, was sentenced to death by the Bangladesh tribunal for his alleged role leading a death squad that abducted and murdered 18 intellectuals two days before Bangladesh declared independence in 1971. MUNA's current vice national president Abul Faizullah, meanwhile, has praised Abdul Qader Mollah, another senior JI official. Mollah was also sentenced to death for crimes against humanity, which included assisting Pakistani troops with the murder of 369 people. MUNA's annual convention has been the scene of extremist anti-Western rhetoric. For example, in 2019, speakers called for the application of Sharia in the U.S. and earlier this year, two MUNA attendees inveighed against Asad Noor, the Bangladeshi human rights activist who has been targeted with death threats by Islamists in England and France.
Mohammed Quayum, the president of the mosque's executive committee, says the allegations are false. The mosque remains committed to the practice of Islam as faith, does not promote Islamism, and has no ties to MUNA.
"You can check out the website," he said. "Everything is good. We have a small community here. Whoever lives around here, they come here to pray."
Amar Islam, however, asserts that the campaign to bring the mosque, which is also known as the Bangladesh Islamic Center or BIC, into MUNA's orbit became evident in 2022, after more than 100 Bangladeshi Muslims, some from New Jersey, New York, Texas and other states, put their names on the mosque's membership rolls despite not being regular attendees at the mosque's worship services. This sudden increase of the mosque's membership from around 200 members to more than 300 members resulted in the election of the mosque's current Board of Directors who have embarked on a campaign to change the mosque's constitution to allow for stronger links to MUNA, Islam asserts.
Many of the new members listed on the rolls "never attend regular meetings or activities," Islam said. "They only come during the election day or send proxy voters."
In an email to FWI, Quayum declared BIC's Board of Directors is elected by "free and fair" elections that are held every two years and that the mosque allows all Muslims in the community to become members.
"There is no discrimination," he wrote.
The mosque, which is located in a former church in Arlington, Virginia, has its roots in a fundraising campaign that began in the mid-1990s that culminated in the purchase of the building in 2002. In the years since, the congregation purchased two adjacent plots of land which were converted into a parking lot for worshippers.
The founding members of the mosque tried to protect its independence from the very start, Islam said, by inserting an article in its constitution that prohibited members from serving in a leadership position of the mosque if they hold "a position of substantial interest in another religious organization exempt from Federal income tax under section 501 C (3) of the Internal Revenue Code." The intent, Islam said, was to prevent activists from other organizations such as MUNA from taking control of the mosque and using it to promote outside agendas.
Islam says that this clause in BIC's constitution was not always enforced, an assertion confirmed by Helal Uddin Ahmed, one of the original founding members of the BIC who was involved in the mosque's leadership from 1996 to 2016 (with a two-year hiatus between 2010 and 2012). Ahmed told FWI some of the mosque's leaders, including himself, held positions in MUNA and the BIC at the same time. "Now MUNA is more involved than before," he told FWI.
In an email to FWI, Quayum declared that BIC strictly follows its bylaws and that "there is no one in the BIC board that holds any position of substantial interest in other organizations."
Promotional emails obtained by FWI indicate that at least three BIC leaders helped organize and publicize MUNA events in the years before the Covid-19 lockdown. FWI attempted to speak with three leaders whose names appeared on MUNA publicity materials via phone and text, but was unsuccessful, with one leader declaring, "No. No. I'm not allowed to talk with you." Another responded in a text declaring, "I'm not a member of the board of directors."
A new constitution and bylaws, set to be approved at an upcoming membership meeting, merely prohibit members from holding a position in the mosque if they hold "a similar position in another mosque within [a] 5 miles (sic) radius of the Baitul Mukarram mosque." This language leaves an obvious loophole for MUNA-affiliated activists to exert control over the BIC, Islam states.
The controversy over the change in the constitution prompted the Executive Board to hire two armed security guards to keep order at a July 29, 2023 membership meeting. Meeting minutes indicate that the security guards were hired in response to physical confrontations that took place at a June 3 meeting of a discussion meeting regarding changes to the constitution. Islam says the guards were present at the July 29 meeting to intimidate critics of the Executive Board into silence.
Not so, reports Quayum. "This is part of our normal process as a safety precaution," he wrote in an email to FWI. "Whenever there is a large gathering like Jumuah prayer, Eid prayers and all members meeting, we normally hire security guards."
The allegations of BIC affiliating with MUNA are clearly a source of concern to the mosque's leadership. Quayum was emphatic in phone and email communications with FWI that the mosque remains independent from any outside influence. "There is no scope [sic] to take it over by any entity or organization," he wrote in an email to FWI. He was equally emphatic in a phone conversation with FWI, declaring, "If anybody gives you wrong information, if you publish something wrong, there will be consequences."
Islam, who expresses fear that he may be the target of retribution for raising the alarm about what is happening at the BIC, remains resolute in his efforts to keep the mosque free from the influence of MUNA because of its affiliations with JI in Bangladesh, which has been accused of arson as part of a campaign to intimidate citizens into staying away from voting booths on election day in that country.
"Jamaat is one of the main contributors to unrest in Bangladesh," Islam said. "We want this mosque to be free from MUNA or any other political organization."
Dexter Van Zile is managing editor for Focus on Western Islamism.