The Untold Story of American Foreign Policy Unraveling at Home
On June 28th, 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower addressed a crowd of American and Muslim diplomats gathered at the Islamic Center of Washington’s inauguration. Speaking from under marble columns and turquoise floral tiles he declared that the United States held a “strong bond of friendship with the Islamic nations” and called for the “peaceful progress of all men under one God.” Capitalizing on Eisenhower’s visit to the Islamic Center, the State Department began broadcasting and distributing printed copies of the president’s remarks throughout countries with significant Muslim populations. Egyptian newspapers published photographs of President Eisenhower and Mrs. Eisenhower removing their shoes as they entered the mosque. In Iran, state news media gave extensive coverage to the speech and leading clerics contacted the U.S. Embassy to express their gratitude. The State Department ordered photographs and posters of the Islamic Center of Washington to be printed in mass quantities in French, Arabic, and English at embassies in Dakar, Karachi, Dhaka, Algiers, Tunis, and Damascus.
In the wake of World War II, with the crumbling of Europe’s old colonial order and the beginning of the Cold War, the United States sought to utilize the Islamic character of countries like Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and others in order to thwart the spread of communism in the region. As the United States built a postwar empire, the Islamic Center of Washington became a local link between Washington and the Muslim world–a local mosque with the headquarters of American empire in its own backyard.
From Eisenhower’s speech at the Center’s inauguration in 1957 to the D.C. hostage crisis in 1977, and from the Iranian Revolution in 1979 to George W. Bush’s landmark speech on Islam after 9/11, the Islamic Center of Washington has always been more than merely a place of worship for D.C. area Muslims. The Islamic Center’s unique location on Embassy Row, home to dozens of embassies and diplomatic families, allowed the mosque to connect Washington with Muslims not only in the D.C. area, but also across the globe. As a local newspaper proclaimed in the fall of 1953, the mosque’s “graceful minaret” marked “Washington as more than ever a world city.”
The Islamic Center of Washington was the fruit of a collaborative effort undertaken by a local Palestinian-American businessman, A. Joseph Howar, (born Mohammed Issa Abu Al-Hawa) and Muslim diplomats from twelve different countries based in Washington. Howar’s decision to build a mosque came after the death of Turkish diplomat Munir Ertegun in the fall of 1944, father of the famed Motown producers Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertegun. At Ertegun’s funeral, Howar told Ambassador Mahmoud Hassan Pasha of Egypt that it was a shame that the prayer service for “such a great Muslim could not be held in a proper mosque.” Howar and his wife, Bader, then became among the first to contribute funds to a small committee tasked with creating adequate prayer facilities for Muslim diplomats in Washington D.C. That small committee ultimately became the official Washington Mosque Foundation, with Howar as treasurer and Pasha as president. The Foundation finally purchased land on the corner of Massachusetts and Belmont Avenue in April 1946.
In The History of the Islamic Center: From Dream to Reality, a self-published chronicle of the mosque’s short history by Muhammad Abdul Rauf, father of Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam deduced that Ambassador Pasha may have been influenced by his diplomatic counterpart in London, Ambassador Hassan Nachat Pasha, who had convened a meeting four years earlier with senior Muslim diplomats to build a central mosque in the British capital. Similar to the concerns of postwar, not-yet-independent Muslim diplomats in Washington, Muslim diplomats in London felt that the Muslim subjects of King George IV, according to Rauf’s book, “exceeded in number his Christian subjects, and that many Moslems from the British Empire as well as from friendly countries such as Egypt, Iraq, and Arabia were having their children educated at British Universities but were deprived of the means of keeping up their religious duties during their studies in England.” The deed for the Central Mosque in London was signed in 1944, two weeks before discussions began between Howar and Ambassador Pasha in Washington.
Funds for the mosque project arrived from the diplomatic missions of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, Aramco oil officials, and budding Muslim and Arab communities in Los Angeles, Detroit, and New York City. Among the prominent foreign donors were the Nizam of the Indian principality of Hyderabad, King Saud Ibn Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia, and King Farouk of Egypt. By 1951, donations from Pakistan ($296,000) and Egypt ($331,806) had allowed construction to begin. King Saud made a $50,000 supplementary gift and underwrote many of the remaining expenses.
Construction officially began in 1951 when the State Department intervened on behalf of the Islamic Center and allowed the mosque to receive an allotment of 41 tons of steel, leaping over 62 churches denied building materials that same year by the National Production Authority during a shortage resulting from the Korean War. Founded in the period marking the end of an era and the beginning of another, the mosque’s purpose, according to Hassan Hosny, the Center’s director for much of the 1950s, was to “lead to better international understanding and to good will at a time when the world is in dire need of both.”
ARCHITECTURE AND IDENTITY
The Islamic Center’s architecture, by coincidence or design, exhibited a vision of a postcolonial global Islamic identity, possible only in a place like Embassy Row in Washington where Muslim diplomats from all over the world were gathered. No other mosque in the world had brought together so many elements from various Muslim cultures, leaving Pakistani Ambassador Muhammad Ali to note to the press that the mosque’s features were without parallel, “built by an assembly of Muslim nations.”
Egypt donated glass lamps and a two-ton chandelier and sent workmen to create the mashrabiyas (screens) and craft Quranic verses adorning the walls and ceiling of the mosque. Iran sent traditional rugs woven on special command of the shah, complete with delicate Persian script reading, “The Gift of His Imperial Majesty the shah of Iran to the Washington Mosque.” Malaysia donated the dome; Morocco, the stained glass windows; Turkey, blue tiles similar to those in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and Iraq, yellow glass. Pakistan’s premier, Liaquat Ali, whose country’s donations to the mosque equaled its annual contributions to the United Nations, presented the ceiling to floor green gilded velvet hangings. The Afghan government made “the most appealing gift,” according to the Washington Post, an “unestimated quantity of semiprecious stones” that ornamented the mihrab (prayer niche).”
The exterior architecture and decoration of the building imitated the conventional mosque architecture of the Middle East. The Islamic Center’s architect, Mario Rossi, worked for years as assistant to Ernesto Verucci Bey, who was Egypt’s chief court architect in the early 20th century. Rossi’s sense of individual artistic flourish came through subtly stylized decorations in the shape of the minaret and the dome. Although the mosque’s exterior architecture was by no means controversial, its material makeup differed from most buildings in Cairo. A hybrid built with both steel and granite, a newspaper remarked that the Islamic Center was the “only mosque in the world with a touch of Pittsburgh in its plenum.” The Islamic Center’s architecture is an overlooked, patchwork achievement fitting right into a moment of intense international political and architectural exchange, particularly among postwar modernists.
When it was finally completed, the mosque had become somewhat of a local tourist attraction. The Islamic Center could be found on travel brochures listed next to the Washington Cathedral as sites of worship that welcome visitors. Student groups frequented the mosque to learn more about Islam and the lands that Muslims came from. The mosque’s aesthetic entry onto Embassy Row even drew sympathy from a writer who tried to draw attention away from violence in the region. “If the contention…that the physical forms a people create,” she penned in a letter to the Washington Post, “tell the truth about it better than anything else, then the Washington Mosque reveals more about Islam than the commando raids on Israel.”
COSMOPOLITANS ABROAD: MUSLIM DIPLOMATS IN WASHINGTON
Meanwhile, Washington D.C. was still a segregated Jim Crow-era southern city where diplomats from Asia and Africa were routinely turned away from housing and restaurants because of their skin color. The problem had reached such a level that President Eisenhower infamously issued an apology to a Nigerian diplomat refused service at a restaurant in Delaware. Only a few years later, President Kennedy, sensing that Washington would likely feel no different than the colonized places these diplomats came from, asked State Department officials to notify specific whites-only establishments of their new neighbors in order to not only avoid further public embarrassment, but also create a hospitable environment for diplomats from countries that the U.S. wanted to win over in the Cold War.
The Washington Post’s coverage from the period captured the racialized nature of the moment in its tone toward Embassy Row and its new Muslim visitors and inhabitants, attempting to make more legible, and thus obscure, the difference between the foreign elite and their American counterparts. In 1952, King Faisal II of Iraq, then only 17 years old, paid a visit and was greeted by emissaries of eleven other Muslim nations. “I was profoundly touched by your statement that this institute,” the King said, “offers a concrete example of what can be achieved in Muslim countries in cooperation with each other. I pray that I may be granted to serve the cause of Islamic cooperation and, through serving it, serve peace in the world.” The article took care to remark that Faisal spoke in a “crisp British accent, containing no traces of his native Arabic.”
One article from the period took care to describe King Saud of Saudi Arabia as “although not Western-educated, he has in many ways out-Westerned Westerners by his skill in sports like tennis; his command of languages, Spanish, French, besides Arabic; and by cautious approach to inflammable political problems.” When Ambassador Muhammad Ali of Pakistan visited the mosque in 1954 and asked to take a photograph of the diplomats and mosque, the Post remarked that he had said it “just like any American photographer.” Those who posed for him included his wife, the ambassadors of Egypt, Turkey, Afghanistan, Jordan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan and their wives. The various cosmopolitan affectations that these Muslim diplomats had learned at elite institutions in their home countries and abroad made them appear acceptable in the eyes of white Americans in Jim Crow-era Washington.
Joseph Howar and Ambassador Pasha were key players in both the diplomatic and social life of Embassy Row in mid-century Washington. If the embassy was where diplomacy was discussed, then the home was where trust and friendship between diplomats congealed. During World War II, Ambassador Pasha of Egypt gave speeches in Washington on the “necessary factors in a real peace that will insure the permanent freedom of all peoples,” declaring that “the Eastern races want the ‘four freedoms’ for everybody and everywhere.” In addition to Pasha’s lobbying efforts on behalf of postcolonial Egypt, he and his wife had steadily made it into the capital’s social ring. Two years after the end of the World War II, Pasha and his wife held a reception at the Egyptian Embassy that was attended by the entirety of Washington’s diplomatic and social elite. “Until now,” read the Washington Post, “their parties are among the most scintillating in town.”
Howar played an important mediating role between the State Department and the Muslim world by hosting the ambassadors of Lebanon (1952, 1958, 1962), Iran (1954), Jordan (1959), Syria (1962), and Saudi Arabia (1943, 1965) at his home a few miles north of the Islamic Center. The Washington Post described one dinner held at Howar’s home for Saudi royals and the families of ambassadors from Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, as akin to “seeing the court of Caliph Haroun al Raschid [of the Arabian Nights], better than anything heretofore seen in Washington.” Howar’s diplomatic parties played an integral role in making the key political players in American postwar foreign policy feel a sense of home when visiting Washington D.C., a city that was itself in the midst of an intense civil rights struggle. Furthering the claim that Washington had become a cosmopolitan world city, the newspaper continued: “The thing that made this party different from any others given for the princes since their arrival in this country was that it was given in true Arabian fashion, such a party as would be given for them in their own land.”
Summarizing the diplomatic parties of the 1950s and 1960s, the Washington Post featured a lengthy story solely devoted to parties held at Arab embassies in Washington, writing that “the Arabs dominated diplomatic entertaining in Washington” and that “it was really the native bit that did it—while other embassies were offering imitation French, the Arabs provided authentic Arabia.” The White House extended invitations to numerous presidential dinners to thank Howar for his service to his country. President Nasser of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan separately awarded Howar national honors for his efforts to organize social gatherings and cultivate trust between dignitaries and policymakers in the United States and Muslim-majority world.
CONSTRUCTING AN EDIFICE
While official rhetoric surrounding the Islamic Center of Washington contained overtures of international goodwill and understanding, the State Department used the mosque as part of its early Cold War propaganda campaigns abroad. In a confidential 1952 memo, the State Department called for the need to show that “the United States is interested [in Arabs] as individuals and equals about whom we wish to be better informed and with whom we wish to establish better personal relationships and more complete understanding.” By becoming a state-sanctioned center of Muslim life in the diplomatic heart of the nation’s capital, the Islamic Center of Washington easily emblemized an America that cared for Arabs and Muslims at home and abroad.
The mosque’s presence in Washington constantly paralleled to the burgeoning Cold War relationships between the United States and Muslim-majority nations. Hassan Hosny, the Director of the Islamic Center of Washington in the 1950s, referred to the mosque as a “Washington showpiece,” not only for its architecture but also as a symbol of the “fruitful cooperation and permanent unity, the solidarity of the Muslim world, and our hope of promoting with other God-fearing peoples peace, freedom, and democracy.” As conflict in Israel and Palestine reached a boiling point and nationalist Egypt began to make claims on the Suez canal, the Washington Post remarked, “East and West have defied Rudyard Kipling by meeting several thousand miles west of Suez…[in a] bustling hub of international activity.”
Placing this envoy-in-stone alongside the Cold War politics of the postcolonial period underscores the tensions between the liberal rhetoric and geopolitical motives behind this meeting between East and West. Leaders visited the Islamic Center of Washington including many unelected, American-friendly leaders from the Muslim world, including General Ayub Khan of Pakistan,King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, andShah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran. The American government produced short films documenting each presidential visit. The pageantry shown in the videos, demonstrate the significance of the Islamic Center as a diplomatic pit stop highlighting American commitment to religious pluralism and accommodation of Muslims.
Shah Pahlavi of Iran visited Washington just a year after his reinstatement in 1953 with the help of American-led coup. In a sense, it must have felt like a homecoming: Pahlavi waved away a limousine outside the Iranian Embassy and walked down Massachusetts Avenue straight to the Washington mosque, five blocks away. The Shah’s guides at the mosque included Mahmoud Hoballah, Hassan Hosny, and Joseph Howar, the individual mediators between the United States government and the Muslim world. After his visit to the Center, Shah Pahlavi lunched with the Army Chief of Staff and Assistant Secretary of State. While it may seem like an ordinary stop for the Shah, the casual walk from the embassy to the Center allowed the unpopular Iranian leader to feel a sense of normalcy that he would have not have been allowed in his home country.
THE STATE DEPARTMENT’S PROPAGANDA
The construction of the Islamic Center of Washington occurred alongside the development of early Cold War propaganda and the mosque itself was used as part of the machinery to win the hearts and minds of the postcolonial world. As the United States began to replace Britain as the new power in the Middle East, the National Security Council divided the region into three major categories to prevent Soviet expansion: (1) countries whose neutrality in the Cold War was of little material significance (Israel), (2) countries whose leaders were committed to pro-Western policies but where there was substantial public opposition (Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iran), and (3) governments that professed a desire to follow a neutral foreign policy, yet actively hindered Anglo-American policy (Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia).
The American position among these decolonizing nations took up a language of self-determination abroad alongside a determination to simultaneously increase American power in the postcolonial world. While President Eisenhower made overtures toward the Muslim world in his inaugural speech at the Islamic Center, he said in private meetings that President Nasser of Egypt embodied “the emotional demands of the people of the area for independence and for slapping the White Man down.” Eisenhower described nationalists inspired by Nasser in Lebanon as deeply rooted in “violence, emotion, and ignorance” and complained that Arabs “cannot understand our ideas of freedom or human dignity.” Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, however, personally told Prime Minister Muhammad Naguib that the United States wanted to set Egypt free from European colonialism. While the American agenda may seem contradictory and conflicting, the rhetoric of gifting both freedom and demanding subservience was a well-rehearsed feature belonging to the theater of imperial rule.
Envisioning a broader propaganda campaign to engage the Muslim-majority world, the State Department deployed the image of the Islamic Center abroad to highlight religious pluralism in the United States during a time of intense criticism abroad over both domestic racial conflict and the building of an American empire abroad. In 1951, the State Department formed a set of guidelines for religious propaganda: “a) to increase understanding abroad of the historic and continuing influence of moral and spiritual forces in American life; b) to promote on the basis of the common elements in our faiths, mutual respect and understanding with all peoples who cherish like ethical and spiritual values; c) to enlist the cooperation of all peoples in the defense of moral and spiritual freedom against the threat of Communist totalitarianism.”
The propaganda efforts employing the Islamic Center of Washington included posters, a film script, and a mosque-drawing contest. A private letter written by the first U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Edward Savage Crocker, to the State Department, describes the posters that the United States Information Center in Baghdad placed at the front window of their office. Copies of the letter were mailed to American embassies in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Jordan. The first poster compared the lack of religious freedom in communist states to the “complete freedom of religious expression in the United States.” The display showed the communist state as a “big bully maltreating a man labeled ‘Religion.’” Posters like these were printed in Algeria, Senegal, Ghana, Iraq, Syria, India, Tunisia, Pakistan, and Yugoslavia.
The posters outlined the State Department’s goals in utilizing the Islamic Center. “With good fortune,” he wrote, “we were able to give solid support to our assertions about religion in the United States by showing at the same time photographs of the construction of the new Washington mosque on Massachusetts Avenue.” Heading into uncharted diplomatic territory, Crocker claimed that he was “endeavoring to ascertain how far we can go in overt anti-Communist and anti-Soviet propaganda.” Two Iraqi newspapers responding to the embassy displays, stated: “We know [communism’s] evils already, and we don’t care to hear to hear from the Americans who betrayed us in Palestine about evils of which we are already aware.”
In March 1952, State Department officials Harold Glidden and G. Huntington Damon discussed in a private meeting the utility of religion and the Islamic Center of Washington in U.S. propaganda material in the Middle East. Gliddon suggested that perhaps the State Department should not “mess around with religion.” Damon, however, maintained that utilizing Islam as a political tool in courting the Muslim world could become “the most potentially useful thing ever done, but it has to be done correctly.” Damon’s assertion that “they get the impression there is only one [mosque] in Washington,” suggests that Damon not only wanted the State Department to use more American mosques in their material, but also that the Islamic Center of Washington was already being utilized as a diplomatic and propaganda tool. Damon also offered to hold a competition among Washington schoolchildren to paint the Islamic Center and send the images to embassies and schools abroad.
In February 1958, only a few months after the Islamic Center’s inaugural ceremony, the State Department produced a short film, titled “The Washington Mosque.” Other than the film script, there is no other information on this film in the archive about where it might have been shown or why it was made. The script involves “Dr. Esfandiary, his student Bahram, and young Bahram’s friend Jim Smith.” Smith plays a stock white American protagonist who “like many Americans,” the narrator declares, “has never seen a mosque.” Projecting an imagined cosmopolitan space where different cultures could interact and learn from each other onto the reality of Jim Crow Washington, the narrator continued: “A purpose here [at the Islamic Center] is to help all Americans understand Islam’s religious and cultural contributions to the modern world.” The state-sanctioned film not only presented a cosmopolitan image of Islam, but also declared that “in the Washington mosque, East and West are one.”
The State Department’s propaganda in the 1950s utilized the Islamic Center of Washington in order to convey an image of a cosmopolitan United States accepting of Muslims, while obscuring the reality of Jim Crow segregation and the ulterior motives behind American foreign policy. By the end of the script, the narrator states that Smith “will tell his parents and friends about this beautiful place, and they will come to see it, as uncounted thousands of Americans are doing each week.” The call to prayer sounds and the narrator ends the film, declaring: “Jim Smith has sensed Mohamed’s plea to all people: ‘Our origin is one. Our God is one.’”
HOSTAGES HELD AT THE CENTER
The Islamic Center of Washington is perhaps most infamously known as one of three sites used for hostage-taking in 1977 by twelve Muslims belonging to an offshoot of the Nation of Islam, calling themselves “the Hanafi Movement.” The gunmen wanted the government to handover a group of men who had killed several relatives of the Hanafi movement’s leader Hamaas Abdul Khaalis and demanded the government to ban the release of the movie Mohammad, Messenger of God which they had deemed sacrilegious.
It took the intervention of three Muslim ambassadors from countries within the American sphere of influence to end the hostage crisis: Iran’s Ardeshir Zahedi, Pakistan’s Sahabzada Yaqub-Khan, and Egypt’s Ashraf Ghorbal. The Washington Post described the three men in the following order: “[Zahedi] a dashing playboy type, who for a time made the social scene with Elizabeth Taylor”…[Yaqub Khan] a polo-playing British Army officer…[Ghorbal] a tiny intense man considered the leading spokesman for the Arab cause in the United States.” The article mirrored the descriptions offered by the Washington Post in the 1950s and 1960s, taking care to mention that Zahedi was a champagne-enthusiast and Yaqub-Khan a regular on the cocktail rounds.
Once again, the Islamic Center had become a stage for international diplomacy–this time featuring two foreign diplomats with Western-flair and one with a Napoleonic figure intervening in domestic affairs. In the hostage negotiation, the three Muslim ambassadors read passages of the Quran to the gunmen and told the hostage-takers that the words proved Islam’s commitment to compassion and mercy. After 48-hours of negotiations, the 149 hostages were released and the twelve men were all tried and found guilty.
UNRAVELINGS AFTER THE IRANIAN REVOLUTION
International developments in the late 1960s and 1970s ultimately rendered the liberal rhetoric and cosmopolitan sentiment surrounding the Islamic Center of Washington impossible. American-backed anti-communist leaders ruled with iron fists in much of the Middle East and South Asia. As both anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States and anti-American sentiment in the Middle East deepened after the failure of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the Arab oil embargo in 1973 and, most specifically, the success of the Iranian revolution of 1979, the Islamic Center began to reflect some of these global developments at home in Washington.
The Eisenhower administration’s 1953 decision to covertly overthrow the democratically elected Iranian government of Mohammad Mosaddegh, a left-wing reformer who attempted to nationalize Iran’s oil industry, would boomerang back at the steps of the mosque in Washington. As dissent mounted against the reinstalled monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in the 1970s, whose friendship was symbolized through his donation of eleven Persian rugs bearing his own name to the Islamic Center, the mosque became a site of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in support and rejection of the Iranian Revolution.
On August 18, 1978, one thousand demonstrators organized by the Iranian Students Association, marched to the Islamic Center chanting “U.S. police helping the Shah, down with the Shah!” At a similar protest at the Islamic Center in January 1979, a group of women shouted at Iranian-American demonstrators who were handing out leaflets, claiming that they did not want any of their “communist” literature. “We are not communists,” one student replied, “We believe in God.” Following the hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the protests had reached the doorstep of the Islamic Center. Caught in the crossfire between Washington and Tehran, two hundred American anti-Khomeini protesters demonstrated outside the mosque, chanting: “Down with Khomeini, “Free our people,” and “Two, Four, Six, Eight, Serve Khomeini on a plate.” A reporter remarked that the young protesters would have likely been out on the streets calling the United States an “imperialist” and “fascist” nation just five years earlier near the end of the Vietnam War, but were now worried about a sick America whose world power slipped away. President Jimmy Carter attempted to subdue the rising tension by banning virtually all Iran-related public demonstrations in Washington, fearing that the high anti-Iranian sentiment, exemplified by the pelting of eggs and jeering epithets against Iranian-Americans by counter-protesters, could trigger retaliation against the American hostages in Tehran.
By 1980, dissent in Washington surrounding the Iranian Revolution had brought about radical demands on the leadership of the Islamic Center. Until the revolution, the administration of the Islamic Center had essentially been a function of the diplomatic American-backed Muslim elite in Washington. Now, a local middle and working-class immigrant congregation had emerged with a political consciousness influenced by discontent festering in the lands they came from. The Washington Post ran a story on the front page of the local news section, titled “Moslem Strife Reaches Islamic Center: Militants Challenge Leadership.” “About 6,000 miles from the passions of the Middle East,” the article began, “where the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is calling for a holy war against the great American satan, [Abdel] Osman, assistant director of the Center, to his surprise and the surprise of many other Moslems here, has fallen victim to that distant resurgence of Islamic militancy.”
The Islamic Center had become deeply divided by a series of controversies that reflected the ferment of the revolution. The congregation demanded an “activist, overtly political type of leadership for the Center…and a larger voice for the congregation in the way it is governed.” In a symbolic move highlighting their desire for a more overtly political mosque, the dissidents effaced the embroidered name of the late Shah from the Persian carpets he had donated.
Led by Bahram Nahidian, an Iranian-American supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini, the dissidents issued a statement deploring the “hypocritical nature of these self-appointed overlords.” The statement’s puritan rhetoric claimed that the board of governors’ were not properly committed to the faith. “The ambassadors only pay lip service to Islam,” said Nahidian, “…and openly violate Islamic teachings by holding parties where alcohol is not uncommon and where un-Islamic behavior is the rule.” The faction challenging the Islamic Center’s leadership were, according to the Washington Post, “made up of [about 50] militants who urge that strong stands against Zionism and American imperialism be taken by the mosque, some black American Moslems agitating for action against what they see as an anti-black and anti-Islam U.S. society, and foreign-born Moslems, including a number of Iranian and Egyptians, who argue for support of the Iranian revolution and other Middle East Islamic movements.” The dissidents felt the center should take an active role in fashioning American Muslim views on events in the Middle East and elsewhere. They argued that the Center’s leadership was controlled by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, staunch U.S. allies and critics of the Iranian Revolution, who did not allow for the discussion of political issues in the mosque.
The protesters eventually barred mosque director Muhammad Abdul Rauf from giving sermons at the pulpit for a few weeks. A few months later, the Washington Post ran an article on the front page of the Metro section titled “Pro-Iranian Radicals Take Over Services at the Islamic Center,” claiming that the coup was triggered by the “conviction that the American Moslem community has failed to rally behind the Iranians in their war with Iraq.” The protesters refused to allow the Center’s new acting director, Muzammil Siddiqui, to lead the Friday Prayer and demanded that current events and politics be discussed during Friday sermons.
Muhammad Asi, a Lebanese-American imam, was then elected by the dissidents in an election to determine the new imam in November 1981. Subsequently, the dissidents claimed, the Embassy of Saudi Arabia began interfering in the internal affairs of the Islamic Center. The current website of the dissidents of the Islamic Center states that on March 5, 1983 an assortment of law enforcement agencies arrived just before morning prayers and forced Imam Asi and his family out of the Center. Law enforcement officials closed the mosque to the public, claiming suspicion that arms were being kept in the mosque. The Islamic Center remained closed for over three months. During this time, Imam Asi led the Friday congregational prayer on the Center’s lawn. In retaliation, the Embassy of Saudi Arabia requested an iron fence to surround the mosque’s perimeter to prevent the prayers. The fence and the outdoor Friday prayers of the dissidents remain at the site to this day.
The political and religious ideologies of the dissidents were largely undefined. Other than the significant influence of Ayatollah Khomeini and an intense variety of anti-Zionism–that at times more closely resembled anti-Semitic conspiracy theories–their ideology seemed to be made up of one major demand on the Islamic Center: that the mosque’s congregation be allowed to elect its own imam and board of governors. The board of diplomats and ambassadors had declined to grant this request. “The dispute,” the Washington Post summarized in a front page news story, “revolved around differing visions of Islam in the modern world” with the dissidents holding an ideology “like the theocratic government of Iran…[and] a fundamentalist vision in which politics and religion are inseparable.” The dissidents, formed out of the turmoil of the Iranian Revolution and largely supportive of Ayatollah Khomeini, had channeled the spirit of the uprising abroad onto Embassy Row, making political demands on their local mosque and forcing everyday Americans to face the impact of American empire in their home country.
A HISTORY UNTOLD
The events of the late 1970s and early 1980s had a dramatic impact on the Muslim community of Washington D.C. The signing of the Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt and the initial popularity of the Iranian Revolution led to a number of confrontations between the official administration of the Islamic Center and several groups in the community. When the Washington Post declared that the mosque had become a “local stage for tensions seething beneath the surface in the Islamic world and chipping at the political status quo in several Middle Eastern countries with close ties to the U.S.,” it elided the distance between not only diaspora and homeland, but also between empire and emperor. The American empire, the result of decades of espionage, propaganda, and war, was unfolding at its own doorstep. The Islamic Center had once again become a local venue mirroring the changing nature of U.S. foreign policy and geopolitical developments in the region.
Today, the Islamic Center is often remembered for its perseverance in the face of financial constraints that kept the building from being fully realized for nearly fifteen years. While some founders of the mosque envisioned an Islamic institution of higher learning and cross-cultural exchange, the mosque’s diplomatic leadership remained unable to adequately build a civic-minded institution. Instead, the mosque remained a token of American cosmopolitanism and a touristic pit stop for diplomats and Muslim leaders who the United States wished to court, with an apolitical, inward-looking Muslim leadership.
After D.C. police ordered the temporary closure of the Islamic Center, a group of Arab students in the area decided to establish a new mosque in the suburbs to serve the growing number of Muslims who were unable or reluctant to use the mosque on Embassy Row. This endeavor ultimately led to the establishment of a new mosque, Dar al-Hijrah, in suburban Falls Church, Virginia. The founders declared their determination to maintain complete independence from any outside influence, governments, or organizations.
On June 27, 2007, President George W. Bush rededicated the Islamic Center of Washington to a crowd of Muslim
dignitaries on the mosque’s 50th anniversary. “We live in a time,” he said, “when there are questions about America and her intentions. For those who seek a true understanding of our country, they need to look no farther than here.” In an effort to dispel myths of an American-led “war on Islam,” much of the speech emphasized American commitment to religious freedom as an essential part of the War on Terror’s founding principles. Bush’s remarks continued a long history of employing the Islamic Center of Washington as a symbol of American pluralism during a time of deep suspicion at home and abroad of American policy.
The construction of American Islam must be seen through the untold history of the Islamic Center of Washington. The history of the mosque condenses a complex history of relations between the United States and the Muslim-majority world, from the end of World War II to George W. Bush’s speech to Muslims worldwide a week after 9/11. While following the history of American Islam solely through the Islamic Center of Washington obscures the long, largely antagonistic history between African American Muslims and the government, the construction, reception, and use of the mosque during the Jim Crow-era already suggests a deliberate move to erase African Americans from the picture at home and abroad. The abstract and physical structures we create, utilize, and inhabit not only tell us who we are and where we’ve come from, but also how we have been employed by these very structures all along. Followed through its most widely recognized edifice, American Islam has been intimately linked to the flight path of American empire since its inception.