The mosque that Saddam built |

The mosque that Saddam built

Amit R. Paley

WASHINGTON – When a generous benefactor donated $500,000 to help build a teal-domed mosque amid the rolling tobacco fields of Southern Maryland, nobody paid much attention to the source of the money.But a quarter-century and two Gulf Wars later, there is considerably more interest in the philanthropist: former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.Saddam’s donation came at a time when he was a quiet U.S. ally, not a bitter enemy. Now, with Saddam on trial in Baghdad for crimes against humanity, it has caused unexpected problems for the tiny Muslim community in Calvert County, an overwhelmingly Christian peninsula where some view the donation as the mosque’s original sin.In recent years, vandals have smashed the building’s windows and spread false rumors that its members were terrorists or Iraqi agents. The attacks have slowed, and many Calvert residents have rallied behind the Mosque That Saddam Built, as the Southern Maryland Islamic Center is referred to privately by some of its neighbors. But some suspicion lingers.Most worshippers there decline to discuss the mosque’s genesis: an Old Testament-sounding tale that began with an unexpected visit from a foreigner in flowing robes, who turned out to be Saddam’s uncle, and culminated with a fateful journey to a distant Middle Eastern palace.”We don’t deserve this persecution,” said Emad Al-Banna, 67, the mosque’s imam, who said he fled his native Iraq before Saddam had some of his relatives killed. “We didn’t do anything wrong. We have no connection now to Saddam Hussein and no connection to September 11.”The particular circumstances of the Southern Maryland Islamic Center might be unique – experts say they are unaware of other mosques in the country funded primarily by Saddam – but the deep-rooted fear among its members underscores a more widespread concern among Muslims: They worry that their communities, on some level, still view them as terrorists.When Al-Banna arrived in Calvert in 1971 to work as a doctor, only three Muslims lived in the county. He came because Issam Damalouji, a doctor and native Iraqi who lived in Calvert and knew Al-Banna’s father, said it was an ideal place to live.Al-Banna, who was born in Mosul, in northern Iraq, and moved to the United States in 1966, wasn’t sure at first that he wanted to live in a rural enclave dominated by tobacco farmers and watermen. “I thought it was the end of the world,” he said. “There was nothing here.”There weren’t enough Muslims to form a proper prayer group, so Al-Banna and the others worshipped in their homes. As he began to fall in love with the county, other Muslim doctors arrived. Soon the half-dozen Muslims at Calvert Memorial Hospital requested permission to meet in the chapel and hold Friday prayers there.Still, they longed for a building to call their own.Then one day about 25 years ago, a tall stranger in a long Middle Eastern robe walked into Damalouji’s office. The man had an ulcer and asked Damalouji to help him.It turned out that the patient was Saddam’s uncle, who visited the area after the Iraqi Embassy recommended Damalouji as a doctor. After Damalouji operated, the grateful man, whose name Al-Banna said he does not remember, arranged for him to travel to Baghdad with a delegation of Iraqi Americans scheduled to meet with Saddam.Damalouji declined to comment on that trip, saying he didn’t want to attract attention to his visit with Saddam. But Al-Banna agreed to recount the story of Damalouji’s encounter with Saddam, which he has heard told many times.”What do you need over there?” Saddam casually asked the Iraqi Americans.A nun from the Midwest, who was part of the delegation, stood up. “Mr. President, we need a school for our church,” she said.When he asked how much money would be needed, the nun said the project would cost $4.5 million.”Done,” Saddam said before turning to an assistant. “Get them the money right away.”Sensing an opportunity, Damalouji decided to try his luck and settled on a $500,000 request, which Saddam agreed to donate on the spot. When Damalouji returned home, his colleagues joshed him for being outbid by a nun.But Al-Banna realized quickly that accepting the money from Saddam presented a moral dilemma, particularly given his family’s long and tortured history with the tyrant.Al-Banna fled Iraq in 1963, shortly after Saddam’s Baath Party began to rise to power. Al-Banna’s father and brother had been jailed, and another sibling had been exiled to Egypt because of the family’s opposition to Saddam’s policies.”He was just terrorizing everybody and killing everybody,” Al-Banna said.But Al-Banna, a longtime Republican in the United States, was also greatly influenced by Saddam’s loose alliance with the Reagan administration at the time. “Saddam Hussein was a favorite son of America,” Al-Banna said. “I thought if President Reagan likes him, he must be OK.””I really had conflicted feelings,” he said.In the end, though, Al-Banna decided the mosque’s planners could not turn down the gift. “I accepted the money because it belongs to the Iraqi people,” he said. “It is not Saddam Hussein’s money. He stole it.”Damalouji and a Christian Calvert resident donated six acres across the street from the hospital to build the mosque, which was completed in 1986. The 7,448-square-foot hexagonal building, with a slender minaret spiraling into the sky and three arches framing its entrance, cost $650,000, .An official from the Iraqi Embassy snapped pictures during the opening and sent them to Saddam. But the mosque leaders decided not to create a plaque commemorating his gift or to honor him in any way.”At one of our meetings, someone said, ‘What do you think about putting his name on the mosque?’ ” Al-Banna recalled. “Ninety-nine percent of the members said: Absolutely not.”After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, though, everyone paid a lot more attention to the mosque.Vandals broke the windows soon after the attacks, said Anwar Munshi, a mosque board member. And soon malicious gossip accused members of the mosque – especially Al-Banna and Damalouji – of being terrorists and spies for Iraq.Much of the rumormongering was fueled by individuals suspicious of the mosque’s connection to Saddam, said Rev. Russell McClatchey, a local minister.One day when the mosque leaders re-tarred its roof, causing smoke to billow up, neighbors began claiming that FBI agents had raided the building after they identified it as a terrorist cell, according to one rumor Al-Banna heard. Another time, a woman yelled about him loudly in the checkout aisle at the supermarket.”Did you hear that Dr. Al-Banna and his family were just arrested because they are terrorists?” Al-Banna recalled the woman asking.McClatchey, then-president of the Calvert County Christian Clergy Council, said some members of the group refused to attend a meeting shortly after Sept. 11 because he’ invited Al-Banna to speak. When he organized a unity service that fall to show support for the mosque, McClatchey said fewer than 20 of the 70 or so clergy members he invited showed up.”A number of them just didn’t want to attend a meeting in the same room as a Muslim,” he said.The mosque’s worshippers, now including a core of 20 families, also received gestures of support, such as interfaith events and a bouquet of flowers placed on the front of the mosque by a patient of one of the worshippers.Al-Banna said he strongly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq because of the violence that any war inevitably causes and its potential impact on his three sisters and brother, who live in Iraq.As for Saddam’s trial, Al-Banna said it is a waste of time. He said there are far more important priorities for his war-torn country – security, education and infrastructure.”I have very mixed feelings about this trial. It’s definitely going to open some painful wounds,” he said. “And more importantly, why would I want to waste my time thinking about Saddam Hussein?”Vail, Colorado

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