The Immigration Imams

The Immigration Imams
By Patrick Poole | December 7, 2006

It was a busy November for Mahdi Bray, the Executive Director of the Muslim American Society’s Freedom Foundation. When he wasn’t busy scrolling through his Blackberry looking for the phone numbers of his friends in the national mainstream media to complain about the treatment of the six “flying imams” (who were deboarded from a U.S. Airways flight for running mock terror operations), Bray was desperately trying to keep the attention of those same media allies focused away from the news of the arrest of two of his Boston area associates – all while simultaneously trying to rouse the local Muslim masses to free his comrades.

The story of the immigration imams began with an eight-state sweep of visa fraud arrests by U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) officials on November 15th, which netted 33 suspects. Included in the sweep was Hafiz Abdul Hannan, imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Lowell in Chelmsford, and Muhammed Massod, imam of the Islamic Center of New England in Sharon. The Boston Chapter of the Muslim American Society (MAS) – an organization founded by members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood – immediately rose to the imams’s defense, joined by the Massachusetts ACLU and the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Mahdi Bray is a regular speaker at Hannan’s Islamic Society of Greater Lowell’s Chelmsford mosque.


Both men were arrested for their connection to a massive visa fraud scheme uncovered in a multi-year investigation. According to ICE, the fraud involves the issuance of visas to primarily Pakistani individuals under the Religious Worker Program, which requires that the applicant works solely as a religious worker and hold no secular employment.


The authorities have accused Masood of violating immigration laws in the 1990s when he was a student studying in the U.S. His visa required that he had to return to Pakistan for at least two years before returning to the U.S. – a condition he claims he fulfilled – but ICE officials have presented in court a copy of a traffic ticket issued to Masood during the time he claims he was in Pakistan, which bears Masood’s signature. Masood and officials at the mosque have known of the concerns of ICE officials since 2003, but his arrest may have been triggered by his current attempts to obtain a green card (Masood and his son were arrested when they came to the ICE offices for a meeting about their green card). Both imams are currently free on bond.


But more serious allegations surround the arrest of the two imams. The immigration papers for both Masood and Hannan were obtained with the help of Muhammad Khalil, the imam of a Brooklyn mosque who was convicted in 2004 of a massive smuggling operation for submitting hundreds of false visa applications under the Religious Workers Program. Over more than a decade, Khalil had used his mosque, run out of a basement of a greeting card store, to sponsor more than 200 Middle Eastern Muslims who had paid Khalil fees ranging from $5,000 to $8,000 for a religious worker visa, which authorities claimed netted Khalil more than $600,000 during the life of the scam. Once in the U.S., the illegal aliens worked at gas stations and various other jobs entirely unrelated to mosque. Prosecutors also had audio recordings of Khalil advocating violent jihad, and warning his followers to arm themselves in anticipation of another 9/11-style attack. Masood’s visa application listed Khalil as his sponsor, and Hannan not only entered the country with Khalil’s help, but worked for Khalil for three-and-a-half years in Brooklyn while the smuggling operation was ongoing before moving to Boston.


No mention of the imams’s arrest has been made by the national mainstream news media, and the only major news outlet covering the story, the Boston Globe (owned by the New York Times), has dedicated its coverage mostly to airing the grievances of the imams’ supporters. Bloggers Miss Kelly and Solomonia have picked up the mainstream media’s slack with extensive coverage of the issue, in addition to a local South Boston paper, the Patriot Ledger.


The supporters of the two imams have cast their case as a fight for religious liberty and have claimed that the arrests were driven by a climate of fear flamed by the fires of “Islamophobia.” The Islamic Center of New England said in a statement that the arrest of the two imams “seems to be a direct attack at our religion and community.” One of Mahdi Bray’s MAS associates, Bilal Kaleem, told the Boston Globe that the arrests “hurts civil liberties, it polarizes the community from society, and it’s just not helpful in the long run.” And the Rev. Fred Small of the First Unitarian Church issued a statement of for Masood, in addition to several others from various “interfaith” leaders, thanking him for his past support of the Fast to Slow Global Warming initiative, and said that “[w]hatever the underlying facts, in the context of post-9/11 anti-Muslim bias and selective prosecution, these arrests are troubling.” Masood’s brother, an imam at the Worcester Islamic Center, indicated to the Boston Globe that he believed the government had targeted his brother because of his prominence within the community.


However, none of the imams’ supporters made mention of the terrorism connections involved in this case. Not only was Hafiz Abdul Hannan an associate and former employee of convicted immigration smuggler and jihadist preacher Muhammad Khalil, Hannan is also the brother-in-law of the notorious Pakistani terrorist leader Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, who heads the al-Qaeda financed Jamaat al-Dawa. Saeed, known as the “pious murderer,” is responsible for launching suicide attacks against India’s Parliament House in 2001 and the killing of thousands of Indian soldiers over the past decade in what he claims is the “freedom struggle” to liberate the disputed Kashmir region from “Indian occupation.” Saeed’s operations in the region have come close to provoking nuclear war between India and Pakistan. And in addition to the involvement of Saeed’s entire family in Pakistan in the running of the Jamaat al-Dawa facilities, a July 2002 report by the Kashmir Times states that not only is his brother-in-law, Hannan, residing in the U.S., but so are two of Saeed’s brothers – one runs a mosque and another is obtaining a Ph.D. from an American university. Hannan, in addition to serving as imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Lowell’s Chelmsford mosque, is a Muslim chaplain for the state prison system and the Middlesex County Jail.

 In defense of the two imams, the MAS has sponsored an online petition for supporters to express their hopes “that immigration officials will be sensitive to their leadership positions in their communities,” and stating their concern regarding “the way these cases have been handled to date and request that immediate action be taken to bring a fair and speedy resolution to this issue.”  

Last Friday, Mahdi Bray’s MAS Freedom Foundation sponsored an open forum featuring MAS-Boston President Hossam al-Jobri, a representative from the ACLU, board members of both mosques, Hafiz Abdul Hannan’s attorney, and an appearance by Hannan himself. Miss Kelly has posted a report of the meeting. According to that report, attendees were told “Don’t trust the government, don’t talk to the FBI, get a lawyer” and warned that “Muslims are being picked on, this could happen to you, you could be picked up for no reason and hauled off to jail.” In recent weeks, MAS has sent out numerous requests for donations to help finance the opposition to the arrest of the imams, and at least $6,000 was raised at last Friday’s meeting alone.

 Area residents concerned about allegations of the two Muslim leaders in their communities have launched their own online petition drive, thanking ICE officials for their efforts in enforcing our nation’s immigration laws, assuring them of their support as they pursue this matter, and expressing their confidence the matter will be handled “in a fair manner consistent with the vigorous application of the rule of law and without regard to pressure group tactics which will attempt to stifle your efforts.”  

Both Miss Kelly and Solomonia have encouraged their readers to join with the Boston-area residents in supporting their online petition. But according to Miss Kelly, she has been contacted by several local Muslims who would like to add their names to the counter-petition effort, but have expressed concerns over the potential consequences. One contacted her and said, “Many Muslims from the ICNE community wanted to sign your petition but are afraid.”


Concerns of moderate Muslims in the Boston area are not unfounded. In 2005, a moderate imam that had served the Islamic Center of New England for 23 years was ousted from his position and forbidden to preach after a takeover by supporters who brought in a more extremist preacher. The takeover of the mosque was launched after Imam Talal Eid had prayed for President George Bush and condemned the violence committed by Muslims in Iraq. Several moderate board members also resigned in protest at the takeover. Even then, some of the members of the mosque expressed concerns about Masood’s immigration status, as seen in a June 2005 Patriot Ledger article on the takeover.


Many of the moderate Muslims at the mosque eventually left the mosque in frustration over the new direction, entrenching the hold of the radicals over the organization. Those same Muslims who left the Islamic Center may feel some vindication from the arrest of the two imams, but others may be concerned that their own mosque may be targeted for takeover if they speak out in support of the ICE’s investigation.

If recent history is an indicator, there may be substance to their fears.

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