Muslim Cultural Center Appears Near Approval

By David Lepeska, for New York Times, 3/18/2011

A long battle over a proposed mosque in DuPage County is approaching a turning point, and although anti-Muslim sentiment and resistance to mosques in the Chicago area are hardly going away, Muslims appear to be winning this time.

The Muslim Educational and Cultural Center of America, or Mecca, wants to construct a 47,000-square-foot building in Willowbrook, one that includes a school, a recreational center and a 600-person prayer hall. The plan has been scaled back since a county committee rejected an earlier proposal in January, and the smaller building is considered likely to be approved by the DuPage County Board, which has the final say.

The Mecca proposal is one of four mosque-related plans to come before the DuPage Board in recent years as the Chicago-area Muslim community has grown significantly. The rhetoric that has followed has highlighted tensions about development of the rural and suburban county and has exposed anti-Muslim sentiment.

More than 400,000 Muslims live in the Chicago area, the majority of them in the suburbs. Zaher Sahloul, chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, an advocacy group, said many Muslims had to drive 40 minutes or more to attend Friday prayers at one of 120 mosques in the area. “There is a real need to accommodate this growing community,” he said.

In DuPage County, the battle over the proposals underscores a broader demographic shift. The DuPage Federation on Human Services Reform, a collaboration between government and community groups, said the number of foreign-born residents in the county had increased to 171,000 in 2009, from 71,000 in 1990. Foreign-born residents now make up more than 17 percent of the population of nearly a million in an area long dominated by Caucasian, mostly rural residents.

Accommodation has been hard to come by. In the past year, the DuPage Zoning Board of Appeals has taken advisory votes against the Mecca proposal and another from the Islamic Center of Western Suburbs. The DuPage County Board has rejected a mosque plan from the Irshad Learning Center.

The tensions in DuPage reflect wide-ranging antagonism toward Muslim-Americans. Last year, local residents battled mosque proposals in Tennessee, Wisconsin, California and other states. There was a contentious nationwide debate over a proposed Islamic cultural center near ground zero in Lower Manhattan.

Rhetoric intensified last week at a congressional hearing, led by Representative Peter King, Republican of New York, into the radicalization of some American Muslims. Mr. King, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, has put forward unsubstantiated claims that more than 80 percent of American mosques are run by radical clerics.

“Negative views of Muslims have been increasing in the last 10 years, and the King hearings will likely add to that,” said Mr. Sahloul. “But putting a lot of limitations on where mosques can be built is against our values as Americans.”

In the Chicago area, residents in south suburban Bridgeview voiced opposition over the Bridgeview Mosque Foundation’s expansion of its mosque, partly because of concerns about the presence of radicals within the mosque leadership. Last year, the City of Chicago rejected a plan to build a mosque on the site of a vacant hot dog restaurant in Rogers Park.

The DuPage mosque proposals can be seen as litmus tests — with uncertain results so far. Although the Irshad Learning Center was rejected last year, Mecca appears to be headed for approval of its plan to build on a five-acre wooded plot near 91st Street and Highway 83 in unincorporated Willowbrook. Mecca leaders have cut the size of their plan several times, added underground containment tanks to address flooding concerns and expanded parking space.

“It’s clear that Mecca has gone above and beyond what’s been requested by the board and by their neighbors,” said Amy Lawless Ayala, lead organizer of DuPage United, an umbrella group of local churches, mosques and community associations that backs the proposal.

Mark Daniel, the lawyer for Mecca, said he was optimistic the board would approve the proposal. “At this point there is no legal basis for denial,” he said.

Some Muslims see a proposed DuPage ban on new places of assembly in unincorporated residential areas as a further anti-Muslim act. But one board member, Grant Eckhoff, described it as an attempt to preserve the county’s rural character.

People who live near the Mecca site say they would oppose the plan even if an Ikea store were being proposed. “No one on this block has expressed any worries about religion that I know of,” said William Gerow, 64. “This is a rural neighborhood and that’s an urban development. We have a clash of lifestyles here.”

Constance Gavras, who heads the Kane County chapter of Act! for America, a group known for its anti-Muslim protests, has rallied opposition to DuPage mosque proposals for two years. “A lot of these mosques are directly connected to terrorist organizations,”she said.

When Irshad’s proposal for a three-acre mosque site near Naperville was before the county board last year, Ms. Gavras distributed I.R.S. documents showing that the Alavi Foundation, a New York nonprofit and the subject of an F.B.I. investigation into its ties to the Iranian government-run Bank Melli, contributed $450,000 to Irshad in 2007.

Mahmood Ghassemi, Irshad’s chairman, confirmed the Alavi donation and said Irshad was still repaying an additional $300,000 loan. “We applied for the money and received the money at a time when Alavi was not under investigation,” Mr. Ghassemi said. They were perfectly legal.”

The county board rejected Irshad’s proposal last year even after the group amended it to address community concerns about traffic, hours of operation and parking.

Anti-Muslim activists are “vocal and powerful, and we feel they were the driving force for the county to reject our application,” said Mr. Ghassemi. “We fulfilled all the requirements, so I don’t see any other reason besides being Muslim.”

Still, Mr. Ghassemi said, he has seen very little religious bias during his 13 years living in DuPage.

The Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a national Muslim support group, filed a federal lawsuit against the DuPage Board over the Irshad rejection, alleging discrimination and violation of constitutional rights. According to the filing, a board member, John Hakim, asked at one hearing if “animal sacrifices” would be part of the services. The board has moved to dismiss the case. Mr. Hakim did not return a call for comment.

“We think there is a bias against the Muslim institutions,” said Kevin Vodak, the lawyer for CAIR-Chicago. He noted that the board rejected the Irshad proposal without explanation, which is highly unusual, and that last fall the county took up an amendment to prohibit any new religious institutions in residential areas. “Most of the new proposals are from Muslims,” Mr. Vodak said.

Unusual Suspects

Indian-Americans, hailed as a ‘model minority’ in the US, are all over the news for a variety of wrongdoings. Is Indian culture to blame?

By David Lepeska, for Open magazine, 3/18/2011

NEW YORK - The news early this month hit the Indian-American community like a thunderbolt: Rajat Gupta—iconic, trailblazing executive; philanthropist friend of Bono, Bill Gates and Bill Clinton—had been charged in connection with the biggest case of insider trading in US history.

“One is shocked to learn about Rajat Gupta,” says Sunil Adam, editor of Desi Talk, the leading English-language weekly for South Asians in the US. “He made it big in a sector that is not really known for Indian genius, which makes this all the more tragic.”

The reputation of Gupta and so many other Indian-Americans has long been one of hard work, intelligence and high-profile success, primarily as doctors, engineers, executives and journalists. Picture CNN commentator Dr Sanjay Gupta, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Vinod Khosla, filmmaker M Night Shyamalan, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jhumpa Lahiri or Time magazine editor-in-chief Fareed Zakaria, and you begin to get an idea of how most Americans see their smarter, browner, wealthier and often better-looking compatriots.

Now that legacy may be tarnished. A rash of news-making criminal activity, from theft to embezzlement and financial and journalistic fraud, has Indian-Americans seeming more human, more fallible, than ever before. No tale hits harder than Gupta’s.

Born in Calcutta in 1948, Gupta earned his mechanical engineering degree from IIT Delhi, then an MBA from Harvard Business School. He rose swiftly through the ranks at McKinsey & Co, and in 1994, aged 45, became the prestigious consulting firm’s first foreign-born managing director—and the first India-born CEO of a global US corporation, paving the way for current Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit and PepsiCo Chief Indra Nooyi.

Advising powerful executives and inspiring ambitious Indians worldwide, Gupta held the post as the world’s leading business consultant until his retirement in 2003. Today, he chairs the boards of Harvard Business School, the American India Foundation, Gates Foundation’s Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, which he helped found in 2001.

But on 1 March, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the US stockmarket watchdog, filed a civil complaint against Gupta, alleging that he passed confidential financial information about Goldman Sachs and Procter & Gamble to his friend and business associate Raj Rajaratnam while he sat on the boards of those two firms. Gupta’s lawyer has denied any wrongdoing. “It seems very strange for a man of this stature to fall into this way of getting into trouble,” says Adam. “If it’s true, it has something to do with the almighty hubris that seems to have infected Wall Street.”

The SEC has charged more than 40 defendants in the case, which centres around Galleon, Rajaratnam’s multibillion dollar New York hedge fund. Rajaratnam, a 53-year-old Sri Lankan-American, was arrested in October 2009 and his trial for securities fraud and conspiracy began recently. At least four others involved in the Galleon case are also of Indian heritage. Rajiv Goel, formerly a director at Intel capital, and Anil Kumar, formerly of McKinsey, have both pleaded guilty to insider-trading. Sunil Bhalla, senior vice-president at the billion-dollar tech firm Polycom, has been charged with the same offence. And Samir Barai, head of the now-defunct Barai Capital, has been charged with conspiracy to commit securities and wire fraud.

But the recent bout of Indian-American malfeasance goes well beyond the financial sector. Calcutta-born Anjan Dutta-Gupta, 58, has been charged with paying $10 million in bribes over a 12-year period to secure US naval contracts for his Georgia-based technology firm.

Military engineer Noshir Gowadia, 66, was convicted last year of selling secrets to China about a US stealth fighter jet and sentenced to 32 years in prison. Allegations of suspect bank deals have trailed Sant Singh Chatwal, a well-connected Indian-American hotelier, for more than a decade. And just last month, two Indian-American jewellers in New York City were charged with carrying out a fake heist inspired by the 2001 film Snatch. Authorities say that in December 2008, Atul Shah and Mahaveer Kankariya hired gunmen to dress up as Hasidic Jews and pretend to steal from their safe in an attempt to claim $7 million in insurance money and stave off bankruptcy.

This rash of tabloid-friendly transgressions arrives a year after a promising young Indian journalist in New York, Mona Sarika, was found to have plagiarised large portions of stories she wrote for The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy and The Huffington Post.

It’s mostly unfamiliar territory for a community that Forbes magazine dubbed ‘The New Model Minority’ in 2009. Although America’s 2.6 million Indian-Americans constitute just 1 per cent of the population, they represent 3 per cent of the country’s engineers, 7 per cent of its infotech workers and 8 per cent of its doctors, not to mention an outsized portion of its media personalities.

Median household income among Indian-Americans is more than $97,000, highest among all major US immigrant groups, and more than 40 per cent have a Master’s degree or better—five times the national average.

So, why have these intelligent, successful professionals been committing such lapses in judgement? Some, as Adam suggests, are acts of desperation linked to the Great Recession that began in 2008.

Yet, critics also point to ethnicity-related issues such as the absence of an all-eyes-watching village culture from back home, or, conversely, the lingering influence of India’s infamous culture of corruption. Amy Bhatt analyses the South Asian diaspora as a PhD candidate at the University of Washington who has done field work in India. She’s not buying either of these reasons. First, says Bhatt, sizeable family networks have been re-created in the US in large part because familial re-unification is the primary driver for Indian immigration. Second, most of the businesses involved in these cases were started in the US.

“I don’t know if that culture of corruption could be translated across international borders,” says Bhatt, who was among the victims of Sarika’s plagiarism. “The recourse to culture as an explanation does a bit of harm.”

But another Indian-American observer disagrees. “Maybe there is a certain cultural component to this,” says Adam. For most Indian-Americans, “this Western business culture is relatively new, business ethics are still relatively new,” he elaborates. “In India, the private sector is as corrupt as the state sector—it’s all hand in glove, that is the culture that they come from.”

Adam acknowledges that only a minuscule percentage of the community engages in such crimes, and to stereotype them would be a mistake. But as more Indian-Americans achieve success, there are going to be a few bad apples.

And it’s not the first time. In 2000, Alpna Patel, a Maryland dentist, was convicted of killing her husband in Baltimore, while Kamal Lal, a property owner from Fresno, California, was accused of trading sex with homeless women for discounts on rent.

Today, Indian-Americans have achieved the kind of prominence that draws national media attention. They may be victims of their own success more than of a culture that’s seen to tolerate corruption. “I think the reason these crimes are getting attention is the strong affiliation with the model minority myth,” says Bhatt.

Either way, Indian-Americans, or for that matter anyone ever tempted to manipulate her job to get ahead illegally, might be wise to recall what Gupta, in a 1994 interview, called the fundamental philosophy of India: “Worship work and do it for its own sake.”

Osama and the Arab Spring

By David Lepeska

In recent months, many observers have viewed the wave of protest sweeping the Middle East as indicative of an increasing drive toward democracy and a repudiation of religious extremism. Not former US intelligence analyst Michael Scheuer -- who is convinced that al Qa'eda and other radical Islamist groups plan to fill the vacuums of power left behind.

"Get rid of the tyranny and take advantage of the aftermath," says Scheuer, referring to Egypt in particular. "I think that's what the Muslim Brotherhood is going to do, and that's what al Qa'eda will try to do. I think it's a situation that benefits them enormously."

Contrarian, Cassandra, or a bit of both, Scheuer seems most comfortable going against the grain. In recent weeks he has been promoting his new book, Osama bin Laden, which argues that Washington's misunderstanding of the al Qa'eda leader has the US fighting the wrong war, the wrong way. The Financial Times called it "a needed corrective to most of the airy generalisations about bin Laden and his followers".

The 59-year-old led the CIA's bin Laden unit from 1996 to 1999, then advised his successor from September 2001 until the November 2004 publication of Imperial Hubris. Published anonymously, the book critiqued US counter-terrorism policies and became a bestseller. Found to be its author, Scheuer was thrust into the spotlight and relieved of his CIA duties.

He has since become an equal opportunity offender: denouncing neoconservative nation-building, the invasion of Iraq and the US-Israeli relationship; blaming the Clinton administration for repeated failures to neutralise bin Laden; and criticising fellow authors such as Steve Coll (Ghost Wars and The Bin Ladens) and Lawrence Wright, (the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Looming Tower) for inexpert analyses of Islamic societies.

Sitting in a Chicago hotel, bespectacled and grinning through his grey beard, Scheuer seemed more jolly uncle than monkish analyst. Then he turns to the war on terror. "We're clearly losing," he says. "And it's been through American and western obtuseness, primarily … It's almost like the Marx Brothers are in charge, but the Marx Brothers are smarter - they always win in the end."

For Scheuer, the bungling begins with bin Laden. Most observers believe the al Qa'eda leader and his second-in-command, Ayman al Zawahiri, are hiding in the badlands along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Yet continued search efforts have yielded minimal results.

Scheuer offers a litany of reasons. After 25 years in hiding, bin Laden has become an expert fugitive. It also helps that he is pious, generous, patient, deliberate - and highly successful. "There's no one in the last 50 years who has affected American life more negatively than Osama bin Laden," Scheuer adds.

Yet the CIA closed its bin Laden unit in 2005. This office had previously brought the agency's antiterrorism work under one roof, allowing an agent studying al Qa'eda in the Far East to regularly confer with a colleague looking at the Islamic Maghreb. "Now they're across the hall or in another building," Scheuer explains.

He also believes that inadequate troop numbers further undermine Western efforts to snuff out al Qa'eda. In a country bigger than France, the US's 100,000 soldiers "have to keep Karzai in power, help build a democracy, develop the economy, create a transportation and communications infrastructure from scratch, defeat the Taliban, eradicate heroin and go after Osama in their spare time".

Yet since September 11, al Qa'eda's platform has spread from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia and North Africa. Western forces have reportedly killed thousands of al Qa'eda militants over the years, but these casualties have been replaced by fresh, young fighters. According to Scheuer, insurgencies by their very definition are always pitted against a more powerful enemy. Thus, they place tremendous emphasis on succession.

"The next generation of al Qa'eda is likely to be a little bit more religiously extreme, certainly better educated, more savvy with the tools of modernity and perhaps a little bit more bloody-minded … And we're seeing increasing inroads among young Muslim males, especially in English speaking countries, of al Qa'eda's propaganda."

Scheuer blames two key areas of American foreign policy for continuing to inspire anti-western sentiment. "To say that Israel is a terrible burden and a costly ally for us in the Muslim world is not an opinion, it's a fact," he said.

Controversial in some circles, this view is nothing new for Scheuer. In an April 2009 episode of the Doha Debates, he blamed the Iraq War on "the American fifth column that supports Israel". His opponent, the lawyer and commentator Alan Dershowitz, called him a bigot.

He is also extremely sceptical about America's dependency on foreign oil imports, which he believes compromises the nation's relationship with Saudi Arabia.

"I don't think we can break the status quo of our policies in the Middle East until we do something about energy," adds Scheuer. However, he considers that Obama is unlikely to make that shift with elections looming next year. "In my old age I'm beginning to fear that the only thing that brings change in America is calamity."

His other fear is that this change of policy might come soon. The number of terror plots in the US has increased exponentially. Only last month the FBI arrested a Saudi citizen studying in Texas for plotting to bomb the home of George W Bush). "We're really going to be surprised how many Muslim men in the West turn to violence," says Scheuer.

As for the millions of Arabs turning to nonviolent protest, the received wisdom is that in barely two months they have offered dissatisfied Muslim youth a new path and successfully marginalised al Qa'eda. The leading terrorism analyst and Harvard professor Peter Bergen believes "al Qa'eda is irrelevant" to recent events on Arab streets. The French scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu has said that, for al Qa'eda, "it's not just a defeat, it's a catastrophe."

Yet, Scheuer notes, elections and upheaval across the region have often led to a stronger presence for Islam. Islamists won Algeria's 1991 elections (only to be blocked from taking power by the military). Hamas and Hizbollah gained strength through elections in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon, respectively, while Iraq's governing coalition also has Islamist leanings. And of course the 1979 revolution in Iran resulted in an unbending theocracy.

Scheuer sees Islamism again creeping across the region. Already in post-Ben Ali Tunisia, violence has returned to the streets and a political party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood has begun to regroup. Support for the Islamic Action Front, the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, has increased considerably in recent weeks. In Yemen, where a bloody al Qa'eda affiliate has put down roots, the radical cleric and former bin Laden mentor Abdul Majid al Zindani called last week for the departure of the nation's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

And a recent Pew poll found 95 per cent of Egyptians believed Islam should play a large role in politics, while 85 per cent thought it had positive impact. Add to that, Scheuer contends, the Muslim Brotherhood's experience, deep roots and better organisation than any of the political parties forming in Mubarak's wake and the future appears to be set.

"Do you think 80 million Egyptians, mostly Muslim, in a time of violence, turmoil and chaos, are going to reach for an alien ideology like secular democracy?" asks Scheuer.

appeared in the 18 March 2011 The National, www.thenational.ae