MOYERS: Good evening and welcome to a work in progress.
We're calling our program "NOW" because we want to take on issues
and report stories that are urgent to people right now.
First up, in the months since September 11, most of us have
been wrestling with the fact that we really don't know much
We've learned that Muslims too can pray to a god of love
or a god of hate and this has left people uneasy about their
NOW's Juan Williams went to Cleveland, where residents were
suddenly asking questions about Imam Fawaz Damra.
JUAN WILLIAMS: He's the spiritual leader to some
5,000 Muslims at the Islamic Center of Greater Cleveland,
and over the last ten years, Imam Fawaz Damra was known as
a voice of peace and moderation, honored for encouraging interfaith
When terrorists struck on September 11, Fawaz Damra says
he was as shocked as any other American.
IMAM FAWAZ DAMRA: I did not think for a minute that
it was something coming out of the Middle East because this
country has seen atrocities and terrorism like this before.
But then, a couple of days later when talk started about Middle
Eastern people that were engaged in this incident, I was terrified.
WILLIAMS: Within days of the 9/11 attacks, the
backlash literally landed on his front door.
A driver plowed deliberately into the mosque.
DAMRA: Thank God he could not go any further because
this is concrete. Otherwise he could have killed the caretaker
along with his wife and two children who were living behind
WILLIAMS: The Cleveland community rallied behind
Damra and his fellow Muslims.
DAMRA: They said an attack on the mosque is an attack
on the American liberties and American values.
WILLIAMS: Jews and Christians alike stood in
solidarity with the Imam in front of the gaping hole in the
MARTIN PLAX: Perhaps some of the talk about unity
and understanding will actually take place. Thank you.
WILLIAMS: Martin Plax heads the Cleveland chapter
of the American Jewish Committee.
He was one of the leaders at the Imam's side.
PLAX: I said, "The good news here is that,
in fact, there are a lot of people who are standing with you."
WERNER LANGE: The depth of outrage and sorrow at the terrible attack
was very evident in the eyes and the words of everybody at
the prayer service.
WILLIAMS: For many, the response was a testament
to Damra's work.
WERNER LANGE: He has pioneered like no one else I
know of, certainly within the Muslim community, building bridges
interfaith bridges between his community and
the Christian and Jewish community.
WILLIAMS: But just two days later, Cleveland
saw a different Damra delivering a very different message.
TRANSLATION FROM TAPE: Donate to the Islamic Jihad.
. . $500. Who would add $500, who would add $500?
WILLIAMS: It was on a ten- year-old videotape,
images of Damra raising money for a radical Palestinian organization
in 1991, espousing words of hatred and violence towards Jews.
TRANSLATION FROM TAPE: "Directing all rifles at the first and last enemies of the Islamic nation and that is the sons of monkeys and pigs...the Jews."
REV. KENNETH CHALKER: It is just vicious.
WILLIAMS: This tape surfaced in an unrelated
investigation in Florida. It was
leaked to a local TV station in Cleveland.
CHALKER: The vehemence and anger of his statements,
the choice of his words that he uses are just so strident
and vicious that it's difficult to imagine that just completely
evaporates, and not telling people how he's changed, but under
the controversy of being exposed.
WILLIAMS: You mean to say that you don't believe
that he would have dealt with this if he had not been exposed,
if the tape had not been released?
KENNETH CHALKER: Absolutely. We would have never known
a thing about this.
WILLIAMS: The statements on the tape raised
disturbing questions for even some of those who once supported
Does Imam Damra harbor hatred?
WILLIAMS: Is his public moderation a cover that
allowed Islamic radicalism to flourish inside his mosque?
KENNETH CHALKER: He came to Cleveland. He started his work here at the mosque
at the time he had just made those tapes, so he came with
that vehemence, with that anger.
DAMRA: Was I right when I made those statements?
My religion does not teach me to use such racial slurs,
but I did not know any better at that time.
Now, in the immediate aftermath of the release of this tape,
you did not offer an apology.
Instead you said you were speaking about a specific segment
of the Jewish community.
DAMRA: Indeed, my first reaction was which
is true I was referring to the Israelis, I was not
referring to all Jews. I was referring to the Israelis who
are killing innocent people and so forth.
WILLIAMS: Now a naturalized American, Damra
came here from a Palestinian village in the West Bank, a territory
occupied by Israel. He says when he arrived in America he
was full of rage at the hardship inflicted on his people by
the Israeli government.
DAMRA: The tape shows an angry man who is frustrated
because of what's happening in his homeland.
DAMRA: Anybody who knows the situation there would
expect somebody who's coming from a ghetto in a Palestinian
city have no contact whatsoever with people of different faith,
knowing, seeing the humanity in people of different faith,
be it Jews or Christians or others somebody who was
living in isolation; somebody who is coming new to this country
wanting to express his anger.
DAMRA: Nevertheless, I think those statements are
indefensible, and I regret saying what I said in that tape
because that is not what my faith teaches me, not what civilized
society stands for.
WILLIAMS: A few days later Damra publicly apologized
for his words, explaining that his life was transformed while
attending Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, an institution
renowned for its multi-faith environment.
That was the turning point in my life because that is where
I became more mature about life and about what America stands
WILLIAMS: Still, not everyone was satisfied.
Seeing this kind of rage coming from a man of God deepened
PLAX: What bothers me about the thing to this
day is that he was basically raising money for murder.
DAMRA: I never raise money to any terrorist organization.
I never raised money to any organization that is listed in
the United States as organizations support terrorism.
Back then, ten years ago, I raised money to the Palestinian
orphans and to the Palestinians whose homes were damaged and
WILLIAMS: In 1991, the year the tape was recorded,
neither Islamic Jihad, Hamas, nor Hezbollah were classified
by the State Department as terrorist organizations. Damra
says, if so, he would have never supported them.
DAMRA: Any organization that's suspected of supporting
terrorism, I always speak against this type of organization.
Anyone who suggests otherwise, he does not know me.
CHALKER: How do you raise money for a benevolent
cause by speaking words of hatred, anger, and vengeance? I
don't understand that.
WILLIAMS: Damra was still reeling from disclosure
of the video when the CLEVELAND PLAIN DEALER hit him with
another blow: investigative front page stories tying him to
a radical Brooklyn, New York, mosque and terrorist in the
1993 World Trade Center bombing. Several of the men responsible
for this damage worshiped at the Al-Farooq mosque in Brooklyn.
In fact, Imam Damra was its spiritual leader in 1991. That's
where he met the men later convicted in the '93 bombing.
DAMRA: They were raising money for the Alkifah center,
a group operating out of the storefront mosque to support
relief efforts in Afghanistan.
DAMRA: I found out that this money is not being given
to the people of Afghanistan, but rather is being abused and
misused here in America.
So I alarm the board of the mosque and the community that
"Your money is not being directed towards what it is intended
for." These guys were strong and influential, and they started
mobilizing the community against me and finally threw me out
of the mosque.
WILLIAMS: After Damra was ousted in 1991, Sheik Omar
Abdel Rachman, the blind sheik convicted in the plot to blow
up the Holland and Lincoln tunnels, took over.
Still Damra ended up on a list of people whom federal prosecutors
called "unindicted persons who may be alleged as co-conspirators
in the '93 World Trade Center bombing."
DAMRA: So they did call and name over 170 or 60 individuals,
mainly people who happened to be in the mosque at that time,
and imams who basically knew these individuals.
I happened to be in that mosque where those radical elements
WILLIAMS: Now, if you were sitting in my seat as
a journalist and you're hearing someone say, "Well, I was
surrounded by all of these people who were radical elements,
involved not only in raising money for terrorist activities,
but in plotting to bomb buildings, but I knew nothing about
it, I had no idea."
Again, you might be very suspicious.
DAMRA: In 1993, after this bombing, I was investigated
by the F.B.I. And I sat with them for hours and explained
my role as an imam, a religious leader there.
WILLIAMS: The F.B.I. confirms Damra's account and
says he was never charged. Yet trust remains an issue for
some in Cleveland.
PLAX: For me, it is the question: so what's
the truth? And I guess the ambiguity of "I don't know that
I can trust him any longer."
WILLIAMS: So what is it you are not trusting? Are
you worried that he may be raising money there for terrorist
WILLIAMS: Are you worried that he may be, in fact,
a sleeper cell encouraging young people to commit acts of
PLAX: "Worried" might be the right word.
It is not knowing. It's not having some sense of confidence
that, in fact, when he speaks, he speaks the truth.
WILLIAMS: Other people in Cleveland say since Damra
has not been charged with a crime, he should be judged by
the work he's done while in Cleveland.
LANGE: We all make mistakes. I know what
he has done. I know what he has said for some ten years. This
was highly uncharacteristic. Obviously there has been some
type of transformation that has taken place within his life.
WILLIAMS: Imam Damra says that in the ten years that
he's been in Cleveland, he has a record of reaching out to
people of all faiths. Is that true?
CHALKER: Folks have spoken very highly of the
things he has done in public. That's true.
But the issue isn't what we do in public, it is what we
are doing with all of our lives, and it is the whole issue
of perhaps hiding in plain sight.
WILLIAMS: "Hiding in plain sight."
CHALKER: Until Imam Damra is willing to place
himself in a public forum with the Jewish rabbis of this community,
persons of various faiths and persuasions, and answer directly
the questions put to him in such a forum, I continue to have
serious questions and doubts.
WILLIAMS: Damra says he's always been willing to
answer any lingering questions. He believes the scrutiny he
now faces is part of a campaign to discredit Muslim clerics
DAMRA: These allegations come at a time that makes
one wonder what is the motive behind bringing these allegations
at this time when the Muslim community is becoming a target
of hate and suspicion and fear.
LANGE: One of the best places for religious fundamentalism
to work its extremism in all aspects is either the church,
the mosque, or the synagogue.
People would think that why would anybody that's doing hurtful,
evil things be associated with those kinds of groups that
we associate with doing good deeds.
It is a perfect hiding place to hide your efforts.
DAMRA: There is no radical elements in this mosque.
There might be political views that people have, but I have
no control of individuals who have different political views.
After all, what makes this country the greatest is people
can express their views whenever they want, and you find this
in a mosque or a church or an synagogue or an institution.
WILLIAMS: Damra says his mosque is open and that
Christians as well as Jews have been invited to attend services,
something he says an Islamic extremist would never do.
He also claims his stance against terrorism has been consistent,
even before September 11.
DAMRA: Terrorism is terrorism whether it is carried
out by an individual or a state, and therefore it is wrong.
Again and again, any time civilians are killed, it's wrong
and should be stopped.
WILLIAMS: The United States government has expressed
great concern about the existence of terrorist cells and has
been very concerted in looking at the Arab community.
Have they come to you?
DAMRA: No. They never came to me and asked me anything.
WILLIAMS: And if you knew of such a sleeper cell
of a future Mohammed Atta...
WILLIAMS: If I know any radical in our community
here be it Palestinian or otherwise trying to
harm my country which I am proud of that gave me so much,
I would be the first one to hand in those individual to this
country, to the government.
WILLIAMS: I think many Americans would ask you: is
this a case of divided loyalties, that people who are Muslim
and American somehow feel divided in terms of their emotional
attachment to possibly events in the Middle East, even Osama
DAMRA: I don't think so. We do not support oppressive
regimes in the Middle East because we happen to be Arab or
Muslims are like most Americans. Come to our mosque. Come
see what people are doing. They are like any other church
trying to deal with how to integrate their life and children
into American society. So anybody Who suggests they are a division
of loyalty, they are not telling the truth.
WILLIAMS: No dilution in terms of patriotism...
DAMRA: Absolutely not.
WILLIAMS: ...in the Muslim community?
DAMRA: Absolutely not.
We are patriotic as any other American. The fellow who ran
into our mosque, I mean, this is an example of what ignorance
can be. And I was an ignorant person one time, and I know
what ignorance can do. Ignorance can breed prejudice and all
types of hatred.