When Faith Goes Too Far

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
Reader’s Digest
Feb., 2007

Seduced by Radical Islam

Before I was an FBI informant, an apostate and a blasphemer, I was a devout believer in radical Islam. That meant I had to remember a lot of rules. I could never pet a dog or shake hands with a woman. I could eat only with my right hand, and before prayer, I had to roll my pant legs above my ankles. I accepted all this.

And more. I believed that non-Islamic governments were illegitimate, that jihadists were brave holy warriors carrying out the will of Allah, that Jews and other non-Muslims were inferiors who had to be conquered and ruled. Funny thing, I was born Jewish. At 23, with my nose in a wool prayer rug, I found myself praying for the humiliation of my parents because true Islam demanded it, or so I believed.

This is the story of how I was seduced by radical Islam — and how, over time, I embraced a worldview that I had once abhorred.

I grew up in Ashland, Oregon, the only son of parents who were nontraditional, to say the least. They were sort of Unitarian Jews who esteemed a mishmash of religious figures from different faiths — a spiritual patchwork that I found unfulfilling.

It was during my junior year at Wake Forest University, in 1997, that I first learned about Islam. One friend in the dorm was a moderate Muslim whose faith led him to become a campus activist, fighting religious prejudice and homophobia. His convictions appealed to me, and I was envious of the spiritual anchor in his life.

I went to a mosque for the first time with him and took part in the Islamic ritual of prayer. I didn’t even try to repeat the Arabic words; I just did my best to imitate the bowing and prostration. As I left, one of the Muslims came up and gave me a book: What Every American Should Know About Islam and the Muslims.

I read this volume and others, hoping to be reassured that our Western fears of Islamic terrorism were misplaced. There were certainly Muslim extremists, but Christianity had also gone through dark periods, hadn’t it?

Then, during my next semester abroad in Venice, I befriended an Italian convert to Islam. I knew there was an emptiness in my life, and eventually I asked, “How do I become a Muslim?”

That evening, I publicly declared my devotion to Islam by reciting the shahadah, the Islamic declaration of faith, before Muslim witnesses. I had found my spiritual home.

Infidel Country

The Muslim religion, as practiced by the moderate believers I knew, felt comfortable to me, even familiar. I didn’t hide my conversion from my parents, who regarded it as a healthy part of my spiritual journey. But I kept some things to myself, such as my first encounter with a darker interpretation of Islam.

While visiting Ashland in December 1997, I attended a local mosque, where I heard my first radical sermon. The imam, Hassan Zabady, said that Muslims now living in non-Muslim lands should move to Islamic countries. His message was clear — if a Muslim lives in a corrupt environment, he will be corrupted.

At the end of the worship, I walked outside with Sheikh Hassan, who waved his hand at the beautiful green peaks surrounding us. “You’ll be compromised if you stay in this kafir [infidel] country,” he said. “Just look at all these homosexuals.” The shock of these words never left me.

The following winter, I was again on vacation in Ashland and decided to visit a Muslim prayer house just outside town. To my surprise, I drove up to a massive home in a neighborhood of upscale “McMansions.” One of the local Muslims explained the opulent surroundings: The congregation had become affiliated with a Saudi Arabian charity called the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, which had given it a grant to buy the house. It now doubled as the foundation’s American headquarters.

Al Haramain’s purpose, I was told, was to spread true Islamic teachings through various outreach programs — everything from sponsoring seminars and lectures to providing Islamic literature to libraries and prisons. It turned out the foundation was looking to hire a person to help run its office. I’d be graduating in December with nothing to do until law school in the fall, and a job at Al Haramain seemed ideal: I could learn about Islam while saving on rent by living with my parents.

I was hired and soon learned that I was joining an impressive operation. In the halcyon days before 9/11, Al Haramain had offices in more than 50 countries and an annual budget of $30 million to $80 million.

My job was managing the office and overseeing the prison outreach. Everything appeared to operate in a normal way, other than a few curious experiences. My boss seemed contemptuous of the U.S. tax system, and I suspected he was cheating the government out of some payments. For example, my first paycheck from Al Haramain had computer written in the memo space. I was asked if I’d be willing to testify in court, if need be, that I had gotten my check for selling Al Haramain a computer. I was taken aback but thought it was easiest to just say yes.

Killing for Islam

The foundation quickly challenged my moderate outlook. In January 1999, just after I started work, I was driving a visiting sheikh around town. As I walked to my car to clean out the passenger seat, a dark-haired woman greeted me. She wasn’t wearing a hijab, the head scarf worn by Muslim women.

She introduced herself as an elementary school teacher and said she wanted to bring her class over so they could learn about Islam. I glimpsed the sheikh out of the corner of my eye. He stood far enough away that he wouldn’t have to introduce himself, but close enough that he could listen.

When our brief conversation ended, the teacher stuck out her hand and said, “I appreciate the help. It was nice talking with you.”

I knew that shaking hands with a woman was prohibited by Muslim law and that the sheikh was watching. So I let her stand there with her hand sticking out. Then I said, somewhat embarrassed, “No, thanks.”

She gave me a perturbed look, then turned and walked away without another word.

An especially hard step for me was giving up music. I was told at Al Haramain that music was impermissible, but for months I couldn’t stop listening to it. I loved music too much. But that summer, as I met more conservative Muslims and saw the consistency in their practice of Islam, I felt that I needed to make a decision.

I was in my car listening to Jimi Hendrix, when I pulled into my driveway. I took the tape to my room, held it in both hands and squeezed until it snapped in two. In that instant, the broken tape became a symbol: I was turning my back on my old life.

One summer morning, I realized just how much I had come to accept a worldview that I once would have rejected out of hand. A visiting scholar who lived in Saudi Arabia, Abdul-Qaadir Abdul-Khaaliq, told me after one of his lectures that an 11-year-old boy had asked a question. The youth’s mother had left Islam for Christianity, so his question was natural enough: “If someone had been Christian, then became Muslim, but went back to Christianity, could she return to Islam?”

Abdul-Khaaliq immediately answered, “Some people think you should kill them.”

He explained that a Muslim commits not only to Allah but to the Islamic state. So turning your back on that commitment is treason.

Instead of being outraged at the idea that people should be killed for changing religions, I heard myself say, “That makes sense.” If this was true Islam, it was precisely what I should believe.

Early on at Al Haramain, I learned of an essay written by a former Saudi chief justice, “The Call to Jihad in the Qur’an.” Knowing it would challenge my moderate principles, I avoided reading it for several months. Eventually, though, I decided I was ready for it.

The jurist outlined the historical phases of jihad in Prophet Muhammad’s life and concluded that those who reject Islam must be conquered. And if they refuse to abandon their old religion, they must pay the Islamic state “with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.”

The implications were unsettling: Jihads against non-Muslim regimes were just wars, and non-Muslims in Islamic countries should be given the choice of conversion or living like second-class citizens. But my duty wasn’t to question these teachings. Rather, it was to strengthen my faith so I could more easily accept them.

Later that night, I sat on my prayer rug in a corner of my room and, for the first time, prayed for victory for the mujahedin, the holy warriors.

Remembering the Past

My ideas about the faith were fully transformed. I didn’t share my more radical views with my parents, knowing they were already uncomfortable with the rigidity of my beliefs.

That fall of 1999, I began studies at the New York University School of Law, even though a prominent sheikh had said to me bluntly, “You should not go to law school. If you do go, you will have to say that the Constitution is good.”

During my first year at NYU, it was as though I lived in a different universe than my classmates. While their biggest concerns were class reading and finals, mine was grappling with the question of what Allah really wanted me to do and believe.

At my apartment, I would read fatwas online, looking for spiritual guidance. But more and more, I began to analyze them critically. As I read about the need to subjugate women, about how anyone who leaves the Muslim faith and does not repent and return to it “will be killed as a kafir and apostate,” I realized that I harbored real moral doubts about radical Islam. And now there were no ardent fundamentalists around me to help keep those doubts at bay.

Depressed and confused, I kept my spiritual struggles to myself. I still prayed five times a day, but increasingly my supplications to God were different. I stopped asking for victory for the mujahedin, or for my heart to be cured of its doubts. Instead, I asked God to show me what I needed to know. I no longer was convinced I knew the truth.

I agonized over my beliefs for many months — a deeply upsetting time for me. By late 2000, however, I was ready to depart Islam and told just a few of my closest Muslim friends. They were surprised but forgiving.

I expected life to be more calm for me, now that my Islamic past could be tucked away on a shelf. The tragic events of 9/11 only fueled my desire to leave behind this part of my life. Then came a Thursday night in February 2004. My parents called on the phone to tell me that Al Haramain’s offices had been raided by federal agents. Apparently investigators suspected the foundation of trying to help finance Islamic fighters in Chechnya. (The directors of the foundation claimed the money was intended for refugees and still deny any wrongdoing.)

As I read newspaper accounts, certain things fell into place: the enthusiasm my old co-workers had for the Chechen mujahedin; my old boss’s dim view of the American tax system, consistent with the money-laundering charges.

That weekend, after a lot of thought, I phoned the FBI field office in Medford, Oregon. A woman answered. I told her I thought I could provide some useful information. “My name is Daveed Gartenstein-Ross,” I said. “I worked for Al Haramain.”

“Oh,” she replied. “I know who you are.”

Minutes later, she gave the phone to another agent in charge of the investigation, and we talked for an hour.

That call marked the moment I began to fully come to terms with my past. It’s a past I had wanted to forget but one that I know now I can never ignore. One reason is my memory of September 11.

I was still in Manhattan on that clear, sunny day and watched the Twin Towers smolder from the street outside my apartment. Later that evening, I saw television footage from the Muslim world, showing crowds of extremists celebrating the carnage. I couldn’t help but wonder, if I had remained a fundamentalist Muslim and grown more radical over time, would I have been among those openly cheering the attacks? I’m not completely sure. But I’m positive I would have at least applauded their goals. Toppling heretical Muslim governments in the Middle East, and ultimately taking the fight into the West — these were the aims of jihadists in a global struggle. And I had once prayed for their triumph.

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