By Laila Kearney
ISLAMBERG, New York (Reuters) – Just beyond the gated entrance to the tiny Catskills community of Holy Islamberg, population 200, cows graze and ducks glide on a tranquil pond. Modest houses of wood and cinder block sit along the hamlet’s single thoroughfare, a rutted dirt road without traffic signs.
Islamberg sits about 150 miles northwest of New York City, but the small enclave of Muslim families living on shared land feels a world away from city life, which is what its founders intended 30 years ago, when they established the hamlet on 70 acres of pasture land and dense woods in upstate New York.
Last month, however, the community’s serenity was disrupted by news that a Tennessee man had pleaded guilty to charges of plotting an attack on Islamberg and its residents.
Formed by a group of African-American Muslims from New York City, the community follows the teachings of Pakistani Sufi cleric Mubarik Ali Shah Gilani, who during the 1980s urged his American acolytes to leave metropolitan areas and establish rural communities centered on religious life.
Today, Islamberg is one of about a dozen Muslim enclaves formed in accordance with the cleric’s ideas. It also serves as home to Muslims of America, a Gilani-founded organization.
“We’re living the American dream,” said Faruq Baqi, 39, who moved to Islamberg with his family as a child, and now works in telecommunications at a nearby hospital.
An array of far-right organizations see things very differently. Dozens of internet postings and a documentary film have characterized the community as a training camp for terrorists and its residents as Islamist warriors.
One blog on the Christian Action Network, for example, described the settlement as “America’s first Islamic government,” and warned that children are being raised to fight a holy war, that girls are denied an education and that rule breakers “are often tied to trees and whipped for disobeying.”
Robert Doggart, a one-time congressional candidate from Tennessee, embraced that sort of overheated rhetoric as he plotted his attack on the Muslim enclave.
In wire-tapped phone calls and in meetings with Federal Bureau of Investigation informants, Doggart put out the call for a militia to attack Islamberg, saying he intended to destroy its mosque and gun down residents who tried to stop him.
Doggart said he planned to take an assault rifle, armor-piercing ammunition and other weapons including a machete. “If it gets down to the machete, we will cut them to shreds,” he said, according to the criminal complaint.
A GREAT PLACE TO RAISE CHILDREN
Islamberg residents say they are disheartened and puzzled by the vitriol leveled at them and alarmed by the plotting.
“Unfortunately, it’s not going to stop,” said Hussein Adams, who grew up in Islamberg and is now a top official at Muslims of America. “But we’re not going to stop continuing to live our lives.”
Adams and other residents say they are law-abiding and hard-working Americans who live harmoniously while practicing their faith.
During a recent several-hour visit by a Reuters reporter, the community seemed organized and placid. Women tended vegetables in planter boxes, while young girls in head scarves and boys in knitted caps played nearby. Several Muslims of America leaders and two of the group’s lawyers remained present, but did not try to control what other residents said.
Safiyya Haqq, 67, who left Brooklyn with her five children as one of Islamberg’s founding members, recalled the hamlet’s early days. “It was just so peaceful here, a great place to raise your children,” she said.
Two of her adult offspring still reside at Islamberg, and many of the community’s 20 or so dwellings house three generations. Residents said that a number of those who grew up in the town returned after attending college because they value what life in Islamberg has to offer.
Residents point out that they don’t live in complete isolation. Most of the adults in Islamberg make lengthy daily commutes to work in nearby towns or cities. Men have beards and prayer caps and women wear headscarves and long dresses, but they also own and drive cars, work, study and vote in local and national elections. And while Islamberg children are home-schooled, they engage in sports and social activities in nearby towns.
At a dinner gathering in an Islamberg home, residents dismissed the idea that they are training for a holy war or engaged in violence of any sort.
“If you come here, you see that there’s no threat,” said Bilqees Abdallah, a nurse practitioner.
They pointed with pride to the mosque, seasonal ice cream store and cemetery the town has built and talked of plans for a school and a health center.
During interviews, they condemned tactics used by the Islamic State, including beheadings, and said they did not consider the group to be true Muslims.
As to the women of Islamberg: “We’re not only confident, we’re very strong and we are very opinionated,” said 25-year resident Khadijah Smith, who is now retired from her job as a sales representative for American International Group, Inc. and serves as the assistant chief executive of Muslims of America.
Much of the focus of Islamberg’s detractors has been on Muslims of America founder Gilani. Islamberg residents say the cleric, who they believe has healing powers, preaches peace and has taught African-American Muslims the importance of education and healthy living.
“He has been our inspiration, a guidance for us and our community,” said Adams.
But during the 1980s and early 1990s, when the group went under the name Muslims of the Americas, it was linked by government and other researchers to a group called Jamaat ul-Fuqra. Several people connected with ul-Fuqra – though not any Islamberg residents – were implicated in plots against a Hindu sect and against a Muslim leader in Detroit. Gilani has said that he and the Muslims of America have “no knowledge of the existence” of ul-Fuqra.
As recently as 2002, Muslims of the Americas also posted on its website writing characterized as “virulently anti-Semitic” by the Anti-Defamation League.
Gilani came under renewed scrutiny after the 2002 murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was working on a story about “shoe bomber” Richard Reid at the time. On the morning he was abducted, Pearl believed he was going to meet with Gilani. Gilani was later cleared from involvement both with Reid and with the Pearl murder.
While allegations about today’s Muslims of America still flourish on the Internet, experts and law enforcement officials contacted by Reuters dismissed the idea that the group has violent intentions.
“There is little evidence … to suggest that those compounds have any connection to terrorist training,” said Oren Segal, director of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League. None of the Americans arrested on terror-related charges since the 9/11 attacks have been connected to the Muslim of America hamlets, he added.
Current Muslim of America members say they respect people of all religious faiths, including those who are Jewish. Members could not be reached for follow-up comment about past hate speech postings attributed to the group.
Law enforcement officials in nearby towns say they have seen little cause for concern about Islamberg.
“We haven’t really had any big issues with them,” said Delaware County SheriffThomas Mills, adding that he couldn’t recall a time when law enforcers had responded to a civil or criminal matter in Islamberg during his 17 years as sheriff.
And although the traditional Muslim attire of the group’s residents makes them stand out in nearby working-class towns that favor flannel shirts and fishing waders, neighbors reported that the people of Islamberg generally keep a low profile.
Michelle Phoenix, town clerk in nearby Tompkins, says her exchanges with the Muslim group have been friendly, though she knows its members make some residents nervous.
Hancock resident Rose Mulqueen, 56, summed up the most common sentiment heard in the area. “I don’t know much about them,” she said “All I know is that they don’t bother anyone.”
(Reporting by Laila Kearney; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Sue Horton)