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Mohamed says he saw some subtle signs of extremism from Gilbert, who took the Muslim name Saif Allah, or "Sword of Allah": "Gilbert gave a talk here once, and I thought it was a little extreme -- it seemed a little emotional. I think he said something like, '[Americans] hate us Muslims.'"
If Mohamed was naive about extremists in his presence before September 11, he isn't anymore. He says he is now in regular contact with the police and FBI regarding "suspicious Muslims."
"I called the cops and told them that I need protection -- that there are extremist guys who pass through here," he says. "We all hope and think Padilla was made [a radical] when he went to Egypt. But if he was made here... whew, that could mean danger for everybody, for me and you and everybody."
The differences between liberals like Mohamed and fundamentalists like Mahdi have likely been around since Islam began more than 1400 years ago. But it was the attacks on America that sparked the open conflict between the two men. "The liberal people were cool and happy and not thinking of all this craziness," Mohamed says. "But when the September 11 thing happened, the time came to draw this line and say who we are, rather than let extremists tarnish everybody."
The liberals outnumber the fundamentalists, says Walid Phares, an associate professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. Phares, a Maronite Christian from Lebanon and leading South Florida expert on the Middle East, estimates that about 15 percent of Muslims in the United States are fundamentalist and that another 20 percent lean in that direction. The rest, a strong 65 percent majority, are moderate to liberal. The fundamentalist "activists," however, have dominated the public face of Islam in America. "While moderates were out there working -- as everything from top engineers to 7-Eleven managers -- the fundamentalists were focusing on the religious institutions," Phares says. "The fundamentalists have been busy taking over the religion."
Mohamed agrees with that assessment and calls for all moderates to publicly denounce the radical wing of their religion. But discerning the line between those with spiritual fervor and those who may plan to commit political violence isn't easy. "You have three kinds of people: You have those Palestinians with emotions, you have orthodox conservative Muslims, and you have people like al Qaeda," Mohamed says. "And I am myself confused with the lines between them. I just don't know. The more you get into the extremism thing, the more political it gets. It is raw politics."
Mahdi says he wants to meet with Mohamed but doesn't want to discuss their differences publicly. Asked whether he disagrees with Mohamed's liberalism, Mahdi pauses for two beats before saying, "Well, I'm sure I have said some things [Mohamed] doesn't agree with as well. It is not necessarily a conflict. As Muslims, we have to be aware what we say... because when we speak, we are speaking for the Muslim community."
Mahdi says it is not a personal conflict. "I think all of us need to be concerned about the perception we give the public about Islam while keeping true to the tenets of our religion," he explains.
Mohamed, however, refuses to meet with Mahdi, saying he has nothing to discuss. "Have you ever heard the old saying, 'Never touch trouble until trouble touches you'?" Mohamed says. "Well, I believe in that."