He was supposed to be the future of the Denver Nuggets. Instead, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf decided that the only way to stand up for Allah was to sit down.
Photography by Lara Rossignol
"It only becomes the American Dream when more people are able to do it, when the disparity between the rich and the poor is lessened. Just because I can do it doesn't make it a dream. The American Dream is when it's fair. When you have just a small minority controlling the wealth in this world, and the majority is struggling to make ends meet, that's not fair. I know what it's like not to have health care, to be starving when I'm in the house."
His voice is rising: "Don't get me wrong, I know in other countries you've got issues, but just because I made it, don't think that it was because of America's kindheartedness that I did it. I struggled every damn day of my life...but right across those train tracks you got all this money. How is that the American Dream?" He pounds the car dashboard with his fist.
Apropos of nothing—really, just when you might think that Abdul-Rauf has been unfairly judged—he asks if I have ever heard of Operation Northwoods. I haven't. He explains that it was a military plan in the early 1960s in which acts of terrorism were suggested to be committed in the United States in order to fool Americans into supporting war against communist Cuba. One suggestion was to hijack airplanes.
"The government wanted to fly planes into buildings," Abdul-Rauf says. "Buildings. That sounds familiar, doesn't it?" It sinks in: He's talking about 9/11. "I think the government used remote-control devices to take over those planes and crash them." Referring to United Flight 93, which was crashed into a Pennsylvania field, he asks, "So, you're telling me that some guys with box-cutters can take over an entire plane filled with people? Come on, man. I mean, there isn't any evidence that Muslims even did this."
I tell Abdul-Rauf that Flight 93 is believed to have been headed for the White House, and that the cockpit recorder contained the recitation of Islamic prayers. "Oh, yeah, of course it did," Abdul-Rauf says. "That seems pretty convenient."
Just like that, he goes from talking about buying his momma a house, to waxing almost eloquently on the divide between the rich and the poor in America, to asserting that the United States itself orchestrated the attacks on 9/11. It is clear that he is as firm in his beliefs as he was that day back in 1996, when he did not stand, when he talked about American oppression and tyranny.
Today, he subscribes to the International Socialist Review, which he reads vigorously, underlining passages (the "Bush-Cheney-Blair plan for the Middle East is an agenda to maintain division and ethnic tension") and circling words that he will look up later ("subjugation"). And one of his associates is Imam Muhammad al-Asi, considered by some to be a radical anti-Semitic Shiite cleric who supports the Iranian regime and the militant Islamic movement worldwide. Abdul-Rauf has attended several of al-Asi's speeches, and the two stay in touch. All of which informs Abdul-Rauf's view of the war:
"I see this war on Iraq, this war on Afghanistan, and it's really a war on Islam," he says. "If you attack another country, bombing hospitals and all that, don't think that everybody is going to have the [peaceable] Muslim approach. You get to the point where it's your fault, America. Allah says if someone aggresses upon you, attack them in the same manner that they attacked you. That's the only way you're going to get respect. I ain't going to let you beat me upside my head. Human beings hate to fight. But it protects our rights, it protects our dignity as human beings. If you don't, people will continuously abuse you. You have to fight them back. You cannot have peace without justice."