A Tennessee man was indicted Tuesday on a charge of soliciting another person to burn down a mosque in a small Muslim enclave in New York’s Catskills.
Robert Doggart, 63, wanted to burn down a mosque in “Islamberg,” a self-named community consisting primarily of Muslims.
Islamberg, population 200, 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.
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. The community’s serenity was disrupted by the news.
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 urban 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 foes see things very differently. Dozens of web postings and a documentary film have characterized the village as a training camp for terrorists and its residents as jihadists.
Doggart, a one-time congressional candidate, embraced that sort of rhetoric. In wire-tapped calls and in meetings with FBI informants, he 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.
“If it gets down to the machete, we will cut them to shreds,” he said, according to the criminal complaint.
At a dinner gathering in an Islamberg home, residents dismissed the idea that they are training for jihad.
“If you come here, you see that there’s no threat,” said Bilqees Abdallah, a nurse.
However, Gilani has in the past had several brushes with the law. Islamberg residents say the cleric, who they believe has healing powers, preaches peace. But during the 1980s and 1990s, he was linked to a group that plotted to harm Hindus and a rival Muslim leader in Detroit. Several people were arrested.
As recently as 2002, Muslims of the Americas also had web postings 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. On the morning he was abducted, Pearl believed he was going to meet with Gilani.
But experts and law enforcement officials dismissed the idea that the group currently 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.