Friday, August 8, 2014

The Grand Mufti of Alabama

The Grand Mufti of Alabama
Bobby Derie

The call had come in at half past four in the AM, the time of day when Herman Cole was like to already be awake, but refusing to get out of bed before the alarm went off to avoid waking his wife, who snored ungently beside him. With a practiced ease, Cole rolled off his side of the bed, snatched up the cell, and took three steps into the hallway before he answered.

Four hours, three google searches, and two phone calls later, Cole was in uniform and driving through the sunny streets of Mobile, following the directions of the nav system, watching the traffic slow and come to complete stops at red signs and lights as his vehicle came into view, the copper star of the Sheriff's Office a better ward against bad behavior than a thousand traffic cameras.

The building was not remarkable for this part of town, a two-story boxy affair of light pink stucco with a matching wall around the property, reminiscent of an old Spanish mission, and a half-circle drive so parents could pick up and drop off their kids without parking; the sign for the Islamic Academy was written in English, with Arabic underneath. Cole drove slowly through the loop, then pulled off into a small adjacent parking lot where a tree overhanging the wall had created a bit of shade.

There was a women at the desk, in a light blue hijab over a peach-colored suit, and she smiled as Cole came in. Herman recognized her voice from the phone when he'd set the appointment earlier in the morning; a nicety as well as a matter of practicality - it was easier to talk to a man if you knew when and where he was going to be. The door behind her was already open, and the man at the desk stood up and came around to greet Cole as the sheriff came in.

The two men shook hands; both offering a firm and friendly grip, neither lingering nor abrupt. Cole took his measure then, as they took their respective seats. In truth, he hadn't know what to expect. Khalil al-Azzhar was closer to sixty than fifty, with kind eyes about a well-kept beard and mustache like grey wool, wore a light grey summer weight suit with a black tie, and a pair of glasses hanging on a chain rested on his chest. By face and complexion Cole took him as pure Arab, but the voice that came out had the same accent as Cole's own. Then again, maybe that wasn't so surprising; according to the FBI al-Azzhar had been born and raised in Mobile, and been here most of his life, except for a stint studying abroad. Khalil asked the secretary - Abeer - to bring in some sweet tea, and she disappeared, leaving the two men alone for a piece.

"Well, Sheriff Cole," Khalil said, "what can I do for you?"

"I reckon congratulations are in order," said Cole, "I'm told that last night you were elected as Grand Mufti of Alabama. First Grand Mufti ever elected in the United States, as a matter of fact."

By instinct, the sheriff looked to the other man's eyes, but they betrayed no surprise, nor any other sudden movement.

"Thank you," Khalil said after a pause, "though I hope I'm not too forward in saying I don't think that's much police business."

"Well, that there I agree with you." Cole responded with a vigorous nod. "Normally I'd give no more attention to it than I would the election of a Methodist bishop - I'm Southern Baptist myself. I hadn't realized there were that many Muslims in the state, in fact."

"Over three hundred thousand," Khalil said almost absently, "and the position is not quite...equivalent. A mufti is merely an expert in Islamic religious law among the Sunni; a Grand Mufti is...sort of a first among equals. It is my hope to use my standing to serve the Islamic community in the great state of Alabama. You know with all the troubles going on in the Middle East and 9/11, being a Muslim in this country can occasionally be difficult."

Cole nodded. "I hope you'll forgive my ignorance, but do you plan on issuing any fatwas, Mr. Al-Azzahr?"

"Very likely. But please keep in mind, Sheriff, that a fatwa is not a...command or order; it is a legal opinion only, and it applies only within the context of Islamic law. It is not binding on civil law, nor does it have any weight to influence any of the laws of the United States, or Alabama, or even Mobile county. I know you must have heard of muftis in other countries have abused their authority by declaring a fatwa against this or that individual, but doing so would be abuse of my position."

Abeer arrived with the tea; a great glass jug almost as dark as molasses, and a tray with two tall glasses, a good-sized lemon and a small knife. She set the tray on the desk between the two men and poured and sliced the lemon before leaving again. Cole squeezed a twist into his glass than plunked the whole slice in, peel and all, and took a sip, letting the sweet and bitterness settle in on his tongue before they continued.

"Might be there's a few folks that are concerned about that," Cole allowed, "might be curious about what your opinion is on Israel, say, or your connections to any extremist groups."

Al-Azzhar sighed. "Israel is...complicated. Naturally, as an individual I have sympathy with the plight of the Muslims in the region. You're probably aware that I've participated in the annual demonstrations against the Israeli encroachments into Gaza. However, my interests are only with regard to the safety and security of my coreligionists, not political. I have no ties to Hamas or the PLO."

Cole inclined his head slightly, and set his empty glass back on the tray. "What about Mohammed Jibran?"

The mufti clicked his teeth. "That poor boy. What do you know about it?"

"18 years old. Was arrested along with the other members of the Islamic States of America after an armed standoff in Montgomery six years ago. You were a character witness at his trial."

"I was there in Montgomery," Al-Azzhar said, "His birth name was John Mohammed Boggs. His father served in Iraq and Afghanistan, came home with an Iraqi wife. After he left the Army, the father settled in Alabama, got a job in the defense industry. John Boggs spent seventeen years surrounded by Southern children who hated him; there probably wasn't a day passed that somebody didn't call him a sand nigger. He wanted acceptance, he wanted to belong, and at seventeen when he was young and stupid he found a group of people that answered to his alienation and anger. It is a sad but very common story with terrorists - they target the young. John was an ideal candidate. But that is, as they say, only half the story. The ISA were trying to stockpile weapons - that's what set the DEA off, and led to the standoff. I came in and offered to mediate, convinced John to surrender. That day, we managed to avoid any bloodshed. But John was still sentenced to eight years in prison. He survived for two."

The Grand Mufti had closed his eyes as he told the story, but now he opened them again to stare at the Sherrif...not at his eyes, but at the badge on his breast.

"Why did you want to meet with me, Sheriff?"

"Officially, I was responding to a concern from some G-men in Washington," he grunted softly as he stood up, "Personally, I guess I wanted to make up my own mind. It was nice to meet you, Mr. Al-Azzhar." Cole said, and offered his hand.

The Grand Mufti rose and took it. "And you, Sheriff."

The two men shook hands. "And if anybody gives you any trouble, you know my number."

Abeer and Al-Azzhar waved as the sheriff drove off.

"What was that about?" she asked.

"Old wounds," he said, "and new worlds."


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