Dr. Moniem El-Ganayni is not the only imam to have served as a chaplain inside a state prison. But he may be the only one who is also a nuclear physicist working on classified U.S. military projects that require a security clearance.
At least, he used to do classified work at the Bettis Laboratory, an advanced naval nuclear propulsion technology lab in West Mifflin operated by Bechtel Bettis Inc. for the U.S. Department of Energy.
But in October, the two tracks of his life collided. His security clearance was suspended, barring him from the lab where he has worked for 18 years.
Long a respected member of the Pittsburgh Muslim community and a founder of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh in Oakland, the Egyptian-born Dr. El-Ganayni also was the imam at Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution-Forest in Marienville, Forest County, for five months in 2007. His contract was canceled in August after disputes over Ramadan observance and visiting policies.
Twelve weeks after that, agents from the Energy Department, and later the Pittsburgh FBI, began questioning him about a book he distributed to inmates at the prison as well as speeches he made opposing FBI recruitment at local mosques and prayers he led there.
His clearance was suspended on Oct. 24 pending further review. His pay has been cut in half pending the outcome.
Without his clearance, and at age 57, Dr. El-Ganayni stands to lose much of what he has worked for since arriving in this country in 1980. His job and medical benefits are in jeopardy. A U.S. citizen since 1988, he won’t be able to work in his field, and, if his clearance is not reinstated after an upcoming hearing, he says he’ll probably return to Egypt with his American-born wife.
Dr. El-Ganayni is the second local imam to run into a wall in recent months. Kadir Gunduz, 48, who has lived in Pittsburgh since 1988 and has raised three children here, was jailed in December on a visa technicality. He was released after a public outcry, but still faces deportation to his native Turkey. His appeal is pending.
An untold number of Middle Eastern immigrants and Muslims across the country have been quietly ensnared by measures aimed at strengthening national security in a post-9/11 world, including some, like Dr. El-Ganayni, who have lost their security clearance. . .
It all began with a book, “The Miracle in the Ant,” one of numerous volumes published by Harun Yahya, an Islamic creationist from Turkey. The book details ant anatomy and behavior, and argues that these characteristics disprove the theory of evolution.
Dr. El-Ganayni had ordered the book for the Forest prison library and was passing out photocopied chapters for the Muslim inmates housed in segregation to read in their cells. Eventually, he came to the chapter called “Defence and War Tactics,” about ants that produce acid, use camouflage or enslave other ants. . .
Dr. El-Ganayni said he scanned the chapters before passing them out, and the “walking bomb” passage didn’t seem problematic because it was a scientific description of an insect. The passage must have raised hackles at the prison, however, because the Rev. Glenn McQuown, the chaplaincy director, was asked to examine the book — he declined to say by whom.
“In my view, the book was completely benign,” said the Rev. McQuown from Fort Bragg, N.C., where he was about to deploy to Afghanistan with the U.S. Army. He added that he would be happy to work again with Dr. El-Ganayni anytime and said, “I have him on my list to call for support as I prepare to engage with Muslims in Afghanistan.”
Somehow, the prison literature made its way to the DOE. Dr. El-Ganayni is convinced it was sent in retaliation for his dispute with prison authorities, but Sue McNaughton, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections in Harrisburg, said any prison employee or inmate could have put a copy in the mail.
In any case, the DOE questioning began. “They asked, ‘Would you support killing Americans?’ I said, ‘Of course not.’ ‘Are you loyal?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Would you do anything to harm this country?’ I said, ‘No.’ “
Then they asked if he advocated suicide bombing, and if the “walking bomb” passage could be read as promoting attacks against Americans.
“I couldn’t believe my ears,” Dr. El-Ganayni said. “I am an American. How could I advocate killing myself? I am also a Muslim, a man of peace. I do not advocate killing anyone.”
He said he told his questioners that he was against suicide bombing, and explained repeatedly that the passage was about ants, not people.
“You can twist anything to mean something else if you want to,” he said.
From his office at Harvard, Dr. Wilson, the world’s foremost authority on ants and the real author of passage, said he was startled to learn that his words had become an issue for Dr. El-Ganayni. “My reaction is astonishment at the unfairness of it,” Dr. Wilson said.
Dr. El-Ganayni said he was similarly astonished. “I told them, ‘Look at my actions. I have been here since 1980; I never had a problem at work; I never broke a law; I never had any trouble except the dispute at the prison.’
“Now they are taking two sentences from a book about ants that anyone can get in the bookstore, and making it more important than [my] 27 years in this country.”
FBI interviewers also brought up a passage from the Quran — Chapter Two, Verse 286, the last few lines (in English translation): “Oh God … Thou art our protector. Help us against disbelievers.”
The line is the Muslim equivalent of the Lord’s Prayer’s “deliver us from evil,” according to Ahmed Rehab, spokesman for the Council of American Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C.
“It’s a standard line that allies Islam with good against evil. It is not meant to be read through the filter of modern conflict,” Mr. Rehab said.