Sheik Jamal Said stood before the packed mosque and worked the crowd like an auctioneer.

Speaking Arabic, the prayer leader asked for a donation of $10,000. No one responded. He asked for $5,000, and three men raised their hands.

Hundreds of men sat cross-legged before him in the main prayer hall. Women filled the basement, listening over a loudspeaker. All but the youngest girls wore head scarves.

When Sheik Jamal lowered his request to $2,000, more hands shot into the air. The crowd declared, "Allahu Akbar" or "God is great." $1,000? More hands. $500? Even more. In less than five minutes, he raised $50,000.

While religious leaders often mine congregations for charity, this scene at the Mosque Foundation in suburban Bridgeview stands out for two reasons.

The recipient of the worshipers' generosity was Sami Al-Arian, a Palestinian activist accused by the U.S. government of aiding terrorists. And the prayer leader's passionate appeal is a reflection of the ascendancy of Muslim hard-liners at the mosque, one of the most outspoken and embattled in the U.S.

The mosque did not become this way without a struggle. Relying on hundreds of documents and dozens of interviews, the Tribune has pieced together the details of a bitter fight in Bridgeview that saw religious fundamentalists prevail over moderates.

The story is a rare look inside the transformation of an American mosque, the role of Middle Eastern money in shaping Islam and the tensions many Muslims feel as they try to create enclaves in the U.S.

It also provides insight into the wave of fundamentalism sweeping many parts of the world, creating divisions between East and West, between Arab governments and militants, and within Islam itself.

Some critics inside and outside the religion charge that Islamic fundamentalism fosters intolerance and militancy, and that religious leaders have not done enough to distance Islam from terrorist acts.

Among the leaders at the Bridgeview mosque are men who have condemned Western culture, praised Palestinian suicide bombers and encouraged members to view society in stark terms: Muslims against the world. Federal authorities for years have investigated some mosque officials for possible links to terrorism financing, but no criminal charges have been filed.

Mosque leaders deny encouraging militancy and have denounced terrorism, including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. They shun the fundamentalist label, saying they follow the true form of Islam and others do not. They point out that an elected board sets mosque policy; if the worshipers wanted a more liberal mosque, they would vote for one.

"It's an election, a democratic process," mosque President Oussama Jammal said.

The mosque now attracts thousands of worshipers--most of them Palestinian-Americans--by offering pro-Palestinian sermons, a spiritual refuge and a strict version of Islam. The ultraconservative Saudi Arabian government partially pays the salary of prayer leader Sheik Jamal.

Moderate Muslims still pray at the mosque, but some say conservatives have created an environment that is overly political, too rigid in its interpretation of Islam and resistant to open debate. These members also worry that the Muslim Brotherhood, a controversial group with a violent past, has an undue influence over the mosque. Despite these concerns, the critics largely remain silent, fearful of being called "unIslamic" by mosque leaders.

The struggle over the mosque can be seen through the lives of three men: Khalil Zayid, a simple peddler who raised money for the mosque going door to door; Jamal Said, the charismatic prayer leader who believes that true Muslims should not listen to modern music or celebrate Thanksgiving; and Omar Najib, a former mosque attorney who once helped hard-liners take control of the mosque but now regrets what he did.

"I feel sorry," Najib said recently. "My faith has been hijacked by a few extremists."

The peasants' story

The story of the mosque begins thousands of miles away, in the Palestinian village of Beitunia, where olive trees grow on stony hillsides and pines are bent by the wind.