In 1997 Pete Seda was known around Ashland as “the Arborist,” the name he also gave his tree-care service, a thriving business with a half-dozen or more employees and a fleet of trucks. He tended the trees in the city’s signature greenspace, Lithia Park, and elsewhere took pride in saving century-old heritage trees from developers’ chain saws, voluntarily uprooting them with a specialized excavator and then donating them to homeowners for replanting. In 1989, six years before he incorporated The Arborist, Seda also started the Qur’an Foundation. The primary purpose of his home-based nonprofit was to give away copies of the Koran to U.S. and Canadian prisoners, and generally to promote Islam in the Rogue River Valley, where, like most places in Oregon, Muslims make up one-tenth of one percent of the population. (In Jackson County, population 197,000, that’s 197 Muslims.)
‘I don’t have a problem with American culture, but I do have a problem with George Bush.’
Well into the 1990s, Seda’s home, a modest ranch house on acreage near the golf course, served as a gathering place for local Muslims, who came to pray in a spare room on Friday afternoons. One of those worshippers was David Rogers, an Ashland-raised convert who in 1997 spent a summer studying Arabic in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. While there, Rogers met Soliman al Buthe, a Saudi landscape engineer who volunteered at the al Haramain Islamic Foundation, fulfilling requests for Korans from American Muslims. Sure that the two tree-hugging, Koran-donating Muslims would get along, Rogers encouraged al Buthe to pay Seda a visit.
In October of that year, after the two men spoke on the phone, al Buthe flew to Seattle. He rented a car and drove eight hours straight to Ashland, where he booked a motel room. The next morning he met Seda at his home for coffee. Being of similar ages (al Buthe was 35 at the time, Seda was 39) and pursuing similar professions, they also proved to be kindred spirits. By the end of the day, al Buthe had a business proposition: Al Haramain was looking for a partner in the United States to serve as an Islamic-literature distribution hub. It would be far cheaper for al Haramain to send Korans in bulk to Oregon than to send them individually from Saudi Arabia, al Buthe argued.
Unbeknownst to Seda, as early as 1996 the U.S. government had begun investigating allegations that certain international branches of al Haramain were involved in financing terrorist activity. To the Muslim-American arborist, who was inundated with as many as 30 Koran requests a day from U.S. prisoners—orders he had dutifully filled and funded with his own modest income—al Haramain, and al Buthe, must have seemed like a godsend. His mind raced with the possibilities, and over the next few weeks he telephoned al Buthe in Riyadh almost daily. Why stop with literature? Why not open a fully fledged branch of al Haramain that also would serve as a gathering place for Muslims in the Rogue River Valley? No longer would Ashland’s Muslims be relegated to a spare room in the back of his home. With the seemingly unlimited resources of deep-pocketed al Haramain, Seda reasoned that he could make a name for himself by doing good deeds as a Muslim on a much grander scale.
Al Buthe received speedy approval from al Haramain in Riyadh for the project, which by now included not just a distribution center and an unlimited supply of Korans, but also a house—one that would serve as Seda’s residence, al Haramain’s U.S. headquarters and a place of worship for the valley’s Muslim community. From Riyadh, al Buthe would act as treasurer; Riyadh-based al Haramain director general Aqeel Abdul Aziz al Aqil would be listed as president; al Aqil’s deputy, Mansour al Kadi, vice-president. From Ashland, Seda would act as secretary, in charge of managing day-to-day operations. The cash-flush Saudi charity would bankroll everything. (Al Haramain’s worldwide annual operations budget ranged from $30 million to $80 million, depending on the year, and the Ashland chapter would receive $15,000 a month in support.) Soon Seda located a decrepit 4,157-square-foot, 1970s-era split-level on a rolling piece of land just south of town. It had a leaky roof and bad plumbing, but the price was good, only $190,000. Al Buthe returned in December with $206,000 in traveler’s checks for the purchase.