Published in The Nation, Pakistan’s leading English-language newspaper
Whether in the Middle East, South Asia, Europe or the United States, the West’s failure to understand the extraordinary diversity of Islam hampers efforts to tackle the threats posed by Islamist extremism and terrorism.
Kenan Makiya’s recent novel, The Rope, examines the violent disorder of Iraq in the years following the 2003 US led invasion. The reader is exposed to a crescendo of internecine, inter-Islamist conflict, the corrupting impact of fundamentalist ideology on Iraq’s youth and the hunger for power and influence sought by Shia and Sunni groups alike.
One of the novel’s most striking features, however, is its illustration of Western ignorance about the composition of Iraq’s population. The Iraqi nation, the author so vividly shows, does not just comprise Sunnis and Shiites, but an impossible array of religious sects and political factions.
From the fighting between the three great Shia Houses to the hundreds of independent Sunni and Shia militias, branches of Lebanese and Iranian terror groups, former Ba’athists, Kurdish independence movements, and religious revivalist cults – in the absence of Saddam’s tyrannical grip, Iraq becomes a land drenched in blood, chaos and ferocious ambition.
The West’s stark inability to deal with the vast range of competing Islamic forces in Iraq is also apparent in its response to domestic terrorism and extremism. Today, America and Europe battle some of same threats at home that they face abroad. Most politicians and media, however, approach the problem of home-grown terrorism as if the turmoil of intervention in Muslim lands never happened. And for radical, violent Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, this naivety affords an opportunity to grab power and influence.
In America, Muslims are treated by policymakers as just one community – a homogenous bloc with a single representative voice. It is the very opposite, of course, that is true. The many Sunni religious sects and movements that constitute American Islam, however, have distinctly little say in how their own views are represented.
For Muslims living in Western democracies, the lack of a hierarchical clergy within Sunni Islam produces a natural vacuum for political representation. And as inherently political movements, it is the unrepresentative Islamist groups that are best prepared to fill that void. Traditional moderate Muslim groups, lacking media savvy and political know-how, simply cannot compete.
When policymakers at the State Department or journalists at the New York Times demand to speak with the Muslim community, it is the Islamist movements and their be-suited press relations officers that step forward.
On a national level, it is Muslim Brotherhood groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) that have positioned themselves as gateways to the American Muslim community. These Islamist movements have learned to practice politics and interfaith dialogue by day, but preach hatred and violence at night.
Despite warnings by Muslim countries such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates about Muslim Brotherhood groups like CAIR, its spokespersons are nevertheless quoted as American Muslim spokesmen in American newspapers almost daily. Its officials are invited to events at the White House, and many of its press conferences enjoy prime-time news coverage.
Yet few American Muslims themselves actually believe CAIR is an authentic voice of American Islam. According to Gallup poll in 2011, about 88% of American Muslims believe CAIR does not best represent their views.
By treating Muslim Brotherhood groups as the representatives of American Islam, politicians and journalists end up legitimizing the extremists and abandoning the moderates. It is this very failure of policymakers to delve deeper – to discern the extremist minority from the voiceless majority – which allows the extremism of the Muslim Brotherhood to exert an ever-growing influence over Muslim youth. Increasingly, these young Muslims become radicalized to the point where they switch their soapbox for a Kalashnikov.
Perhaps the most prominent example can be found in the city of Boston in Massachusetts. Its universities and mosques have produced a frightening list of graduates, including – but not limited to –notorious Al Qaeda operatives Abdulrahman Alamoudi, Tarek Mehanna and Aafia Siddqui; the Lashkar-i-Taiba fundraiser Hafiz Masood; the Boston marathon bombers; and Ahmad Abousamra, one of the Islamic State’s chief propagandists.
These terrorist operatives shared something in common: they all passed through the doors of the Islamic Society of Boston (ISB), one of the largest mosques on the eastern seaboard, but also one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s flagship institutions in the United States.
The ISB’s Muslim Brotherhood links are clear to see. It was founded by Abdulrahman Alamoudi, a key figure in the American Muslim Brotherhood, whom the Treasury Department would later designate as a prominent Al Qaeda fundraiser. ISB trustees have included Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the notorious spiritual leader of the global Muslim Brotherhood; Jamal Badawi, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s international clerical body; and Muhammad Attawia, who was listed as an American Muslim Brotherhood leader in evidence presented by federal prosecutors during the Holy Land Foundation terror financing trial in 2008.
Today, the ISB is managed by the Muslim American Society, another key institution of the American Muslim Brotherhood. It teaches a tarbiya educational program to its young congregants, which includes violent, bigoted texts by Muslim Brotherhood luminaries such as Sayyid Qutb, Hassan al-Banna and Fathi Yakan.
Over the past decade, twelve congregants, supporters, officials and donors of the ISB have been imprisoned, deported, killed or are on the run in connection with terrorism offenses. In spite of this, politicians and media treat the ISB as a credible voice of Massachusetts Muslims – an unpleasant imposition on Boston’s historically moderate Muslim community.
The mayor, the police commissioner, Christian and Jewish community leaders, and various public officials regularly work with the mosque and speak before its congregation. The very land on which the ISB was built was subsidized by the local city government; and the ISB was even invited by Obama’s Justice Department to take part in the federal government’s Countering Violent Extremism program.
Through pure ignorance, Boston is fuelling its own extremism problem.
It is only by understanding American Islam and its constituents that we can refute Muslim Brotherhood claims to leadership, identify and assist the leaders of the moderate Muslim majority, and stop the political legitimization of extremist ideology.
Americans for Peace and Tolerance has joined forces with Muslims Facing Tomorrow, a Canadian Muslim organization, to examine the extremist foundations of Muslim Brotherhood groups posing as ordinary Muslim institutions.
The first dossier we have produced clearly demonstrates that the Islamic Society of Boston is a Muslim Brotherhood institution working to impose its ideology over Massachusetts Muslims. From details of its trustees’ extremist links, to evidence of its financial connections with Al Qaeda fundraisers and its hosting of prominent extremist preachers, this dossier serves to educate politicians, journalists and the public.
Ours is an initiative we hope will be replicated across North America, in cooperation with Muslim organizations working to counteract the extremism and terror-connections of the Muslim Brotherhood network. It is only by working with the moderate Muslim majority, in both the Islamic world, Europe and North America, that this can be achieved.
The Muslim Brotherhood is certainly not the only problem with which moderate Muslims and Western democracies must cope. From Iranian-backed Shia Islamism to the puritanism of the Salafists and the asceticism of South Asia’s Deobandis, there are undoubtedly many challenges. But whether it is the violent chaos of Iraq, the murderous bombings of the Boston marathon or the considerable number of Western Muslim youth running away to join the Islamic State, we will only be able to tackle Islamist extremism once we learn to recognize the forces which drive it and understand the communities it exploits.