With the inclusion of Ingrid Mattson, President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), in the national prayer service this week, it seems it is again time to re-evaluate America’s desire to forge alliances with “moderate” Muslims. Various news sources report that Mattson’s invitation raised criticism due to ISNA’s alleged connections to terrorism. It is a fact that ISNA is a listed un-indicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation terrorist financing case and one of a number of "individuals/entities who are and/or were members of the US Muslim Brotherhood." It is also a fact that Mattson and heads of other “moderate” Muslim organizations have failed to criticize Hamas by name.
Yet, defenders of Ingrid Mattson, like Mark Pelavin, director of inter-religious affairs for the Union for Reform Judaism has called Mattson "a really important voice denouncing terrorism."
In a Fox News article, Palavin states, "Clearly, Dr. Mattson has been welcome throughout the government," he said. "I haven't found anyone anywhere who's found anything Dr. Mattson has said that's anything other than clearly denouncing terrorism in quite explicit Islamic terms."
Without realizing it, Palavin hits on the crux of the problem. By definition terrorism simply refers to the use of violence to achieve a political end. It includes no evaluation, let alone criticism of the motivation behind the violence or the political end desired.
The “war on terror” is an ideological conflict that the Islamist movement has initiated by re-asserting Islam as a socio-political system to counter western cultural, political and economic influence in the Muslim world by bounding society under Islamic law. As a 20th century phenomenon it grew out of a growing sense of inferiority Muslims felt upon heavy losses endured at the end of the first world war. This sense of loss was exacerbated by the subsequent rise of a variety of autocratic rule that suppressed the growth of civil society, and socio-economic development in the newly formed nation states, giving Islamists room to propagate their message.
Today, the Islamist movement is internally conflicted. Where one side seeks to further the violence initiated by men like Osama bin Laden, while the other prefers non-violence. Non-violent Islamists prefer to work legally through political system with parties, and candidates to persuade the public with their message in elections. Non-violent Islamists further their cause by creating the need among Muslims for a “Muslim voting bloc,” and actively strive to increase the number of Muslim voters in the West through proselytizing, civic engagement and in lobbying.
It is possible that Mattson falls into this latter category considering the history of ISNA and some of her own statements.
ISNA was founded in 1981 by the Muslim Student's Association (MSA) of the U.S. and Canada. The MSA is a Muslim Brotherhood creation meant to recruit Muslim youth to Islamism. As one past member of MSA stated:
“We are told America's foreign policy is based on racist neo-imperialism; we are taught that national security is a foul epithet to be reviled; we are told the Jews and Israel are to blame for the hatred against us”.
Moreover, ISNA co-founder and convicted terrorist Sami Al-Arian acknowledges that he was a Muslim Brotherhood member in 1981. It is shocking that the U.S. government continues to embrace ISNA despite a 1991 memorandum made available through discovery in the first HLF case that lists ISNA among a list of Islamist organizations supporting the Muslim Brotherhood's agenda in the US. (see a copy of the memorandum here).
Steven Emerson, A well-respected terrorist expert has stated that ISNA is "a radical group hiding under a false veneer of moderation"; "convenes annual conferences where Islamist militants have been given a platform to incite violence and promote hatred" (for instance, al Qaeda supporter and PLO official Yusuf Al-Qaradawi was invited to speak at an ISNA conference); has held fundraisers for terrorists (after Hamas leader Mousa Marzook was arrested and eventually deported in 1997, ISNA raised money for his defense); has condemned the U.S. government's post-9/11 seizure of Hamas' and Palestinian Islamic Jihad's financial assets; and publishes a bi-monthly magazine, Islamic Horizons, that "often champions militant Islamist doctrine."
ISNA has learned to tone down the violent rhetoric and Mattson’s rise in the Islamist ranks, as a white female convert might be intentional effort to appear progressive after 9/11. This is the same year Mattson became Vice-President of ISNA. Like all Islamists, Mattson blames the West for the problems in the Muslim world today. Note her response to the following question during an interview with CNN:
“CHAT PARTICIPANT: At what point in history, if known, did the Islamic nation turn from a philosophical and educated state comparable to the Greeks to the now third world state it is in?
MATTSON: Well, the decline began with the colonization of the Muslim world by European powers. One of the first things the colonialists did was to dismantle the institutions of what we could call civil society. The Muslim world has until now not recovered from that dismemberment of its society”.
And like other Islamists, Mattson prefers that Muslims live under Islamic law. She states in her work , “Stopping Oppression: An Islamic Obligation”:
“Before colonialism, authority was acquired by religious leaders in a much more subtle process, and religious leaders who advocated extreme hostility or aggression against the state were usually marginalized. After all, most Muslims did not want to be led into revolution, they simply wanted their lives to be better. In general, the most successful religious leaders were those who, in addition to serving the spiritual needs of the community, were able to moderate how state power was exercised on ordinary people, and in some sense, acted as intermediaries between the people and state.” (emphasis added)
In the same article Mattson paints a picture of men like Osama bin Laden as charismatic revolutionaries who win the support of the oppressed masses because they have no one else to turn to, regardless of how unfounded violent interpretations of Islam men like Osama advocate. Again it is only the strategy of Islamists that Mattson objects to, not their grievances against the West or their end goal of Muslims living under Sharia as defined by one supra-national body, known as a fiqh council.
Thus it makes sense that she can denounce terrorism on the one hand, and remain silent regarding Hamas on the other. Hamas’ actions are not those of a terrorist organization, but freedom fighters fighting a colonizer on “their” land - Israel.
As the President of ISNA, Mattson is responsible for the activities and statements of the organization. ISNA was founded in 1981 by the Muslim Student’s Association of the U.S. and Canada, another controversial and Saudi-funded organization. Though most mosques are not official ISNA members, ISNA provides materials such as books and periodicals following the Wahhabi ideology to a large percentage of mosques throughout the United States. Kaukab Siddique, the editor of New Trend, an extremist Islamic periodical that is nonetheless opposed to Wahhabi domination of American Islam, states that: "ISNA controls most mosques in America and thus also controls who will speak at every Friday prayer, and which literature will be distributed there."
ISNA has demonstrated repeatedly that its goals in the United States are no different from the Muslim Brotherhood's goals in Jordan, Egypt, Syria, or England for that matter. Its leadership is generally either an outgrowth of the MB salafist ideology in the Middle East or an outgrowth of the similar Deobandi ideology of the Indo-Pakistani region.
In 2005, ISNA chose not to participate in the May 14 "Free Muslims March Against Terror," an event that supported the end to terrorism. ISNA has been accused of supporting Hamas and was investigated by US law enforcement for possible terrorist connections. Its tax records were requested in December 2003 by the Senate Finance Committee. U.S. Senators Charles Grassley and Max Baucus of the Senate Committee on Finance listed ISNA as one of 25 American Muslim organizations that "finance terrorism and perpetuate violence.”
There is no reason either Ingrid Mattson, or ISNA should have been the representative face of Islam at the national prayer service inaugurating President Obama's first days in office. As the President of ISNA in the United States and Canada, Mattson is responsible for the activities and statements of the organization. Under her watch, ISNA Canada invited a terrorist with Jamaat Islami connections to speak at their conference in 2008, and has featured Tariq Ramadan as a speaker.
Mattson’s presence challenges today's definition of what the elusive “moderate” Muslim is. Being a moderate requires more than simply denouncing violence. American-Muslims who do not politicize their faith, respect individuals of all other faiths or not faith and defend the secular principles that put all Americans on equal footing are the individuals US. agencies should seek out. They do exist: Consider Zuhdi Jasser, Stephen Schwartz, and Sheikh Kabbani. Otherwise, we will continue to lose in this war on terror by relying on Americans whose loyalties lie elsewhere.
Supna Zaidi is the assistant director of Islamist Watch, a project at the Middle East Forum.