Sam Westrop, director of the Middle East Forum's Islamist Watch project, spoke to participants in a March 30 webinar (video) about what the U.S. can learn from Europe's experience with Islamism.
Westrop gave an overview of the "British model of multiculturalism, in which the government deputizes certain Muslim organizations to provide social services from healthcare to education," that emerged in the wake of the 1989 Salman Rushdie affair. "Groups like the Muslim Council of Britain, which was set up by some extremely unpleasant Islamists with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, ... came to be seen by government as the key voice of British Muslims and treated as such." Islamists used their control of taxpayer funded institutions to "advance an extremely sinister and dangerous agenda."
"It's possible to grow up as an Islamist recruit in Britain and be entirely the beneficiary of the taxpayers largesse," explained Westrop:
Imagine you're a Muslim in East London, you grow up in a place called Tower Hamlets. You go to a taxpayer funded faith school where you're taught Islamist messaging. You might go to the local mosque which may receive taxpayer funds for counter extremism work, for interfaith work, where you hear Islamist ideas in the afterschool study clubs. You may go to [a] taxpayer funded university where you join a Muslim student society, all of which are under Islamist control under a group called FOSIS [the Federation of Student Islamic Societies]. You may leave university and go work for an Islamist charity that also receives government funds.
It's "no wonder that places like East London, where this happens, sent a lot of kids off as young as 15 to fight and die for the Islamic State."
"The same is true all across Europe. As governments enacted these multiculturalist policies, Islamists stepped forward and they came to run European Islam."
European governments are beginning to learn the error of their ways. In 2008, the British government discovered that one of the Muslim Council of Britain's chief officials had signed a document in Istanbul calling for attacks on British troops and Jewish communities, and it cut off ties with the group. In 2010, the new conservative government of Prime Minister David Cameron went further in ending the policy of "funding Islamist groups to fight Islamism." Similar reassessments took place in Germany, France and other European countries. "Europe is beginning to realize that decades of treating Muslims as a homogenous block and accepting Islamist groups who claim to represent all Muslims ... was a bad idea," but much more needs to be done.
"America must learn from Europe's mistakes and not treat Islamists as representatives of Muslims."
Although Europe "realized it too late" and is contending with enormous numbers of homegrown jihadis as a result, Westrop said that America has "a lot more time" to course correct and avoid that fate. "America must learn from Europe's mistakes and not treat Islamists as representatives of Muslims, not homogenize American Islam, and not empower Islamists politically, financially through the media and academia." Unfortunately, there is "a failure by American media, American government, American conservatism as well, to understand the threat of Islamism and to deal with it accordingly."
Although the U.S. doesn't have a "federal multiculturalist" policy toward Islamists akin to those of European governments, Islamist organizations have taken advantage of laws benefiting faith-based organizations. "Islamist Watch has uncovered over $40 million worth of federal money that has worked its way into the hands of Islamist groups over the last five, six years," said Westrop. "In fact, that figure has grown ... Islamists are getting more money under the Trump administration from the federal government than they were under the Obama administration. So America needs to stop this immediately. Every cent that goes out gives Islamists power, sidelines moderate Muslims."
Moreover, Westrop noted, "the same sort of corrupt attitude towards religious communities" we see in Europe is common in state and local governments. "I'm speaking to you from Boston today, [where] the Mayor's Office ... has long worked with Islamic Society of Boston, a very dangerous mosque, whose founding trustees included Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood."
"Speak to your local newspapers, your local TV ... about the facts that Islamist Watch gathers."
Asked by the audience how to distinguish between Islamists and moderate Muslims, Westrop suggested a "pretty simple standard ... if you oppose theocracy and merely support Islam as the private practicing of faith [in a] free society, then we count you as a moderate." There are "a lot of those around," he added, but they "lack a voice" because "politicians, journalists, media, priests, academics have empowered Islamists to speak on their behalf."
Asked what can be done to combat fawning media coverage of Islamists, Westrop urged listeners to "speak to your local newspapers, your local TV, and talk to them about the facts that Islamist Watch gathers" about Islamists in their area. "Go to them and say, look, there's a local cleric whom your paper has previously profiled and praised, who has said this about the Jews, this about homosexuals," he said. "The other very important thing you can do is find moderate Muslims in your area to work with and to help ... present this information to local journalists."