Sam Westrop, director of the Middle East Forum's Islamist Watch project, and Clifford Smith, the director of its Washington Project, spoke to participants in an April 15 webinar (video) about the Jamaat-e-Islami Islamist movement and its growing influence in the United States.
According to Westrop, Western counter-Islamism analysts have long focused the bulk of their attention on the Muslim Brotherhood and its various offshoots in the U.S. and Europe. While the Brotherhood is indeed dangerous, other Islamist groups "have flourished under the lack of spotlight, and no group has flourished quite so well and so successfully as Jamaat-e-Islami." Founded in India in the 1940s and today "very active here in the US," it has proven very adept at advancing its ideology, yet "until about a year or two ago, very few in America had heard of the group."
The founder of Jamaat-e-Islami, Abul A'la Maududi, promoted Islamism as a revolutionary ideology before the rise of Sayyid Qutb, the chief theologian responsible for inspiring Al-Qaeda and most other Sunni Islamist movements in the Middle East, and in fact Maududi "corresponded quite a bit" with Qutb, according to Smith.
In 1971, the Pakistani government turned to Jamaat-e-Islami to help violently suppress the intellectuals who led the Bengali war for independence from Pakistan. After the war ended, some of the leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami killing squads fled to the West afterwards. Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin, a leader of the Al-Badr killing squad, moved to the UK and helped establish Muslim Aid, today one of the country's leading Islamic charities. Another Al-Badr leader, Ashrafuzzaman Khan, moved to the U.S. and became a prominent leader in the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA). Khan was later sentenced to death in absentia by Bangladesh's war crimes tribunal for murdering 18 Bengali intellectuals.
ICNA is today "the most important representation of Jamaat-e-Islami in America," said Westrop, with local chapters all across the country. Together with the Muslim American Society, a Muslim Brotherhood-linked group, ICNA hosts an annual conference that draws tens of thousands of attendees and often features American politicians as guest speakers.
ICNA also runs several charities, notably ICNA Relief, which provides domestic aid here in the U.S.; Helping Hand for Relief and Development (HHRD), which provides international aid; Young Muslims, "a youth group that indoctrinates young Muslims;" and two proselytizing organizations, GainPeace and WhyIslam.
Although ICNA's charities have received federal grants and established good relations with both local and federal government officials, they retain ties to violent extremists. "A couple of years ago we caught HHRD working with two front organizations for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani terrorist organization responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, ... they ran a conference together in a Pakistani city," recalled Westrop. HHRD has also worked with Alkhidmat Foundation, a Pakistani charity linked to JI's armed wing.
Although Jamaat-e-Islami figures in the U.S. often talk the talk of religious moderation, they do this for tactical reasons. Westrop gave the example of Hafiz Muhammed Masood, who was the imam of a prominent Massachusetts mosque during the 2000s. When it emerged that he was the brother of Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, leader of the above mentioned Lashkar-e-Taiba terror group, "Masood said, 'Oh yes, he is my brother, but I share nothing in common with him. I have no links to his terrorism. I repudiate, I reject his ideology,' and everyone believed him, the media believed him, the local politicians believed him," Westrop recalled. Around 2008, however, Masood was deported to Pakistan for lying on his visa application. "What did he do the day he got back? He became an official spokesperson for Lashkar-e-Taiba."
Last year, Smith notes, Congressman Jim Banks (R-Indiana) "introduced H.Res.160 which calls out Jamaat-e-Islami's actions across the board in India and Bangladesh and Pakistan and also their fundraising arms and their links to terrorism in the US." But the small number of voices raising this issue face an uphill battle. A taxpayer-funded umbrella organization of international charities, InterAction, is lobbying Congress on behalf of ICNA and HHRD, discouraging any investigation of their activities.
"Jamaat ... is radicalizing the next generation of Muslim kids."
Westrop and Smith urged webinar participants to write their congressional representatives and urge them to oppose federal funding of Jamaat charities. "Jamaat is a dangerous force. It has flown under the radar for decades. Across the US it is radicalizing the next generation of Muslim kids," said Westrop. "You just have to look to Europe to see what happens when you don't stop that radicalization in time."
Asked which is more dangerous, the Muslim Brotherhood or Jamaat-e-Islami, Smith replied that the latter is today more worrisome. "Jamaat-e-Islami's franchise groups, its friends in the U.S., have been more influential, have gotten more funds, have gotten more respectability and have been more involved in shaping policy then Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups."