Clifford Smith, director of the Washington Project at the Middle East Forum (MEF), spoke to participants in a December 14 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about the project's efforts to influence government policies.
In his role as the Middle East Forum's "ambassador to Washington, DC," Smith networks with "decision-makers and opinion leaders" to "entrench [the] Middle East Forum's ideas and desired policies ... into the minds of people that make decisions and help them actually effectuate those decisions."
The "big picture" issues tackled by MEF include radical Islam, Israel, and Iran, and how they impact America's national security. But the Washington Project's specialty is focusing on "pieces of those issues ... that are doable ... that we can really have an impact on," Smith explained. He discussed a handful of these "pieces" in detail.
MEF focuses heavily on the "worldwide phenomenon" of radical Islam and the threat it poses to the United States. While throwing its weight behind failed efforts in Congress to ban the Muslim Brotherhood, the Washington Project recognized that "sometimes you can't get the whole enchilada," said Smith, and led the charge to discredit influential affiliates of the Brotherhood in the United States.
In conjunction with MEF's Islamist Watch, the Washington Project has recently focused much attention on Islamic Relief, a global charity founded by prominent members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Smith called Islamic Relief "the most important branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West" because of its success in cultivating a sanitized, benevolent public image despite actively promoting Islamic extremism (e.g. by hosting radical preachers), spewing "virtually nonstop" antisemitic hate speech, and subsidizing terrorist activities in Gaza.
By distributing a flurry of MEF research on Islamic Relief, including a detailed dossier, to congressional offices, administration officials, and others, the Washington Project succeeded in creating a major controversy over federal funding of Islamic Relief where none existed before. Shortly after Smith's webinar, the State Department cut ties with Islamic Relief pending "a full review of the organization and U.S. government funding."
While the Muslim Brotherhood and its U.S. affiliates have garnered much of MEF's attention over the years, the Washington Project has recently targeted an equally pernicious south Asian Islamist movement, Jamaat-e-Islami, that has deeply penetrated the United States, yet slipped under the radar of counter-Islamism campaigners. Jamaat-e-Islami's American affiliate, the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), and various charitable arms, such as Helping Hands for Relief and Development (HHRD), have enjoyed greater access to government than Muslim Brotherhood affiliates and even received substantial federal funding, despite being linked to terrorist groups such as Hizb-ul-Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Taiba.
In 2019, MEF worked with members of Congress to introduce a bill calling attention to this problem and sponsored an event in Washington, DC to publicize the bill and raise public awareness of Jamaat-e-Islami and its franchise groups. MEF's work not only drew unwelcome publicity to Jamaat-e-Islami organizations in the United States, but also generated media coverage in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan.
In response, Jamaat-e-Islami groups have vigorously challenged MEF's "demonstrable facts," distributed "a secret dossier attacking Middle East Forum's research" to members of Congress, and hired an international law firm to discredit their accusers. "Frankly, it showed that what we had done had drawn real blood and really spooked the radicals we were looking to call out," said Smith.
Qatar / Al Jazeera
Another recent focus of the Washington Project has been the failure of the Qatari-owned media company Al Jazeera to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) and comply with new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) laws regulating foreign government-controlled media outlets in the U.S. Despite the fact that Al Jazeera "is commanded by the Qatari regime," which is "viciously anti-Semitic" and the "funder of terrorism and radical organizations around the Middle East," said Smith, the U.S. government had for years failed to force Al Jazeera to comply with the law.
MEF worked with Congress to add language to bills that would "make the enforcement clearer, even mandatory in some circumstances." Smith wrote op-eds about the issue and publicized it in radio interviews. Finally, MEF worked with Senator Marco Rubio to draft an August 2020 letter to the Department of Justice demanding that Al Jazeera register and enlisted nine other members of Congress, in both the House and Senate, to sign it. A month later, "the administration formally required Al Jazeera to register as a foreign agent," said Smith.
Smith's takeaway lesson from this win is to never give up, and if one initiative doesn't pan out, "find another way."
Title VI Abuse
MEF's Campus Watch project has worked for years to expose the deeply politicized field of Middle East studies at American universities. The Washington Project has recently zeroed in on a peculiar vulnerability of Middle East studies centers in the U.S.– their abuse of federal grants received under Title VI of the Higher Education Act. The Title VI statute requires that programs financed by these grants provide "balance in their curriculum ... [and] be in service of U.S. national security needs," said Smith. But most of these programs have largely ignored the Title VI requirements, undertaking activities characterized by "anti-Semitism, apologetics for terrorism, [and] other waste of taxpayer money." Until recently, they did this with impunity.
Joining forces with MEF's Campus Watch project, Smith worked to expose these abuses of Title VI and convinced congressmen to call for Department of Education (DoE) investigations of the worst offenders. The DoE completed one such investigation, which found that Duke-UNC's Middle East Studies Consortium had inappropriately spent federal dollars.
Other schools singled out by the MEF campaign include Georgetown University, the University of Arizona, the University of California – Berkeley, and Yale. Although the DoE reportedly began other investigations, Smith said the "clock" may have run out with the change of administrations.
Fortunately, in keeping with his adage of finding multiple ways to achieve goals, Smith also enlisted the support of Senator Rubio and Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota to petition the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a congressional agency unaffected by a change in administrations, to conduct an audit of all Title VI funds. "This helps us continue to put pressure on the universities to reform ... This is a long fight."
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Among the many Israel issues Smith has worked on with Congress and administration officials is sanctioning Palestinian Authority (PA) officials involved in "pay to slay" programs that financially reward terrorists. Smith also helped mobilize members of Congress to call for declassification of a State Department report that calculated the "true number" of Palestinians who fit the U.S. government definition of refugee, as opposed to UNRWA's politicized designation of any descendant anywhere of Arabs who fled their homes in 1948-1949 as a "refugee." UNRWA's sleight of hand is intended to "destroy Israel as a Jewish state" by allowing 5.3 million Palestinians to claim a "right of return," said Smith.
The above examples are just a few of the initiatives that MEF and Smith's Washington Project have undertaken to effect U.S. policy changes. Smith said that even when proposed bills do not pass or congressional letters go unanswered, they "affect the debate" in lasting ways. "As a Supreme Court Justice famously once said, 'Sunlight is the best disinfectant.' ... What I can do is continually shine sunlight and hope that these people do the right thing."