Sam Westrop, director of MEF's Islamist Watch, along with Benjamin Baird, director of the Counter-Islamist Grid, spoke to participants in a December 21 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about how non-violent lawful Islamism in the U.S. has evolved and grown more diverse in recent decades and discussed how the Middle East Forum is working to counter its spread.
Acknowledging the provocative title of his talk, "The Muslim Brotherhood Hardly Matters," Westrop explained that when Islamist Watch was founded in 2006, the Islamist threat was understood in terms of violent groups such as Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, on the one hand, and various ostensibly non-violent affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood seeking to undermine the U.S. through lawful avenues – most notably the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
The Muslim Brotherhood "is not the only Islamist gang in town."
Though domestic Islamism "once perhaps had its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood," said Westrop, it "has changed over time" and now encompasses a range of diverse groups with key theological, ethnic, and cultural differences, all bent on radicalizing "the next generation of American Muslims." The Muslim Brotherhood "is not the only Islamist gang in town," or even the most important.
South Asian Islamism
Westrop noted that "a plurality of American Islam is South Asian," and with it comes Islamist groups like Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), considered the "South Asian cousin of the Muslim Brotherhood." JI is active in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, and is tied to jihadi terrorist groups in the region. JI has established an American proxy through the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) and its sister organization, Helping Hand for Relief and Development (HHRD).
Another South Asian sect with affiliates in the U.S. is the Deobandi movement, which Westrop characterized as sort of a South Asian version of Salafism. Westrop expressed surprise at how little attention has been assigned to the Deobandis, given their large U.S. network of schools, seminaries, youth groups, and community centers. The Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) offshoot of the Deobandi movement is a particular focus of current Islamist Watch research.
Westrop said that Shia Islamism and its "substantial network in the U.S.," concentrated in places like Dearborn, Michigan, have been largely ignored by counter-Islamism campaigners. These groups are not only aligned with Iran and its Lebanese Hezbollah proxy, but also with South Asian Shia Islamist currents. While law enforcement is taking an "aggressive" approach towards criminal activity by Iranian and Hezbollah networks, Islamist Watch is examining the "the lawful Islamist side of these networks" and the millions of dollars flowing within these institutions, and to and from the Middle East.
The American Islamist Way
Westrop emphasized that domestic Islamist groups in the U.S. have been "evolving and changing." They have "developed their own ideology that ... has its foundations in the Islamism of the Middle East and Islamism in South Asia, but has taken on distinctly American characteristics."
Most notable is "a curious alliance with progressivism." Islamists activists who advocate for various aspects of Sharia law, which bans homosexuality, are "also attending gay rights marches without any sense of paradox." This has generated backlash from Salafis, "the purist revivalist Middle Eastern hardline conservative Islam," who "revolt against these changes, against this embrace of ideas they consider to be deeply un-Islamic."
Another notable change in American Islamism is that Muslim Brotherhood legacy groups have "refocused a lot of [their] efforts from Israel and the Palestinian Territories to India and Kashmir." Together with Jamaat-e-Islami proxy ICNA, they are using the same playbook against India that they have long used against Israel – launching boycott, divestment and sanctions efforts, for example, and inventing false reports of massacres to get Western media to report on their narrative.
Finally, American Islamist groups are becoming adept at securing government financing for their operations. A recent Islamist Watch article uncovered how Small Business Administration loans, as part of COVID funding, have "ended up in the hands of some of the most horrifying extremists operating in the U.S. today."
Islamism In Politics
Baird said that many counter-Islamists have not given adequate attention to Islamism in politics, which is the focus of two MEF projects. Islamism in Politics tracks political donations from Islamist individuals and organizations, while Counter-Islamist Grid employs activists to "counter and expose Islamism" both nationally and locally, where Islamists "have found a foothold" by running in elections for school board, county commissioners, and the like.
In September 2020, members of the Counter-Islamist Grid registered for the annual Palestinian Advocacy Day organized by American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) and infiltrated its video conferences with congressional offices, alerting them to its anti-Israel agenda and spread of anti-Semitism. This enraged the AMP lobbyists "who started bickering with ... the legislative aides," said Baird.
Westrop and Baird are involved in identifying Islamists who are funding congressional races and informing members of Congress as to the actual agenda Islamists attempt to mask. Baird emphasized that Islamists and the propaganda they spread in the U.S. seek to "undermine America's democratic institutions, causing us to lose faith in our government."
In recent years Turkey "has been very active in influencing local Islamist groups in America" and "many American Islamist groups ... are taking patronage from Turkey." The impact of this burgeoning relationship was evident, for example, at an AMP protest in Washington, where the participants changed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's name, saying he was the ruler of the Muslim ummah.
Turkey also exerts influence in the U.S. through five political action committees (PACs) called the "Ten Thousand Turks Campaign." MEF discovered that many donors to this campaign work on behalf of Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP), and some are even registered as foreign agents.
Baird noted that Wikileaks released a 2016 email exchange between Ibrahim Danışmaz, then head of the Washington-based Turkish Heritage Organization (THO), and Turkish officials in which they discussed how to establish a lobbying front in the U.S. with the appearance of a non-profit with a public education mission, but with the ulterior motive of promoting the Turkish agenda. Danışmaz later left the U.S. for Turkey after coming under FBI investigation. MEF has educated politicians about the hazards of accepting donations from Turkish regime proxies.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.