Following two years of opposition from Republican lawmakers, the U.S. Senate has voted to confirm President Joe Biden's pick to the second-highest post at the Small Business Administration (SBA). Pakistani American businessman Dilawar Syed's confirmation comes despite the appointee's repeated contacts with a terror-linked foreign diplomat and his leadership of a Muslim political advocacy group that engages in practices that even Biden admitted "singles out Israel and too often veers into antisemitism."
First nominated to the position of SBA deputy administrator in March of 2021, Syed faced a GOP blockade as Senate Republicans on the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee refused to show up to roll-call votes at least five times in 2021 alone, denying the evenly-split committee the necessary quorum to conduct official business.
Republicans supplied several reasons for the blockade. However, Syed's involvement with Emgage Action, a far left Islamic group that attempts to pass its extremist agenda off as political advocacy, was the first and arguably most compelling reason that Senate committee members opposed the nomination. In a June 30, 2021, letter, eight GOP senators expressed "serious concern" over Syed's work with Emgage Action, which they called "vocally anti-Israel."
The letter cited an Emgage press release published following the outbreak of major hostilities in May 2021 between Israel and Hamas, the terrorist government that rules the Gaza Strip. Syed's group assigned unilateral blame to Israel for the fighting and "amplified accusations that Israel is an apartheid state," according to the signatories.
In addition, the senators claimed that Emgage issued statements supporting Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) after she drew heat from fellow Congress members for equating Israel and the United States with Hamas and the Taliban. They also pointed to the organization's "history of supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement," a global effort to destroy Israel through diplomatic and economic isolation.
Until last December, Emgage required the political candidates it endorsed to affirm their support for BDS, according to a section of its website that has since been removed. "In fact, we ask every candidate seeking the endorsement of Emgage PAC [political action committee] to answer questions related to Palestine, settlements, and the right to boycott. This is a key part of our endorsement process," the entry read.
Biden is one of the BDS movement's fiercest critics. In a 2020 campaign message, then-presidential candidate Biden told the Jewish American community that he "firmly rejects the BDS movement" for its anti-Semitic tendencies. He even added that BDS lets "Palestinians off the hook for their choices," but was forced to retract the statement after anti-Israel activists protested.
Yet, when it comes to BDS, Emgage appears to get a pass from the White House. Farooq Mitha, another Emgage board member, openly supported BDS and was appointed to lead the Office of Small Business Programs at the Department of Defense, a position that oversees $140 billion in contracts awarded annually to small business owners.
In response to questions about Israeli boycotts, Syed told the committee that he did "not support BDS," having "personally conducted business with Israeli companies." Unlike Mitha, who did not require Senate confirmation, Syed pledged to leave Emgage Action's board of directors once confirmed.
Satisfied with these answers, Senate Democrats launched a campaign to shame their colleagues into ending the blockade. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (NY) lashed out at Republicans, calling their actions a "hateful, bigoted campaign" against a qualified candidate.
"One could conclude that they are being very bigoted and critical," said Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono, who sat on the Small Business Committee. "But since when does that faze the Republicans in their opposition to anything?"
Syed even received support from Jewish American leaders. Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the influential Anti-Defamation League, told the Daily Beast that it was "painful to see the attacks on Mr. Syed's candidacy because of his association with Emgage."
Yet, Syed's harshest critics and most vocal defenders alike appeared to lack a complete picture of Emgage's extremism, from promoting anti-Semitic speakers, to hosting events at radical mosques and partnering with an organization entangled in terrorism prosecutions.
Emgage, the parent organization to Emgage Action, was founded by South Florida attorney Khurrum Wahid, who built his legal practice around defending some of America's most notorious terrorists. His name reportedly appeared on a terrorist watchlist in 2011.
Before founding Emgage, Wahid was a legal advisor and chapter director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a position that would have kept the Florida lawyer quite busy, with seven CAIR officials arrested, convicted, or deported between 2002 and 2011 for separate terrorism-related offenses. Today, CAIR and Emgage regularly coordinate their activities.
Emgage has endorsed radical political candidates, including Democrats who publicly sympathized with the rabidly anti-Semitic Nation of Islam. Mired in controversy, Cleveland City Councilor Basheer Jones, also endorsed by Emgage, has advocated for the release of a convicted cop killer and once asserted that women are "not our leaders," adding, "We [men] are their leaders."
Syed's former organization hosts civic training programs and candidate forums at terror-tied mosques, such as Florida's Darul Uloom Institute (DUI), former home to Al Qaeda "Dirty Bomber" Jose Padilla. Moreover, Emgage provides a platform for anti-Semitic speakers and Holocaust deniers. When the Biden campaign sought to distance itself from anti-Israel activist Linda Sarsour, who was invited to speak at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, Emgage rushed to her defense, even as Sarsour found herself increasingly ostracized for standing by her anti-Semitic views.
In May, Emgage Action co-hosted an event with Palestinian American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the Nakba, a term referring to the foundation of Israel as a "catastrophe." Event organizers scrambled to find an alternative venue to host the event, where speakers accused Israel of "ethnic cleansing" and forcibly expelling Palestinians through a "'death March,'" after House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy blocked Tlaib from reserving the Capitol Visitor Center.
The change of venue occured after ADL's Greenblatt, who defended Syed's work with Emgage just two years earlier, reportedly "drew McCarthy's attention to some of the event's cosponsors, who have trafficked in antisemitism, expressed support for terrorists and called for boycotts of Zionist Jews."
ADL did not respond to emails inquiring about Greenblatt's opinion of Emgage.
With his nomination on hold, Syed was forced to settle for the role of the State Department's Special Representative for Commercial and Business Affairs. His brief stint at this post appeared to be mostly unremarkable, aside from multiple meetings with Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S. Masood Khan, whose own confirmation was reportedly delayed by U.S. authorities after a Middle East Forum investigation revealed multiple connections between the diplomat and South Asian jihadist groups.
Shortly after the White House confirmed Khan's ambassadorship, three Congress members wrote to the Justice Department demanding a thorough investigation of the Pakistani diplomat, who they claimed "clearly supports terrorists." Despite this, Syed met with the Pakistani ambassador at least four times between May 2022 and February 2023, a frequency that appears to extend well beyond the special representative's customary duties.
Attempts to reach Mr. Syed through an SBA spokesperson to discuss his time at the State Department and his current relationship with Emgage were unsuccessful.
Having secured a majority on the Small Business Committee, Senate Democrats advanced Syed's nomination, and he was finally confirmed as deputy administrator to the SBA on June 8, 2023, by a vote of 54 to 42. Five Republican Senators joined Democrats in making Syed the highest ranking Muslim in the Biden administration.
Despite holding multiple committee hearings, and with tremendous resources at their disposal, senators on both sides of the aisle failed to properly vet Syed, his association with Emgage, and the full extent of the political action group's extremism. The appointee's time at the State Department, spent courting a "bona fide terrorist sympathizer," provides an unsettling preview of what may come to pass from the SBA's new deputy administrator.
Benjamin Baird is the director of MEF Action, an advocacy project of the Middle East Forum.