The Pentagon has been thrown into turmoil by an Egyptian native appointed as a senior adviser on dealings with the Muslim world.
Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England has given his special assistant, Hesham Islam, a free hand in shaping the Pentagon's dialogue with the Muslim world and the American Muslim community. The result has been what critics term the conversion of the Defense Department into a Muslim propaganda center.
"He's my interlocutor," said England. "He represents me to the international community. Hesham helps me understand people's different perspectives and how they see things. I take his advice, and I listen to him all the time."
Under Islam, a key counter-terrorism strategist, Stephen Coughlin, was fired, after he was deemed a "Christian zealot with a pen." Islam has also invited Saudi-financed groups to lecture on Islam to Pentagon strategists.
"How is it that he [Islam] is allowed to call anyone a Christian zealot?" U.S. Central Command analyst Neal Harper said in an e-mail to friends. "This alone exposes his bias, his poor perception of Christians, and a complete lack of professionalism, at best. Should we instead be asking who is this guy and how did he get inside? Is he representative of those who are leading this Muslim outreach? Does Muslim outreach mean that we are not allowed to question or confront those we are trying to communicate with and the doctrine upon which they stand? When speaking the truth gets one fired, we all should be concerned and at the very least need to ask why."
Officials said Coughlin, whose contract expires in March 2008, was the only Islamic scholar on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They said Coughlin was the only senior adviser to argue that the United States, determined not to anger Saudi Arabia, has failed to evaluate Islamic doctrine. England's spokesman denied that the defense secretary had anything to do with Coughlin's dismissal.
"The termination of Stephen Coughlin on the Joint Staff is an act of intellectual cowardice," said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Joseph Myers, adviser at the Air Force Air Command and Staff College in Alabama, in a letter.
Officials said England and Islam were angered by a memorandum by Coughlin in late 2007—"To Our Great Detriment: Ignoring What Extremists Say About Jihad"—that Saudi-sponsored Islamic groups sought to subvert American society. One of the front groups identified was the Islamic Society of North America, whose members were invited to the Pentagon by England.
"Steve Coughlin is the most knowledgeable person in the U.S. government on Islamic law," said [Ret.] Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney. "The secretary of defense should ensure that he stays at DoD."
At the Pentagon, Islam, an Egyptian native with a 20-year career in the U.S. Navy, spends most of his time in the Arab world. Islam has also encouraged U.S. Muslim citizens to become part of American life.
"I help them understand us, as Americans, and help my boss understand them," said Islam. "My goal is to bridge the gap and help people understand each other, even if we are different. This war can't be won by just Americans. It's a war that has to be fought by Muslims. Islam has been hijacked, and it is time to take it back."
Several members of Congress said they plan to investigate the Coughlin firing. They said the Pentagon has failed to respond to their queries regarding Islam's role.
"We want to get to the bottom of this," Rep. Sue Myrick, a North Carolina Republican and co-chair of the House Anti-Terrorism Caucus, told Cybercast News Service. "We are contacting everyone to see who we can talk to."
Over the last six months, the Pentagon has been plagued by a series of incidents that indicated the increasing influence of Islamic extremists. In October 2007, a Pentagon consultant, Muqtedar Khan, refused to participate in a panel discussion at the University of Delaware with another member, Asaf Romirowsky, because he served in the Israeli military.
"I am not sure that I will be comfortable occupying the same space with him," Khan wrote to the organizers of the seminar. "It is not fair to spring this surprise on me at the last moment."
Last week, in what was billed as a Pentagon event, Ahmed Bedier, a representative of the Council of American-Islamic Relations, was to have addressed jihad at Centcom headquarters in Coral Springs, Fla. on Jan. 15. Three days before the lecture, amid complaints, including by the group Americans Against Hate, Centcom postponed the event and pledged a review.
"[I]t would be wrong for Centcom to host Ahmed Bedier from CAIR this coming Tuesday, given CAIR's extensive ties to terrorist organizations," AHA chairman Joe Kaufman said in an e-mail to Centcom. "Centcom should be fighting terrorists, not embracing their friends."