"An Islamic-run health clinic in Northeast Philly," writes journalist Michael Boren, "is stoking fear among people who don't understand Islam." On the face of it, Boren's exasperation appears warranted. But dig a little deeper and it appears that the proposed center is also stoking support from journalists who don't understand Islamism.
Boren's article, published at the Philadelphia Inquirer, reports that efforts by the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) and its charitable arm, ICNA Relief, to establish a free health-care clinic have "evoked hate." Boren describes angry opposition from local residents, who express general anti-Muslim attitudes. Some even seem to believe that center is a front for terrorism.
One of the largest obstacles to reasoned discussion about both Islam and Islamism is the absolutism practiced by both sides. Whereas anti-Islam critics of the health-care center cite, without foundation, an immediate terrorist threat; journalists like Boren embrace the equally untrue polar opposite – that this clinic, and the groups behind it, must be the work of moderates.
ICNA is not a terrorist organization. But it does have a long history of promoting hate speech and working with extremists.
During the 1971 Liberation War, a violent South Asian Islamist group named Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) worked with Pakistani forces to murder hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis seeking independence. After the war, and the successful creation of an independent Bangladesh, many JI operatives fled to the West, where many helped establish Islamist organizations styled as Muslim community groups. In America, one prominent JI war criminal, Ashrafuzzaman Khan, reportedly served as the ICNA's secretary-general.
Today, ICNA continues to identify itself openly as the key American outpost of JI. And in 2013 and 2016, JI's own website reported that ICNA protested the convictions and sentences handed down by a war crimes tribunal to senior JI leaders responsible involved in the genocide.
ICNA's charitable arm, ICNA Relief, is a donor to the Al-Khidmat Foundation, a Pakistani JI charity that, according to JI's own website, openly funds the Gaza-based terrorist group, Hamas. ICNA's other projects include WhyIslam, an Islamic educational website that features the work of Abul Ala Maududi, the founding ideologue of JI, as well as religious teachings by Khurram Murad, the late vice-President of JI in Pakistan.
ICNA's extremism, however, is not merely a matter of ideological links. In 1998, ICNA claimed, in the wake of the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, that Bin Laden and the Taliban were being used by the U.S. government as "an easy escape goat [sic] to divert attention from Lewensky Gate or to cover intelligence failures in tracking the real culprits." Later, ICNA's website carried calls to support the "jihaad against the kuffaar [non-believers] in Kashmir, Afghanistan, Palestine, Bosnia etc." Other posts have included support for the Sudanese regime and claims that its campaign of genocide and mass-slavery are false Western propaganda.
More recently, ICNA has run events that feature some of the most extreme Islamist preachers from across the globe. At its most recent conferences, speakers included Suleiman Hani, who claims that "freedom of speech is a facade" used to stifle "objective discussion" of the "Holocaust and Jews"; Yasir Qadhi, whose violent homophobia was recently the subject of an investigative report by The Times; and Muhammad Ratib al-Nabulsi, a Syrian cleric who has written that "the wicked Jews are a collection of defects and imperfections, and a hotbed of vices and evils. They are the worst enemies of God. ... God has made it a duty to fight them and wage Jihad against them so that the word of God will be supreme."
Ahmed Taha, the official who has organized ICNA's recent conferences, is a strident anti-Semite. He has re-published text on social media that states, "O Muslim, O servant of God. There is a Jew behind me, come kill him." Taha has also circulated conspiracy theory claims that Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is a "Jew" and Egypt is now "Israeli-occupied territory."
ICNA's Philadelphia branch, the group behind the planned health-care center, is no better. In January 2017, it hosted a lecture by Abdul Nasir Jangda, who has advocated sex-slavery and argues that, "The thing to understand is that the husband has his set of divinely given rights one of which is the right to have his physical desires satisfied."
On May 20, ICNA Philadelphia organized an event featuring Mohammad Elshinawy, who has previously claimed that women who fail to wear the hijab will contract breast cancer. The very next day, it sponsored a talk by Mokhtar Maghraoui, who has defended the stoning of adulterers and the killing of criminals.
In his article, Michael Boren offers some questions and answers: "Will the clinic be open to anyone, or only Muslims? (Answer: Anyone.) Will doctors impose their religious beliefs on patients? (No.) Is this a front for extremism? (No.)"
Boren is correct about only the first two points. ICNA is evidently an extremist organization, albeit lawful extremism. The actual point of the clinic is to legitimize ICNA's claim to be moderate and to have the interests of ordinary American Muslims at heart.
Islamist groups such as ICNA have no ideological mandate from American Muslims, who are mostly unwilling to embrace a very specific strain of South Asian Islamism. So instead, ICNA buys support through the provision of welfare services. Among non-Muslims, building a health-care clinic sanitizes ICNA's reputation and persuades incurious journalists of Islamist legitimacy. Within the Muslim community, it forces dependency on Islamist leadership and undermines rival moderate Muslim groups who lack the resources to offer such services.
Except for a passing mention to the ADL's criticism of ICNA in 2010, in his apparent keenness not to be as 'Islamophobic' as his constituents, Michael Boren fails to investigate evidence of ICNA's extremism or the strenuous opposition to ICNA found among reformist Muslims.
With Islamist radicalization and terror occupying headline news most days, it is astounding that so much of the media has failed to ask fundamental questions about American Islam: who are the self-proclaimed leaders of American Islam? And what do they believe? By failing to identify and challenge the extremists within American Islam, the media is making it almost impossible, conversely, to identify and support the moderates.
It may seem ICNA is just setting up a health-care clinic. But that clinic is another important institution in an ever-growing Islamist network that, as we can see with ICNA, is teaching the next generation of Muslim youth to hate.
Sam Westrop is the Director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum