The Middle East Forum's (MEF) Islamist Watch project recently came under fire from a legal advocacy group whose sole purpose is to go to bat for convicted terrorists. Claiming to "set the record straight" in a "response to hate," Coalition for Civil Freedoms (CCF) chairman Stephen Downs launched a retaliatory broadside at MEF for publishing an article calling his nonprofit a "terrorist-run pay-to-slay group."
Unfortunately, readers may have difficulty checking "the record" that Mr. Downs presents, since he refused to name MEF, link to its article, or address the report's most compelling facts. "No purpose would be served in naming that group," Downs assured his readers, "since its goal apparently is to seek publicity in order to spread hate."
The reason behind Mr. Downs' incognito approach is clear: "Soviet media routinely attacked enemies without naming them, fearing its subjects would learn too much about them," MEF President Daniel Pipes explained, citing the CCF rebuttal and naming the organization.
Of course, Downs gave the facts a wide berth in his written rebuttal, choosing instead to cast aspersions on the Islamist Watch mandate to challenge lawful Islamism. "Why they should target Muslims acting lawfully makes no sense to us, but that is what hate groups do," he wrote, accusing MEF of "disregarding the first amendment."
On the contrary, Islamist Watch was established to amplify moderate Muslim voices, a topic MEF has covered at least 53 times since 2003 in articles, press releases, interviews, and book reviews.
Just because a group or cause is lawful does not render it immune from criticism. Although the Klu Klux Klan is lawful, few would defend it from condemnation. While CCF may be composed of lawful Islamist organizations, there is nothing lawful — or indeed redeeming — about the would-be mass murderers and terror financiers it claims to represent.
Still, Downs insisted that, "CCF is not terrorist run." Here, too, he neglected to address the facts, ignoring how CCF founder and president Sami Al-Arian pleaded guilty in 2006 to the charge of "conspiracy to make or receive contributions of funds, goods or services to or for the benefit of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad," a designated terrorist group. Indeed, Mr. Al-Arian likes to boast that he was "under house arrest" when he founded CCF in 2010.
Mr. Downs goes to great lengths to assert that CCF and its mission are not Muslim-oriented. "Ironically, EGO is not a Muslim bill," he wrote, describing the Entrapment and Governmental Overreach Relief Act, a bill that could plausibly free dozens of convicted terrorists.
Ironically, MEF never made this claim. However, if CCF is serious about presenting itself as an irreligious organization, Al-Arian should stop soliciting donations for his group's "mostly Muslim" client base, and should avoid referring to "vulnerable Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11" in articles describing the EGO bill.
At any rate, it's not as if CCF's annual Ramadan gift drive is intended for non-Muslim prisoners. CCF certainly doesn't operate a corresponding Christmas program gifting $100 donations to white supremacists arrested in so-called "preemptive prosecutions."
Better still, CCF may want to consider cutting ties with members who openly call for turning the U.S. into a theocratic Islamic state. Cyrus McGoldrick, who sits on the board of directors of a CCF member organization, wrote an August 2017 article explaining: "To make America great would be to make America Muslim, and it is possible. As I sit in the city that was once called Constantinople, I promise you, God always wins."
With a history of militantly anti-Western, pro-jihadist statements, it's no wonder that McGoldrick once remarked that the Aafia Foundation - a CCF member organization to which he belongs - is the only Muslim American organization that will have him. It doesn't speak highly of CCF when it appears that other Islamist front groups apparently deem McGoldrick too radical for even their extremist appetites.
Nevertheless, Mr. Downs is insistent, arguing that even MEF staff may one day soon need CCF patronage. "If this organization were able to think clearly for a moment," he wrote, "they might realize that at some time in the near future, the FBI may decide to entrap their members (who might engage in future criminal activity while attacking Muslims acting lawfully)."
Of course, MEF doesn't resort to threats of violence and criminality. Furthermore, MEF doesn't associate with anyone eager to advocate for those plotting to bomb a Manhattan subway station or the Chicago Cubs' baseball stadium.
Nobody from MEF has boasted of wanting to assassinate a U.S. president, nor have they tried to kill U.S. service members. Yet, this is the terrorist underworld that CCF proudly supports — criminals who have been lawfully tried and convicted in a court of law, and who have frequently exhausted their appeals at the federal level. It's no wonder CCF chooses to shield its supporters from these facts.
Benjamin Baird is Coordinator of Islamism in Politics, a project of the Middle East Forum.