Illustrating that the jihadist enterprise transcends all borders, American Islamist groups typically preoccupied with remaking the U.S. have been leaving their fingerprints on the campaign to exchange secular authoritarianism for religious authoritarianism in the Middle East. As these organizations labor stateside to nudge the governing class to embrace Arab Islamists at the expense of liberals — prompting Egyptian intellectual Essam Abdallah to lament that "the most dramatic oppression of the region's civil societies and the Arab Spring … is led by the powerful Islamist lobbies in Washington" — several of the groups' past and current officials have emerged as key players in the Middle East's new political landscape. The connections underscore that Islamists everywhere are united by a single goal: the imposition of Shari'a.
One of the prominent figures to embody these ties is Bassem Khafagi, who in March announced his intention to run for president of Egypt on behalf of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), an arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks to resurrect the caliphate and achieve "mastership of the world." He failed to get the nod, but his back story is intriguing nonetheless. Jihad Watch's Robert Spencer has pointed out that Khafagi once worked for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and is among its most notorious alumni. While serving as CAIR's community affairs director, Khafagi was arrested in 2003 as part of a terrorism support and recruitment probe targeting the Islamic Assembly of North America (IANA), of which he was a founder. The government deported Khafagi after he pleaded guilty to bank and visa fraud.
Khafagi's election platform was the essence of Islamism: "complete the implementation of Islamic law in Egypt." He also remarked that he "never loved" America, an "infidel country" that "constitutes a criminal element in this world." Moreover, Khafagi boasted about being "the first to expose the notion of 'moderate Islam,' which is used as a means to canonize a 'non-Islamic Islam.' … This 'moderation' means violation [of the laws] of Islam." Khafagi's views help explain his attraction to CAIR, with its Muslim Brotherhood origins, promotion of Islamic rule, criticism of America, and links to terrorism, especially through its status as an unindicted co-conspirator in the successful trial of the Hamas-funding Holy Land Foundation (HLF). Indeed, his words would be an embarrassment for CAIR if the mainstream media deigned to notice. Though Khafagi has faded from the spotlight for now, there is no telling what impact he could have on Egypt's undoubtedly turbulent future.
Tentacles from American Islamist organizations also reach into the Syrian National Council (SNC), the U.S.-favored civilian umbrella group opposing dictator Bashar al-Assad. The SNC is widely understood to be stacked with Islamists, so these radicals fit right in.
Heading the roster is Louay Safi, a central figure in the SNC and increasingly its public face. Safi may be most familiar, however, as a longtime official with the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), serving as executive director of the ISNA Leadership Development Center from 2004 to 2008 and becoming ISNA's director of communications and leadership development in 2009. A document composed by the Brotherhood lists ISNA as one of "our organizations and the organizations of our friends" that can advance the "grand jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within." Like CAIR, it was designated as an unindicted co-conspirator in the HLF case. Safi's résumé also includes past senior positions with the Virginia-based International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), which has been the focus of investigations into terror funding, and the D.C.-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), which reformist Muslims have dubbed "a front for some of the most obnoxious members of the 'Wahhabi lobby' in America."
An excellent Dallas Morning News piece, published amid the controversy over Safi's training of U.S. military personnel at Fort Hood, compiles further evidence of his radicalism. For example, Safi was an unindicted co-conspirator in the prosecution of Sami al-Arian, the professor who pleaded guilty in 2006 to conspiring to aid Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Al-Arian's think tank reportedly received considerable funding from IIIT, where Safi was executive director and later research director. The FBI intercepted a 1995 conversation between Safi and al-Arian in which they discussed whether an executive order banning financial transactions with terrorists would inhibit al-Arian's work with PIJ. In the course of the call, Safi agreed with al-Arian that "Zionists" were controlling Washington.
Equally troubling are Safi's musings on the Shari'a-mandated execution of those who leave Islam. On the one hand, during the international uproar over charges levied against Afghan convert Abdul Rahman in 2006, Safi wrote an article voicing platitudes about individual religious liberty under Islam while laughably blaming Western imperialism for the barbaric apostasy laws in various Muslim countries, where converts can face penalties that include death. Middle East Forum president Daniel Pipes described himself as "surprised, even wondrous, at the lack of shame." On the other hand, a monograph published by Safi a few years earlier, when there was much less media scrutiny of the subject, takes a harder line, concluding that although "a quiet desertion of personal Islamic duties is not a sufficient reason for inflicting death on a person," execution is "just punishment" if "the individual's desertion of Islam is used as a political tool for instigating a state of disorder, or revolting against the law of Islam." Along with the rest of his radical history, these contradictory pronouncements — standard fare whenever Islamists address the public on uncomfortable matters — should cast doubt on any claims made by Safi, particularly his soothing assurances that Syria's future will be characterized by "equal rights and freedoms of all people."
CAIR has its own man in the SNC: Yaser Tabbara, a founding member of the Syrian resistance group. After helping launch CAIR's Chicago office, Tabbara served as its executive director until 2006; he currently sits on its board. Tabbara's time at the helm of CAIR-Chicago was marked by multiple controversies. He played a major role in the successful drive to get Thomas Klocek dismissed from his post as an adjunct professor at DePaul University, following an out-of-classroom argument in which Klocek defended Israel against the smears of pro-Palestinian students. Tabbara also led CAIR-Chicago's efforts to circle the Islamist wagons when the family of an American teenager murdered by Hamas sued U.S. charities believed to fund such terrorists. He called the trial a "lynching and a mockery of justice," but a jury awarded the plaintiffs $156 million. Around the same period, the FBI accused CAIR-Chicago of having "compromised or impeded" an investigation into an alleged hate crime by ignoring the bureau's request not to issue a premature press release about it.
Yet another important SNC member is Najib Ghadbian, a University of Arkansas professor who recently sat on the CSID board. Ghadbian's 1997 book classifies Muslim Brotherhood theorists, including Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, as "moderate" Islamists who favor democracy, inspiring Daniel Pipes to observe that "there are no 'moderate' Islamists, only deluded analysts who try to convince of their existence." As the Global Muslim Brotherhood Daily Report notes, Ghadbian has long advocated that the U.S. government reach out to Syria's Brotherhood, desiring it to have a place at the post-Assad table. Wielding significant influence these days as part of the SNC's inner circle, Ghadbian was among its representatives at a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Geneva last December. Three months prior, he spoke at an Anaheim town hall beside a State Department official; the event was endorsed by CAIR and hosted by the Syrian American Council (SAC), in which both Safi and Tabbara have held leadership positions.
As the above individuals — and probably others affiliated with American Islamist groups — toil on the front lines of Middle Eastern conflicts, the organizations themselves are working domestically to legitimize and bolster the ascendant radicals of the Arab world. From one revolution to the next, they have demanded and cheered the overthrow of secular autocrats, cried out for Islamists to be included in the subsequent political processes, and celebrated when those Islamists have attained some degree of power.
Take Egypt. While CAIR-Chicago's Ahmed Rehab was in Tahrir Square last year protesting for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, CAIR executive director Nihad Awad was on Iranian-controlled television calling for the same. Once Mubarak fell, American Islamist groups hailed his departure with talk of liberty. Yet as a statement from another Islamist organization, the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), made clear, "freedom" apparently would require the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood — whose dream of ruling by Shari'a is the antithesis of freedom. "We urge President Obama and his administration to facilitate and support a representative government with full representation of key opposition groups," ICNA declared. "As Mohamed ElBaradei notes, this representation must extend to the Muslim Brotherhood." When Islamist Mohamed Morsi was named the winner of Egypt's recent presidential election, CAIR could hardly contain its glee. "We congratulate the Egyptian people and their new president on this great achievement in Egypt's struggle for freedom," Awad said, while CAIR-New York board member Lamis Deek lauded what she sees as the country's liberation from America's "proxy-imperialist (colonialist) wrath."
Islamist groups also have rolled out the red carpet for Arab radicals during their frequent propaganda trips to the U.S. Rachid Ghannouchi, the ideological brain of the Ennahda Party that was victorious in Tunisia's post-revolutionary October election, has been especially well feted. The Islamists of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) hosted a dinner for Ghannouchi in Washington last November, advertising him as "one of the most important figures in modern Islamic political thought and theory." According to an MPAC account, he "discussed the beauty of democratic principles being able to uplift and promote religious freedom and practice for all." Of course, there was no mention of his previous comments blessing the mothers of suicide bombers, predicting Israel's demise, and referring to Hamas-led Gaza as "the model of freedom today." Next up for Ghannouchi: speaking at ISNA's convention this summer.
Other Islamists have enjoyed comparable treatment. CSID held a debate involving Hamadi Jebali, Ennahda's secretary general and now Tunisia's prime minister, in May 2011. Following the election, Jebali proclaimed, "We are in the sixth caliphate, God willing," and promised the conquest of Jerusalem. Undeterred, IIIT and CSID collaborated on a panel discussion with Tunisian Islamist leaders in May 2012. MPAC had planned a similar dialogue with an FJP delegation this past April, but it was canceled.
By championing Arab Islamists as legitimate voices and partners, these supposedly "moderate" Muslim organizations strive to make them palatable to Washington and the public at large. Simultaneously, in the words of Essam Abdallah, they are "waging … political and media wars on the liberal Arabs and Middle Eastern figures and groups in America," so as to marginalize competing viewpoints. Given the Obama administration's increasingly enthusiastic engagement with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and the recent report that an Egyptian parliamentarian visited the White House despite his membership in al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, a terrorist entity, Islamists must be glowing with satisfaction. Policies match their objectives to such a degree that five congressmen have asked for investigations into the influence of suspected Brotherhood sympathizers inside the federal government — a perfectly reasonable request, considering the stakes.
The Muslim Brotherhood directly or indirectly gave life to many of the Islamist groups spearheading the "grand jihad" to reshape America. Thus, it is natural to see those organizations aiding the Brotherhood and its ideological allies in the effort to build a new Middle East — based not on freedom, but on the tyranny of radical Islam. Nor should their officials' emergence as leaders in Arab revolutionary movements be surprising. Just as violent Islamists flock to the sites of military jihad worldwide, nonviolent Islamists gravitate to political crisis zones where more subtle skills can contribute to the victory of Shari'a.
Unfortunately, the rise of Middle Eastern Islamists will only embolden their brethren in the U.S., particularly if CAIR, ISNA, and others play a role in Arab developments. There is, however, a potential silver lining. Past experience demonstrates that when Islamists take the reins of a nation, it inevitably succumbs to political, economic, and social decay that is impossible to conceal. If America's Islamists wish to stamp their names on these approaching Arab calamities, so be it. The disasters will open more eyes to the ultimate trajectory of their plans for the United States, thus improving our chances of defeating them.
David J. Rusin is a research fellow at Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.