With the United States battling Islamist extremists, making America's case to Muslims around the world has never been more of a priority for policymakers. Unfortunately, the State Department continues to take a counterproductive approach: serving as a veritable infomercial promoting Islamist organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) while giving the back of the hand to the very anti-jihadist Muslims that Washington should be cultivating. The latest example is a State Department booklet issued in March titled "Being Muslim in America."
It is part of an outreach effort that began under President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and is moving forward under President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The goal behind publication of the 64-page booklet is laudable: to arm consular officers and diplomats with information they can take to Muslims around the world to rebut slanders about U.S. "persecution" of Muslims. The booklet deluges readers with color pictures, statistical tables and individual profiles in an effort to show the world that American Muslims are a success story, noting that they have become entrepreneurs, professional athletes, entertainers, doctors, soldiers, firefighters, politicians, fashion designers, and pianists.
And as we'll show in more detail below, many slanders against the United States come from the same groups that are portrayed favorably in the State Department booklet.The front cover has a picture of two Muslim girls playing basketball at a school near Detroit: One is wearing traditional dress, the other more modern dress. It's no ordinary basketball game, because there's a deeper sociopolitical message that Foggy Bottom wants to send to the world: The girls "compete fiercely on the basketball court in a sport that blends individual skills and team effort. They -- along with the other men, women and children in the publication -- demonstrate every day what it is like to be Muslim in America." The booklet is replete with dozens of pictures of Muslims playing basketball, praying; talking about "diversity" at a mosque; attending interfaith gatherings "to celebrate diversity and tolerance," and "brainstorm[ing] ways to solve problems in their community." There is even a color-coded state-by-state map showing "Mosque Distribution in the United States."
The purpose of publishing "Being Muslim in America" is "to disabuse people of wildly false myths of the United States -- that 'Muslims are repressed, marginalized, fill in the blanks,' " according to Michael Friedman, division chief of print publications with the State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs, which is overseeing distribution of the publication. Although State doesn't have a specific target number of copies that it is looking to sell or give away, Friedman said a similar 2002 State Department report titled "Muslim Life in America" had 400,000 print copies distributed worldwide and was translated into 28 languages. "It is conceivable that this one could reach that level," he told IPT News.
In addition, both "Muslim Life in America" and "Being Muslim in America" are featured on State Department web sites, here and here.
Asked whether similar booklets had been produced for other faiths, Friedman said no. With limited funding available, decision was made to produce a publication on American Muslims because "the struggle against Islamic terrorism is a struggle for hearts and minds in the Muslim world," he said.
Faulty Examples Showcased
Unfortunately, the substance of the booklet is so flawed that it could undermine the struggle against this form of radicalism. It perpetuates the mythology that American Muslims are united in the belief that law enforcement and the public are willing to flout innocent Muslims' civil rights post-September 11, describing American Muslim reactions to the attacks as follows:
"A new, truly American Islam is emerging, shaped by American freedoms, but also by the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks -- planned and executed by non-Americans -- [which] raised suspicions among other Americans whose immediate responses, racial profiling among them, triggered in return a measure of Muslim-American alienation."
"Sadly, suspicions of this kind are not uncommon -- in the United States or in other nations – during wartime or when outside attack is feared. But 2008 is not 2002, when fears and suspicions were at their height. Context is also important: Every significant immigrant group has in the United States faced, and overcame, a degree of discrimination and resentment."
This is an extremely tendentious, even intellectually dishonest, description of September 11 and its aftermath. From reading it, one would have no idea that there have been numerous convictions and guilty pleas on terrorism-related charges since September 11 that involved Muslims living in the United States, including terrorist plots to attack the military base at Ft. Dix, N.J., to create a terrorist training camp in Bly, Oregon and to attack U.S. military and Jewish targets in California.
Also omitted from the booklet is the fact that organizations like CAIR and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) were listed by the government as unindicted co-conspirators in the federal government's prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF) -- in which the Justice Department won convictions of five former HLF officials for providing money to the terrorist organization Hamas. But from reading this passage in "Being Muslim in America," one would get the impression that public concern about Islamist terror has no basis in reality and is merely the result of backward Americans' "discrimination and resentment."
One picture on page 15 of the booklet shows people marching under a CAIR banner and has a caption reading: "Muslims march to support volunteerism." The identical picture appeared at the top of CAIR's website when IPT News accessed it May 15.
In reality, CAIR was created as a front for Hamas and it has defended radical Islamists since 1994. See the IPT dossier on CAIR here.
CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad typifies this see-no-evil attitude toward jihadist terror. He has repeatedly defended the HLF. At a May 2003 forum at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, an audience member commented that the Justice Department has released reams of information showing that the HLF and another charity whose assets were frozen "have direct connections and in fact their leadership was the leadership of al Qaeda and Hamas." Awad replied: "I am sure if we…put under the microscope, every major civic or political organization in this country, including the Red Cross, you will see that some dollars went here and there in some country, but you don't shut down the entire operation of the Red Cross."
CAIR officials dismissed the verdict of 12 jurors in HLF's Hamas-financing trial as "based more on fear-mongering than on the facts" and predicted it would be overturned on appeal.
Awad has steadfastly defended Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) supporter Sami Al-Arian, despite evidence that Al-Arian served on the PIJ governing board. Al-Arian is fighting a criminal contempt charge, triggered by his refusal to testify before a federal grand jury investigating terror financing in Virginia despite a grant of immunity. He claims his 2006 plea agreement to conspiring to provide goods and services to the PIJ absolved him of any future testimony, be it voluntary or compelled by subpoena. The plea agreement itself contains no such language. U.S. District Judge James S. Moody blasted Al-Arian as a "master manipulator" at his sentencing in the PIJ support case, saying Al-Arian lied to the public about his PIJ support.
Yet, during an August 2008 forum on the contempt case, Awad argued it was motivated by bigotry against Muslims:
"And I believe he's being punished for this, belonging to a minority – Palestinian, Arab, Muslim in America is not like the best thing to be in America today. So he's being the victim of this malicious misunderstanding in this midst of increased Islamophobia in America."
Ignoring Moderate Muslim Viewpoints
Zuhdi Jasser, a Phoenix, Arizona doctor who heads the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, likened the booklet's depiction of Muslim life in the United States to Cold War-era propaganda falsely portraying Communist dictatorships as "worker's paradises" in which everyone was working toward a common goal and factionalism didn't exist. American Muslims are divided between Islamists seeking to establish a caliphate and non-Islamists who want to live under the American Constitution on equal terms with non-Muslims, Jasser said. And similar divisions exist in the Middle East between non-Islamists and Islamists.
"In some ways, it's insulting to Muslims in the Middle East -- if we need to portray Muslims as being 'normal' in America," Jasser told IPT News. "It's almost as if we have something to be sorry for in America." Jasser said he would prefer that the State Department not be in the business of distributing a booklet about Islam in this country. "But if they decide to get into it, they need to talk about the ideological differences" among Muslims in the United States, he said. If State fails to do this, Muslims reading this booklet around the world "will wonder why State won't talk about the real schisms in Islam -- schisms they see in their own lives."
No less disturbing is the fact that time and again, "Being Muslim in America" confers undeserved legitimacy on radical Islamist groups and individuals, while whitewashing radical groups. For example, Muslims pictured under a CAIR banner are described as marching "to support volunteerism." On the same page, Salam Al-Marayati of MPAC is cited as an authority on "the American Muslim identity." NYPD Muslim Chaplain Khalid Latif, who helped quash a debate on a college campus over the controversial Danish Muhammad cartoons, is also the subject of a glowing profile. Ingrid Mattson's election as ISNA president in 2006 is included as part of a "Timeline of Key Events" in American Muslim history.
No mention is made, however, of questionable statements and activities of Islamist groups and persons receiving favorable treatment in the booklet. CAIR officials' past statements in support of Hamas and CAIR's connections with the Muslim Brotherhood are ignored. Readers are left in the dark about Al-Marayati's statement during a September 11, 2001 appearance on a Loa Angeles radio program, where he suggested that Israel might have been behind the attacks on America earlier in the day:
"If we're going to look at suspects, we should look to groups that benefit the most from these kinds of incidents, and I think we should put the state of Israel on the list because I think this diverts attention from what's happening in the Palestinian territories so that they can go on with their aggression and occupation and apartheid policies."
In March 2003 MPAC issued a counterterrorism policy paper advocating the removal of Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad from the U.S. government list of designated terrorist organizations.
In a January 19, 2009 Los Angeles Times op-ed, Al-Marayati attacked Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca for supporting Israel's military operation against Hamas' terror infrastructure in Gaza. As American public officials endorse Israel's "disproportionate military attacks against the Palestinians – put alongside images of carnage and destruction in Gaza," Al-Marayati wrote, they create "the best possible propaganda for fueling anti-Americanism in the Muslim world."
The MPAC boss whitewashed the fact that Hamas (along with its backers in Tehran and Damascus) bears full moral responsibility for the carnage – first by firing rockets into Israel, second by locating its fighters and weapons inside densely populated civilian areas, effectively turning Palestinian noncombatants into human shields.
And nothing was said about Latif's threatening March 2006 letter to NYU President Johan Sexton in which he suggested there would be trouble if the controversial Danish Mohammed cartoons were displayed. ISNA President Mattson's 2007 remarks rationalizing violent extremism as possibly "the only rational choice" to effect change in repressive states also didn't make the cut.
The booklet's bibliography is similarly slanted with books like John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed's "Who Speaks For Islam?," as well as "Religion and Immigration: Christian, Jewish and Muslim Experiences in the United States," edited by Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Jan I. Smith and John Esposito; and "Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in America after 9/11" by Geneive Abdo, who spoke at a March 2007 CAIR fundraiser in Florida.
Esposito can fairly be described as an apologist for radical Islamists, having spoken at CAIR fundraisers, testified as a defense expert in the HLF trial and championed Al-Arian (see page 13 of the link) as "an extraordinarily bright, articulate scholar and intellectual-activist, a man of conscience with a strong commitment to peace and social justice."
Non-Islamist Muslim organizations like Jasser's AIFD and Muslims Against Sharia were ignored in the State Department booklet, while Islamist groups and individuals, including organizations like CAIR, MPAC and ISNA, got what amounted to an infomercial.
The State Department's Friedman dismissed concerns about the pro-Islamist bias of the material. "The U.S. government is not endorsing any of these people or organizations," he told IPT News. "Our audience is more likely to be an Indonesian schoolchild who is not likely to be Googling the names of the organizations" like CAIR, MPAC or ISNA, Friedman said. The government's intent in publishing the booklet is to help a "young foreign service officer who is going into a room in Indonesia or Nigeria, and those kids are looking at him and saying: 'Don't they hate Muslims in America?' "
Given financial constraints facing the State Department, it is essential to get the most "bang for the buck," Friedman added, and the best way to ensure that occurred was to produce a publication emphasizing that Muslims in America participate in "all walks of life" rather than a conversation "at a higher intellectual level" explaining the ideological war within Islam. "Being Muslim in America" is "essentially a picture book intended on disabusing people of the horrible myths of what goes on here. To get into [philosophical debates about the direction of Islam] in the context of a lighter essay detracts from the particular, narrow context of this publication," he said.
Non-Islamist Muslims who have read the document strongly disagree.
Khalim Massoud, president of Muslims Against Sharia, said the State Department booklet "absolutely" legitimates Muslim Brotherhood-type organizations and undermines non-Islamists like him. "It boggles my mind how people who are supposed to protect us (the government) are advancing our enemies' agenda," he told IPT News.
According to AIFD's Jasser, by quoting Islamists like Mattson, the State Department is "reinforcing continued denial from Muslims that we have any role to play in a counter-jihad within Islam." When the State Department gives a platform to members of organizations like CAIR and ISNA (while ignoring the other side), "it sets things back, telling Muslims they don't have to reform their own house," Jasser said. "You tell Muslims these [Islamists] are the people we need to deal with."
And "Being Muslim in America" is not the only example of the messages of weakness that the State Department sends to the Muslim world. Elsewhere at www.america.gov, the State Department's Middle East & North Africa section of the site is replete with items like the transcript of a press conference in which Obama and Jordanian King Abdullah suggest that Israel and the Palestinians are equally responsible for the failure to achieve peace; a speech in which Vice President Biden urges Israel to end settlements and back a "two-state solution;" and a January 9, 2009 statement warning Israel of the consequences of misusing U.S- supplied weapons. Rather than telling the truth about the central role of Islamist radicalism in sabotaging peace, the State Department seems to waiver between moral equivalence and blaming Israel.
In short, the State Department continues to send foolish - - even dangerous -- messages to both friends and enemies of freedom in the Muslim world.