The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) hooked a big fish for its 46th convention starting Friday in Washington, D.C. when evangelical Pastor Rick Warren agreed to appear.
But ISNA wanted a bigger star – President Barack Obama. There's been no public response from the White House to ISNA's invitation. But the conference is expected to feature a significant government presence, in the form of sponsored-informational booths and speakers from the Departments of State, Justice, Homeland Security and others.
The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division is also seeking volunteers to work at an information table during the conference.
On the surface, it's understandable why government agencies would want to line up for a spot at the three-day convention. It is expected to draw thousands to the nation's capital and is far and away the largest gathering of Muslim Americans.
ISNA's documented history with the Muslim Brotherhood – an 80-year-old Egyptian movement that seeks to spread Shariah, or Islamic law, far and wide – and the troubling association many of its current leaders hold should give these agencies pause about what message their participation endorses.
Much of ISNA's history was concisely reported by an Indianapolis television station in 2003. The two-part WTHR report can be viewed here.
Beyond the high-profile outsiders like Warren, the 2009 ISNA conference offers representatives from Muslim Brotherhood front groups and others who buck American law enforcement efforts to curtail terrorist financing. One group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has been deemed persona non-grata by the FBI due to its Hamas ties.
Competing assessments of the government's posture toward ISNA have emerged in the past week. A widely-circulated email from a knowledgeable source claimed that the FBI had pegged ISNA as its official outreach partner to the American Muslim community and relayed that information in a meeting with ISNA Vice President Mohamed Magid.
The IPT spoke with an FBI source who confirmed that a meeting did take place at FBI headquarters. The FBI's embrace of ISNA came over the objections of case agents and supervisors investigating Muslim Brotherhood activity in the U.S., the source said.
The next day, FBI spokesman John Miller denied any relationship with ISNA had been cemented and called the email's claims "factually inaccurate and generally misleading." Magid did meet with an FBI official, Miller said, but that's because he has long been an FBI liaison through his role as head of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) Center.
To be clear, it is not likely that the FBI would have a memorandum declaring ISNA the official Muslim partner of federal law enforcement. Magid may be a long-time FBI liaison, but he still wears two hats when he meets with law enforcement – the ADAMS Center and ISNA.
The Investigative Project on Terrorism reviewed recent ISNA conference activity and found a host of examples of radical ideology that belies its moderate image. It also details ISNA's foundation by U.S. members of the Muslim Brotherhood, some of whom remain active in ISNA today, and extremist connections by other active ISNA leaders. You can read that report here.
ISNA remains an unindicted co-conspirator in the Hamas-financing prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF), which ended with guilty verdicts on 108 counts last November and lengthy prison terms for HLF leaders in May.
HLF is included among "individuals/entities who are and/or were members of the US Muslim Brotherhood." ISNA petitioned the court to be removed from the list a year ago, but no ruling has been made.
Trial evidence showed accounts held by ISNA and its subsidiary, the North American Islamic Trust (NAIT), were used to funnel money to HLF and, ultimately, to Hamas. ISNA officials claim the organization has moved beyond its Muslim Brotherhood roots to evolve into a more mainstream American organization. That strategy has been successful, as this Associated Press preview of the ISNA convention shows.
ISNA's leadership ranks include a number of people who date back to the group's foundation by Muslim Brotherhood members. The organization grew out of the Muslim Students Association (MSA), which also was founded by Brotherhood members.
One of those founders, Muzammil Siddiqi was a co-founder of ISNA in 1981 and served two terms as ISNA's president from 1997-2001. He still serves on the ISNA governing board.
Likewise, Sayyid M. Syeed was a founding ISNA board member and served as secretary-general, and now heads ISNA's Center for Interfaith and Community Outreach in Washington, D.C.
A third ISNA founder, Iqbal Unus, serves on the board of directors today. He also held the title of Acting Secretary General for ISNA in January 1984 after serving at the General Secretariat since January 1977 for MSA, and later ISNA.
Siddiqi, Syeed and Unus all are scheduled to speak during ISNA's 46th annual convention.
So are two ISNA leaders who were not a part of the founding group, but nonetheless have extensive and troubling connections to terror supporters. Jamal Badawi is a member at large on ISNA's Board of Directors. Badawi was individually listed in the HLF trial as an unindicted co-conspirator for his role as a fund raiser for the defunct charity.
His number appears in a telephone book of U.S.-based Muslim Brotherhood members that was admitted into evidence in the original HLF prosecution, which ended in a mistrial in November 2007. FBI agent Lara Burns testified that this phone book was found at the home of Ismail Elbarrasse, a former assistant to Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzook
Finally, Louay Safi directs the ISNA Leadership Development Center. He has a history of close relations with U.S. fronts for Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. He served on the board of advisory editors for the Middle East Affairs Journal, which was published by the United Association for Studies and Research (UASR). Its editor, Ahmed Yousef, is the spokesman for deposed Hamas Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh. The UASR was founded by Hamas political leader Mousa Abu Marzook and was part of a Muslim Brotherhood-created Hamas support network in the U.S.
He also worked as research director at the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Herndon, VA. The IIIT has been under investigation for terror financing, including at least $50,000 sent to a think-tank run by Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) board member Sami Al-Arian. The think tank employed at least four members of the PIJ governing board in the early 1990s. No charges have been filed in the IIIT investigation.
Conferences Still Feature Extreme Rhetoric
A review of recent ISNA conferences further raises the question of how far the organization's reformation really has come. During the 2008 conference, speakers rationalized Hamas terrorism and revised history.
For example, Hatem Bazian, a professor of Near East Studies at the University of California-Berkeley, rewrote history to say violent Palestinian opposition to Israel started after the 1967 war:
"The violence is not a genetic motivation or genetically defined in the Palestinians. The Palestinians don't wake up in the morning and think yeah, I'm inclined towards violence. The Palestinians when they woke up they see that they're land has been taken from underneath them, that they have to go through five or six checkpoints before they get to school, that they are no longer able to use the hospital, that they are seeing a new settlement being built every other day, and they wake up in the morning and see that it's a land grab day, all these factors, including the diminishing return of the so called peace."
In that same panel, Palestinian Jamal Dajani moderated the discussion and echoed Bazian's false history:
"That is Palestinians are sick and tired of dialogue. I mean they've been listening to dialogue for six decades. It is great to have people from different places and come and interfere and put themselves between the occupier and the victim, and Palestinians listening to promises, and they see their future disappear right in front of their eyes."
In fact, Palestinians have rejected dialogue since Israel's creation in 1948. The PLO agreed to renounce terror and joined in President Clinton's peace efforts in the early 1990s, resulting in Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza. The refusal of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad to recognize that agreement, and the wave of terrorist attacks they launched in the agreement's wake, doomed the U.S.-led peace effort.
Similarly, during the 2008 ISNA annual convention in Columbus, Ohio, Rick Hannis, a Christian and member of the Christian Peacemakers Team, a group founded by Quakers and Mennonites with a stated purpose of working toward "nonviolent alternative to war," spoke. He described the "amazing work" Hamas does in West Bank education and health care and supposedly non-violent leaders of that organization:
"Now, most people only know about the militant part of Hamas. They don't know about the education or healthcare issued in the West Bank part. It really does amazing work."
"If there is a suicide bombing or something their militant wing has done, often Hamas leaders who promote non violence, will be assassinated, and then, of course, it is put in the paper that Hamas did this violent act-Hamas leader was assassinated as if that was an [unintelligible]. The people that know this leader, they are disenfranchised even more."
During ISNA's 2006 convention, Kamran Memon, an attorney from Muslims for a Safe America, asked the audience to raise their hands if they believed Al Qaeda committed the 9/11 attacks. In response to their raised hands, he helped rationalize Al Qaeda's actions by discussing how America's foreign policy helped to infuriate Muslims around the world.
"Some Muslims in the Muslim world decided that they were just not going to take it anymore. They were angry at our ongoing support from their enemies, so they began to attack American targets to pressure our government to change its foreign policy. They attacked American targets in 1992 in Somalia; in 1993 in New York; in 1995 and 1996 in Saudi Arabia; 1998 in Tanzania and Kenya; and 2000 in Yemen. But the U.S. government did not change its foreign policy, so those Muslims who decided that they weren't going to take it anymore attacked America on September 11.
...They are also angry at us because they look at us, the elder generations, and they see us sitting on our hands not doing anything serious to alleviate the suffering of Muslims in the Muslim world. And when they get that angry, then they do things, like if you believe that Muslims did it, they do things like the London bombings in July 2005; because they see no other way to change American foreign policy other than violence."
The list of conference panels this year does include some important issues, including one on domestic violence in the Muslim community, an emerging issue that gained added urgency earlier this year.
Such positive moves are offset, however, by the presence of speakers from other Muslim Brotherhood-tied groups including the Muslim American Society (MAS) and CAIR.
CAIR is taking advantage of the crowds expected in Washington to host an open house.
It is important to note that if the FBI in any way is increasing its outreach with ISNA, it likely replaces work CAIR previously did. The Bureau has made it clear that CAIR and its national leaders had "a connection" to Hamas, and it is unclear whether that connection remains. Until that is resolved, "the FBI does not view CAIR as an appropriate liaison partner."
ISNA apparently does not share that concern. It also endorses the canard that law enforcement action to cut off terror financing by U.S.-based charities like HLF creates "a chilling effect on Muslim charitable giving in accordance with the Islamic faith."
It has condemned terrorist plots, like the one to bomb New York synagogues and to try shooting down a military plane that was broken up by law enforcement in May. And President Ingrid Mattson has called for the Muslim community to be more assertive in confronting radical elements and "vague accusations of conspiracies, and exaggerated protests of attempts to ensure security to be used as excuses for violating the rights of women, non-Muslims and others."
However, that admirable charge is undermined by her organization's embrace of CAIR, MAS and similar groups. Agha Saeed of the American Muslim Task Force, is scheduled to speak on a panel on "Culture and Politics: Strategies of Self-Empowerment." Saeed is chairman of the group, which has spent most of 2009 advocating a Muslim boycott of the FBI. The reason? FBI investigators have sent informants into mosques to pursue information on terror suspects. That's how the New York bombing plot was broken up.
CAIR and MAS are among the groups signing on to the Taskforce's proposed boycott.
If government representatives are going to speak to the ISNA conference, they shouldn't offer simple platitudes about getting along. They should challenge ISNA and its audience to be a true partner in the fight against terror by confronting extremist ideologies in their own communities, at their own conferences. That might generate real change.
To read the IPT's new report on ISNA's recent radical activity, click here.