Brookings' partnership with the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), in conjunction with its Qatari-backed Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, sends a mixed message for a think tank that claims to want "a more open, safe, prosperous and cooperative international system."
The OIC is a 57-government body (56 nations plus the Palestinian Authority) that constitutes the largest United Nations voting bloc.
Fighting against criticism of Islam and those who link the religion with violence under the banner of so-called "Islamophobia" features prominently in the OIC's rhetoric and diplomacy.
"Freedom of expression ... cannot be used as a pretext for inciting hatred ... or insulting the deeply held beliefs of any community. It should respect the beliefs and tenets of all religions," OIC's "Seventh Observatory Report on Islamophobia: October 2013-April 2014" states.
Islamophobia under OIC's definition even covers court-proven facts such as the use of zakat (charity) payments to fund terror, evidenced by the international body's attack on FBI training materials that describes it as a "funding mechanism for combat."
Zakat is the tithe Muslims must pay as a pillar of their faith. It may be spent on feeding the hungry or caring for the sick, but also for funding violent jihad. Muslim authors such as Sheik Muhammad Ali Hashimi, a well-known author in the Arab world, teach that funding "jihad for the sake of Allah" is the most important use for zakat.
Court documents and classified State Department cables demonstrate that numerous charities such as Qatar Charity (formerly the Qatar Charitable Society), the Holy Land Foundation (HLF) and countless others have diverted zakat collections to benefit terror groups such as al-Qaida and Hamas. A 2012 UN Security Council report notes that the Taliban uses zakat collected from areas it controls to finance its operations.
Instead of unequivocally and unconditionally defending free speech, Brookings sends mixed messages, with some experts endorsing the OIC's effort on Islamophobia and others condemning its excesses.
Brookings scholar Ahmet T. Kuru argued following the Sept. 11, 2012 terror attack in Benghazi, Libya that left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead, that Muslims need "mechanisms and institutions" to prevent the dissemination of "anti-Islamic propaganda." In this case, Kuru implicitly referred to the "Innocence of Muslims" video that the Obama administration and others blamed for triggering the attack.
"The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has taken some important steps forward in promoting respectful, civilized and effective ways of fighting Islamophobia. Their diplomatic attitudes, however, have yet to spread at the grassroots level," Kuru wrote, contrasting the OIC's efforts with those of violent Muslim protesters. "The recent incident also shows how counterproductive Islamophobia is. There are politicians and religious leaders in the United States and Europe who, unfortunately, promote Islamophobia.
"Western countries need to develop effective mechanisms and institutions to marginalize Islamophobes; that will be consistent with their principle of working against discrimination, as well as serving their interests in different parts of the world."
Other Brookings scholars reflect this line of reasoning about the threat from Islamophobia and their perspectives similarly align with many of the OIC's complaints.
A few years earlier, in a June 2007 article, former Brookings scholar Peter Singer cited former U.S. diplomat William Fisher, saying that "an unreasoning and uninformed Islamophobia" served as a new prejudice that threatened to undermine U.S. foreign policy and that it was rapidly becoming "implanted in our national genetics."
Brookings scholar David Benjamin extended this line of reasoning in an Oct. 7, 2008 paper, stating that Islamophobia driven by "the religious right and talk radio" had undermined the integration of Muslims into American society. He claimed this compounded the effects with "dubious prosecutions."
"Officials should denounce incidents of anti-Muslim sentiment quickly and vigorously," Benjamin wrote.
The OIC's diplomatic efforts against so-called Islamophobia have included applying pressure to governments and international bodies to criminalize free speech.
OIC's war on free speech
Brookings invited then-OIC Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu to speak at its annual U.S.-Islamic World Forum in 2006, 2011, 2012 and 2013 in Doha. The conferences drew intellectuals and policymakers from the United States and across the Muslim world, and serve as a major part of Brookings' Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World.
In 2008, in the wake of deadly riots throughout the Muslim world over notorious Danish cartoons of Islam's Prophet Muhammad, Ihsanoglu claimed that "Muslims are being targeted by a campaign of defamation, denigration, stereotyping, intolerance and discrimination." He declared that "Islamophobia cannot be dealt with only through cultural activities but (through) a robust political engagement." The OIC issued a report advocating for a "legal instrument" that would outlaw what the OIC and other Islamic entities perceive as criticism of Islam.
Far from rejecting this censorship, Brookings gave it a platform. Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar condemned press freedom at the organization's 2006 U.S.-Islamic World Forum: "The so-called principle of freedom of the press, was clearly offensive and derogatory, even by the standards of caricatures ... It could have been resolved at the local level, if only wisdom, understanding and cooler heads had prevailed. Instead it was highlighted as an issue of freedom of expression that could not be interfered versus Islam, thus adding insult to injury ... Western notions of legality pertaining to libel and the like are thus completely irrelevant."
Albar characterized jihad as a "motivational factor to free Muslims from the state of ignorance and to overcome injustices," and that Muslims could engage in "true jihad" to "defend oneself against violence or aggression."
Then-U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes challenged the idea that speech should be criminalized.
"And let me be clear," she said, "America believes in democracy even when we strongly disagree with the views of those elected, just as America believes in free speech even when we are deeply offended by what is sometimes said."
"In a genuine democracy, all have a right to express their views, share ideas and participate as equal," Hughes added. In a society built on freedom and justice, we have the right to offend one another but the responsibility to do our best not to."
As such, Al-Qaida, Hamas and the Islamic State do not consider themselves terrorists because they are defending themselves against aggression. They instead suggest that the United States and Israel terrorize Muslims.
"In any partnering, Brookings and the OIC would seem to be working at cross purposes. While Brookings aims for more openness, the OIC wants a more closed, restrictive world. The OIC's charter pledges it to combat defamation of Islam, and thus restrict speech and heighten feelings of offense outside of and within the Muslim world," Nina Shea, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, and an expert on the OIC, told the Investigative Project on Terrorism. "The OIC is intractable in its pursuit of punishing blasphemous speech through worldwide criminal laws along the lines of the laws and practices of its leading member states, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey.
"Whether, to accommodate this new partnership, Brookings makes tradeoffs regarding the freedom of its scholars to critically analyze Islamic culture and politics will bear watching."
A 2013 Brookings report on the OIC noted that "in the two decades from the Cairo Declaration in 1990 to the establishment of the Independent Permanent Commission on Human Rights in 2011, the OIC has gradually shed the language of sharia." The report, "A Rights Agenda for the Muslim World? The Organization of Islamic Cooperation's Evolving Human Rights Framework," offered no evidence that the OIC had abandoned its anti-free speech agenda, but nonetheless recommended that "given the OIC's ambition as a human rights actor, the international human rights community should prioritize engagement with the OIC. This would provide the organization with much needed prestige and knowledge that could help in efforts to establish autonomy and authority over human rights issues in member states."
So far, the OIC has failed to outlaw criticism of Islam. Endorsing the criminalization of the "defamation of religions" proved too much even for Brookings, which labeled the OIC effort as "destructive to religious reform."
"Unlike religion, people do need protection. And the OIC's anti-defamation of religions resolution failed to recognize there are already international laws that protect human rights at stake when it comes to religious discrimination that's just to name a few," a 2013 Brookings report said.
OIC also seeks funding from its member states to create "media campaigns to counter intolerance against Islam and discourage using expressions such as 'Islamic' fascists or 'Islamic' extremists for criminal terrorists."
In 2002, following the September 11 terrorist attacks, OIC member states deadlocked on adopting a definition of the word "terrorism." They did agree, however, that Palestinian suicide bombings against Israel did not qualify. OIC delegates strongly condemned defining Hamas and other Palestinian groups as terror groups, saying: "We reject any attempt to associate Islamic states or Palestinian and Lebanese resistance with terrorism."
Qatar hosted the OIC's International Fiqh Academy in Doha in January 2003, when it granted religious sanction to Palestinian suicide bombing, declaring it legitimate jihad: "The Islamic Fiqh Council asserts that jihad and martyr operations done to defend the Islamic creed, dignity, freedom and the sovereignty of states is not considered terrorism but a basic form of necessary defense for legitimate rights. Thus the oppressed peoples who are subjected to occupation have the right to seek their freedom via all means possible ... The Islamic Fiqh Council stresses that martyr operations are a form of jihad, and carrying out those operations is a legitimate right that has nothing to do with terrorism or suicide. Those operations become obligatory when they become the only way to stop the aggression of the enemy, defeat it, and grievously damage its power."
The fatwa concluded: "In light of the above, there is no change concerning the Islamic ruling regarding martyr operations as such operations are considered true jihad in the Cause of Allah."
Despite the OIC's extremist track record, Brookings again partnered with it in sponsoring the think tank's 2013 Islamic World Forum.
In December 2006, Brookings' Saban Center for Middle East Policy hosted a forum on Islamophobia that included leaders of Muslim-American groups suspected of ties to the Muslim Brotherhood:
· Nihad Awad, a founder and executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR);
· Mahdi Bray, then in charge of the Muslim American Society's (MAS) political arm; and
· Louay Safi, a researcher who has worked for the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).
Subsequent FBI investigations discovered that Awad and CAIR were members of a Hamas-support group in the United States created by the Muslim Brotherhood. But by the time the Doha forum took place, Awad publicly acknowledged in 1994 that he was "in support of the Hamas movement more than the PLO. That same year, he also told "60 Minutes" reporter Mike Wallace, who asked about Hamas violence, that "the United Nations Charter grants people who are under occupation [the right] to defend themselves against illegal occupation."
Bray's MAS, meanwhile, was identified as the Muslim Brotherhood's American arm in a 2004 Chicago Tribune expose. "They agreed not to refer to themselves as the Brotherhood but to be more publicly active," the story said.
A year before the forum, Safi was identified publicly as an unindicted co-conspirator in a terrorism support prosecution against Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) board member Sami Al-Arian. Safi was the IIIT's research director when President Clinton signed an executive order outlawing support for PIJ and other terrorist groups which were responsible for "grave acts of violence ... that disrupt the Middle East peace process" and threaten U.S. national security.
Safi called Al-Arian after the order was issued and asked whether the order would affect his activities. Al-Arian ran a think tank which provided cover for Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, who has been the PIJ secretary general since 1995. The IIIT, Safi's employer at the time, helped underwrite the think tank's operations.
At the 2006 Islamophobia forum, Imad-ad-dean Ahmad, from the Association of Muslim Social Scientists, said that getting so-called "moderate Muslims" to accept Israel's right to exist was a bridge too far.
"I don't think you will find a moderate Muslim who will accept the State of Israel, recognize the State of Israel, recognize the State of Israel as a reality, but to find someone who will actually endorse it and say, 'Yes, Israel is justified in its policies and its actions and moral right to exist.' That's asking a lot," Ahmad said.
Nobody on the panel challenged Ahmad's comment.
Among the speakers at the Islamophobia forum were State Department's Deputy Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs Alina Romanowski, and Dan Sutherland, an officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in the Department of Homeland Security.
The event exemplified the sort of doubletalk Muslim leaders engage in when discussing the connection between Islamic theology and violence. Awad, Bray and Safi detailed numerous anecdotes that supposedly established U.S. mistreatment of Muslims.
Awad complained about a "poll that was conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News [that] also found that 1 in 4 Americans admitted of harboring prejudice towards Muslims. That survey also indicated 46% of Americans have a negative view of Islam."
Muqtedar Khan, then a senior nonresident fellow with the Brookings Institution's Saban Center, declared: "I believe that Islamophobia is a graver danger than anti-Americanism, and I hope I can make the case. When I say graver danger I mean a graver danger in things like security threats to the US... Islamophobia is a prejudice and does not correspond to reality."
In 2003, Khan said: "Most non-Muslim critics and often ignorant Muslim advocates of the Sharia (the Islamic Way) equate the Sharia to Hudud laws, the stringent punishments for fornication (flogging), theft (amputation), and adultery (stoning). The maqasid (objectives) of the Sharia is to establish social justice, equality, tolerance, and freedom of religion in societies...Yes, I believe that when the Sharia is interpreted and implemented by educated, enlightened, and compassionate people it will establish social justice and coexist harmoniously with a democratic polity. But if uneducated, angry, and bigoted people take the law in their hands and presume to speak on behalf of God, then tyranny is the most likely outcome."
As scholar Daniel Pipes noted, "This is argument by assertion. He has not provided any basis for this optimism. So far, the record in countries where the Sharia is applied – Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Sudan, Afghanistan – is less than encouraging."
Nevertheless, Khan's fantastic and unsupported view of Sharia did not prevent Brookings from bringing him on that same year as a nonresident fellow.
Since the forum took place, dramatic new evidence about CAIR emerged to cement its role in a Muslim Brotherhood support network operating in the United States called the Palestine Committee.
CAIR was listed on a 1994 agenda listing the Palestine Committee's subsidiaries, and Awad and CAIR co-founder Omar Ahmad appeared on an internal committee telephone list (Ahmad is listed as Omar Yehya).
Awad participated in a 1993 secret meeting of Hamas supporters where they discussed how to oppose U.S.-led peace efforts without exposing themselves as Hamas supporters. The evidence prompted the FBI to cut off outreach efforts with CAIR, saying the group was not an "appropriate liaison partner," as long as it was unclear "whether there continues to be a connection between CAIR or its executives and HAMAS."
"It is astonishing, given this history, that the mainstream American media should routinely describe CAIR as 'a Muslim civil rights organization,'" Brookings scholar Peter Skerry wrote in a 2011 column. "It is one thing for CAIR's leaders to ritualistically deny and obfuscate the organization's origins; it is quite another for America's academic, political, and media elites to systematically ignore them."
Brookings' 2006 U.S.-Islamic World Forum featured Sir Iqbal Sacranie, then-secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain. The foremost international symbol of the Islamist war on free speech, Salman Rushdie, wrote in 2005 that "this is the same Sacranie who, in 1989, said that 'Death is perhaps too easy' for the author of 'The Satanic Verses.' Tony Blair's decision to knight him and treat him as the acceptable face of 'moderate,' 'traditional' Islam is either a sign of his government's penchant for religious appeasement or a demonstration of how limited Blair's options really are."
Rushdie also quoted Sacranie as fuming, "There is no such thing as an Islamic terrorist. This is deeply offensive," and noted that "his organization boycotted a Holocaust remembrance ceremony in London commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz 60 years ago. If Sir Iqbal Sacranie is the best Blair can offer in the way of a good Muslim, we have a problem."
So does the Brookings Institution.