The Department of Homeland Security has ruled that the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) will not receive the $393,800 Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) grant approved by Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson on Jan. 13, days before Johnson left office.
The DHS released its list of grant recipients on Friday. MPAC is not on it. The change came after "DHS utilized its discretion to consider other factors and information when reviewing applicants," a spokeswoman said in an email to the Investigative Project on Terrorism. "The Department considered whether applicants for CVE awards would partner with law enforcement, had a strong basis of prior experience in countering violent extremism, had a history of prior efforts to implement prevention programs targeting violent extremism, and were viable to continue after the end of the award period. These additional priorities were applied to the existing pool of applicants. Top scoring applications that were consistent with these priorities remained as awardees, while others did not."
In a statement, MPAC acknowledged that working with law enforcement isn't a priority: "Our position on this issue has consistently centered on community-led initiatives that improve mental health resources, access to counseling, and a host of other social services without the involvement or spectre of law enforcement."
Still, it disputed the loss of the grant, saying it would consider "all legal options..."
"The exclusion of groups like MPAC point to a DHS that is ineffective in coordinating with communities and unconstitutional in its treatment of a religious minority," the statement said. "MPAC will continue challenging the trajectory of the Trump administration's efforts in this space by advocating for a holistic approach that empowers rather than sidelines communities, focuses on all forms of violent threats, and fosters a climate of trust over fear."
MPAC pledged to use the money for targeted interventions under its Safe Spaces program for people at risk for radicalization. Created in 2014, Safe Spaces aims to improve relations between Muslim institutions and law enforcement.
MPAC Executive Director Salam Al-Marayati introduced the program as an alternative to law enforcement agencies using informants to infiltrate mosques. The roll out meeting included Johnson, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., and other Muslim community groups including the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR).
Al-Marayati vehemently objects to anything that involves mosques or informants in terror investigations.
"Counter-terrorism and counter-violence should be defined by us," he said at 2005 Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) conference in Dallas. "We should define how an effective counter-terrorism policy should be pursued in this country. So, No. 1, we reject any effort, notion, and suggestion that Muslims should start spying on one another. Everywhere I go either somebody tells me that officials have met with them publicly or they tell me that they know who those folks are that are representing law enforcement. So we know they have communicated one way or the other with the Muslim community.
"The question is how do you deal with it in a healthy, open, transparent manner? That is why we are saying have them come in community forums, in open-dialogues, so they come through the front door and you prevent them having to come from the back door," Al-Marayati said.
Government agencies preferred CVE programs, especially during the Obama administration. But there's no way to measure whether they work, a Government Accountability Office report issued in April said. The GAO "was not able to determine if the United States is better off today than it was in 2011 as a result" of CVE programs."
The House Homeland Security Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Management offered similar criticism during a hearing last September. The committee has "no way of gauging whether CVE efforts have been successful – or harmful – or if money is being spent wisely," said U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa.
MPAC may have won the grant simply because it is "the most organized group," said Heritage Foundation counterterrorism scholar Robin Simcox. But that "is going down the wrong path. Often this means giving it to some very, very divisive voices who will play into the Islamist narrative; they will play off grievances. They will encourage a feeling of segregation and otherness, and we are promoting other problems for the future."
MPAC promotes a narrative that Muslims are victimized by a hostile non-Muslim society, Simcox said. That message helps breed terrorists.
"I think it creates an environment where these radical ideas are in the ether, and it's no surprise to me that somebody then [would] take that final step into violence," Simcox said.
Research backs up Simcox's assertion.
Grievances "framed around victimhood against Western foreign policy and military intervention" are among "a kaleidoscope of factors" in fueling extremism, Swedish jihad researcher Magnus Ranstorp has found.
MPAC's recent messaging has emphasized threats to Muslim Americans' freedom and security, including promoting a conspiracy theory that internment camps could be revived for them. In February, MPAC posted an image of Star Trek actor George Takei, on its homepage, with the heading "Stand Up for Muslims in the U.S." The image linked to a petition in which Takei described his experience during World War II: "When I was just 5, my family was rounded up at gunpoint from our home in Los Angeles into an internment camp. We were prisoners in our own country, held within barbed wire compounds, armed guards pointing guns down on us."
"A Trump spokesperson recently stated the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II "sets a precedent" for Trump to do the same today," Takei wrote. [Emphasis original]
But that spokesman, former Navy SEAL Carl Higbie, had no role in the Trump transition and only spoke for himself. No one in the administration has endorsed such a scheme.
But Takei's statement, which MPAC embraced, claimed that "Trump continues to stand by his plans to establish a Muslim registry and ban immigrants from 'certain' Muslim countries from the U.S. It starts with a registry, with restrictions, with irrationally ascribed guilt, and with fear. But we never know where it might lead."
Takei didn't start the internment analogy. "Challenging patriotis (sic) of AmMuslims is un-American – what happened to Japanese Americans-loyalty test, confiscating their wealth #CruzHearing," Al-Marayati wrote a year ago, in a Twitter post he later deleted.
Promoting the internment conspiracy theory destroys the credibility of "soft Islamist" organizations like MPAC that don't engage in terrorist acts themselves, yet validate the jihadist narratives, Simcox said.
Al-Marayati has long promoted the narrative that the U.S. is waging "war on Islam," one of the most potent terrorist recruitment tropes.
He called U.S. counterterrorism policies a "war on Islam" in a 2009 interview with Al-Watan Al-Arabi. Al-Marayati also engaged in "war on Islam" rhetoric when he chided U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz a year ago for using the term "radical Islam" during a hearing about the Obama administration's avoidance of using the phrase "So @SenCruz, do you want to have a war with Islam rather than a war on terrorists?" he wrote in a tweet he later deleted.
MPAC Whitewashes Jihad
Al-Marayati appeared on C-Span in 2014, and balked when asked why Muslims weren't speaking up against jihadism: "Well I think we'll call this violent extremism. And one thing we have to be clear about, we should not be countering jihad," Al-Marayati said. "Jihad to the violent extremists means holy war. But jihad in classical Islam means 'struggle.' So let us at least not use religious terminology in fighting groups like ISIS. It just plays into their hands. They want this to be a war on Islam, a war on religion.
"We should be at war on criminal behavior, war against terrorism."
Al-Marayati again rejected the connection between jihad and violence during a Jan. 25 debate with American Islamic Forum for Democracy founder and President Zuhdi Jasser. Jihad is not holy war, he said, but a struggle against oneself.
"We must allow the Muslims to reclaim their faith and not let Islam be defined by the extremist distortions of Islam," Al-Marayati said.
Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna disagreed, writing that jihad only had to do with fighting and argued that purely spiritual jihad was spurious. MPAC co-founder Maher Hathout described himself as an al-Banna disciple.
"Many Muslims today mistakenly believe that fighting the enemy is jihad asghar (a lesser jihad) and that fighting one's ego is jihad akbar (a greater jihad)," al-Banna wrote in his tract On Jihad. "This narration is used by some to lessen the importance of fighting, to discourage any preparation for combat, and to deter any offering of jihad in Allah's way. This narration is not a saheeh (sound) tradition."
Jasser sees a dichotomy between Al-Marayati's public rejection of violent jihad and his group's embrace of Tunisian Muslim Brotherhood-linked cleric Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi. MPAC hosted Ghannouchi at a 2011 dinner, and Al-Marayati flew to Paris in 2013 to attend a conference with Ghannouchi. The sheikh is a member of the International Muslim Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau.
Back in 1990, Ghannouchi spoke at a conference in Tehran, Iran where he called for the "destruction of the Jews" and invoked Ayatollah Khamenei's "call to jihad" against America, "the Great Satan." Ghannouchi aspired to wage "worldwide jihad," a 1991 State Department cable said. Ghannouchi still favors violent jihad, 5 endorsing the Palestinian knife jihad against Israelis in 2015.
"The central problem with MPAC ... is the schizophrenia with which they deal with American issues versus how they deal with global issues," Jasser said. "The Islamists assume Americans are not very smart, so they are going to listen to their apologetics about jihad and then not connect it to what happens when the Ghannouchis of the world get into power."
MPAC leaders have made their own pro-terrorist and anti-Israeli statements.
Al-Marayati didn't seem to have a problem with Hizballah calling its terror campaign against Israel "jihad" in a November 1999 interview with PBS's Jim Lehrer.
"If the Lebanese people are resisting Israeli intransigence on Lebanese soil, then that is the right of resistance and they have the right to target Israeli soldiers in this conflict. That is not terrorism. That is a legitimate resistance. That could be called liberation movement, that could be called anything, but it's not terrorism," Al-Marayati said.
Similarly, MPAC Public Affairs Consultant Edina Lekovic served as managing editor of Al-Talib, the defunct newspaper of UCLA's Muslim Student Association, when it published an editorial saying Osama bin Laden was not a terrorist in its July 1999 issue.
"When we hear someone refer to the great Mujahid (someone who struggles in Allah's cause) Osama bin Laden a 'terrorist,' we should defend our brother and refer to him as a freedom fighter; someone who has forsaken wealth and power to fight in Allah's cause and speak out against oppressors," the unsigned editorial said.
MPAC Defends Al-Qaida and Hamas Financiers
Another hit against MPAC's credibility is its history of apologism for terrorist financiers.
Just after 9/11, Al-Marayati painted Muslims as victims after the federal government shut down the Benevolence International Foundation (BIF) on suspicion it provided material support to al-Qaida. Its leader, Enaam Arnaout, had close ties with Osama Bin Laden, court documents show.
He had similar reactions after Treasury Department asset freezes in December 2001 targeted the Holy Land Foundation (HLF), which illegally routed charity money to Hamas, and the Global Relief Foundation, which provided assistance to Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida.
"Selective justice is injustice – it does not help us in the war on terror and continues to project the image that the U.S. is anti-Islam," Al-Marayati wrote in July 2002 press release posted on MPAC's website defending all three charities.
Closing these terror-linked charities could send the message to Muslims abroad that America is intolerant of religious minorities, Al-Marayati said that October in a New York Times op-ed.
When the Treasury Department shut down the Islamic African Relief Agency (IARA) in 2004, saying it "provided direct financial support for" Osama bin Laden, Al-Marayati described it as "a bit disturbing that the announcement of shutting down another charity... [took] place just before the month of Ramadan in the peak of the election season."
Arnaout pleaded guilty to violating the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and acknowledged that his group hid the fact it used a portion of its donations to fund terrorists overseas.
HLF's leaders were convicted of providing material support to Hamas in 2008.
MPAC's magazine, The Minaret, cast these charity closures in an anti-Semitic light in a political cartoon it published in its March 2002 issue. It shows President George W. Bush doing the bidding of Israel and the Anti-Defamation League knocking down a building with a foundation labeled "Islamic Foundations (Holy Land, Global Relief, etc." The top of the building being knocked down says, "Relief for Muslim Orphans" and "Support for U.S. Muslim Free Speech."
This was not an isolated incident. A January 2000 Minaret cartoon showed "The West" apologizing for the Holocaust and handing over money to an old woman holding a cane with the label "Jewish holocaust." At the same time, an Arab wearing a keffiyeh labeled "Palestine" says, "Ahem 'scuse me" followed by a person with a crutch and bandaged foot labeled "Indian genocide" and a black person emblazoned with "African slavery."
During the 2006 Israeli war with Hizballah in Lebanon Al-Marayati similarly diminished the Holocaust.
"And as far as the Holocaust is concerned, we've come out very clearly saying that the Holocaust is the worst genocide, war crime, in the 20th century. We're against Holocaust denial, but we're also against people who exploit that as a way of shoving this kind of war propaganda and dehumanization of the Arab peoples and the Muslim peoples as if they have to pay the price for what Nazi Germany did to the Jews back in the 20th century," Al-Marayati said in an interview.
"MPAC's default position is that the government is on a witch hunt against Muslims, and that any identification of organizations or non-profits doing quote end quote humanitarian work must be anti-Muslim if they are identified as a terror group," Jasser said. "And if they are found to support terror, they say they are not the rule; they are the exception."
MPAC's statements and actions suggest that DHS's decision to rescind Johnson's decision to award the CVE grant was the right thing to do.