An open hearing of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs bore witness to an unusually candid discussion about the Muslim Brotherhood's network in the United States. It was unusual in the respect that it was discussed at all. The fact that many major American Muslim organizations are derived from the Muslim Brotherhood is rarely addressed on Capitol Hill.
The topic of the July 10 hearing was, "The Roots of Violent Islamist Extremism and Efforts to Counter It," and the subject most discussed was Islamist ideology as the root cause of terrorism. What made this hearing significant was the extent to which the U.S.-based Muslim Brotherhood network was discussed in oral and written testimony – largely by Zeyno Baran, senior fellow and director of the Center for Eurasian Policy at the Hudson Institute.
Ms. Baran's central point was that, while not all Islamists will become terrorists, all Islamic terrorists begin with Islamist ideology. She cited the Muslim Brotherhood as the "prime example" of the spectrum of Islamist groups that, while differing in tactics, agree on their final goal: a world dominated by Islamic law, or Shariah. As such, Ms. Baran pointed out that there were inherent problems with the outreach policies of various government agencies. She specifically cited sensitivity training for the FBI run by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) as "completely self-defeating" as FBI agents might be taught to be overly sensitive and may avoid asking certain questions during investigations that they should be asking.
Ms. Baran elaborated on some of the precepts of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist movement dedicated to re-establishing the Caliphate. In doing so, she made a revealing comment on Islamist strategy in the West:
The freedom and justice HT seeks by overthrowing democracy can often only be attained through violence. However, HT is not likely to take up terrorism itself. Terrorist acts are simply not part of its mission. HT exists to serve as an ideological and political training ground for Islamists. And I have called them a "conveyer belt to terrorism." In order to best accomplish this goal, HT will remain non-violent, acting within the legal systems of the countries in which it operates. The same can be said actually about many of the Islamist organizations, including the Brotherhood. These groups do not need to become terrorists because winning hearts and minds is far more effective in achieving the ultimate goal. But of course they do not rule out the use of force if they cannot establish their caliphate via non-violent means.
She also painted a picture of the Brotherhood infrastructure in the United States:
Following the bottom-up approach focusing on education, the first organizations created in America were the Muslim Student Associations (MSA), which are based in universities. After they graduated, the North American Islamic Trust (NAIT) was created in order to expand these radical ideas and extend the influence of Islamism beyond college campuses. In the 1980s, several other prominent Islamist organizations were created including the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Islamic Association for Palestine (IAP), and after Hamas was created in 1987 in Gaza, the IAP became its leading representative in North America.
There are a whole set of other organizations that can be added to this list; I will just mention the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which I believe was created by MB to influence the US government, Congress, and NGOs, along with academic and media groups. Despite being founded by leading Islamists, CAIR has successfully portrayed itself as a mainstream Muslim organization over the past 15 years—and has been treated as such by many US government officials, including Presidents Clinton and Bush.
What is critically important in all these organizations is their support for one another; the same leaders appear in multiple organizations, tend to have familial relations, and move within the same close trusted circles.
Why haven't these facts been subject to more open and public discourse on Capitol Hill and in the mainstream media? Ms. Baran answered that herself in her opening remarks:
I understand that for most Americans, dealing with Islamism is extremely difficult because it is associated with Islam. Very few people dare to question the beliefs or actions of Muslims for fear of being called a bigot or an Islamophobe.
As an observant Muslim herself, Ms. Baran is in a unique position to understand and appreciate the Islamist challenge facing America. Other witnesses before the committee, however, did not agree with her assessment. Dr. Peter P. Mandaville of George Mason University commented that some individuals associated with CAIR may share the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, but said that it would be "wrong to characterize the organization in its entirety" as a Muslim Brotherhood front group. Dr. Fathali M. Moghaddam of Georgetown University dismissed concerns about CAIR's sensitivity training, claiming that the FBI agents he has taught would not be affected by any excessive sensitivity (and incidentally came out with a ringing endorsement of a book by John Esposito, his colleague at Georgetown, and director of the university's Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding). Michael E. Leiter, the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, refused to condemn the FBI's outreach policy, claiming that outreach was critical. Mr. Leiter advocated full-spectrum outreach, even with those who might be anti-American, but drew the line before those who supported violence.
In March, the IPT began to roll out an extensive profile on CAIR, noting its undeniable roots at a 1993 meeting of the U.S.-based Palestine Committee of the Muslim Brotherhood attended by CAIR's founders, Omar Ahmad and Nihad Awad. The profile notes consistent support by CAIR officials and speakers at CAIR events for the use of violence and terrorism in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
By Mr. Leiter's logic, if it were established that CAIR, ISNA, and other American Islamist organizations supported violence in any part of the world, they should not be partners in outreach. Also, if outreach were to become "full-spectrum," as Mr. Leiter advocates, government agencies would have to move beyond the status quo, where all outreach is dominated by Islamist organizations to the detriment of other American Muslim organizations like the Islamic Supreme Council of North America, the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, and the American Islamic Congress – who are comparatively ignored by government officials.
Hopefully the hearing and Ms. Baran's testimony will spark further debate in policy circles, in the media, and on the blogosphere.
Click here to see IPT Executive Director Steven Emerson's report to the Committee.