DALLAS - When officials at the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF) spoke of jihad, or the need to support Palestinian mujahideen, they weren't necessarily endorsing violence. And when they praised Hamas and brought in leaders of the designated terrorist group to speak at fundraisers, they weren't necessarily providing support.
That was the message John Esposito, a Georgetown University professor of Religion and International Affairs and director of the university's Saudi-funded Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding told jurors in HLF's terror support trial Monday. Esposito was called as an expert witness to explain that some of the strident language jurors have heard coming from Holy Land officials may have a different, more benign meaning.
The men are accused of illegally providing millions of dollars to Hamas through a series of Palestinian charities. Donating to charity is sacred in Islam, one of the five pillars of the faith, Esposito said.
But on cross examination, Esposito either didn't remember or didn't know about documented links between HLF and other groups he has worked with and Hamas.
One of those groups is the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). When asked by defense attorney Nancy Hollander if he was familiar with CAIR, Esposito described it as a "religious-oriented mainstream group" that worked on issues of discrimination against Muslims. He confirmed he had over a period of time met with senior CAIR officials, including Nihad Awad, Ibrahim Hooper, and "another person based in California in the Bay area."
That person, he later said, turned out to be CAIR co-founder and chairman emeritus Omar Ahmad.
CAIR is an unindicted co-conspirator in the HLF case. In his cross examination by federal prosecutor James Jacks, Esposito said that he had attended a handful of CAIR events in the past 15 years. But he struggled to identify the last time he attended a CAIR event.
It was three months ago in Dallas, Jacks said. He's also scheduled to speak at a CAIR fundraiser in Tampa later this month.
Although Esposito was a featured speaker at the Dallas event in August, he said he was unaware that the funds raised at the event went to the Muslim Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit group set up to raise money to pay defense attorney's fees in the HLF trial.
That wasn't his only appearance at a Dallas CAIR event. A year earlier, Esposito offered his wholehearted support for CAIR and its wishes to see the defendants set free in the HLF case, "Let me begin by saying that CAIR is a phenomenal organization….The main reason I decided to come was because of how I see the situation with regard to both the Holy Land Fund and the way government recently handled the situation and also to show solidarity not only with the Holy Land Fund, but also with CAIR."
Esposito described himself as an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood movement. He said he had "studied the movement for many years." However, when Jacks asked whether he was familiar with the Muslim Brotherhood motto, Esposito said he wasn't. The motto states:
"God is our goal, Quran is our Constitution, the Prophet is our leader, struggle [jihad] is our way, and death in the service of God is the loftiest of our wishes."
Esposito also did not know that Hamas' charter repeats the same motto. He's a Muslim Brotherhood expert, he said, not an expert on Hamas.
Jurors were shown a videotape seized from the HLF office of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood scholar known for his militant religious rulings. In the video, al-Qaradawi cites a passage from the Prophet's Hadith, also listed in Article 7 of the Hamas charter:
"The Prophet, prayer and peace be upon him, said: The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him!"
Qaradawi is a "very prominent Islamic scholar," Esposito said. He tried to rationalize Qaradawi's statement, saying that the reference to "Jews" was really a reference to the "government of Israel." How could he be sure, Jacks asked, if Qaradawi has never offered such an explanation. "No text can be interpreted without context," Esposito said. Qaradawi perceives Palestine to be a "war zone" where "people are under occupation."
"In that context all Israelis are part of the system and fighting, killing in the war zone is legitimate," he said. Esposito further added that Qaradawi believes that "sacrificing against a superior military power is sacrificing for a noble and just cause."
Esposito confirmed that al-Qaradawi had issued a fatwa (religious ruling) that approved of suicide bombings against American troops in Iraq, explaining that al-Qaradawi had issued the fatwa because "Iraq was under occupation."
Esposito mentioned that over a course of several years he had met with some Hamas leaders, but he could not remember the names "since it was 10-15 years ago." He said he may have also "run across someone who's a Hamas leader at a professional conference in Europe," but he could not say for certain.
Jacks asked Esposito whether he was familiar with the United Association for Studies and Research (UASR), a think tank that used to be based outside Washington, D.C. Along with CAIR, HLF and the Islamic Association for Palestine (IAP), the UASR was a member of the American Palestine Committee. Internal records show the Palestine Committee was established by the Muslim Brotherhood to help Hamas politically and financially.
CAIR was created in 1994, after the Palestine Committee existed. Records show CAIR was added to the roster of committee entities and Ahmad, the co-founder and chairman emeritus, played a significant role in its operations. Ahmad helped lead a secret 1993 gathering of committee members in Philadelphia called to discuss ways to derail the Oslo Peace Accords. Committee members worried the secular Palestinian Authority would marginalize the Islamist Hamas movement.
Esposito said he had attended conferences, seminars, and other events sponsored by UASR and had met its director Ahmed Yousef several times. Esposito said he had no knowledge at the time he met Yousef that the latter was a member of Hamas. Ahmed Yousef currently serves as political advisor to the Ismail Haniyeh-led Hamas government in Gaza.
But questions about Yousef's Hamas connections date back at least to August 1995, when the Washington Post asked about it. The Post was reporting on the arrest of Hamas political leader Mousa Abu Marzook by U.S. authorities:
"One of Marzook's few professional associations was to serve on the board of the United Association for Studies and Research, a Springfield think tank that has been branded by Israelis as a Hamas front.
Ahmed Yousef, the association's executive director, who met Marzook while also studying engineering at Colorado State, said he knew Marzook as a successful businessman who agreed to promote the think tank during his Middle East travels. But Yousef, who said his think tank has no ties to Hamas, was unable to describe the nature of Marzook's business."
Esposito's relationship with Marzook's think tank, the UASR, was more than a passing professional interlude. He served on the Board of Advisory Editors for the UASR's publication, Middle East Affairs Journal. In a 2000 interview in the journal, Esposito challenged the U.S. designation of Hamas as a Foreign Terrorist Organization: "One can't make a clear statement about Hamas. One has to distinguish between Hamas in general and the action of its military wing, and then one has also to talk about specific actions. Some actions by the military wing of Hamas can be seen as acts of resistance, but other actions are acts of retaliation, particularly when they target civilians."
Esposito also denied any association with Marzook. He said he was aware Marzook was a founder of UASR after reading background materials on the trial provided him by the defense but other than that he had no memory of having met Marzook. He conceded it was possible he and Marzook "may have overlapped in Washington, D.C."
Esposito and Jacks differed significantly on the structure of the Muslim Brotherhood. Jacks asked if the Islamist movement had a defined hierarchical structure, with spiritual guides. Esposito said that the Muslim Brotherhood exists in a number of countries but is "not a centrally organized, top down organization" as claimed by Jacks. In response to Jacks' question whether the global Islamist movement sought to establish a worldwide Islamic state, Esposito said that the Muslim Brotherhood aspires to establish Islamic law in "only those places where you have Muslim populations."
Jacks showed Esposito an internal Palestine Committee memo from 1991 outlining "the General Strategic Goal for the Group in America" and asked Esposito whether he was familiar with the document. Esposito said he had "read the document but had not done an analysis of it or studied it." Jacks then read out the section on page 21, describing the Muslim Brotherhood's role in America as a "Civilization-Jihadist process... eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and 'sabotaging' its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God's religion is made victorious over all other religions."
Esposito said he didn't remember reading that section in the document. He then challenged the memo's authenticity, saying "We do no know the source" but became silent when Jacks pointed out the author's names appears on it. The author, Mohamed Akram was listed on the document and Akram was a member of UASR, Jacks said.
David McDonald, a professor of ethnomusicology and cultural anthropology at Indiana University was the next defense witness to take the stand. He described different types of Palestinian resistance music and the historical periods associated with it. During the prosecution's presentation, jurors saw numerous videotapes of fundraising rallies in which a band performed incendiary songs.
McDonald said the literal meaning of the band's name - "Al-Sakra" - means "The Rock," an allusion to "The Rock" on which the Prophet Mohammad ascended to heaven. McDonald said a reference to Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin on a 1988 video should not be interpreted as a show of support for Hamas. Instead the commentator was "using music to communicate current events" in line with Palestinian folklore music wherein singers discuss current events in their performances.
McDonald's testimony is expected to continue Tuesday.