President Obama said at the White House Countering Violent Extremism Summit that the West must promote Muslim leaders who counter the extremist narratives that cause terrorism and radicalization. The administration did not follow its own advice. The Summit featured Islamists known for preaching those same themes that the White House cited as part of the problem.
Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi
One of the prominent attendees was Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, a Sufi cleric from Syria who supports the rebels against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He is known for fatwas restricting attacks on Syrian regime forces to minimize civilian casualties, his fierce condemnations of the Islamic State and sectarianism and for being an opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood.
On the one hand, he says he wants Syria to become a democracy and bashes Islamists, using the very term that President Obama will not. However, he is not as moderate as often assumed. A clear giveaway is the fact that he spoke at the Zaytuna Institute in 2004, now known as Zaytuna College, which is led by Islamist radicals with a history of anti-American preaching.
That same year, a reporter attended a sermon by Yaqoubi. He wrote, “Listening to him, I had the sense that certain Muslims have studied liberal Western society the way a military general assesses an enemy position, probing for strengths and weaknesses, deciding where and how and at what cost penetration can be achieved.”
Yaqoubi preached in support of violent jihad against U.S. forces overseas. He said, “Wherever the American troops are, wherever they are, they are going to be defeated.”
He taught the audience that U.S. democracy promotion is an act of “greed.” He said that Muslims are called to “fight for the sake of Allah” against oppressors and “fighting in order to liberate your country, as the Iraqis are doing.”
He said that Muslims should not become violent in America and should instead try to win converts. This wasn’t a pledge of allegiance to the country. He said, “What justifies us living in America, other than trying to convey the Message?”
The reporter asked an attendee how he interpreted Yaqoubi’s preaching. Perhaps the reporter’s non-Muslim background led him to misinterpret the message. The attendee said he’d join a jihad against U.S. troops if he lived in the Middle East and that he’d put an “Against the Troops” bumper sticker on his car if he found one.
A popular Facebook page devoted to him has an October 4, 2011 post that features an anti-Western, pro-Islamist quote:
Another post from December 8, 2013 has a photo of him holding hands with Sheikh Abdallah Bin Bayah, who was previously touted by President Obama at the United Nations as an example of a moderate cleric standing up to ISIS. Bin Bayyah is a supporter of Hamas, violent jihad against Israel and is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. The post is below:
In 2010, Yaqoubi spoke to The Revival, a British magazine for Muslim youth, about responding to mockery of the Prophet Mohammed. His language wasn’t so moderate.
He endorsed Islam’s blasphemy laws, ridiculed the concepts of freedom of religion and freedom of expression, and said Muslims should respond to the cartoons mocking Mohammed with fury to make the West ban such material:
“…the West now has more courage, especially with these wrong and false ideals like freedom of religion’ or ‘freedom of expression’. In Islam I do not allow under the banner of ‘freedom of expression’ someone to come and curse or insult a Prophet of Allah (swt).”
“Now the West has crossed every red line in respect of norms and ethics and I don’t think Muslims should tolerate this. If you’re asking me about how to react, how to respond, I believe we should show the highest angry level of response.”
“We should tell the West that this is a red line you can never cross. When someone comes to claim God on Facebook, as happened recently, or when someone comes to call for the drawing of Rasulullah on Facebook, the government where Facebook is registered should have rules and limitations on the ‘freedom of expression’, and the same in Denmark. A drawer cannot come from nowhere to draw under the banner of ‘freedom of expression,’ he does so because he knows his government protects him.”
“Facebook is one of the biggest companies in the US, so when it is involved in something like this I believe Islamic countries should pull back their ambassadors from the US and protest against US policy in allowing this level of ‘freedom of speech’ – it is blasphemy, it is not freedom of speech at all.”
He said that Muslim leaders should inflame the situation and do nothing to calm tempers:
“I know the Muslim ummah listens to the ulema, so the ulema should stand up on these occasions, and should not play a role of suppressing people’s anger or telling them it’s alright or playing it down by telling them well this happens all the time.”
Yaqoubi supported a boycott of Danish products and opposed its end:
“We have 60 countries in the Islamic world that are doing nothing. We called for the boycott of Denmark and it succeeded until unfortunately there was a compromise and it was a big mistake to stop the boycott of Danish products. Muslims were united on that and their unity was one of the best examples.”
He said that the Muslim world should threaten the West and its citizens in the region:
“If the US government has any interest in our oil, if the US government has any interest in the strategic areas, oceans and seas, in the Middle East and the Black Sea and the Indian Ocean, and want their military floats going around freely, if they have any interests in protecting their citizens travelling to this area, they should then look out for their interests. We should put pressure on our Muslim Ambassadors to say to the US that we can stop your financial, economical or strategic interests in this area and cause damage.”
Yaqoubi’s opposition to a violent response is far from comforting. He merely said that war cannot be started until it is declared by an Islamic state:
“I believe whenever something like this happens we should follow every possible channel to stop it, without going into violence. Going into violence means declaration of war, and declaration of war is not done by individuals, it has to be done under an authority. Now when our authority in our Islamic countries do not bother much, that is their own responsibility before Allah (swt).”
Either the White House did not bother to vet Yaqoubi or was willing to accept him because he signed a letter rebutting the Islamic interpretations of ISIS. Islamists around the world cite this letter as proof of their value as counter-terrorism allies. The letter betrays its moderate presentation by endorsing Sharia governance, rebuilding the Caliphate and violent jihad against Israel and other perceived aggressors.
Islamic Society of Boston
The Islamic Society of Boston has a radical history that includes being founded by an admitted U.S. Muslim Brotherhood member, Abdurrahman Alamoudi, who was convicted on charges related to terrorism-financing. He also vocally supported Hamas and Hezbollah.
The organization’s second mosque in Roxbury, the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, also listed the Muslim Brotherhood spiritual leader, Yousef al-Qaradawi, as an official. He also fundraised for the mosque. He’s called for the death penalty for Muslims who leave the faith and jihad against infidels and is a strong supporter of Hamas. The Treasury Department blacklisted a network of charities he oversaw for financing Hamas.
According to its own website, the second mosque is run by the Boston branch of the Muslim American Society. Federal prosecutors confirmed in 2008 that Muslim American Society was “founded as the overt arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in America.” Alamoudi also confirmed it.
The ideology was so extreme at the mosque that one Muslim activist, Sheikh Ahmed Mansour, said, “Their writings and teachings were fanatical. I left and refused to go back to pray. I left Egypt to escape the Muslim Brotherhood, but I had found it there.”
Americans for Peace and Tolerance have more documentation of the mosque’s extremism here and here. Over a dozen mosque attendees and officials are known to have been involved in terrorism including the Boston Marathon bombers. The organization and the Muslim American Society have demonized the U.S. government’s counter-terrorism efforts on multiple occasions, thereby undermining the very “countering violent extremism” efforts that the administration believes they are partners in.
The group points out that the former imam of this second mosque, Suhaib Webb, advertised the youth branch of the Islamic Circle of North America at speaking engagements. This group’s teaching guide is full of anti-Americanism and encourages deception and secrecy in order to advance the jihadist cause.
Islamic Society of Greater Lowell
This mosque’s website lists the radical preacher Wagdy Ghoneim as one of eight famous Islamic preachers to check out. He was arrested in the U.S. due to evidence that he was financing Hamas. He moved to Egypt and joined the Muslim Brotherhood and expressed no restraint in his radical preaching.
Ghoneim announced his support for ISIS in its fight against the “Crusader alliance” and said “America is the largest terrorist state.” He is rabidly anti-Semitic and hailed Osama Bin Laden as a “hero” after he was killed. He pledged that Egyptian Coptic Christians will “be wiped off the face of the earth” if they undermined the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi.
The mosque’s library has many extremist texts. There are at least 17 texts from the government of Saudi Arabia, 11 texts by Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna, six by the founder of Wahhabism, six by Yousef al-Qaradawi, 6 by Sayyid Qutb, 5 by Jamaat-e-Islami founder Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi, and 4 by the Muslim World League.
There are also Islamist books by Rashid al-Ghannouchi, Ibn Taymiyya, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, Jamal Badawi, Bilal Phillips and Salah Al-Sawi.
The constitution of the mosque says it is officially affiliated with the Islamic Society of North America, a U.S. Muslim Brotherhood entity and oddly enough the White House’s top Muslim outreach partner. The group’s conferences feature incendiary Islamists and its magazine claimed that “Muslim terrorism is not a threat after 9/11” shortly before the Boston Marathon bombing. Sheikh Yaqoubi’s Facebook page shows he spoke at the Virginia-based ADAMS Center with former ISNA President Imam Mohamed Magid.
Nabeel Khudairi (Islamic Council of New England)
This organization has featured Islamist radicals at its events. Even if these speakers did not preach radicalism at these events, their radicalism is well-documented and widely-known. The mosque chose to put them in front of their audience as authoritative figures to follow.
The attendee representing this organization was Nabeel Khudairi. Americans for Peace and Tolerance recalls that it was Khudairi who masterminded a lawsuit against the Islamic Society of Boston’s critics that was dropped once the process of discovery proved the mosque’s extremism. An email he sent explicitly said the objective of the lawsuit was that “they will be prevented from reporting on the story while the case is in court.”
Khudairi grew up in the Islamic Center of New England, which hired a new imam in 1999 that turned out to be the brother of the mastermind of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008. When a Muslim attendee mentioned to the media that he saw extremism at the mosque, Khudairi called him a traitor to the community and said Muslims should not tell outsiders of such activity. He wrote in an email:
“How is it you consider yourself…even a decent Muslim for that matter? I have never witnessed anywhere in all my years a ‘brother’ as blatantly enthusiastic to cause trouble for the entire Umma as yourself…Only a totally irresponsible Munaffiq [those who pretend to be Muslims] would go on the record about there being fundamentalists in the masjid [mosque].”
To summarize: The White House Countering Violent Extremism Summit invited an individual who insults any Muslim who exposes violent extremism. In addition, he uses frivolous lawsuits to silence non-Muslim critics. There’s also concerning information about the group he represented, the Islamic Council of New England.
In October 2001, the Islamic Council of New England hosted Yusuf Islam (previously known as Cat Stevens) and Tariq Ramadan, the grandson of the Muslim Brotherhood founder. The topic was raising Muslim youth in Western societies. Yusuf Islam is a supporter of Hamas who endorsed the fatwa to kill Salman Rushdie.
On October 8, 2011, they hosted Imam Siraj Wahhaj. He is among the most radical preachers in America today. His mosque’s extremism and possible links to terrorism are so high that the New York Police Department put it under surveillance as part of a “terrorism enterprise” investigation.
This organization might claim they were unaware of these speakers’ backgrounds, but the documentation was easily-accessible on the Internet. That makes the organization unsuitable as a partner against violent extremism.
Jihad Turk (President of the Bayan Claremont Islamic School)
The school’s faculty includes Imam Suhaib Webb, the former leader of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. As mentioned, he advertised the youth branch of the Islamic Circle of North America. This group’s teaching guide is full of anti-Americanism and encourages deception and secrecy in order to advance the jihadist cause.
Webb also says Muslims should refuse to work with the FBI unless the FBI restores its relationship with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a U.S. Muslim Brotherhood entity. The FBI severed ties with CAIR due to evidence tying it to the terrorist organization Hamas.
He also condemned secularism as a “radical, lunatic ideology…we’re talking about the loss of holy power in politics. It’s very difficult to find any place in the world now that is ruled by someone who is ruling by divine authority.” He said that only the Islam of Prophet Mohammed’s era is equipped for political rule today.
Another faculty member is Omid Safi. He endorses the extremist-led Zaytuna College as “far and away the single most influential institution that’s shaping American Muslim thought.” He once wrote an article equating Israel with the Nazis, choosing gross exaggeration and inflammation over reasonable discourse. The publisher of the article later deleted it.
In an article written last year, Safi wrote that the “Muslim ummah is on fire” and the “American Empire is crumbling.” He said that American democracy is “broken” and “change the system we must.” He describes the U.S. “empire” as a dire threat to Muslims. He said the terrorism in Paris is a result of “political grievances” and justified Hamas terrorism against Israel.
According to his LinkedIn page, Jihad Turk was the religious director of the Islamic Center of Southern California from May 2005 to July 2012. This mosque was founded by the same Muslim Brotherhood members who started the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). That group has a pro-Islamist history but has taken a more recent turn against the Brotherhood and Political Islam.
The mosque lists Islamist radical preachers as sources on its website, including Qaradawi and Fiqh us-Sunnah, an authoritative book on Sharia written by a prominent Muslim Brotherhood member under the guidance of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna. Jihad Turk would have responsibility over the ideology of the mosque’s teachings as its religious director for seven years.
On the positive side, Jihad Turk did say in a 2012 debate that he does not believe in the credibility of some hadiths about the life of Mohammed that are used to promote extremism. That argument contradicts Islamist interpretations, but Turk's choice of faculty and tenure at the Islamic Center of Southern California undermine his credibility as an partner in countering violent extremism..
Salam Al-Marayati (Muslim Public Affairs Council)
Salam Al-Marayati, the President of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), was included in the summit as well. Our profile documents their long history of pro-Islamist rhetoric and themes that President Obama warned against.
It was founded by Muslim Brotherhood members, including one who explicitly said his purpose in coming to America was to spread the “Islamic Movement” of the Brotherhood. Al-Marayati’s instant reaction to 9/11 was to name Israel as a likely perpetrator. The leader of MPAC, Maher Hathout, entertained conspiracy theories about 9/11 in the days following the attacks.
In 2003, MPAC criticized the designations of Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist groups, suggesting that it was done “based on political considerations.” In May 2013, Al-Marayati spoke at an interfaith event and said Muslims are targeted by a “cottage industry” of anti-Muslim conspirators who are a subset of a “larger industry” that “want[s] more contracts for more weapons to countries that only use these weapons against their own people or against civilians.”
Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman criticized MPAC for their record in 2008. In December 2013, MPAC issued a declaration against extremism but sponsored a radical conference organized by a pro-Hamas organization.
However, in a surprising move, MPAC congratulated the Egyptian people when the Brotherhood was overthrown in 2013 (making it the only major Muslim-American group to so).
MPAC's leadership now says that sharia governance is an outdated system that should not be implemented anymore. Al-Marayati writesthat political Islam is a “failed” concept. He says ISIS is a product of an “unholy alliance of clergy and state” that spreads by “co-opting religious authority, fabricating religious texts, and spreading selective interpretations and applications of Islam by establishing schools and funding those that would teach their literal and absolutist Islamic narrative.”
Yet, MPAC fights against anti-Islamist activists, including fellow Muslims, going so far as to try to stop the appointment of Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, an anti-Islamist Muslim activist (whose value is privately recognized by personnel within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence).
The organization also impedes the necessary ideological confrontation of Islamism by telling the U.S. government not to “encroach on theological issues” or “dictate who are ‘good Muslims’ and who are ‘bad Muslims.’”
Deputy Chief of the LAPD
The Muslim outreach effort in the Los Angeles area was highlighted as an accomplishment. The Summit included Michael Downing, Deputy Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Counterterrorism and Special Operations Bureau.
In 2011, Downing was videotaped admitting that he was “sure” that the Muslim Brotherhood exists in America. He said, “the message is not to demonize the Brotherhood here” because it has “evolved and changed.” Los Angeles County Sheriff is a prominent supporter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a U.S. Muslim Brotherhood entity who the FBI has severed ties with due to evidence tying it to Hamas.
Two Speakers Deserving the Title “Anti-Extremists”
There were a few speakers at the Summit that deserved the time they were given.
Anila Ali has been interviewed by the Clarion Project and is unafraid to describe herself as a Muslim against Islamism. She has started a Facebook page for Muslims who stand against extremism, explaining that “my biggest fear is that the U.S. Muslim community will become like the U.K. Muslim community, where clerics preach hate and are calling for Sharia law.”
Another positive inclusion was Rotterdam Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb, a Muslim who encourages Muslims to integrate into European societies and demands that they accept free speech. He became famous across Europe when he responded to the Paris attacks by going on live television to tell Muslims who don’t accept free speech to “f— off.”
The Fruition of a Flawed Strategy
Some background is needed to understand how this happened. The Bush Administration embraced Islamists immediately after the 9/11 attacks in the rush to assemble a Muslim coalition to condemn Al-Qaeda. The Obama Administration brought this to a new level under its strategy of “Countering Violent Extremism,” a vague euphemism adopted at the request of Islamists who opposed any implied recognition that the threat is rooted in Islamism.
The Obama Administration views “moderate” Islamists as the partners most able to steer Al-Qaeda sympathizers towards non-violence. In foreign policy, the administration incorrectly believes the Muslim Brotherhood is non-violent and democratic. From this point of view, the deposing of elected Islamist tyrants in Egypt is worse than the Islamist tyrants themselves.
Domestically, the administration uses Islamists including those linked to the Muslim Brotherhood as advisors.
The Islamic Society of North America, a U.S. Muslim Brotherhood entity, is the White House’s top Muslim outreach partner. President Obama’s meeting with 14 Muslim-American leaders included included ISNA. Its new president is also the senior national director of Islamic Relief USA, whose parent organization is banned by Israel and the United Arab Emirates as a terrorist entity. The charity is accused of financing Hamas and has strong Muslim Brotherhood ties.
The administration even used ISNA and other Islamist allies in a Department of Homeland Security Working Group on Countering Violent Extremism. The predictable result was that revised training guidelines shields from scrutiny the proponents of extremist Islamism including the U.S. Muslim Brotherhood, as long as they are publicly against violence.
The Islamist presence at the White House Countering Violent Extremism Summit is part of a pattern since 9/11. All it takes to pass the test is to condemn Al-Qaeda, ISIS and generic terrorism.
President Obama rightly stated that these threats emanate from destructive themes and worldviews, but the answer isn’t to deny that that there is an extremist interpretation of Islam that is the source of these destructive worldviews. And the answer isn’t to give a platform to gradualist Islamists whose final goal is the establishment of a global caliphate and forceful implementation of sharia law, just like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The answer is to exalt those who offer an alternative narrative altogether.
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.