Teresa Watanabe is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Like others in daily journalism, myself included, in the late 1990s she began writing actively about Islam in America. A check in the Times archives shows that although almost no clips are available before 1998 in which the words “Watanabe” and “Muslim” appear together, from then on she accumulated 100 bylined stories dealing, at various levels of attention, with the faith of Muhammad.
However, Watanabe has consistently shown herself to be an enabler of Islamist ideologues in their attempts to present themselves either as innocent throughout their careers in Southern California, or as cleaned-up and trustworthy since September 11, 2001.
Among her favorite subjects is the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), one of the most active and adroit entities in camouflaging an Islamist agenda behind a mainstream American vocabulary. MPAC requires, here, a substantial digression. Salam al-Marayati, MPAC’s executive director, remains infamous for his comment within hours of the September 11 atrocities. As reported in The New York Times of October 22, 2001, he told radio station KCRW, “If we’re going to look at suspects we should look to the groups that benefit the most from these kinds of incidents, and I think we should put the state of Israel on the suspect list because I think this diverts attention from what’s happening in the Palestinian territories so that they can go on with their aggression and occupation and apartheid policies.”
Al-Marayati and his cadre have done a lot of repair and coverup work since that revelatory movement, seeking to present MPAC as an all-American operation concerned only to save Islam from the understandable suspicions that have fallen upon it. Yet the MPAC agenda remains quintessentially Islamist. That is, it sees faith as subordinate to ideological mobilization, and rather than seeking a place of respect for Islam in the spectrum of American religious activity, it concentrates on political agitation around aggravated and, in most cases, manufactured grievances.
The simple truth is that, even after September 11, working-class and middle-class Arab and other Muslims live better in the U.S. than in any other country in the world, including Muslim lands. Their average income is certainly higher. No opportunities are closed to them in America, from education to employment. If anything, the educational establishment has, to demonstrate its political correctness, bent over backwards to accommodate Arabic and Muslim students and studies. Unlike such countries as Britain, France, and Germany, the United States does not see Arabs or other Muslims crowded together in separate neighborhoods. Indeed, one Islamist ideologue, the hate-mongering John (Yahiya) Emerick, has argued that to create an “American Islam,” American Muslims should establish their own, effectively segregated, communities. Most American Muslims would reject such a suggestion as absurd.
The number of hate incidents directed against Arab and other Muslims in America since September 11 is extraordinarily small. Any such event is thoroughly despicable. However, groups like MPAC seek to conflate them with policies with which they disagree, including the intervention in Iraq, into an official American “crusade” against Islam, so that they may pose as Islam’s defenders against aggression. In this regard, their intent is no different from that of the armed jihadists in Iraq and elsewhere; only their methods are different.
In line with their rhetoric as representatives of “Muslims under fire,” MPAC has announced that its Fourth National Convention will be held under the menacing and militant slogan, “Now It’s Our Turn.” Publicity for the event, scheduled for December 18 in Long Beach, poses this phrase against pictures of Osama bin Laden, Donald Rumsfeld, Daniel Pipes, Steven Emerson, and Pat Robertson, who are described as “The Faces That Are Always Talking About Terrorism.” The obvious messages are, first, that Bin Laden, Rumsfeld, Pipes, Emerson, and Robertson are all the same, i.e. terrorists; second, that while all the aforementioned are liars, MPAC will present the truth. The convention program features such apologists for Islamist ideology as professor John Esposito of Georgetown University, Muslim fundamentalist theologian Jamal Badawi, the repellent Hussein Ibish, formerly of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) – who, by the way, has proclaimed himself on numerous occasions an enemy of all religions including Islam, and a partisan of Marxist radicalism – and former Guantanamo chaplain James Yee.
But it is MPAC that lies. It isn’t “Their Turn” to continue propagandizing the American public with fairy tales, such as that the American Muslim community’s leading organizations were never anything but legitimate organizations, or that Islam has not been deeply harmed worldwide by the crimes of fanatics. It is their turn to beg forgiveness from anti-extremist American Muslims, from their non-Muslim American neighbors, and from Allah Almighty for their ongoing campaign to present themselves as victims of a nonexistent oppression. Above all, it is their turn to account for their failure to proclaim, and act in accord with, the fact that they enjoy rights in America that exist almost nowhere else. But they are hardly prepared to do that.
Nor is it their turn to challenge Rumsfeld, Pipes, Emerson, Robertson, or even Bin Laden. Rumsfeld conducts a war policy that is transparent and subject to constant examination by media, elected officials, and the public. Pipes is a severe critic of Islamist ideology but has defended the religion of Islam itself. Emerson has investigated Islamic radicals, and notwithstanding occasional mistakes of the kind all journalists make, has an excellent record exposing them. Robertson has offended many Muslims with the frankness of his Christian opinions, but that is his right, just as Muslims have the right to declare their preference for their religion. And even Bin Laden is candid about his motives and intent.
But MPAC and its Islamist cohort are deceivers, and are enabled to do so by Teresa Watanabe. In an article with the pretext of Ramadan charitable donations, published in the L.A. Times on November 6, Watanabe paraphrased Laila Al-Marayati, who is listed as a lead speaker at the coming MPAC convention, in a discussion of KinderUSA, which Watanabe described as “a Dallas-based group formed in 2002 to help needy Palestinian children.” According to Watanabe, Laila Al-Marayati, as a KinderUSA board member, disclosed that “When aiding orphans, [KinderUSA] does not inquire how the father died to avoid charges that it knowingly supports the families of suicide bombers.”
What is this but open hypocrisy, and deliberate deception? Doesn’t the fiduciary duty of Laila Al-Marayati as a board member of a charity, as well as her moral duty as an alleged opponent of terrorism carried out in the name of Islam, require that she and the groups she works with definitively inquire into how the fathers of orphans died? If they do not, what are such benefits to orphans but a means of encouraging new terrorist outrages by showing that the abandoned children of suicide bombers will be cared for?
Watanabe had nothing to add to this remarkable statement, which was offered up innocuously, in an article the main thrust of which was to support the canard that with the suppression of terror-financing charity operations in the U.S., Muslims are deprived of religious rights. Watanabe writes insouciantly, “the U.S. crackdown on Islamic charities has complicated this religious obligation [i.e. charitable donations during Ramadan] and, some Muslims say, impeded the free practice of their faith. Since 9/11, the U.S. government has designated 27 Islamic charitable groups worldwide as supporters of terrorism, including five it shut down in the United States.”
Contributing to terror-funding charities is not a religious right, any more than contributing to the bombing of abortion clinics is a religious right, or assisting in an attack on a mosque by an extremist non-Muslim group could be considered a religious right. Nobody raising money for the Irish Republican Army’s illegal actions would have argued that they have a religious right to do so as Catholics, and nobody involved in the same kinds of activities in support of Ulster Protestants would, either. Jewish groups that support radical anti-Arab positions in Israel do not try to shield themselves under the religious aspect of the Constitution’s First Amendment. In the United States, only Islamists seek the protection of religious freedom as a cover for ideological extremism, with MPAC among the chief malefactors in this practice. The rest of Watanabe’s article drew exclusively on complaints from the usual suspects among the Wahhabi lobby in America – representatives of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).
But Teresa Watanabe has made a practice of twisting reality in her reportage since the beginning of her service on the Times’s Islam beat. On May 31, 2004, the Times allowed her to commit a disgraceful ethical breach in her supposed reporting on a national convention of Shia Muslims residing in the U.S. The story appeared under the headline “THE NATION; At U.S. Conference, Shiites Share Concerns; ‘Almost 100% of Shias are disillusioned’ with Bush's occupation of Iraq, says one attendee.” Considering that Shias are the main allies of the U.S. forces in Iraq, aside from the Iraqi Kurds, this was quite a story, except that it wasn’t news at all, but spin. Although the Shia convention, which was held in Washington, DC, featured the presence of most of the distinguished Iraqi Shia clergy in the U.S. – I know because I was there and met with them – not one of them was even mentioned in Watanabe’s article.
Her so-called reportage led with a quote from a Shia who said he had been a staunch Republican but was prepared to abandon the party, and cease supporting President Bush, because of Iraq. Syed M. Rizvi, a New Jersey cardiologist, was quoted complaining not that Iraqi Shias might be victims of the American occupation, but only that “They [i.e. the Americans] are not letting Shias take control.” Rizvi said. “I am really disappointed.”
But the agenda of the U.S. intervention in Iraq was and is not that of establishing a Shia dictatorship, so it may be argued that such opinions are of little significance. Nevertheless, the more interesting fact in this factoid was, as Watanabe obscurely admitted, that Syed M. Rizvi is not an Iraqi, but a Shia from India. Watanabe gave no indication as to why an Indian Shia might be qualified to opine so profoundly on the situation in Iraq. To emphasize, although the Shia convention included an important Iraqi contingent, not one Shia from Iraq was identified or quoted by Watanabe. The claim that “ ‘Almost 100% of Shias are disillusioned’ with Bush’s occupation of Iraq” came from the mouth of Robert Dixon Crane, a convert to Shia Islam whom Watanabe inaccurately described as a “former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.” Why his account of Shia attitudes in Iraq should be weightier than that of any other gadfly went unexplained, but that’s how some newspapers are happy to operate.
Watanabe also relied on a questionable personage at the convention, a Maryland urologist named Parvez Shah, who according to her claimed that the convention organizers were mostly of Pakistani and Indian origin and had “failed to coax other sizeable Shiite communities to participate, notably Iranians and Arabs.” In reality, most of the major speakers as well as other participants at the event were drawn from the Iranian and Arab Shia communities, and a man she incorrectly identified as the “media coordinator” at the convention was a man of Saudi origin, Ali al-Ahmed. (Al-Ahmed was downgraded by Parvez Shah to the status of “media advisor” in a published correction.)
Many Pakistani and Indian Shias were also present, but some among them who work closely with Iraqi Shia clerics in America demanded that the Times print a more extensive clarification of Watanabe’s article, without success. Agha Shawkat Jafri, a New York Shia community leader of Pakistani birth, who is affiliated with the Al-Khoei Foundation, one of the main Iraqi Shia institutions in the U.S., said “We protested and we continue to protest against the false reportage of Teresa Watanabe. The Iraqi Shias led by Ayatollah Sistani have defeated Moqtada ul-Sadr’s uprising against the new government, and are participating fully in the election process in Iraq. Sistani has issued an opinion condemning anyone who refuses to vote in the coming election. Who is Teresa Watanabe to cook up this disinformation?”
Similar questions have been asked about Watanabe by disgruntled American Muslims for quite a while. One of her first journalistic exploits on the Islam beat was a page one, column one “exposé” of the Naqshbandi Sufi leader Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, America’s most prominent anti-extremist Muslim figure. Early in the article, which appeared in the Times on April 15, 1999, Watanabe noted, “Kabbani is saying what no Islamic leader has dared say before: that most of America's Muslim leaders are religious ‘extremists.’ That unnamed Muslim American groups condone terrorism abroad. That Muslim American students are being radicalized by anti-Western fanatics.”
But she quickly swung over to a full-throated presentation of “the other side:” “His legions (sic) of critics say he is an egotistical, divisive charlatan who encourages cultic adoration and is feeding national Islamophobia. Kabbani’s allegations about Muslim American extremism, delivered at a State Department forum [in 1999], have, in particular, turned what began as a theological debate into a political war. In an unprecedented joint statement, major Muslim American groups condemned Kabbani and demanded an apology.”
As it happens, in the aftermath of September 11, with the emergence of the disturbing phenomenon of American Muslim silence in the face of terrorism, and the evidence that conformity with extremist ideology is imposed on American Muslims by the Wahhabi lobby, Kabbani’s charges have been vindicated. But who, according to Watanabe, were united in their condemnation of Kabbani, and what among Kabbani’s statements to a State Department forum most irritated these critics, who Watanabe falsely numbered in “legions”?
Watanabe’s choice of anti-Kabbani authorities included “local Islamic leaders such as Muzammil Siddiqi, the Garden Grove-based president of the Islamic Society of North America, and Maher Hathout of the Islamic Center of Southern California, [who] say they reject hierarchies, holy men and the ‘grave worship’ of saintly intercession,” she wrote. Holy men and prayers at gravesites, not “grave worship,” are characteristic features of Kabbani’s Sufism. Of course, these particular opponents of Kabbani are well known for other statements: the same Muzammil Siddiqi declared on October 28, 2000, at an anti-Israel “Jerusalem Day” rally in Washington, DC, “America has to learn… if you remain on the side of injustice, the wrath of God will come. Please, all Americans. Do you remember that?… If you continue doing injustice, and tolerate injustice, the wrath of God will come.” In a Friday sermon at the Islamic Center of Southern California on August 21, 1998, the same Maher Hathout condemned U.S. retaliation in Afghanistan, after the bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, as “illegal, immoral, unhuman, unacceptable, stupid, and un-American.”
Watanabe also reported, in a tone of disbelief, that “[a]mong other things, Kabbani… declared [at the State Department event] that members of the Muslim Student Assn. were ‘brainwashed’ by an extremist ideology and might be exploited by terrorists…. He says he was sounding a warning to America’s peace-loving Muslims against mosque leaders who preach what he regards as religious extremism and fail to condemn terrorist organizations… Kabbani sees dangerous and growing ties between fundamentalist religious ideologies and militant movements in Central Asia, the Balkans and elsewhere; he says Sufi strongholds there are being threatened, sometimes with violence, by fundamentalists of the Wahabi sect and others.
“ ‘We are afraid this will spread to the United States,’ Kabbani said. ‘We are afraid this kind of doctrine controlling mosques will lead to military actions.’ ”
Kabbani’s State Department presentation, which was held in Washington on January 9, 1999, was titled “Islamic Extremism: A Viable Threat to U.S. National Security.” The main items in it that upset the Wahhabi lobby in America were the following statements: “Bin Laden has asked Hezbollah, Hamas, and Jihad al-Islami, and Ga'amat al Islamiyya, to form a coalition and he was able to bring them together under one network in order to work together, although each one differs from the other in his point of view… We want to tell people to be careful, that something major might hit quickly because they were able to buy more than 20 atomic nuclear heads from some of the mafia in the ex-Soviet Union.”
I, among other journalists, have questioned whether the reports about sale of nuclear warheads in Russia were accurate; but Kabbani was certainly right to call the attention of the American authorities to them, as well as to the general danger of Bin Laden. For his service to America in this and other instances, Kabbani was assailed by the Wahhabi lobby, with the journalistic complicity of Teresa Watanabe, who recycled the worst of their smears.
But the judgment of history, since September 11, favors Kabbani, not Watanabe or the Wahhabis she so dutifully quoted. Verdict: now it’s the L.A. Times’s turn to find another reporter on Islam, since Teresa Watanabe is not about to apologize or otherwise compensate for her extensive efforts to legitimize Islamist extremism and undermine the work of genuinely moderate and loyal American Muslims.