One of President Bush’s closest confidantes, Karen Hughes, this weekend is scheduled to address the annual conference of an organization whose primary purpose is the propagation of Saudi-sponsored Wahhabist Islam—and which has praised suicide bombers, whose president has publicly denied that al Qaeda was behind 9/11, and whose web site to this day sells a book that lavishes praise on Osama bin Laden.
Not only is Hughes publicly endorsing the Islamic Society of North America with her mere presence, but this is the first major public address in her new role spearheading outreach to the Muslim world. In the process, she’ll be seen as signaling whom the administration does—and does not—support in the U.S. Muslim community.
Asked whether the woman who was instrumental in Bush winning the White House knew the true nature of the group she is speaking to in Chicago this weekend, State Department spokesman Noel Clay responded, “Karen Hughes has been briefed on the organization.”
Somehow, it just doesn’t seem likely that Hughes has been fully briefed on ISNA. If she had, she almost certainly wouldn’t be headlining its annual conference—let alone as her first major appearance in her new post.
If this weekend’s ISNA convention is anything like its 2002 predecessor, Hughes will be surrounded by unsavory figures. At the 39th annual ISNA conference, held in Washington DC, several speakers on a panel agreed emphatically that there was no proof that bin Laden was behind 9/11—and this occurred just shy of the one-year anniversary of the attacks, just miles from the Pentagon.
During a session dedicated to the aftermath of 9/11—not on how Muslims can help strip the religious justification of future such terrorism, but rather on how to fight back against “attacks on Islam”—a questioner expressed his anger that the Muslim leadership in the U.S. had “asked [Muslims] to accept the blame for 9/11.”
The three prominent members of the panel all rushed to assure the questioner that, in fact, they weren’t really sure that al Qaeda was behind 9/11, or for that matter, if any Muslim was. According to a transcript provided by the Investigative Project, panel moderator Jamal Barzinji, the then-director of the International Institute of Islamic Thought, responded, “It is not only that we don’t have any proof, but the FBI doesn’t have any proof. They are still looking.”
Former ISNA president Muzammil H. Siddiqi, who was still on the board, added, “We cannot say in surety whoever did it or not.” Rounding out the bizarre denials of al Qaeda’s culpability for 9/11, the then-president of Muslim-American Society, Suhail al Ganouchi, opined, “Probably we’ll never know who actually did it, or who, what, or what groups.”
But ISNA does more than just provide a forum for 9/11 deniers. For sale on its online bookstore is a tome by former Illinois Congressman Paul Findley, published in the summer of 2001, which lavishes praise on Osama bin Laden.
The book, called “Silent No More: Confronting America’s False Image of Islam,” contained the following description of the terrorist who had already orchestrated the murder of Americans in the East Africa embassy bombings and the U.S.S. Cole attack: “Outsiders do not seem to recognize that bin Laden is one of the pre-eminent heroes of Afghans, occupying a role similar to the Marquis de Lafayette, a Frenchman who fought at the side of the Colonials during America’s Revolutionary War.”
Also available at ISNA’s online bookstore is “More in Common Than You Think” by William Baker, who is only well-known to radical Muslims and neo-Nazis. According to a lengthy investigative piece in Orange County Weekly, Baker in 1984 was chairman of the Populist Party, which was “established and directed by Willis Carto, head of the now-defunct Liberty Lobby. …Carto also founded the Costa Mesa-based Institute for Historical Review, a group whose central purpose is Holocaust denial.” Seven months after the article was published, Baker was a panelist at the same ISNA annual conference in September 2002 where Siddiqi and others denied al Qaeda’s perpetration of 9/11.
When asked about much of the above, State spokesman Clay seemed uninterested. He first argued that Hughes’ appearance was no big deal, since the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security were also sending representatives. But DHS and DOJ are sending low-level department lawyers who are neither principals nor political appointees. Not the same thing as sending someone who’s logged countless hours by the President’s side.
Clay also defended the appearance before ISNA by noting, “They do not support terrorism.” Except when they do. In a January 2000 press release, ISNA declared, “In order to honor the Shaheeds and the Mujahideen of Chechnia, ISNA has decided to dedicate Shawwal 1, 1420, the day of Eid al Fitr as ‘Solidarity with Chechnia Day’ throughout North America.”
“Shaheeds” is the term used by jihadists for glorification of suicide bombers. U.S. law officials think that the “shaheeds” and “Mujahideen” in Chechnya are terrorists; many of the most high-profile terror cases since 9/11 have involved support for those forces.
Even giving Clay the benefit of the doubt that he did not know of the Chechnya statement, is lack of support for terrorism the only bar which an organization must clear?
But either because the State Department did not do a thorough investigation of ISNA or because it willfully disregarded the group’s open praise of “shaheeds,” Karen Hughes is more than likely going to share the stage with the man who signed that statement and who publicly denied bin Laden’s responsibility for 9/11: Siddiqi. He is speaking at one panel, moderating three others, and given that he is still on the executive committee and the board of directors, Siddiqi is more than likely going to be at the head table when Karen Hughes delivers her speech.
It is hard to imagine that Hughes knows of Siddiqi’s unseemliness, yet given his continued prominence within ISNA, she is likely to be shaking the hand of—and affording untold legitimacy to—a 9/11 denier and vocal supporter of terrorists. Never mind what she does for ISNA’s credibility. Or what her appearance means for the Muslim groups she has not yet addressed who are genuinely moderate.
If Hughes feels that outreach to U.S. Muslims is important—which it is—why not instead meet with someone like Sheikh Hisham Kabbani, the spiritual leader for Sufi Muslims? Or Free Muslims Coalition President Kamal Nawash, who this spring organized the first-ever Free Muslims March Against Terrorism—which was boycotted by ISNA, MSA, and almost every other major national Muslim organization?
Administration officials—particularly someone of Hughes’ prominence—should embrace the organizations fighting the Saudi takeover of Islam in America, not the group perhaps most responsible for perpetrating that very takeover.
Spun off of the Saudi-created and funded Muslim Students Association (MSA) over 20 years ago, ISNA is likely the largest single provider of Islamic materials to mosques in America.
For a sampling of what might be contained in Saudi-sponsored pamphlets and literature, one need look no further than the Freedom House report issued earlier this year. Using Muslim volunteers to gather Saudi-published or sponsored materials in more than a dozen prominent mosques across the country, Freedom House found shocking intolerance, anti-Semitism, and even explicit endorsement of violence.
Though the Freedom House report does not specify if ISNA was responsible for funneling any of the most offensive literature into mosques, ISNA’s own track record suggests that it would do so willingly.
Assuming Hughes goes forward and addresses ISNA this weekend, she deserves the benefit of the doubt—this time.
But if groups like ISNA keep getting courted, the question must be asked: Is this embrace happening out of ignorance or out of some cunning—and dangerous—strategy?