Immediately after the 7/7 London bombings, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) did just what the Western world has been longing for Muslims to do ever since 9/11: it issued an unequivocal condemnation of the bombers and of terrorism in general. “Any individual or group that claims that these heinous actions serve as a redress for legitimate grievances,” MPAC thundered, “is dreadfully mistaken. MPAC condemns the exploitation of people and issues, regardless of the perpetrators and their justifications. This assault is unmistakably an act of terrorism, an attack against humanity.”
But in fact, this was nothing new for MPAC. In a July 12, 2005 statement, the organization declared: “MPAC has never supported any organizations that support or utilize violence – i.e. terrorism, suicide bombings, beheadings, etc. To do so would be antithetical to the values of sanctity of human life, justice, mercy, and equality for all that make up MPAC’s vision statement. In fact, MPAC officials have frequently been on record unequivocally condemning all varieties of violence committed in the name of religion.”
Such words are welcome, but ultimately hollow without deeds to back them up. And of course, MPAC would say it is doing just that: for some time, the group has been touting its new “National Anti-Terrorism Campaign” (NATC), garnering uncritical publicity in the media and even praise from government officials. The Campaign proclaims: “It is our duty as American Muslims to protect our country and to contribute to its betterment.” MPAC calls for “religious awareness and education to create a strong Islamic environment that does not allow terrorism to be considered as a form of struggle in Islam. The different acceptable forms of struggle in Islam are part of the noble concept of jihad. This doesn’t tolerate hurting civilians, suicidal destruction of human life or inflicting harm on non-combatants.”
That sounds great, but how actually effective the NATC is in combating terrorism is an open question. Most notably, it doesn’t seem to have anything to say about schools of Islamic thought that allow for the killing of non-combatants if they are perceived as aiding the war effort of the enemies of Islam (cf. Mawardi, al-Akham as-Sultaniyyah, 4.2; 'Umdat al-Salik o9.10). The day after the London bombings, Dr. Hani Al-Siba’i, director of the Al-Maqreze Centre for Historical Studies in London, said this on Al-Jazeera, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute: “The term ‘civilians’ does not exist in Islamic religious law….I’m familiar with religious law. There is no such term as ‘civilians’ in the modern Western sense. People are either of Dar Al-Harb [House of War] or not.” If MPAC really hopes to have an impact against this kind of thinking among Muslims, it must confront and refute it on Islamic grounds. The NATC does not seem to address this need.
Likewise, MPAC’s rejection of “suicidal destruction of human life” assumes what it has to establish: that suicide bombing should indeed be classified as suicide and thus considered to be forbidden in Islamic law. This is a much-disputed point. The internationally renowned and influential Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi has said that such bombers are not suicidal: “It’s not suicide, it is martyrdom in the name of God, Islamic theologians and jurisprudents have debated this issue. Referring to it as a form of jihad, under the title of jeopardising the life of the mujahideen. It is allowed to jeopardise your soul and cross the path of the enemy and be killed.” How would MPAC propose to disabuse Muslims of such ideas? No hint is forthcoming from the NATC.
The Campaign contains some positive elements: MPAC declares that its intention is to “send a clear message to our fellow citizens that terrorism is not a part of our faith, and that we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them against terrorism and religious extremism.” To this end, it calls on mosques to “have a relationship that involves public meetings with the FBI’s regional office and local law enforcement” and recommends arrangement of programs “in cooperation with local law enforcement agencies to educate and train the community on how to really detect criminal activities.”
However, the concern here seems to be less on rooting out jihadists from within American Muslim communities than on protecting Muslims from uncomfortable attention from law enforcement. This question appears: in a Frequently Asked Questions section, “By engaging the FBI and law enforcement, aren’t we collaborating with the very agencies trampling our civil rights?” The response: “Actually, it has been MPAC’s experience that working with local FBI field offices helps protect our civil liberties….Engagement of local law enforcement and local FBI field offices is absolutely critical in protecting our civil liberties. It counters the basic human weakness to make assumptions about a person/community which they have never been in contact with before.” Answering that question might have been a good opportunity to for MPAC to tell American Muslims that the best way they could quell suspicions about their loyalties would be to cooperate fully and openly with anti-terror investigations -- that the most effective way to protect their civil liberties would be to demonstrate with decisive action their commitment to protecting and defending the safety of the United States and stability of its Constitutional government. But instead, in the next answer MPAC denied any intention to call on American Muslims to “‘spy’ on each other”: “Absolutely not. The thought is anathema to our purpose as an organization.” But that amounts to an admission that MPAC is not asking Muslims to report on suspicious activity in American mosques. How effective, then, can their anti-terror campaign be?
The rest of MPAC’s recommendations are in the same vein, appearing to be more concerned about misbehavior by non-Muslim law enforcement officials in mosques than about the possibility of terrorist activity in those mosques. Its focus is misplaced in other ways as well. It recommends, for example, that “All activities within the mosque and Islamic centers should be authorized by legitimate, acknowledged leadership…” That sounds great until one realizes that if a mosque is involved in or sympathetic to terrorist activity, this is not likely because unauthorized persons have somehow wormed their way in among the moderate community. It is much more likely that the jihadist sentiments will come from the mosque leadership — as per the Naqshbandi Sufi leader Sheikh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani’s statement that eighty percent of American mosques were controlled by extremists. MPAC has dismissed Kabbani’s words as “an offhand remark in 1998…in some obscure presentation.”
But in fact there was nothing offhand or obscure about what Kabbani said, and he didn’t say it in 1998. Kabbani said it in a State Department Open Forum on January 7, 1999: “The most dangerous thing that is going on now in these mosques,” he declared, “that has been sent upon these mosques around the United States – like churches they were established by different organizations and that is ok – but the problem with our communities is the extremist ideology. Because they are very active they took over the mosques; and we can say that they took over more than 80% of the mosques that have been established in the US. And there are more than 3000 mosques in the US. So it means that the methodology or ideology of extremist has been spread to 80% of the Muslim population, but not all of them agree with it.”
Offhand? Kabbani based his statement on personal investigation of 114 American mosques, and never retracted his words, despite enormous pressure from American Muslim advocacy groups. In October 2001 the New York Times reported: “Sheik Kabbani said that he stood by his claim in his State Department speech that 80 percent of American mosques had been taken over by extremists, because of the 114 mosques he first visited in the United States, ‘Ninety of them were mostly exposed, and I say exposed, to extreme or radical ideology,’ based on their speeches, books and board members.”
But the most notorious example of MPAC’s questionable focus is its war on terrorism expert Steve Emerson. At a conference on “Countering Religious & Political Extremism” held on December 18, 2004 (and later televised on C-Span), it distributed a 48-page booklet attacking not bin Laden, or Zawahiri, or Zarqawi, but Emerson. Entitled “Counterproductive Counterterrorism,” the booklet sought to frame opposition to Emerson as a national security issue: “In order to enhance the security of our country, it is necessary to expose the vocal minority of Americans who continue to exploit the tragedy of September 11 to advance their pre-existing anti-Muslim agenda.” MPAC excoriates Emerson for asserting that “political correctness enforced by American Muslim groups has limited the public’s knowledge about the spread of radical Islam in the U.S.,” but their anti-Emerson report attempts to do just that by impugning Emerson’s motives, competence, and good will.
In the NATC FAQ, in an appalling display of moral myopia, MPAC even implies that Emerson and others are equivalent to Islamic terrorists: the question “Why does this campaign focus just on Muslims? Why not extremists amongst Christians and Jews?” gets this answer: “Without doubt Christian extremists such as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Franklin Graham or Jewish extremists such as Daniel Pipes and Steve Emerson need to be held accountable for their falsehoods and distortions. But let’s face it, if another terrorist attack occurs Christians and Jews will not be the ones rounded up or have their civil liberties effected.”
Let’s face it indeed. Muslims, rather than Christians and Jews, may be “rounded up” not just by accident, or because of ingrained societal patterns of discrimination, but because they will be most likely be the ones who commit a terrorist attack. If Falwell or Pipes or Emerson were beheading and blowing people up in the name of their religion, this equation of “extremists” might be justified. But in reality it is a ghastly bit of character assassination.
In a similar attack of moral confusion, MPAC joined the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and other groups on May 20, 2004 in signing a “Joint Muslims/Arab-American Statement on Israel Violence in Gaza.” The organizations echoed some of the most virulent rhetoric that jihadists employ in their efforts against Israel, condemning “Israel’s recent indiscriminate killings of innocent Palestinians, including many children” without mentioning the targeting by Palestinian suicide bombers of Israeli citizens on buses and in restaurants, or the Israeli government’s care not to target civilians.
But such extreme rhetoric is nothing new for MPAC either. Most notoriously, on the afternoon of September 11, 2001, MPAC’s Salam al-Maryati added fuel to the wildest, most paranoid conspiracy theories on a Los Angeles radio show: “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.” Daniel Pipes recounts a “February 1996 incident when a Palestinian named Muhammad Hamida shouted the fundamentalist war cry, Allahu Akbar (Allah is Great), as he drove his car intentionally into a crowded bus stop in Jerusalem, killing one Israeli and injuring 23 others. Before he could escape or hurt anyone else, Hamida was shot dead. Commenting on the affair, Mr. Al-Marayati said not a word about Hamida’s murderous rampage but instead focused on Hamida’s death, which he called ‘a provocative act,’ and demanded the extradition of his executors to America ‘to be tried in a U.S. court’ on terrorism charges.”
Continuing in this anti-Israel and anti-Semitic vein, Ahmed Younis, MPAC’s national director, said in March 2005, according to Pipes, “that Adolf Eichmann was himself a Jew, so in fact Jews killed themselves in the Holocaust.”
That is by no means all. Long before Brian Williams did it, MPAC’s Salam Al-Maryati in 1996 equated jihad terrorists with the Founding Fathers: “Most Islamic movements have been branded as terrorists as a result of the rising extremism from a handful of militants. American freedom fighters hundreds of years ago were also regarded as terrorists by the British.” Two years later, MPAC Senior Advisor Maher Hathout told the National Press Club that the terrorist group “Hezbollah is fighting for freedom...This is legitimate.” That same year, when the U.S. struck al-Qaeda sites in Afghanistan and Sudan, Hathout was furious: “Our country,” he sputtered, “is committing an act of terrorism. What we did is illegal, immoral, unhuman, unacceptable, stupid and un-American.”
Such statements cast a shadow over all of MPAC’s activities. It has called for reform of the Patriot Act, insisting that “the goal of the reformers of the Patriot Act, including MPAC, is to protect our nation while securing its character and integrity so as to not let our enemies swerve us from our way of life.” But what with MPAC’s officials characterizing anti-terror efforts as “terrorism” and anti-terror advocates as “extremists,” the organization has provoked legitimate questions about just how committed it really is to protecting our nation.
It doesn’t have to be this way. MPAC could clear up all these questions and ambiguities with forthright anti-terror actions to back up its words. Let it publish a plan for combating inflammatory anti-American, anti-Jewish, and anti-Christian rhetoric in American mosques. Let it develop a plan to blunt the force of the jihadist interpretation of the Qur’an and Islamic tradition among Muslims. If it directed its efforts to these and other genuine anti-terror efforts, the ringing words it issued in the wake of the London bombings would not ring hollow.