American officials are rightly eager to promote moderate Muslims. However, words alone cannot be the basis to determine whether someone is truly committed to the Constitution and to American pluralism. While many public Muslim figures will surely say the things we would expect to hear from them, we should not so readily bestow upon anyone the title of “moderate” title without a thorough investigation of the person’s background.
The recent White House appointment of Imam Talal Eid to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) may be an example of just such a rush to judgment. The Commission is, as it describes itself, an “independent, bipartisan U.S. government agency … to monitor the status of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief abroad, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights … and to give independent policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and the Congress.” Given the importance of this Commission, one would expect the Executive Branch to have done the necessary checks on its appointees, especially when it comes to their views on religious freedom and Islamist terrorism.
As a Muslim, I am happy that the USCIRF includes a Muslim commissioner, given that there is so little religious freedom across the Islamic world. That said, I certainly do want any commissioner—whether Muslim or non-Muslim—to be fully committed to American ideals and principles, including secular democracy and the protection and equality of all human beings, especially regardless of gender.
Information about Imam Eid is scant. He has been serving as a Chaplain at Brandeis University, and his supporters emphasize his statements against terrorism and that he does not consider Osama bin Laden a Muslim. However, this is not enough—every human being should oppose terrorism and the horrendous acts of bin Laden. Nor does a university chaplaincy or the backing of well-intentioned Americans say very much about Imam Eid.
His appointment was praised by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). Given that both often attack Muslims who do not share their views, and both are named by U.S. federal prosecutors as “unindicted co-conspirators” in a Hamas funding case, and given further that both organizations are the US affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood, the founding leading group of the modern Islamist movement, their endorsements of Imam Eid hardly inspire confidence.
There are two key reasons why I am concerned about this appointment.
First, as stated on his webpage, in his 2005 dissertation, Imam Eid advocates “the establishment of Shari’ah courts which would manage the family affairs of American Muslims and mediate their religious affairs within the scope of American law.” While seemingly innocuous, this is a very problematic line, as Shari’ah is a system of Islamic laws that makes no distinction between public and private life and that, when applied, encompasses all aspects of life. Does the White House and the Commission realize that this would mean American Muslim women would no longer be able to enjoy their full rights as American citizens? If his proposal is enacted, American women would be first and foremost considered as Muslim, separated from the mainstream American society, and subject to strong social pressure to confirm to Islamist norms?
Second, as Imam Eid openly admits, he came to the US as a representative of the Muslim World League (MWL), a quasi-governmental agency of the Saudi Arabian government primarily tasked with promoting its rigid and dogmatic interpretation of Islam, known as Wahhabism. In Wahhabi eyes, those who do not practice their form of Islam are infidels and enemies. Moreover, as many of my CTB colleagues have pointed out, the highest U.S.
official tasked with monitoring terrorist financing has expressed concerns about the activities of the MWL. In her post, Tamar Tesler wrote, “As recently as July 2005, Stuart Levey, the U.S. Treasury’s Under Secretary for Terrorism & Financial Crimes, noted that “Saudi Arabian charities, particularly the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), the World Association [sic] of Muslim Youth (WAMY), and the Muslim World League (MWL) continue to cause us concern."
Victor Comras in his post mentioned a speech by Under Secretary Levey on May 23, 2005, in which he said, "For too long, wealthy donors and multinational charities in Saudi Arabia were underwriting terrorism of all kinds, without any meaningful controls. Since 9/11, our government has worked aggressively to press the Saudis to take action against these financiers and to clean up their charitable sector.... We impatiently await the creation of a commission to monitor the charitable sector, and continue to insist that this commission regulate all Saudi charities, without exception of such groups as the Muslim World League and the International Islamic Relief Organization, or "IIRO."
Zachary Abuza in his post on Mohammad Jamal Khalifah, the brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden and who was killed in Madagascar, mentions how “Khalifah established the branch offices in the Philippines of the Muslim World League and the sister agency, International Islamic Relief Organization… Khalifah was able to divert funds to the MILF and Abu Sayyaf by hiring members of these groups, their close family members or supporters to positions in the IIRO… On 3 August 2006, the US Treasury department designated the Philippine Branch of the IIRO as a terrorist financier.”
And Olivier Guitta wrote on the arrest of a French imam, Dahou Meskine, along sixteen others arrested for allegedly financing Islamic terrorism. Quoting from his post, "The most probable organization that benefited from this money is the Algerian terrorist group GSPC.” In his last sentence, Olivier mentions, “In addition, he received donations from the Muslim World League and was the official translator of Abdullah bin Abdul-Mohsin Al-Turki, Secretary General of the Muslim World League during his French visit in October 2002.”
According to a Boston Globe article of January 27, 2007,
"…although he no longer has a mosque, Eid said he still holds his original appointment from the Muslim World League, a theological and cultural entity in Saudi Arabia that certifies imams, which sent him to Boston in 1982....Outside of not having his own mosque, Eid said his work today is largely what it was before."
What this means is that Imam Eid has been an employee of a Wahhabi religious organization, long suspected of links to terrorism, for almost 25 years. Even if he is no longer paid by the Saudi government, unless he makes a clear statement of his views regarding Wahhabism, it is fair to assume that he still professes its tenets.
This may also explain why he included the following on his webpage in regards to having attended a White House Iftar (the Ramadan dinner): “Disclaimer: I attended this event for dawa purposes only." To whom is this American citizen apologizing for having attended an event at the White House—and why? Is he deceiving everyone except those to whom he addresses his “disclaimer”? Moreover, while to an untrained ear this may sound like an innocent statement (the formal definition of dawa is “summons” or “call,” and can mean the inviting of non-Muslims to the faith), in the context of MWL’s Wahhabi Islam and its suspected ties to terrorists, it becomes highly problematic.
Was Imam Eid still connected to the MWL when he was appointed to the Commission? Has he since ended this relationship and disavowed any MWL connection with terrorists overseas? Even if he just ended it, can he really act independently in a way that would not lead to a conflict of interest after having served Saudi interests for over two decades? For example, will he raise critically important concerns contrary to Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia (and other areas where Wahhabism is spreading, thanks to the activities of the MWL)?
To put it simply: As the MWL is a quasi-government entity—controlled not just by any government, but one that has significant shortcomings on issues of religious freedom—how does Imam Eid’s membership of the Commission affect its objectivity and support its mission statement? Moreover, would other commission members be even able to recognize it if Imam Eid were saying things that would seem reasonable to well-intentioned Jews and Christians, but not to non-Islamist Muslims?
I would like to think that these questions were asked when Imam Eid’s nomination was first suggested—especially since his connection to MWL and his PhD abstract calling for Shari’ah in the US are both on his website. If not, then maybe the Congress should do so now.