In a federal courtroom in Dallas last October, the leadership of the now-defunct Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, once the nation’s largest Muslim charity, stood accused of using the charity as a Hamas fundraising front. It was the federal government’s most important terrorism fundraising case to date. But on October 22, the judge declared a mistrial. The trial was not a total wash, however. The reason is Exhibit GX 3-85. That’s a 1991 “Explanatory Memorandum” prepared by a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, outlining the organization’s goals for its American operations. This stunning eighteen-page document was recovered in an FBI raid on an Islamist’s house in suburban Washington, DC. It met standards for admission into evidence at a federal trial. It lays out the Muslim Brotherhood’s (Ikhwan) plans to take control of the American Muslim community, to embed itself in civil society, and ultimately prepare the way for a sharia state. Here is a key quote from the memo:
The process of settlement [of Islam in the United States] is a “Civilization-Jihadist” process with all the word means. The Ikhwan must understand that all their work in America is a kind of grand Jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and “sabotaging” their miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God’s religion is made victorious over all religions. Without this level of understanding, we are not up to this challenge and have not prepared ourselves for Jihad yet. It is a Muslim’s destiny to perform Jihad and work wherever he is and wherever he lands until the final hour comes, and there is no escape from that destiny except for those who choose to slack.
This sounds like something out of a lurid Hollywood conspiracy thriller. But its authenticity was not disputed by defendants in the Holy Land Foundation trial. They only said it was an old memo, and irrelevant today. That’s not the opinion of U.S. Army Lt. Col. Joseph Myers, a senior army advisor and former senior Defense Intelligence Agency official, who said that the document shows why the Muslim Brotherhood should be seen as a “threat organization,” and that organizations mentioned in the document should be treated as part of its network.
Those organizations include most of the leading Islamic groups in the United States, including the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and the Muslim American Society (MAS). This memorandum seems to indicate that virtually the entire organizational leadership of Muslims in America are operating consciously as a fifth column.
That’s quite a story. You would think that American journalists would dive head first into it. Given the ramifications, you would think that they’d want to know how seriously to take this phenomenal memorandum.
According to a Nexis search, there have been only three mentions of this document in the mainstream media. The first was in the last paragraph of an August 8, 2007 general trial story in the Dallas Morning News. The second was in a September 9 column I wrote, which was devoted exclusively to the document. Then, on September 17, the trial reporter for the News published a lengthy front-page article on the document. The Washington Times has mentioned it a couple of times. Investor’s Business Daily wrote an editorial about it. The Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review picked up that column of mine. Last month, one of the top five newspapers in the country commissioned an op-ed from me about the document and its implications, but killed my piece at the last minute, without explanation.
And that’s it. One of the most important Islamist terror documents we know of, one vital to our national security, has been almost entirely ignored by the American news media.
Why? Short answer: fear of the charge of Islamophobia. Let me elaborate from my own experience as a journalist working in the mainstream media. It starts for me in early October of 2001, a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks. I was sitting at my desk at the New York Post, watching a very special episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show called “Islam 101.”Oprah set out to educate Americans about Islam.
She clearly wanted to ease tensions in those awful days, and I think most fair-minded people would have welcomed someone of her stature reminding a mass audience that not all Muslims are terrorists. But the program was truly shocking. It so candy-coated Islam—especially those parts of the faith, its practice, and its holy book that encourage violence and the subjugation of women—that it amounted to nothing more than propaganda. It was an exercise not in education, but in therapy. In my opinion, Oprah’s therapeutic approach is typical of the general attitude the US media has had to covering Islam in America.
Two Octobers later, I had learned a lot more about Islam than I had known on 9/11. I was by then living in Dallas and working as an editorial writer and columnist at the Dallas Morning News. One day, I saw that Sayyid Syeed, then-head of the Islamic Society of North America, was coming to the newspaper for an editorial board meeting. I did a good deal of research on the organization in preparation for the meeting. The board heard a rather laborious presentation by Dr. Syeed, who went on and on about how we journalists needed to partner with ISNA to promote peace and tolerance. He particularly stressed that we could help ISNA fight Christian bigots like Jerry Falwell, whose name was anathema to most journalists. I was impressed, but not happily so, by how well Dr. Syeed understood how to play to his media audience and its biases.
When I had the opportunity to ask a question, I told Dr. Syeed that his sentiments were laudable, but if ISNA really stood for peace and tolerance, why did it have on its board …and then I rattled off a list of board members and their direct connections to Islamic extremism. Dr. Syeed had been polite and professorial to that point, but at that point, he dropped his mask. He literally shook his fist at me, said this inquisition was worthy of Nazi Germany, and that I would one day “repent.” I told him mine was a fair question, and that I would appreciate an answer. I didn’t get one. But I had learned an important lesson about how groups like his operate: by evading legitimate queries, and browbeating journalists into retreat by calling them bigots and persecutors.
After I wrote a Morning News column about the Syeed encounter, I found myself identified on a local Islamic blog as” The New Face of Hate.” It turned out that the north Texas Muslim community had been engaged in a running battle with the Dallas Morning News since a series of investigative articles in the early part of the decade had uncovered alleged connections between the Holy Land Foundation charity and Hamas. The News’ reporter on the Holy Land story, Steve McGonigle, had had to be guarded for a while after threats, and the newspaper was picketed by local Muslims. Before I arrived, the newspaper had been making outreach efforts to the Dallas Islamic community in the wake of the Holy Land stories and indictments. And now I had come to town and spoiled things.
On a lark, I joined the Islamic blog’s listserv, to which several leading Dallas Muslims subscribed. I used my own name, which got me booted after a day or so upon discovery. Fortunately, in the short time I was on the site I printed out e-mails in which participants deliberated a plan to quietly approach unwitting business and religious leaders in the city and enlist them in a campaign to force the News’ publisher to fire me because of the threat I posed to the safety of Muslims.
“Dreher needs to be ruined,” one message said. Another suggested that “a campaign must be planned and carefully executed to expose this hate-monger and render him a joke.” I made all this public on the editorial board’s blog and sent copies to the newspaper’s lawyer. My guess is that aborted the whispering campaign before it could launch. But again, it was useful to see what journalists are up against.
Between my editorial assignments, I kept looking into the Dallas Muslim community. The leading local imam, Yusuf Kavakci, has a reputation in Dallas as an avuncular ecumenist, aided by positive press coverage over the years. He leads the Dallas Central Mosque, the largest mosque in Texas, and involves himself in the large and active broader religious community in the city. But I found on his website praise for the radical Muslim Brotherhood ideologues Hasan al-Turabi, who gave Osama bin Laden refuge in Sudan when Turabi ran the country, and Shaykh Yusuf Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader. Dr. Kavakci cited them as the kinds of Islamic leaders American Muslims need to guide them on the straight path.
I blogged about these inconvenient truths, and thanks to the unwavering support of my editor—who caught hell from Muslim readers—I got into the editorial pages the news that the Dallas Central Mosque in 2004 had hosted a quiz contest for Muslim youth in which teenagers were tested on their knowledge of Said Qutb’s Milestones—a sort of Mein Kampf of jihadism. Qutb, of course, was the brilliant Muslim Brotherhood ideologue who preached worldwide violent jihad to bring the whole world under the boot of radical Islam. The quiz contest was sponsored jointly by the Muslim American Society and the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA)—two organizations closely tied to the Muslim Brotherhood. So the largest mosque in Texas is, or was until a short time ago, educating its youth in radical Islam.
Later, the Dallas Morning News’ editorial pages were also the only place in print that readers in Dallas would learn that an area Shiite mosque held a “Tribute to the Great Islamic Visionary, the Ayatollah Khomeini,” and that the headline speaker was a Muslim hothead from Washington, DC, who was so radical and anti-Semitic that the Saudi-sponsored mosque there kicked him out. Top Dallas Muslim leaders, including Dr. Kavakci, attended and spoke to the conference. But most of the local news media had no interest in reporting it. Only our editorial page and one TV station gave it any attention.
Two years ago, the editor-in-chief of my newspaper, a very fair-minded man, put together a working lunch in which Mohamed Elmougy, for years the leader of CAIR in Dallas, and I could meet to discuss our differences. Mr. Elmougy, who is no longer with CAIR but who had been for some time the leading public voice of Dallas-area Muslims, brought with him two associates. The editor-in-chief and the editorial page editor of the News accompanied me. Mr. Elmougy and I did most of the talking. It was a long meeting, but a cordial one. As we waited for the check, Mr. Elmougy said he didn’t understand why I considered Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the popular satellite TV evangelist and spiritual advisor of the Muslim Brotherhood, to be violent. I responded by pointing out that Qaradawi has advocated executing homosexuals, and that he gave advice on his website about how a Muslim man can beat his wife in an Islamically correct way.
“That’s violent,” I told Mr. Elmougy. He slammed his hand on the table and said he agreed with the Shaykh, and that he wouldn’t apologize for it. He went on to tell a story about an adulteress who came to the Prophet asking for release from her sins. The Prophet ordered her stoned to death, said Mr. Elmougy, and declared that he could see her rejoicing in paradise. Mr. Elmougy finished his account by saying that things we Westerners consider to be unacceptable violence are considered by Muslims like him to be pro-family “deterrence.”
I thanked him for his candor, for admitting that he favors executing gays, wife-beating, stoning adulteresses, and chopping the hands off of thieves. I could tell, though, that my colleagues from the paper were shocked by what they had heard. American journalists simply aren’t used to hearing Islamic leaders in this country talk like that. And Islamic leaders in this country, I’d wager, are not used to being questioned sharply about their views. It’s also the case that Mr. Elmougy fits no Westerner’s idea of what a radical Muslim looks like. He is smart, well-dressed, professional, and to all appearances, Westernized. You simply don’t expect to be sitting in a fancy steakhouse and to hear a man who looks like the manager of a luxury hotel—which is what he was at the time—advocating medieval tortures. The cognitive dissonance can be overwhelming.
My next meeting with Mr. Elmougy came a year later, in the late autumn of 2006, when he led a delegation of local Muslim leaders in to the paper to meet with the editorial board, mostly to complain about, well, me, and to clear up misunderstandings that my supposedly biased rantings might have caused among my colleagues. The meeting was on the record, and I openly recorded it, later transcribing the session and posting it to the editorial board blog of the News. That transcript exposes how at least some Muslim leaders deal with media inquiries: through obfuscation, misdirection, and defensive accusations of bigotry. Allow me to dwell on this transcript to give you a flavor of how this sort of session goes. You can find the transcript archived at http://dallasmorningviews.beloblog.com/archives/2006/12/muslim_meeting.html. Mr. Elmougy began the meeting by stating that his goal was to help journalists “find out how could we live in harmony …as opposed to pointing the finger.” He added that he wanted “to create some kind of comfort level,” and to end journalistic suspicion of Islam and Muslims. “We need to figure out a way [to] help you get rid of that.”
Notice what he’s doing here. He’s framing everyday journalistic practice—asking critical, skeptical questions—as an antisocial, even bigoted, act. He begins by trying to put his media audience on the defensive, as if they, the journalists, should be ashamed of themselves for their inquiries.
If you read the transcript, you will see that I tried repeatedly to get Mr. Elmougy and his cohorts to answer a simple, basic question: Are you for imposing sharia as the law of the land in the United States? Mr. Elmougy was indignant at the question itself, and ate up a considerable amount of our limited time in that session protesting the inquiry. Later, members of the delegation criticized me for pointing out in print that Dr. Kavakci, the head of the Dallas Central Mosque, had praised notorious radical Islamists and Muslim Brotherhood members as ideal leaders, and had allowed MAS and ICNA, two Brotherhood-affiliated organizations, to organize a youth quiz at his mosque. A CAIR spokeswoman at the table accused me of failing to seek the imam’s side of the story. I replied that our staff had tried several times, by phone and by e-mail, to reach Dr. Kavakci, but he refused to respond.
“Do you blame him?”Mr. Elmougy said, incredulously.
There is no way for the journalist to win this exchange. First they accuse us of not reaching out to them for their side of the story. When we can show that we did, in fact, reach out, and were refused an interview, we are faulted for being the kind of people to whom no self-respecting imam would give an interview. You see the psychological strategy here: always, always put the media on the defensive, and treat their inquiries as illegitimate.
In this same session, the subject came up of my criticizing the Dallas Central Mosque for teaching the work of Said Qutb to teenagers. Mr. Elmougy called him an “obscure Egyptian writer” and said that he, Mr. Elmougy, had never read his work before I’d made an issue of it. (He called me “obsessed” with Qutb’s book Milestones.) Now, it’s risible to think that a man born and raised in Egypt, who believes in sharia, has barely any knowledge of Said Qutb. (In fact, a few minutes later in this same session, one of Mr. Elmougy’s colleagues, a Syrian, said that Qutb’s work has been at the center of Mideast political conversations for decades). Mr. Elmougy went on to describe Qutb’s work as being geared toward unifying the Muslim community and helping clean up its morals. “It didn’t bother me in the least,” he said. What’s instructive about this pose—and I’m convinced absolutely that that’s what it was—is that Mr. Elmougy was apparently counting on all the other journalists in the room being ignorant about Said Qutb, his work and his influence.
It was a smart call, too. Most American journalists don’t know about Qutb and as a general rule are ill-informed about religion in general. Mr. Elmougy tried to paint me as a wild-eyed obsessive finding a devil in a supposedly benign book that no one purportedly had ever heard of. Fortunately there was in the room a News reporter, recently returned from our London bureau, who spoke up and said that Said Qutb’s work was exactly the kind of material that young British Muslims were reading, and becoming radicalized by. So it wasn’t just that right-wing Dreher guy from New York—traumatized by 9/11, alas for him—asking these questions. They had no come- back to that, actually. It’s amazing how undone these Muslim leaders become when informed journalists, refusing to be intimidated into embarrassed silence, confront them with the facts.
Later, after I blogged about the meeting, the group’s leader fired off an e-mail to me and my supervisors accusing me of single-handedly “burning every bridge” built between the Dallas Muslim community and the newspaper. I would genuinely hate for that to be the case, but the point of journalism is not to build bridges; it’s to ask important questions and to get credible answers. No journalist can afford to yield to this kind of intimidation. In Dallas, at least, it would seem that as far as the leadership of the Muslim community is concerned, there is only one way for journalists to cover the Muslim community: uncritically and unquestioningly.
Now, I cannot say how typical the Dallas experience is of the broader American experience, but my contacts around the country suggest that this is standard operating procedure. Islam remains a sacred cow in many American newsrooms. My experience with the Muslim leadership in Dallas provides insight, in my view, into why American journalists have ignored the radicalism present in mainstream US Muslim organizations, and in particular why—with the singular exception of an extraordinary 2004 series in the Chicago Tribune—the mainstream media has shown almost no curiosity about the Brotherhood. Why? Reflecting on my experience as a journalist, and as a journalist dealing with Muslim leaders, I have several ideas as to why.
First, Muslims provide non-Muslim journalists with an opportunity to demonstrate their broadmindedness. Most journalists are secularists and cultural liberals, as survey after survey has shown. Cultural liberals have a natural sympathy for the underdog, especially besieged minorities. As a general matter, they are predisposed to believe the best about all American Muslims, and to discount evidence to the contrary as right-wing paranoia. Muslim leaders like Sayyid Syeed of ISNA and Mohamed Elmougy understand this, which is why they pitch their presentations to journalists as they do. The legacy of McCarthyism has such a powerful hold on the minds of many journalists that it disarms the instincts that every journalist has to nurture in order to do a proper job. Now that the Cold War is over, we look back at the water-carrying and fellow-traveling so many mainstream liberals, especially journalists, did for the communists, and wonder how on earth they could have been so deluded.
Well, they saw what they wanted to see. One day, I am confident that historians and others will wonder the same thing about the silence and incuriosity of today’s journalists with regard to the threat from radical Islam in America.
Along those lines, I think at least some journalists sympathize with Muslim leaders because they—the Muslim leaders—have made enemies of conservative Christian counterparts. I have heard on many occasions journalists fuming that American society gets uptight about radical Islam, but ignores the threat from the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons of the country—as if they were remotely the same thing! As if the sins and failings of the Christian right justified ignoring Islamic militancy. It is nothing short of bizarre that the secular fundamentalists in the US media are so consumed by fear and loathing of conservative Evangelicals that they give a free pass to Islamic religious fundamentalists who stand for a far more intolerant form of faith.
Similarly, I’ve observed that some canny Muslim activists have adopted the tactic of invoking the threat of danger to Muslims should critical stories appear in the media. The idea is that journalists should not write stories, even if true, that reflect poorly on the Muslim community, because somewhere, there might be a redneck thug who would use the information to attack innocent Muslims. Again, this plays well into the stereotype that many journalists have of the great right-wing un- washed, lying in wait to carry out pogroms against defenseless minorities.
This is just one more reason why I believe that leaders from these Muslim Brotherhood-influenced organizations—CAIR, ISNA, MAS—are typically good at understanding the psychology of liberal American journalists, and know how to intimidate them. But it’s also true that they know how to present a positive spin on themselves and their organizations. They adopt the language of civic engagement and civil society, and deploy it at every opportunity. One young Muslim activist in Dallas who embraces Said Qutb’s message as spiritually enlightening is downright Tocquevillian in the language he uses in public. This is not entirely deceptive. The Muslim Brotherhood’s general strategy is to work through the institutions of civil society to achieve the ultimate goal, which is an Islamic state. It is obviously un-American to decide that Muslim citizens are to be distrusted when they want to participate fully in the political and civic life of this country. The Brotherhood activists understand this, and make this public goodwill work to their advantage. Without informed journalists making meaningful inquiries about the ultimate goal of this or that Muslim group, critics can come across looking like bigots who want to disfranchise and disempower honest Muslim citizens.
It is vital that the public be able to tell the difference between Muslims who honestly and legitimately want to be part of American public life, and those who are using the laws and customs of this country surreptitiously to undermine, and ultimately destroy, them. But the news media, which is the institution best able to make that distinction, is failing to do its job.
In fact, we are acting like useful idiots for the Muslim Brotherhood, continuing to write uncritically about CAIR, ISNA,and these other organizations. I am particularly shocked by how often the news media turn to CAIR for the Muslim perspective on any given issue, despite all we’ve learned about that organization, its founding, and its leadership. CAIR is, by this point, mostly a media creation. It stays influential because the media keep calling them for their opinion. It’s the same reason why Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton remain high-profile leaders of the black community: because lazy journalists keep calling them and treating them like exclusive spokesmen. Why don’t reporters ever call Muslims like Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, a physician in Arizona who is risking his life to take a public stand against Islamists in America? Mostly laziness, I’d say. It’s just easier to call CAIR.
I should say too that the US government is utterly foolish on this front. By continuing to do business with ISNA, CAIR, and other false friends of American democracy, the government legitimizes them. In 1996, for example, Abdulrahman Alamoudi, who was at the time head of the American Muslim Council, said at the national conference of the Islamic Association of Palestine—a Brotherhood front group—that America was going to become a Muslim country. He said he’s not opposed to using violence to overthrow the American order, but that it was imprudent to try that here. “We have other means,” he said. But in 2002, the FBI praised Mr. Alamoudi’s organization as “the most mainstream Muslim organization in the United States.” Mr. Alamoudi also moved easily within top political circles in Washington, and even lectured abroad for the State Department. Since 2004, though, he has been residing in prison after pleading guilty to participation in a plot to assassinate King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. For reasons I find impossible to discern, the US government continues to treat establishment Islamic radicals in this country as friends and allies. Consider this absurdity: earlier this fall, as the Department of Justice was pursuing the Holy Land Foundation case in a Dallas courtroom, and identifying the Islamic Society of North America as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in terrorist financing because of its Muslim Brotherhood connection, the very same Department of Justice manned an outreach booth at the 2007 ISNA national convention in Chicago. At least six other federal agencies did the same thing.
It’s no wonder so many in the mainstream media don’t pursue critical investigations of these mainstream Muslim organizations. If the US government gives them the official seal of approval, it’s that much easier for journalists, who may be disinclined to dig deeper anyway, to justify their lack of curiosity.
I don’t know what it will take to wake American journalists up. Probably another 9/11, I’m sorry to say. If you saw the important documentary “Islam vs. Islamists,” which PBS tried to suppress, you will have learned from Muslims themselves that American mosques are being taken over by radical Islamists right here, right now. Several years ago, when I was beginning to learn about radical Islam in America, I told a friend in Washington working in counterterrorism that I didn’t understand why so few Muslims spoke out against the radicals. My friend told me that there actually are plenty of Muslims who reject the radicals among them, but to speak out would mean putting themselves and their families at serious personal risk. These are the real underdogs, these Muslims, these friends of democracy and the open society, who understand what kind of threat the Muslim Brotherhood and its American apostles pose to us all. Why are American journalists not listening to them? What can possibly be gained by averting our collective journalistic eyes from this critically important story?
Husain Haqqani spoke earlier today about how America’s ignorance of Islam and the complexities of the Muslim world led previous generations to make foolish mistakes. The mainstream media are making the same mistakes today.
I am not calling for any sort of journalistic crusade against the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates in this country. I am only calling on my fellow journalists to apply the same professional standards to Islamic organizations as they would to any Christian or other organization that had clear ties to radical ideology. I am only calling on my fellow journalists to pay attention to the documents that are coming out, to connect the dots, and without fear or favor to give the public a clear picture of what we are facing in this country—and, to counter the true bigots and paranoids, a clear picture of what we are not facing. I am calling on journalists to quit being intimidated by empty charges of Islamophobia, and by their own liberal guilt.
Keywords: Islam, Journalism, CAIR, ISNA, Muslim Brotherhood