While the major media have portrayed the president’s faith based initiative as a pay-off to conservative Christians, a controversial Muslim group accused of having an association with an extreme form of Islam has also been getting federal funds. The group, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), considers itself moderate and mainstream but has sponsored conferences in the past that included speakers known for violent anti-Jewish rhetoric.
At the beginning of this month President Bush made headlines across the country when he addressed religious leaders who gathered at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington for the White House-sponsored Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Leadership Conference. Bush announced that his administration had awarded a whopping $2 billion in grants last year to social programs operated by churches, synagogues and mosques. A White House official said this was probably the most money the federal government had given in one year to religious charities.
The major media failed to report, however, that ISNA, which was represented at the conference, is under Senate scrutiny. Members of the Senate Finance Committee called on the Internal Revenue Service to turn over private tax and fund-raising records for major Muslim charities, including ISNA, as part of an investigation into possible links between the charities and terrorist groups.
The Senators cited no evidence of such ties in their December 22, 2003 letter to the IRS. But the committee’s Republican chairman, Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, and its ranking Democrat, Senator Max Baucus of Montana, said in part: “Many of these groups not only enjoy tax-exempt status, but their reputations as charities and foundations often allows them to escape scrutiny, making it easier to hide and move their funds to other groups and individuals who threaten our national society. This support for the machinery of terrorism not only violates the law and tax regulations, but it violates the trust that citizens have in the large majority of charities.”
The Face of ISNA
ISNA describes itself as moderate in outlook but some journalists who have examined the organization contend that it is linked it to Wahhabism, the extreme form of radical Islam that gave rise to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda movement.
Mary Jacoby and Graham Brink, writing in the St. Petersburg Times, describe ISNA as “subsidized by the Saudi government” and the “main clearinghouse for Wahhabism in the U.S.” The New York Times has described ISNA as the umbrella organization for 300 Muslim groups and about one-third of the mosques in the United States.
Mohamed El-sanousi, Director, Community Outreach & Communications for ISNA, was invited to and attended the Faith-Based Initiative meeting on March 1. He told AIM his organization has already received two grants in 2003 and 2004 under the faith-based initiative from the Department of Health and Human Services; specifically the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. ISNA does not itself engage in social services, El-sanousi said, but trains others to do so. “We’re a community development organization,” he said. “We used the grants to train Muslim community leaders in how to apply for grants to do social services.”
Sayyid M. Syeed, Secretary General of ISNA, told AIM in a phone interview on March 10 that “For four or five years we’ve been invited to White House events. We believe all religions have to play a major role in the fight against poverty. Spirituality itself qualifies people to be more compassionate.”
AIM contacted the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives for comment on the issue, but has received no response. However, the Department of Health and Human Services confirmed that ISNA received two contracts worth $25,000 each.
In terms of foreign connections, Syeed has said in the past that his group once accepted money from Muslims overseas but had not for the last two or three years. Syeed said he was confident that the only overseas Muslims who sent money to the Islamic Society were people who supported the moderate vision that he said his group represented. ISNA strongly denies any links to terrorism.
However, ISNA previously invited Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi to speak at its conferences, even though he is well-known for having created the “theological” justification for suicide bombing that appears on the Hamas website. That justification is titled “Hamas Operations Are Jihad and Those Who [Carry it Out and] Are Killed are Considered Martyrs.” Al-Qaradawi has issued numerous justifications of suicide bombings as well as a fatwa directing the “faithful” to kill American soldiers and civilians in Iraq (except for the very few who may have lived there before the war.) ISNA has also sponsored Rashid Ghanushi, the exiled leader of the Islamic Tendency Movement in Tunisia, as a speaker. Ghanushi has referred to Jews as a “cancer” and “Satans.”
When questioned about these speakers, Sayeed asked: “Did Al-Qaradawi appear at one of our conferences?” Then he added that may have happened “ten to fifteen years ago—some time when he was totally a non-entity.”
Such controversial figures are now reportedly being denied entry to the U.S. Regarding inflammatory statements made by these individuals, Syeed said that, “We totally disown” them, adding that ISNA does not endorse such statements. He rejected the claim that the invitation of such persons to be honored guests and to speak at conferences had constituted a form of endorsement. Referring to Rashid Ganushi’s comments about Jews being a “cancer” and “Satans,” he said, “That is his response to defend. People have their own mouth. They can say anything they want.”
Media Take Notice
In November 2003, terrorism expert Steve Emerson told WTHR-TV, an NBC affiliate in Indianapolis, “I think ISNA has been an umbrella, also a promoter of groups that have been involved in terrorism.” He added, “I am not going to accuse ISNA of being directly involved in terrorism. I will say ISNA has sponsored extremists, racists, people who call for Jihad against the United States.”
The NBC report found that about a dozen charities, organizations or individuals under federal scrutiny for possible ties to terrorism are linked in some way to ISNA ? ties that sources told NBC have also placed ISNA under the federal microscope.
This NBC affiliate is one of the very few news outlets that have investigated ISNA in detail. The story, which ran at the end of 2003, was prepared by reporter Angie Moreschi, photographer/editor Bill Ditton and producer Gerry Lanosga.
Despite Syeed’s attempt to turn the Al-Qaradawi situation into a non-issue, we discovered that ISNA sells his books on their “ISNA Media Store page.” On this web page, al-Qaradawi is described as an “outstanding scholar.” Al-Qaradawi-penned books for sale by ISNA are:
? Fiqh az-Zakat: A Comparative Study, a 600-page book
? Priorities of Islamic Movement
? Islamic Awakening Between Rejection and Extremism, published by the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) described as “extraordinary work of analysis and advice is highly recommended for students of Islam and activists.”
? The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam which “presents the wisdom of Islamic rulings behind everyday issues faced by the contemporary Muslim”
? The Scholar and the Tyrant
Syeed himself appeared at the inaugural conference of the Islamic Universal Heritage Foundation in Kissimmee Florida in December 2003, which I attended. That conference ran into controversy when it was discovered the headliner was to be Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Sudais, who, in April 2003, while addressing 2 million followers at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, prayed to God to “terminate” the Jews. He called them “the scum of humanity, the rats of the world, prophet killers … pigs and monkeys,” according to reports by the Associated Press and Reuters.
Syeed said it was all a mistake and Al-Sudais did not show up at the conference. Meanwhile, the conference proceeded with other suicide bombing supporters, and thirty-two titles of Al-Qaradawi CD’s were on sale at the event. (The Orlando Sentinel and Fox Channel 35 all filed reports the first night of the event, entirely missing the controversial figures who appeared the following day. The Los Angeles Times referenced the reasons for the initial controversy but did not report on the controversial figures that did show up.)
Syeed was Director of Academic Outreach (1984-1994) at the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) and currently sits on the International Board of the institute which is located in Herndon, Virginia.
But IIIT has itself come under scrutiny On Dec. 11, 1991, Ramadan Shallah, head of the terrorist group Islamic Jihad, (which claimed responsibility for the recent Tel Aviv bombing) was also administrative director for the World Islam and Studies Enterprise (WISE) in Florida. He had written a letter to Dr. Mark Orr, the director of the University of South Florida’s International Affairs Center, identifying IIIT as the main financial backer of WISE, according to a 50-count indictment announced by the U.S. Department of Justice on February 20, 2003.
Shallah wrote, “Our largest contributor is the Washington-based International Institute for Islamic Thought. A brochure describing IIIT and its activities is enclosed.” WISE offices were searched on Nov. 20, 1995. The affidavit that was used to procure the search warrants described WISE and the Islamic Concern Project (ICP) as front organizations for Islamic Jihad, as reported in a June 23, 2003, Tampa Tribune article written by Michael Fetcher.
In April, 1998, an Immigration and Naturalization Service investigator’s affidavit characterized WISE as a “front organization used to raise money and provide support for terrorism against Israel.”
But Syeed rejected any hint of impropriety in his affiliations and contacts, telling AIM, “You cannot pick up these small things. You will repent when you do these things.” He was especially critical of AIM’s previous coverage of the Freedom House report on Saudi hate literature being distributed in U.S. mosques, suggesting the Freedom House report painted all mosques with the same brush. (The report focuses on 15 mosques only). The AIM article was entitled “Giving the Saudis a Pass.”
Syeed told me, “You will be hurt, you will be pained by this if you continue to write such things.” He closed the conversation with this comment, “I am sorry if I sound harsh. But I stand by every word I said.”
While Syeed terms AIM’s coverage of Islamic radicalism “scandalous” and “criminal,” it is the failure of many in the media to report such issues truthfully that is the real problem. Reporters should not be intimidated from reporting the facts.
Syeed emphasized that ISNA is a mainstream organization and he invited AIM to meet with them at their headquarters and to get involved. “We would be very pleased to host you,” he said, indicating individuals from various organizations have offered workshops at their conferences. “We are only getting bigger,” he said, “You have to work with us.”
The White House already does.