A number of Massachusetts Muslim groups, led by Cambridge city councilor Nadeem Mazen, are currently spearheading a campaign against the Obama administration’s program, Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), which has designated Boston as one of its pilot cities.
From the government’s perspective, Boston was an obvious choice. The city has a long, unfortunate history of producing internationally-recognized terrorists, including the Tsarnaev brothers, who bombed the Boston marathon; Aafia Siddiqui, whom FBI Director Robert S. Mueller describes as “an al-Qaeda operative and facilitator;” Abdulrahman Alamoudi, the founder of the Islamic Society of Boston, and named by the federal government as an Al Qaeda fundraiser, and Ahmad Abousamra, a key official within Islamic State, whose father is vice-president of the Muslim American Society’s Boston branch.
During the past decade, in fact, twelve congregants, supporters, officials and donors of the Islamic Society of Boston alone have been imprisoned, deported, killed or are on the run in connection with terrorism offenses.
Despite these alumnae, a number of extremist Islamic organizations, such as the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), have claimed that the government’s attempt to combat radicalization “targets American Muslims” and “undermines our national ideals.”
Cambridge city councilor Nadeem Mazen, who is also a director of CAIR’s Massachusetts branch, has spoken at a number of anti-CVE rallies, condemning the government’s approach as “authoritarian” because it included “violent practices like surveillance and racial profiling.”
In response, Robert Trestan, the Massachusetts director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL),points out that the CVE program “is relatively new in this country. It’s not fair to judge it yet and be overly critical.” He added: “Nothing I’ve seen or participated in has gone anywhere near proposing or suggesting anything close to surveillance, crossing the line of people’s civil rights or profiling.”
What, then, is the basis for this opposition?
Critics of Nadeem Mazen look with concern at his opposition to policing that protects Americans from terrorist attacks. In May, Mazen voted against the Cambridge Police Department budget. He argued that the funding for SWAT teams and the police’s participation in CVE programs only served to “alienate the Muslim community.” The Cambridge SWAT team, however, played a crucial part in the arrest of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev just hours after he and his brother murdered three spectators and injured hundreds at the Boston marathon.
Mazen has also taken part in protests against Boston police departments. Addressing a crowd of activists from a group named Restore the Fourth, Mazen claimed that police counter-terrorism units are part of a larger conspiracy to suppress free speech: “They are working very hard…in the background….but really, there’s never any need. … Some of the research is looking at free speech activists…like me. … It is that type of government operation, it’s that that is the best and the most evident hallmark of tyranny.”
Are Mazen and CAIR, then, simply free speech campaigners?
CAIR does not exactly have a reputation for liberal activism. It was founded in 1994 by three officials of the Islamic Association of Palestine, which, the 2008 Holy Land Foundation terror financing trial would later determine, was a front for the terrorist group, Hamas. During the same trial, the prosecutors designated CAIR as an “unindicted co-conspirator.” U.S. District Court Judge Jorge Solis concluded that, “The government has produced ample evidence to establish the associations of CAIR… with the Islamic Association for Palestine, and with Hamas.”
One of CAIR’s original Islamic Association of Palestine founders, Nihad Awad, is today CAIR’s Executive Director. Awad peddles conspiracy theories that the U.S Congress is controlled by Israel, and has stated that U.S. foreign policy was propelled by Clinton administration officials of a particular “ethnic background.”
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) notes that CAIR has long expressed anti-Semitic and pro-terror rhetoric. The ADL adds that, “[CAIR’s] public statements cast Jews and Israelis as corrupt agents who control both foreign and domestic U.S. policy and are responsible for the persecution of Muslims in the U.S.”
In November 2015, CAIR, which in the Holy Land Foundation terror financing trial was determined to be a front for the terrorist group Hamas, organized a “lobbying day” at the Massachusetts State House.
Not all of Massachusetts’s Muslim groups have opposed involvement in the CVE program. In February, the Islamic Society of Boston (ISB), which is partly run by the Muslim American Society, took part in the White House’s summit on Countering Violent Extremism.
The ISB’s Director, Yusufi Vali, however, would later criticize the CVE program on the grounds that by focusing on radicalization rather than violence, the authorities were unfairly targeting Muslim-Americans simply because of their faith.
Instead, Vali has urged, the government should deputize responsibility for combatting extremism to groups such as his. Boston is a pilot city for the CVE program, he claimed, because of the “strong relationship” between law enforcement and institutions such as the ISB. Only the ISB’s version of Islam, Vali proposed, can “appeal to young people” and “win in the marketplace of ideas.”
But the ideology underpinning the Islamic Society of Boston itself is cause for some concern. In 2008, the Muslim American Society (MAS), which runs the ISB’s Cultural Center, of which Vali is also a board member, was labelled by federal prosecutors “as the overt arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in America.”
Religious leaders of the Muslim American Society have included Hafiz Masood, the brother of Pakistani terrorist Hafiz Saeed, who masterminded the 2008 Mumbai Massacre in which 164 people were murdered. While he was living in the Boston area, according to a Times of Indiareport, Masood was raising money and trying to recruit people for his brother’s terrorist group. After being deported by the government for filing a fraudulent visa application, Masood has since become a spokesperson for Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a branch of his brother’s terrorist group, Lashkar-i-Taiba.
The ISB itself was founded by the Al Qaeda operative Abdulrahman Alamoudi, who was jailed in 2004 for participating in a Libyan plot to assassinate Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. The ISB’s other trustees have included prominent Islamist operatives, including Yusuf Al Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the global Muslim Brotherhood.
In October, an event hosted by the ISB featured a number of extremist preachers. One of them, Hussain Kamani has cited Quranic verse and commentary to warn Muslims, “do not resemble the Jews” and has advised parents to “beat” their children “if they do not [pray].” In a talk titled ‘Sex, Masturbation and Islam,’ Kamani explains that a Muslim man must only fulfil his sexual desires “with his spouse…[or] with a female slave that belongs to him.” Those who commit adultery or have sex outside of marriage, Kamani further declares, must be “stoned to death.”
If one looks to European experiences with counter-extremism programs, some of which have been in place for over a decade, Yusufi Vali and the ISB have good reasons to lobby against a focus on radicalization. In Britain, under Prime Minister David Cameron, the government has come to the realization that some of the Islamic groups entrusted with counter-extremism initiatives are, in fact, part of the problem.
In a speech delivered in Munich in 2011, Cameron stated:
“As evidence emerges about the backgrounds of those convicted of terrorist offences, it is clear that many of them were initially influenced by what some have called ‘non-violent extremists’, and they then took those radical beliefs to the next level by embracing violence. … Some organisations that seek to present themselves as a gateway to the Muslim community are showered with public money despite doing little to combat extremism. As others have observed, this is like turning to a right-wing fascist party to fight a violent white supremacist movement.”
Groups similar to the ISB and CAIR, the Conservative government reasons, represent the “non-violent extremists.” These are likely the first stop on the “conveyor belt” path to radicalization: a young is Muslim exposed to anti-Semitism, excuses for terrorism and claims of victimhood and gradually becomes open to committing violent acts.
This insight was not without foundation. The previous Labour government, under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, partnered with British Muslim groups such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), Britain’s most prominent Muslim group — similar in ideology to CAIR and the ISB — to counteract extremist ideas in the Muslim community. In 2008, however, the Labour government severed all relations with the Muslim Council of Britain after it emerged that the group’s deputy secretary general, Daud Abdullah, had signed a declaration supporting attacks against Jewish communities and the British armed forces.
By seeking the partnership of groups such as the ISB, the Obama administration risks making the same mistakes of Britain’s last Labour government. And, in time, the U.S. government will arrive at the same realization as the British government — that non-violent extremists do not offer an alternative to violent extremism; in fact, they make the problem worse.
But all this invites the question: why do some Islamist groups oppose CVE programs while others join in? Although the ISB backed out of the Boston CVE initiative, the Islamic Council of New England (ICNE) remains a key partner. As with CAIR and the ISB, the ICNE is part of the “soft Islamist” network — groups that emerged from Muslim Brotherhood ideology and which have learned to speak the language of liberalism and democracy in their pursuit of an ultimately illiberal and anti-democratic ideal.
In 2002, the ICNE hosted a conference with the Muslim Brotherhood academic, Tariq Ramadan, and the British Salafist, Abdur Raheem Green, a former jihadist who warns Muslims of a Jewish “stench,” encourages the death penalty as a “suitable and effective” punishment for homosexuality and adultery, and has ruled that wife-beating “is allowed.”
The ICNE has announced its continued involvement in CVE programs because “rather than obsessing about the insidious erosion of our ‘civil rights’, Muslims should focus on the more immediate risk of being blind-sided by the overwhelming tsunami of Islamophobia.”
While CAIR protests against CVE, the ICNE believes it can work with counter-extremism programs to its advantage. The ISB lies somewhere in the middle. And yet all these Islamist groups are key partners, mostly founded and managed by the same network of Islamist operatives.
Has the CVE program really caused such discord?
Again, the European experience offers some answers. Daud Abdullah, the former deputy secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, had his group work closely with the British government’s counter-extremism program, before later hosting an event with his other group, Middle East Monitor, which denounced the scheme as a “Cold War on British Muslims.” Similarly, the Cordoba Foundation, a prominent Muslim Brotherhood think tank, procuredcounter-extremism grants in 2008 only to run events condemning counter-extremism programs in 2009.
Non-violent extremists learn both to exploit and criticize counter-extremism initiatives to their benefit. By working in tandem, some Islamist voices accept government funds that legitimize them as leaders of the Muslim community and portray them as responsible Muslims concerned with extremism; while other Islamist groups oppose counter-extremism efforts in an effort to style themselves as civil rights champions and gain the support of libertarians on both the Left and Right.
The response of “non-violent” Islamists to counter-extremism programs displays a master class in deception. The greatest mistake, if it is one, made by the Obama administration is to treat groups such as CAIR and ISB as genuine representatives of the Muslim community. Very few American Muslims, it seems, actually believe that CAIR is a legitimate voice of American Islam.According to a 2011 Gallup poll, around 88% of American Muslims said CAIR does not represent them.
As for the ISB, it operates under the aegis of the Muslim American Society, which claims to be a national group for American Muslims. A 2011 report produced by CAIR itself, however, demonstrates that a mere 3% of American mosques are affiliated with the Muslim American Society. 62% of mosques claimed that they were not affiliated with any organization.
It is little wonder that groups such as CAIR disparage genuine moderates. They perceive moderates as a threat to their self-styled reputations as representatives of American Islam. CAIR Massachusetts Director Nadeem Mazen has denounced counter-Islamist Muslim groups that “foist secular attitudes on Muslims” and promote ideas that “are being projected, imperialist-style on to our population.”
American Islam is diverse. No group can claim to represent either Massachusetts Muslims or American Muslims. Islamist bodies have imposed their leadership on American Muslims. As inherently political movements, they were best organized to style themselves as community leaders. When politicians in D.C ask to speak to the “Muslim community,” groups such as CAIR and the ISB step forward.
Counter-extremism work is best achieved, in fact, by the government marginalizing such groups — by freeing American Muslims from their self-appointed Islamist spokesmen, by working instead with the genuine moderates among American Muslims, and by recognizing the link between non-violent and violent extremism. European governments have finally understood this reality, but far too late. For the sake of moderate Muslims everywhere, let us hope American politicians are quicker on the uptake.
Samuel Westrop is Research Director for Americans for Peace and Tolerance.
 In 2001, United States Secretary of State Colin Powell designated Lashkar-e-Taiba a Foreign Terrorist Organization.