I appreciate that Douglas Johnston of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD) has taken the time to reply to my Pajamas Media article last week, revealing the strategic partnership his organization and a top Defense Department think tank, the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), have entered into with several groups tied to Islamic terrorism. This partnership is called American Muslims for Constructive Engagement (AMCE).
Mr. Johnston’s self-defense is admittedly well written and well argued. There is no dispute between us about his motives and good intentions with respect to his organization’s leading role in the AMCE strategic partnership. Certainly no one has questioned the positive efforts in which his group has otherwise been involved. And contrary to his protest, I never “impugned the patriotism” of anyone associated with the ICRD or IDA, including Mr. Johnston, either explicitly or by inference. One might hope that he would be more willing to respond to substantive criticism and honest disagreement without having to resort to manufacturing offense.
However, his response lays bare the muddled, contradictory, and potentially dangerous assumptions of much of the government’s outreach efforts to American Islamic organizations. The question has never been whether there should be such outreach, to Muslims or any other members of our society, but exactly to whom it should be directed and on what basis. That is the pressing issue at hand.
In his response, Mr. Johnston appears to have three objectives:
- to dismiss the terror ties of his partners, claiming that I’m engaging in “guilt by association”;
- to provide a defense for the involvement of his ICRD colleague, Abubaker al-Shingieti, former official spokesman for the terrorist-sponsoring Islamist regime of Sudan;
- to plead that ICRD’s engagement efforts actually contribute to the moderation of extremists.
His response does present some important issues for discussion:
- Who rightly speaks for American Muslims, and what are the identifying characteristics of “moderates”?
- Does he concede that the organizations with which his group has partnered represent the extreme elements of the American Muslim community, or would he concur with their own claims to represent the mainstream of American Muslim opinion?
- What are the implications of associating with and supporting these groups, especially when ICRD and IDA freely admit to opening doors to the highest government officials and institutions for their partners?
- Has he considered how these extremist groups might exploit their relationship for goals and objectives much less noble than his own intents and purposes?
- If ICRD’s efforts were all on the up-and-up, why has Mr. Johnston’s organization removed Mr. Shingieti’s biography since my article’s publication?
Although he claims that my initial article contained a “number of factual inaccuracies and exaggerated implications,” the only one he bothers to cite is that I initially misidentified his organization as the “International Council of Religion and Democracy”. I stand corrected, though in my defense I would point out that AMCE’s own website makes the same error, and I mistakenly relied on their erroneous information. My apologies.
As for Mr. Johnston’s attempts to dismiss the terror ties of his partners, he states that I have attacked ICRD and IDA “for dealing with individuals and organizations allegedly tied to terrorism.” (emphasis added)
As I pointed out extensively in my initial article, there is no “allegedly” about these groups’ ties to terror. Three of his AMCE strategic partners were listed by the Department of Justice as unindicted co-conspirators last May in the Holy Land Foundation terror financing trial:
- Islamic Society of North America (ISNA)
- Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)
- International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT)
The fourth Islamic group in the AMCE strategic partnership — the Muslim American Society (MAS) — was recently identified by federal prosecutors in a DOJ appeals court brief for another terrorism-related case as “the overt arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in America,” a brief which also states that “CAIR conspired with other affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood to support terrorists.”
There is no controversy that the DOJ has done such. It would be hard to believe that Mr. Johnston is unaware of this information. He might claim in response that these organizations have not been charged with any crime. And yet these organizations have seen a whole host of senior officials tried and convicted on charges of terrorism and terrorist support. For example, as recently as last month, one CAIR official — Muthanna Al-Hanooti — was indicted for spying on behalf of Saddam Hussein’s regime. No “guilt by association” is needed.
FBI Agent Lara Burns testified in the Holy Land Foundation trial this past summer that one of the AMCE steering committee members, CAIR co-founder and current executive director Nihad Awad, attended an infamous 1993 HAMAS leadership meeting in Philadelphia, where the agenda was dominated by discussions on how to derail the Oslo Peace Accords and how to conceal their activities. (For more background on the HAMAS meeting, see the NEFA Foundation’s related report.)
Can Mr. Johnston provide some countervailing evidence sufficient for us to dismiss the repeated assessments of our federal law enforcement’s top counterterrorism personnel?
Presumably, Mr. Johnston reads the Washington Post, which recently reported how another AMCE steering committee member and one of his partners, MAS president Esam Omeish, was forced to resign from the Virginia Commission on Immigration just weeks after being appointed by Gov. Tim Kaine, after he was made aware of videos of Omeish preaching jihad and praising suicide bombers. And then there are the terror fatwas that MAS has published in their American Muslim magazine approving the use of suicide bombings and providing justification for HAMAS terror campaigns.
Then there is the special relationship between ICRD and IIIT. After inking a cooperative agreement, Mr. Johnston was photographed with none other than IIIT vice president Jamal Barzinji, who previously ran the now-defunct SAAR Foundation, which the Washington Post reported had moved millions through the Al-Taqwa Bank international terrorist finance operation. Barzinji’s offices were raided as part of the FBI’s investigation into terrorist financing, Operation Green Quest, based on warrants signed by judges believing there was probable cause for such action.
It should be noted that IIIT’s recent attempt to endow a $1.5 million chair of Islamic Studies at Temple University was scuttled after their proposal met with criticism by trustees and academic staff because of the organization’s ties to terrorism. Considering their connections to our highest levels of government, it’s hard to imagine that ICRD and IDA should employ a less strict standard of scrutiny for their partners than that of Temple University.
One of the other AMCE steering committee members is none other than Mr. Johnston’s colleague, Abubaker Al-Shingieti, ICRD’s vice president of Islamic programs. While Al-Shingieti’s bio was freely available on the ICRD website up until the publication of my article last week, visiting that page today gives you the following warning:
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The attempt by ICRD to conceal Al-Shingieti’s background is certainly understandable considering the questions it raises.
Mr. Johnston attempts to evade these questions by protesting that having resolved that he could no longer abide many of the actions of his own government, Mr. Shingieti left government service in order to work with our Center where he has proven to be an invaluable asset.” This leaves the reader with the impression that Al-Shingieti was some marginal, reluctant figure within the Islamist regime in Khartoum.
In fact, Al-Shingieti was the regime’s official spokesman when it was engaged in genocide in southern Sudan, and later he served as the director of political affairs for President Omar Bashir, holding the rank of ambassador, while Osama bin Laden was granted safe haven by his boss and was one of the regime’s closest advisors. His alleged “resolve” to no longer abide by the actions of his government didn’t occur until several years after bin Laden had left the county and long after the Sudanese government had accomplished the murder of several hundred thousand non-Muslim Sudanese civilians.
With this in mind, Mr. Johnston’s hiring of Abubaker Al-Shingieti to effect peace in Sudan is as shocking as if he had hired Saddam Hussein’s official spokesman, “Baghdad Bob,” to be ICRD’s vice president for Iraqi reconciliation.
But let us weigh his positive argument that the ICRD and IDA engagement efforts with their partners will bring about their moderation. He says:
Whatever discomfort Mr. Poole may feel about this kind of intellectual and spiritual engagement and the questionable bedfellows it sometimes involves, there is no denying that the best antidote for bad theology is good theology.
Here Mr. Johnston equivocates. Are his AMCE strategic partners — IIIT, CAIR, MAS, and ISNA — questionable bedfellows (which he seems to grant here) or not (his previous “allegedly tied to terrorism” comment)? He doesn’t make it clear. If so, those groups no doubt would take great offense at such a characterization. And who exactly is providing the antidote of “good theology” he speaks of? These same AMCE partners? His organization’s director of Islamic programs, Abubaker Al-Shingieti?
Exactly how do Mr. Johnston and IDA represent their AMCE partners when meeting U.S. military and intelligence officials? Are they presented to policymakers as follows: “Hello, these are the jihadists who will save us by helping us shape our foreign policy?” That’s what he seems to indicate:
Another goal of this project was to gauge how best to provide U.S. foreign policy and public diplomacy with a Muslim perspective, one that could enable U.S. policymakers to avoid the adverse consequences of uninformed security and foreign policy decisions.
Exactly what foreign policy do they recommend when they are swept into the corridors of power by Mr. Johnston? Does he forewarn government officials of the “civilizational-jihadist process” to which his partners have committed, whereby they see their efforts as “a kind of grand jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and sabotaging its 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 other religions”?
The non-sequitur assumption to which he appeals is that engaging extremists is itself a moderating influence. But his own experience refutes that premise. He cites ICRD’s role last summer in securing the freedom of some South Korean captives held by the Taliban. (Not to discount ICRD’s participation, but the reported $4 million paid in ransom played a minor role in their release.) But will Mr. Johnston argue that the Taliban was somehow moderated by that transaction? Has it stopped the Taliban from taking captives or murdering innocent civilians? How did it counter their radical ideology? Perhaps Mullah Omar will emerge from hiding to help lead ICRD’s ongoing Taliban outreach.
In conclusion, I appreciate Mr. Johnston’s attempt to provide some answers and clarify his intentions. Certainly this dialogue will be followed by many observers from all quarters, public and private, and his willingness to publicly make his case is to be commended. A spirited and friendly conversation is precisely what’s needed.
But his article raises many questions and answers few. He can be assured that as long as the preponderance of these government-sponsored Islamic outreach programs target solely Islamic extremist groups representing only a tiny minority of the American Muslim community, such as those participating in AMCE, questions about these strategic partnerships and the supposed objectives they hope to achieve will continue unabated.
Mr. Johnston is entirely correct when he says that engaging extremists doesn’t mean you agree with them. But it is far from clear that those pushing these Islamic outreach efforts, including Mr. Johnston, understand who the extremists are and the threat they pose. And despite their best intentions, their Islamic strategic partners very well may have radically different intentions in mind — a disclaimer that should preface every conversation ICRD and IDA officials arrange with government officials on their behalf.
Patrick Poole is a regular contributor to Pajamas Media, and an anti-terrorism consultant to law enforcement and the military.