A poorly attended conference in Chicago organized by the Islamist-founded Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) in September 2022 – seemingly boycotted by prominent Islamist groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and leading activists such as Zahra Billoo and Hatem Bazian – follows several years of fury within American Islamist circles directed against ISNA over its interfaith dialogue with Jewish organizations.
Is the anger with ISNA a growing boldness within Islamist circles and a renewed fervor over the question of Palestine that affords lawful Islamists the confidence to reject Jews publicly and to denounce other Muslims who fail to step in line? Or do the Islamist attacks on ISNA belie a more complicated ideological entanglement at work?
It appears the Turkish regime may be behind some of these divisions, as part of its own efforts to stamp out dissent within Islamist ranks.
In June 2021, in the wake of fighting in the Gaza Strip, ISNA released a statement formally withdrawing from the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council – a joint venture established in 2016 with the American Jewish Committee (AJC).
Interfaith work with Jews, it seems, is not good business for an organization with once-proud Islamist roots. According to federal prosecutors in 2007, ISNA was among the “individuals/entities who are and/or were members of the US Muslim Brotherhood.”
ISNA’s abandonment of MJAC followed an angry campaign organized by leading clerics, activists and “community leaders” to condemn the group for its on-going collaboration with a Jewish organization deemed “Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian.”
There was even a petition published on a dedicated website named “Principled Interfaith,” established for the single purpose of destroying the AJC-ISNA partnership. The petitioners went into some detail, naming disloyal ISNA officials, and explaining that “Muslim American community members” had at first “respectfully” tried to convince ISNA to change its mind on its collaborations, but had now resorted to public denunciations as a necessary next step in the face of ISNA’s intransigence.
The signatories to the campaign included a broad mix of known extremists. Nakibur Rahman, for instance, is a leading advocate for the violent South Asian Islamist movement Jamaat-e-Islami. He is the son and leading public defender of the late Motiur Rahman Nizami, whom a Bangladeshsi war crimes tribunal convicted and executed in 2016 for his acts of genocide, murder and rape while leading Islamist killing gangs during that country’s 1971 Liberation War.
Osama Abuirshaid, meanwhile, is head of the terror-tied American Muslims for Palestine. He has praised Hamas as “an army for liberation” whose fighters “rise up for the blood of martyrs.” And then, among many others, there is Mohsin Ansari, a leading official in the Islamic Circle of North America – the U.S. branch of Jamaat-e-Islami – who has denounced the “liberal anti Muslim media headed by Jews.”
The coordinated attack on ISNA worked. Within days of the website’s launch, ISNA declared that it would no longer work with the AJC on the MJAC project in light of the “recent escalation of Israeli aggression in Gaza and the desecration of the Al Aqsa Mosque.” The unattributed statement further noted that ISNA would “continue to support the cause of the Palestinian people as they fight for self-determination against Israeli apartheid and occupation.”
At the time, I submitted a media inquiry to ISNA’s office, asking whether they deemed their American Jewish partner specifically responsible for “Israeli aggression” and “apartheid.” I received no response. Although, admittedly, Islamists rarely call me back.
Fast forward to 2022, when, just a week ago, ISNA held its 59th annual conference in a large venue next to Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Attended by thousands of American Muslims, the event featured a broad collection of radical clerics with long histories of expressing hatred towards non-Muslims, homosexuals and women.
Mufti Hussain Kamani, for instance, appeared on seven panels across the three-day event. Kamani has advocated the stoning of adulterers, sanctioned the beating of wives and justified a husband’s sex with “a female slave that belongs to him.”
Kamani was just one example among dozens of dangerous Islamist activists. But for all the extremists present at this annual seminal event in the Muslim American calendar, a small, noticeable cohort was nowhere to be seen.
Two prominent Islamist activists, Zahra Billoo and Hatem Bazian, apparently decided to boycott the event. As justification, writing on Facebook, Billoo cited the campaign against ISNA’s partnership with the American Jewish Committee, and declared that “we cannot tolerate our brothers and sisters giving cover to those who seek to, and do, harm us.”
Billoo is a leader of a branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), one of the most important Islamist organizations in the United States. Indeed, CAIR, too, appeared to be missing from the 2022 ISNA conference. One critic of Billoo even noted on her post: “You have CAIR on your side.”
The official Facebook account for ISNA itself responded to Billoo’s post, reasserting its claim to have parted ways with its former Jewish partners. Magda Elkadi Saleh, the vice-President of ISNA, also replied directly to several fellow angry commentators who had expressed support for Billoo’s position. Saleh refuted the accusations and deemed the matter in fact “resolved.”
But Hatem Bazian, chairman of American Muslims for Palestine – a leading component of the Hamas support network in the United States – declared “nothing was resolved!”
The affair is puzzling. First, ISNA grew from the very same Islamist roots as its critics. Its 2022 conference, as usual, still featured furious rhetoric against Israel. Second, for many years, many terror-tied Islamists – including most of ISNA’s detractors – have also employed “interfaith dialogue” with Jews and others as a useful fig-leaf, to little protest from other Islamist activists.
Now that ISNA has withdrawn from MJAC, what exactly, then, is still not “resolved”?
Most Islamist groups and their activists have echoed progressivist motifs for so many years in the pursuit of political credibility and power that doing something as hackneyed as interfaith dialogue seems necessary lip service for all but the most inflexible Islamist anti-Semite. And if lawful Islamist movements in the West such as the Muslim Brotherhood have proved anything over the past few decades, it is that they can indeed be politically flexible.
Much of this kerfuffle instead appears to do with Türkiye: the regime and its proxies in the United States. ISNA appears stuck in the middle of this intra-Islamist turmoil, with divisions even appearing among ISNA’s own leadership.
ISNA’s recent relationship with Islamism has been complicated and inconsistent. While the group quietly looked the other way for many years as it remained a member of the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council (MJAC), and even said nothing when MJAC removed an anti-Semitic imam endorsed by ISNA from the MJAC board, ISNA worked to retain Islamist credibility through other means.
In 2018, ISNA suddenly revoked an invitation to the Muslim commentator Wajahat Ali to speak at that year’s ISNA convention, citing his links to the Muslim Leadership Initiative – an effort that various Islamist activists claimed was a ploy to make American Muslims “more ambiguous, and more sympathetic, towards Zionism.” A curiously similar sin, it seems, to ISNA’s own.
Several observers at the time noted that the Muslim Leadership Initiative is tied to an official of Hizmet (also known as the Gülen movement), which the Islamist Turkish regime is, these days, devoted to destroying.
Notably, at the same time as ISNA uninvited Ali, various prominent American Islamists – including those involved in the campaign against ISNA – were inching ever closer to Ankara’s embrace.
Some of the old guard within ISNA did not take kindly to the apparent imposition of the Turkish regime’s agenda. One Muslim American blog reported “there’s been a major rift inside ISNA over the organization selling out its soul to the Turkish government.”
ISNA officials went back and forth. After years of Turkish regime speakers, including Erdoğan’s personal advisors, attending and speaking at ISNA’s conferences and events (Erdoğan’s wife was even due to speak one year, although withdrew at the last second), the regime was suddenly and noticeably absent in 2019. It was replaced, by all things, with a booth representing the Turkish regime’s hated rival, Hizmet.
Hostility to Turkish influence remained apparent the next year, following the Turkish regime’s infamous decision to convert the Hagia Sofia into a mosque. Amid applause of the move from the various voices of American Islamism, the then-president of ISNA, Sayyid Syeed, unexpectedly condemned the Turkish decision in an “Official Statement of the Islamic Society of North America” published on the website of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
At the time, Syeed spoke with the Middle East Forum – an unusual decision for an official of a major Islamist group – explaining that he considered Erdogan’s decision on the Hagia Sophia little different to Florida Pastor Terry Jones’ threat to burn the Quran, which he argued promoted hatred between Christians and Muslims.
And yet, concurrently, ISNA also released an “official” statement saying that the organization in fact took no position on the matter. Meanwhile, online Islamist personalities who questioned ISNA’s actual perspective were seemingly blocked by confused ISNA officials on social media.
Such dissent and confusion in the Islamist ranks could apparently not be tolerated. A few months later, Syeed was removed from ISNA’s board of directors, with no apparent public celebration of his decades of service to the organization.
In 2022, the Turkish regime was once again nowhere to be seen.
Tellingly, ISNA boycotter Hatem Bazian is a frequent partner of major Turkish regime proxies and a columnist for the leading pro-regime Turkish newspaper, Daily Sabah. Billoo is also an enthusiastic supporter of President Erdoğan.
Other Muslim activists have noticed the troubles at ISNA. Writing in Indian Muslim publication Siyasat in May 2021, activist Shaik Ubaid claimed that the attacks on ISNA over its partnership with “American Zionists” had been masterminded by the United States Council of Muslim Organizations (USCMO), a Turkish-linked umbrella group for a variety of American Islamist organizations.
Ubaid notes that although “ISNA was formed as a liberal front by Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] while they were working underground in the US,” it had, he conspiratorially claims, slowly been moving away from its Islamist roots because of “pressure from the Israeli lobby including the American Jewish Committee” as well as “fear” of the U.S. government.
Outraged, Ubaid even claims that ISNA’s Sayyid Saeed “reportedly gave a khutba saying that Ikhwan was like RSS [a Hindu political and social movement generally despised by Islamist organizations] … He was trying to show that he is a ‘moderate interfaither.’”
Türkiye is, today, one of the Ikhwan’s most important backers.
It seems that groups such as ISNA stand at a crossroads, uncertain whether to moderate or return to more hardline roots.
Following his decades of service as an ISNA official, after he was removed from the organization, Syeed has only accompanied ISNA leaders at just a few private events, and appeared absent from public ISNA gatherings, including the 2022 conference. Indeed, current ISNA Vice-President Magda Elkadi Saleh sought to downplay Billoo and her supporters’ attacks by noting, despite no one else mentioning him on Billoo’s Facebook post, that Syeed “has not held a position at ISNA for two years.”
Divisions across the gamut of American Islamism are broad and far-reaching, but the Turkish regime appears to lie at the heart of a significant proportion of the upheaval.
In 2020, the American Muslim group Emgage – whose leaders also include an official involved with the anti-Erdogan Hizmet movement – blamed attacks on its reputation by many of the same activists and groups attacking ISNA on “nefarious foreign actors who are spreading false and misleading information about our organization across the Muslim American community.” As with ISNA, Emgage also has Islamist roots that have withered over time.
Activists linked to the Qatari regime have also participated in the attacks. Azad Essa, a former Al Jazeera journalist who now works for Middle East Eye, a strongly pro-Qatari outlet, has denounced both Emgage and ISNA in his publication as examples of “interfaith trojan horses.”
Hope for American Muslims
All this turmoil, a corollary of efforts by rising Islamist forces to impose their own agendas, is contributing to a marked decline of the prominence and influence of the first generation of U.S. Islamist organizations, established by activists from the Muslim Brotherhood between the 1960s and 1990s.
FWI sent a reporter to this year’s ISNA conference, who noted that visitor numbers appeared at just several thousand, down from its reported peak of 50,000 a decade ago. Meanwhile, a barely attended session on the organization’s annual report and plans for the future featured audience members complaining about the dwindling membership and the growing insignificance of ISNA in the American Muslim landscape, with ISNA official Magda Saleh conceding that there was an urgent need to recruit new members.
It seems these old guard Islamists no longer know how to please other American Islamist leadership and an ever-growing, ideologically diverse Muslim grassroots; and must balance kowtowing to foreign Islamist powers while somehow remaining politically relevant.
Meanwhile, for moderate and reformist Muslims seeking finally to supplant Islamist control of their communities, such factious radicalism could not be more welcome.