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Too cozy for comfort

Popular Muslim leaders in America have friends in all the wrong places

Siraj Wahhaj Ting-Li Wang/The New York Times/Redux

Too cozy for comfort
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GARDEN GROVE, Calif.—The Islamic Society of Orange County mosque in many ways reflects the prosperous heart of Southern California where it’s located. As congregants waited for a guest imam to speak, grandmothers scolded noisy children and teenagers texted on their cell phones. Two teenage girls in the women’s prayer room said their favorite pastime is shopping. Another teen called a friend, trying to convince her to dig through her closet for an abaya, a loose-fitting garment, and join her at the mosque for the fundraising talk and dinner. The women and teenagers wore abayas and hijabs, Muslim head coverings that reveal a woman’s full face, while at least four women wore niqabs, which fully covered their faces.

Men and women who gathered were awaiting Siraj Wahhaj, a popular New York imam who arrived and spoke to hundreds of Muslims at Orange County’s oldest and largest mosque. A convert to Islam known for his trademark white robes, Wahhaj personifies the challenges for Western law enforcement and other outsiders to the Muslim world—a complex and sought-after figure seen as nonviolent but who also has had ties to prominent terrorist figures.

Wahhaj earned celebrity status in 1987, when his New York mosque helped launch an anti-drug campaign that shut down 15 drug houses, in part by going door to door and personally confronting known drug dealers. In 1991, Wahhaj became the first Muslim to give the opening prayer before Congress.

A popular Muslim fundraiser, Wahhaj’s March trip to the Orange County mosque involved fundraising for the people of Yemen through the Muslim American Society (MAS) and Islamic Relief USA (IR-USA), one of the largest Muslim charities in the West.

Wahhaj told the story of his drug-fighting and other work, and then issued a challenge to those Muslims in attendance: “You are the servant of Allah and nothing bothers you. You fear Allah. … Our job is to make this country better for real!”

Not discussed was another side to the 67-year-old imam’s story: Prosecutors identified Wahhaj as an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center (WTC) bombing. In sworn testimony Wahhaj described Omar Abdel-Rahman, the “Blind Sheik” convicted of plotting the attacks and sentenced to life in prison, as a “respected scholar.”

Wahhaj also boasts connections to Muslim Brotherhood–linked groups. He has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and has been a keynote speaker at Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) conventions. ISNA and CAIR were among 245 organizations listed as unindicted co-conspirators in a 2008 court case involving the Holy Land Foundation, an Islamic charity convicted of funding terrorism.

That trial uncovered Muslim Brotherhood documents from 1991 detailing a strategic plan for the United States that involved “a grand Jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within” through nonviolent means. Citing evidence of ties to the terrorist group Hamas, a federal judge later rejected an appeal by CAIR and ISNA to have their names stricken from the unindicted co-conspirators list.

Wahhaj’s fundraising for IR-USA raises questions, too. The financial statements of Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW), IR-USA’s parent organization, list two contributing groups with ties to Al-Qaeda: Al-Islah and Charitable Society for Social Welfare, both in Yemen. IRW also received contributions in 2013 and 2014 from World Assembly of Muslim Youth, a Saudi-based organization that has sponsored terrorism in Bosnia, Israel, and India.

All of this is in the context of Wahhaj’s own statements. Media reports have quoted him as calling for the replacement of the Constitution with Sharia law, and he has both advocated stoning as punishment for adultery and promoted amputation for theft. The New York Police Department (NYPD) has long placed Wahhaj’s Brooklyn mosque under scrutiny because of such teaching and potential terrorism ties.

Siddiqi welcomes visitors to the mosque at the Islamic Society of Orange County during a #IStandWithHijabis event.

Siddiqi welcomes visitors to the mosque at the Islamic Society of Orange County during a #IStandWithHijabis event. Associated Press/Photo by Bebeto Matthews

Wahhaj’s popularity in American Islamic circles comes at a time when Western governments are giving increasing attention to the Muslim Brotherhood. A government-sanctioned study in Sweden launched a nationwide debate there in March with a report stating that the Brotherhood was secretly building a parallel society within the country, a conclusion similar to that of a recent British report. In the United States, Congress will soon vote on a renewed push to call on the State Department to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), a measure that would have ramifications for many of the groups Wahhaj and other imams like him support.

The legislation has 46 sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Texas, is optimistic about its chances for approval under a new administration. A similar measure was introduced in the Senate, launching rigorous debate over the risks and benefits of the designation. If Congress passes the legislation and President Trump signs it, the State Department will have to produce a report either agreeing or disagreeing with the FTO recommendation.

Samuel Tadros, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and expert on Islamism, says the FTO designation is too broad and unsuitable for every branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (Tunisia’s Ennahda is one example of a moderate splinter group.) And if the State Department decides against the FTO designation—which he believes would happen—the Muslim Brotherhood will claim the decision implies approval of the group. That is why Tadros prefers the path through the Treasury Department—a lengthier process but one that would “target the splinter groups and through that, build each case.” The Muslim Brotherhood branches in Egypt, Syria and Yemen are a good start.

But most analysts agree with at least the premise behind the legislation: To fight global jihad, lawmakers and officials must better identify and combat those manufacturing the Islamist ideology feeding into the movement. The question is whether prominent figures like Imam Wahhaj are quietly stoking jihadists.

After Wahhaj finished his fundraising appeal at ISOC, he rushed to the men’s prayer room and paused to remove his shoes, providing an opportunity to ask him if he still believes Sharia law is superior to the U.S. Constitution: “Well, that’s tricky. But generally, Sharia is for a Muslim majority country, not a non-Muslim majority.” On the Sharia death penalty for adultery, he was equally cautious: “Again, it is so far from us. They can do that in their country but not here.”

Former Muslim Brotherhood member Pierre Durrani, one of the authors of the Swedish report on the group, heard Wahhaj speak several times in the ’90s and describes him as a “Salafi light” imam who works closely with the Brotherhood. The Swedish native says its “better to have the Muslim Brotherhood in the mosques than al-Qaeda,” but notes their similar ideological roots. Both desire the rebirth of a Muslim caliphate and the decline of Western civilization.

Durrani lists ways to differentiate moderates from Islamists: Look at who they invite to conferences, the literature they promote, their political ideology, and the posts they “like” on social media. “You have to triangulate the movement, and it is difficult detective work.”

The Orange County mosque hosting Wahhaj shows the difficulty. The mosque’s imam, Muzammil Siddiqi, supported former President George W. Bush for his conservative stance on social issues and made a media appearance with him just three days after 9/11. But according to a 2007 New Yorker article, Siddiqi invited Abdel-Rahman to speak at his mosque in 1992 and translated as the sheik dismissed nonviolent interpretations of jihad as weak. And Adam Gadahn—a former al-Qaeda spokesman who died in 2015 during a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan—attended Siddiqi’s mosque in the ’90s.

People walk below an NYPD security camera (right) installed near Wahhaj’s mosque in 2011.

People walk below an NYPD security camera (right) installed near Wahhaj’s mosque in 2011. Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG/Newscom

For now, Wahhaj doesn’t need to worry about much detective work around his Brooklyn mosque. New York City this year settled a 2013 discrimination lawsuit charging the NYPD with unlawful surveillance of Muslim individuals and institutions. Wahhaj’s Brooklyn mosque, Masjid At-Taqwa, was one of six plaintiffs in the case. The plaintiffs succeeded in part by deploying public relations campaigns to promote their work as mainstream, casting anyone who opposes them, including the NYPD, as Islamophobic.

According to court papers, the NYPD listed Wahhaj’s “historical ties to terrorism” as grounds for the mosque’s surveillance. It also noted evidence of “survival training” paintball exercises conducted by members of the mosque’s security team that included instruction on disarming police officers. Trainees were referred to as “jihad warriors.” As part of the settlement, the city of New York is required to pay $1.6 million to the plaintiffs and remove the anti-terror report Radicalization in the West from the NYPD’s website, despite its accuracy in predicting radicalization trends. The city’s law enforcement has prevented more than 20 terrorist attacks since 2001.

The settlement leaves the United States scrambling to find legal means to counter Islamists and their organizations. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain have declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, and the United Arab Emirates went a step further in 2014 by adding CAIR and MAS to a terrorist list that includes the Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, and Islamic State.

Supporters of an FTO designation say it would help boost the voice of moderate Muslims who are weary of Islamist organizations stealing the spotlight and evangelizing their children. A poll conducted by the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center in 2011 revealed a low level of support among American Muslims for Islamist groups in the United States: Less than 13 percent believe CAIR and ISNA represent their interests.

Rep. Gohmert said any rhetoric that promotes replacing the Constitution with Sharia law amounts to treason: “If you’re a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, then you are supporting an organization that wants to bring down the United States Constitution and create a worldwide caliphate.”

“Muslims are not trying to establish Sharia law here in the United States,” Wahhaj told me as the call to prayer summoned him again in the Orange County mosque. “Trust me on that one.” This may be true for most American Muslims, but Wahhaj, like the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots, will need to prove—with each deadly terrorist attack abroad—he no longer stands by prior claims and connections promoting the destruction of Western values and freedoms.

Jill Nelson

Jill is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas at Austin. Jill lives in Orange County, Calif., with her husband, two sons, and three daughters.



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