Exposing the "Flying Imams"
by M. Zuhdi JasserMiddle East QuarterlyWinter 2008
On November 20, 2006, airline officials in Minneapolis removed six imams from U.S. Airways flight 300 to Phoenix after their behavior raised the suspicion of fellow travelers. The imams decried the incident as racist and evidence of discrimination. On March 12, 2007, they filed suit against the airline, airport, and fellow passengers. Some of the imams' claims are exaggerated; many are false. In reality, the incident was a tactical move to support the imams' claim to leadership over the American Muslim community. Indeed, the "flying imams" case, Ahmed Shqeirat et al. vs. U.S. Airways, appears to mark just the latest front in the war between Islamists and mainstream, pluralistic American Muslims.
The airport episode appeared pre-planned, the American equivalent of the manufactured Danish cartoon controversy, in which Danish Islamists, who hoped to benefit from polarization, exaggerated victimization and sought a pretext for crisis. The six imams, five of whom hailed from the Phoenix area, were returning from a North American Imams Federation conference. Three drew attention to themselves when they conducted prayers at the departure gate rather than in the airport chapel or quietly in their seats. However, they drew no response. On the plane, however, they aroused passenger suspicion with loud Arabic conversations, requests for apparently unnecessary seat-belt extenders—which can be used as weapons—and a post-boarding seating switch. Other passengers expressed their worries to the crew, who had them removed. After this incident, Omar Shahin, president of the North American Imams Federation and a prominent Phoenix imam, told the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR, an Islamist advocacy group) and its attorneys, "Security at the airport isn't our problem; it's their problem."
On March 12, 2007, the imams, CAIR, and attorney Omar Mohammedi, a former president of CAIR's New York chapter, filed suit not only against the airline and the Minneapolis Metropolitan Airports Commission but also against the anonymous "John Doe" passengers who alerted the crew to the imams' suspicious behavior.
The involvement of CAIR, an organization that has received significant Saudi financing, injected impressive machinery and resources into the case. Omar Shahin explained, "Since minute one of this incident, I contacted [CAIR communications director] Ibrahim Hooper and [CAIR executive director] Brother Nihad Awad, and we arranged everything … Everything's being coordinated with CAIR." The group underwrote the cost of any litigation.
CAIR used its national network of imams and press connections to draw attention to the case. Tactically, though, the decision to litigate against ordinary passengers was a misstep. It drew critical commentary from the mainstream press. The Arizona Republic dubbed it "intimidation by lawsuit," and many individuals and organizations, including our own American Islamic Forum for Democracy, offered assistance to the passengers forced into court. While Mohammedi amended his suit to target only John Does whom he deemed "racist" or who had made false accusations, the discovery process would still require suspect passengers to retain counsel. Congress stepped in and, in late July, passed legislation protecting passengers from similar future lawsuits. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty then filed an amicus brief with the court on August 1, 2007, asking the court to remove the John Does from the suit and denouncing the imams' "attempt to hijack the court as legal terrorism." Under this barrage of criticism, the imams dropped their lawsuit against the passengers on August 23, 2007, although they are proceeding with the rest of their suit against the airline, its employees, and the Metropolitan Airports Commission.
My Experience with the Phoenix Imams
I have known three of the plaintiffs in the U.S. Airways suit for almost a decade. Soon after settling in Arizona in 1999, I became involved in the local Muslim community. Before moving to Scottsdale, I usually attended Friday congregational prayer services at the Islamic Community Center of Tempe, Arizona. Often, Ahmed Shqeirat, now the primary plaintiff, delivered sermons at the mosque where he has long been imam. I was struck by the political nature of his sermons. He repeatedly criticized both U.S. domestic and foreign policy and often exaggerated Muslim victimization. He advocated political unification of Muslims internationally and blamed the United States, Israel, and the West for perceived slights. He called for the political empowerment of Muslims in American society.
After hearing several sermons, I spoke and wrote to him to express my dismay at his emphasis of political over spiritual topics. He responded that "secularism is Godlessness" and asserted a right to "speak about political injustice." The concept of purely spiritual Islam and creation of an intellectual environment welcoming to all Muslims regardless of political persuasion was anathema to him.
To give one example of his abuse of pulpit, during a Friday sermon in April 2004, he displayed an image, which CAIR had distributed, of an American soldier in Iraq with two young Iraqi boys. In the photo, the soldier held a sign saying, "Lcpl Boudreaux killed my dad, then he knocked up my sister." Shqeirat neither made any attempt to verify the image's authenticity nor to determine, if real, whether it was representative. Nor, when he was asked, could he explain how such a display related to Islamic theology or spirituality. The goal of using faith identity to divide society highlights the incompatibility of Islamism with traditions of American culture and society.
I had similar concerns regarding the sermons of Marwan Saadeddin, another plaintiff, whose sermons I heard in the Phoenix Valley. Following the U.S. Air 300 incident, Saadeddin spun the incident to the media and transformed it into a parable of victimization during a Friday sermon at a Phoenix Valley mosque. During the sermon, I heard him say, "I'd rather be dead than removed from an airplane in handcuffs." Such is the political and fanatical ranting of one of Arizona's leading imams. As is common among Islamist preachers, he substituted politics for theology and spirituality.
I also know Omar Shahin, another imam plaintiff. He resides in the Phoenix area and has been the head of the Valley Imam Council of Phoenix, the former imam of the Islamic Center of Tucson, a teacher with the Arizona Cultural Academy, and the imam of the Islamic Center of the East Valley. His hyperbole is typical of the Phoenix-area Islamists. He called the day of his eviction from the U.S. Air flight "the worst day of [his] life," a statement far more forceful than any he issued after the 9-11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the March 11, 2004 train bombings in Madrid, the July 7, 2005 London bus and Underground bombings, or in response to any Al-Qaeda video seeking to justify the murder of Americans and noncombatants in the name of religion. Indeed, he blamed the 9-11 attacks not on Muslim terrorists but on the CIA and FBI.
There should also be concern regarding the involvement of some of the imams with Islamic charities shuttered because of their terror financing. Shahin was the Arizona representative of Kindhearts and the Holy Land Foundation, both of which the U.S. Treasury Department shut down because of their involvement with Hamas. Saadeddin dismissed Hamas connections as any reason for concern, recently stating that, "Hamas has nothing to do with [the] United States. Talk about Al-Qaeda only, because this is where they hit America ... [If] America consider[s] it—the foreign policy of America consider[s] Hamas—as a terrorist. That's their business."
Rally and Counter-rally
Had the Islamist imams only apologized for terrorism, it would be bad enough. But they have also sought to undercut the efforts of local Muslims to advocate against and condemn publicly terrorism conducted in the name of Islam. On November 9, 2001, I published my first commentary, arguing that the vast core of American Muslims were loyal to the flag and U.S. Constitution and that radical spokesmen did not represent the core community. This article led to the formation of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD).
In Phoenix in 2004, AIFD organized the first Muslim rally against terrorism. We first engaged the Arizona Interfaith Movement, a statewide inclusive interfaith leadership organization, to support Muslims willing to take this stance. We then approached the Valley Imam Council, which represents nearly all of the local Phoenix mosques and their imams. At the time, Shahin chaired the council. We made it clear that the rally would be apolitical and that the only purpose was to make clear, unambiguous statements about Islamic morality and ethics, including unequivocal statements that there is never any justification for suicide, terrorism (the intentional targeting of noncombatants), and homicide bombing.
Rather than support such goals, Shahin, Shqeirat, and Saadeddin directed the Valley Council of Imams to withdraw support. They used their pulpits instead to criticize the rally and its organizers. Citing the Arab-Israeli conflict, they objected to the idea that terrorism is always forbidden. The local CAIR chapter also withdrew. Once the Valley Council of Imams pulled out, the Interfaith Movement also withdrew support for fear that the rally would not advance harmony.
AIFD proceeded alone. The April 25, 2004 "Standing with Muslims against Terrorism" rally was then held without the public support of any local imams or any of the known Islamist organizations. The rally was a success. Four hundred people attended, perhaps half of whom were Muslims. All major local networks covered it. When the media asked local imams about their refusal to participate, they responded by criticizing the rally's apolitical nature and said they would only attend rallies in which they could argue that U.S. foreign policy was a major cause of terrorism. They also objected to any linkage of Muslims with terrorism in the rally name.
Two weeks later, CAIR-Arizona held a counter "Muslim Americans for Human Rights and Dignity" rally in which they failed to condemn explicitly terrorism and terrorists by name. The rally drew only seventy-five people. The failure of CAIR and the local imams to rally much support shows the falsehood of their claim to represent the mainstream Muslim community. Many Muslims recognize the problem posed by terrorists justifying their actions in Islam. To deny the association of Muslims with terrorism—as Islamist organizations like CAIR do—is counterproductive. The Islamist strategy of picking and choosing whom they identify as a Muslim depending on the situation is disingenuous. To deny that the Fort Dix terrorist attack plotters were not real Muslims, as CAIR-Arizona chairman (and U.S. Airways employee) Mohammed El-Sharkawy did, sidesteps the problem. And to argue that only scholars can determine who is and who is not a true Muslim not only appropriates God's duty but also diminishes the egalitarian nature of traditional Islam that accepts no intermediaries between the individual and God.
Creating intermediaries in order to claim false mandate remains the root of the imams' strategy. Organizations such as the National American Imams Federation and the Assembly of American Muslim Jurists exist to impose hierarchy and, from that self-appointed hierarchy, to establish the mandate to speak on behalf of the entire Muslim community. The Islamic Society of North America, an un-indicted coconspirator in the United States of America vs. Holy Land Foundation et al. terrorism financing trial, formed a Leadership Development Center to train and indoctrinate imams. On March 7, 2007, it announced a leadership certifying program for imams in conjunction with the National American Imams Federation.
Establishing false leadership claims is also one reason why both CAIR and various Islamist imams attempt to partner with U.S. law enforcement. On CNN's Paula Zahn Now, Shahin said, "If you go back to our background, I am personally the chairperson for the police advisory board. I did a presentation for the FBI agent in Phoenix. I did [a] presentation with CAIR-Arizona to Yuma Air Force Base for more than 600 Marines." For many imams, participation in such programs bestows or recognizes legitimacy. This is wrong on two counts, however. First, it again conflates policy work with religious legitimacy and, second, groups often exaggerate their partnerships. One Homeland Security official said, "It is not uncommon for that particular organization [CAIR] to issue a press release attempting to overstate their interaction with the department." Within the mosque, however, congregants rarely question self-appointed Islamist spokesmen about the basis of their authority or legitimacy to represent attendees. Their inflated associations outside the mosque feed their own efforts to legitimize control and tribalization. And government and media acceptance of claims of victimization stops many non-Muslims from questioning the ideological motivations behind the religious rhetoric that many of these groups employ.
For moderate, traditional Islam to reassert itself against well-funded Islamist organizations, though, it is necessary to examine how political ideology pollutes spirituality. CAIR's involvement in the flying imam suit is problematic. Many Muslims have seen the call by Nihad Awad, executive director of CAIR's national office, for Muslims to report their victimization to CAIR. "Reporting to an organization like CAIR is important, because it is empowering. It is empowering to the Muslims themselves who report; it is empowering to the organization, and it is important to the status of Muslims within the United States," he told an audience at the All Dulles (Virginia) Area Muslim Society, urging them to inflate the Muslim component of the FBI's annual hate crime statistics to compare better to figures on anti-Jewish violence. In 2005, for example, the FBI catalogued 848 anti-Semitic hate crimes, 128 anti-Islamic hate crimes, and 115 anti-Christian hate crimes. In essence, therefore, CAIR's focus on victimization and minority politics is motivated by political Islam. The imams' victimization routine creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that CAIR can use to bolster its own claims to be a civil rights organization. It would be as if firefighters committed arson in order to bolster their position inside a community. That CAIR seeks to create facts to justify its political and foreign policy positions also shows the rigidity of its top-down approach to the community it claims to represent.
The Struggle for American Islam
While the press may focus on the flying imams case, for American Muslims, the battle is broader. On one side are the imams represented by CAIR, the Islamic Society for North America, and the North American Imams Federation, all of which lean toward an Islamist view supporting greater interplay between religion and politics and the primacy of sectarian identity. On the other side are Muslims embracing Western secular democracy. The two are mutually exclusive in their interpretation of religious hierarchy, the interplay between theology and contemporary politics, individuality, and tolerance.
Responsibility for the victory of traditional, tolerant, and pluralistic interpretations of Islam lies with Muslims and Muslims alone. The intellectual marginalization of Islamists is the duty of Muslims who value the principles upon which the United States was built and now stands. This requires recognizing the primacy of the Constitution in political life, even if Muslims turn to the Qur'an in their spiritual life. Islamists, though, insist that regardless of temporal government, the Qur'an should be the central guiding document for legislation and interpretation. Islamists believe the Qur'an is the only source of law while non-Islamists believe it is just one source.
Perhaps this was the reason why the Prophet Muhammad and his companions sought to avoid creation of the same religious intermediary class that today CAIR, the Islamic Society of North America, and the North American Imams Federation presume to fill.
Within the United States today, most Muslim organizations—CAIR, the North American Imams' Federation, the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America, the Muslim Students' Association, the Islamic Society of North America, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Muslim American Society, the Islamic Circle of North America, and the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy—embrace the Islamist approach. Many imams affiliate themselves with these organizations, fundraise on their behalf, and parrot the political agenda of these organizations. The flying imams lawsuit is just one more example of the synergy between the North American Imams Federation and CAIR.
A few small organizations—the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, the American Islamic Congress, the Islamic Supreme Council of America, the Center for Eurasian Policy, and the Center for Islamic Pluralism—are moderate and support a separation between spirituality and temporal politics. They are underrepresented in terms of resources and organization. Still, it is this nascent anti-Islamist movement upon which the Muslim fight to embrace American pluralism and freedom depends. It is also essential for interfaith relations. Many Americans are hungry to hear from Muslims who are not apologists for terror, who are ready to lead the fight against militant Islamism, who respect the division between mosque and state, and who do not seek to use their religion as a vehicle to change the American political landscape.
The struggle of these two trends to define Islam in America will last generations. It will require development of a new Islamic ideology, one born from the founding ideology of the United States. This will require not only renewed ijtihad (interpretation) but also the confidence of American Muslims to overcome Islamist and radical Wahhabist attempts to label any effort to separate religion and government as bid‘a (illegitimate invention). While the transnational umma (Muslim community) might engage itself in issues regarding theology, charity, socialization, and worship, U.S. politics should be blind to faith. For any American citizen or resident, the concept of loyalty to umma should be subordinate to loyalty to state and allegiance to the U.S. Constitution.
Shari‘a (Islamic law) might guide Muslim individuals as they choose in their homes, but it should not be invoked in government. Faith will still inspire Muslim behavior and actions, as it does with followers of other religions, but it should not be articulated in government. The embrace and exposure of Islamist agendas will repel most Muslims. It is no surprise that despite its claims to represent American Muslims, CAIR's membership has plummeted 90 percent since 9-11, a claim it first refuted as a "hit piece" before confirming it in an amicus brief to the Dallas federal court hearing in the Holy Land Foundation case. A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that a plurality of Muslims believes mosques should remain apolitical, a finding which suggests the majority may oppose theocracy and Islamism. The finding is also significant when put in the context of the fact that many Muslims came to the United States from autocratic societies where the mosque was often the only haven for political speech. That so many now desire apolitical sermons suggests that they have come to understand and appreciate the freedoms of U.S. society.
A Manifesto to Defeat Islamism
In 1964, Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's leading theoretician, published Ma‘alim fi al-Tariq (Milestones) in which he laid out steps to achieve an Islamic state and defeat the West. He described a generational process to ensure the victory of Islamism over Western liberal society. Liberal and traditional Muslims have yet to wage an effective counter-jihad against their Islamist brethren. There does not yet exist a liberal Muslim intellectual work equivalent to Milestones to lay the groundwork to defeat Islamism and ensure the creation of integrationist, tolerant American Muslim institutions.
A starting point to counter the Qutb construct would be for Muslim leaders to acknowledge ten points:
An Islamic narrative should not constrain universal human principles.
Mosques should support the separation of church and state, even as they take stands on social or political issues.
The affirmation of an egalitarian approach to faith beyond the constraints of simple tolerance. Tolerance implies superiority while pluralism implies equality.
Recognition that if government enacts the literal laws of God rather than natural or human law, then government becomes God and abrogates religion and the personal nature of the relationship with God.
Separation of mosque and state to include the abrogation of all blasphemy and apostasy laws.
Empowerment of women's liberation and advocacy for equality as is currently absent in many Muslim-majority, misogynistic cultures.
Ijtihad negating the need for Muslims active in politics today to bring theology into the political debate. Nowhere in the Qur'an does God tell Muslims to mix politics and religion or instruct by what document governments should be guided.
Creation of movements and organizations that are specifically opposed to such radical or terrorism-supporting groups as Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Jamaat al-Islamiya, and Al-Muhajiroun, to name a few, rather than simply being against undefined, generic notions of terrorism.
Public identification without apologetics of leaders and governments of Muslim majority countries who are dictators and despots and are, as such, anti-liberty and anti-pluralism. Muslims enjoying freedom in the West have yet to create mass movements to liberate their motherlands from dictatorship and theocracy and to move these toward secular democracies founded on individual liberties for all based in natural law.
Establishment of classical liberal Muslim institutions and think-tanks to articulate, disseminate, and educate concerning the above principles. The idea that individual liberty and freedom need not be mutually exclusive with Muslim theology must be taught to Muslim youth.
Countering Islamism and combating Islamist terrorism should be a greater public responsibility for the organized American Muslim community than the obsession with civil rights and victimization in which current Islamist organizations engage. Americans living in fear for their security are looking to moderate, traditional Muslims to lead this fight. The credibility of the Muslim community suffers because groups such as CAIR, ISNA, and the North American Imams Federation deny the interplay between Islamism and terrorism.
Non-Muslims also have a role. Both the U.S. government and mainstream media often give Islamists and their organizations exclusive voice to speak on behalf of American Muslims, which creates a cycle of apparent, if not real, empowerment. Seldom do they turn to non-Islamists and anti-Islamists who may represent far more American Muslims. The recent refusal of PBS to air the ABG Films, Inc. documentary Islam v. Islamists is a prime example of the manner in which media producers and executives shield Islamists from criticism.
The imams and clerics who push for Islamist societies are none other than politicians who cloak themselves in religious jargon. It is naïve to treat these clerics as simple activists or consider their civil rights discourse at face value. Until moderate Muslims challenge their actions, terror networks and their ideologies will flourish. Freedom and liberty are prerequisites to bring an individual close to God through religious practice free from coercion. If some imams fear that individuals will lose faith without coercive direction, then they misunderstand both Islam and liberty.
As lawyers argue the merits of the flying imams' case in a Minneapolis courtroom, a silver lining is apparent: Excessive litigation on their part has eroded support for Islamist organizations such as CAIR, ISNA, and the National American Imams Federation, both nationally and also within the Muslim community. Their loss could be the moderates' and liberals' opportunity to create a new American Muslim narrative.
M. Zuhdi Jasser, a former U.S. Navy lieutenant commander, is chairman of the board of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (www.aifdemocracy.org).