On the surface, the recent hostage crisis in a Texas synagogue by Malik Faisal Akram, a British citizen, initially seemed like a fairly run-of-the mill terrorist attack. The suspect entered the synagogue, held four people hostage, and demanded the release of his “sister” Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani national who is serving an 86-year sentence in a federal prison for two attempted murders, among other crimes. Convicted on terrorism charges, she was once considered the world’s most wanted woman.
Contrary to stereotypes, Siddiqui was not a poor illiterate provincial but a U.S.-educated academic with a PhD. The advocates for her release at the time ranged from the Islamic State/ISIS to CAIR, a U.S.-based Muslim Brotherhood front organization. CAIR dubs itself as a Muslim civil rights organization, despite being an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation terrorism financing trials. All claimed that she had been unjustly maligned.
Over the years, Lady Al Qaeda’s case faded from public attention, as did the campaigns for her release. For that reason, Akram’s focus on this particular case at first glance appeared puzzling, once it became obvious that Siddiqui was not actually a relative of Akram but was using the Islamist equivalent of “comrade,” referencing spiritual kinship. The FBI initially stated that although a synagogue was attacked, the case had nothing to do with anti-Semitism. That raised ire in Jewish communities around the U.S., and as more information came out, it became obvious that the FBI’s seeming attempt to divest from the implication of anti-Semitism was even more misguided than it appeared to be.
Siddiqui herself was an anti-Semite, who blamed her capture on Israel and objected to having “Zionist Jews” in the jury for her trial. Moreover, Akram indicated that the taking of a synagogue in a tiny Texas town as opposed to the church across the street was in line with his view that Jews controlled U.S. policy and that therefore the authorities would listen if he took over a Jewish target.
But Akram’s personal biases are only a part of the picture. Months before the incident, CAIR renewed its efforts to liberate “Lady Al Qaeda” from federal custody, starting the Free Aafia Siddiqui movement. The campaign was allegedly prompted by an incident in August 2021 when Siddiqui was attacked by another inmate. CAIR ended up doing multiple events pushing for Siddiqui’s release over the span of a few months, raising questions about the organization’s priorities. Styling itself as a defender of civil rights for Muslim American communities, the organization is seen spending an inordinate amount of time defending one terrorist. Furthermore, throughout the campaign, which culminated in the hostage taking, CAIR lent support to one of its leaders, Zahra Billoo, who claimed that “Zionists synagogues” are behind Islamophobia, police brutality, and border control. CAIR clearly offers institutional support for the public expression of Jew hatred, which at the very least could have inspired Akram and others like him.
Akram himself comes from a Deobandi background, from a school of thought called Tablighi Jamaat, which is prevalent in Afghanistan and Pakistan and banned in Saudi Arabia, where it is seen as extremist and an “entry point to terrorism.” While CAIR is inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, founded by Egypt’s Hassan El Banna, political Islamist movements have more in common in terms of roots and political orientation than in cultural influences.
Divisive exclusionary views of non-followers and rejection of the history of cooperation between Jews and Muslims going back to the early days of Islam in Arabia is one unifying motif. In the words of one follower: “Al-Houthi, ISIS, the Tablighi group, Ibn Baz, Al-Fawzan, Shiites, Sufis, and all the Muslims of the world, before and after, firmly believe in cursing the Jews.” This attempt to hijack the perspective that the “cursing of the Jews” refers specifically to the Jews who have strayed from the “derech” and who were cursed not by the Muslims but by the warnings of their own prophets is the common denominator to various Islamist movements. The corrosive effect such line of thought has had on the Muslim world is evident after watching decades of propaganda in the media and education in countries where such movements have held sway, destroying and dividing even those societies where Jews are negligible in number and whose presence is not felt. Still the Islamist who made the comment was correct in underscoring that all Islamist movements (rather than all Muslims) do indeed share this view, and for that reason, despite their differences and struggle for power and resources, manage to cooperate and build alliances among themselves. The Zaidi Shia Houthis, influenced by Khomeinist extremism, share the same aversion to Jews, the U.S. Constitution, classical liberal values, Israel, women, minorities, and individual rights as do Muslim Brotherhood followers who originate from Sunni backgrounds.
Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood, which entrenched itself in the U.S. in the 1950s and also spread across Europe, supported the Islamic Revolution in Iran; for his part, Khomeini popularized Sayyid Qutb’s writings, which became the foundational texts of Brotherhood ideology, in Farsi. Revolutionary zeal could have been as divisive as it was unifying. The Brotherhood imagined an undefined Caliphate, whereas Khomeini pursued a strange mixture of a Persian neo-Imperialism governed by his doctrinal adaptations and distortions of Shi’a Islam.
But finding the common enemy in Jews and various others who have strayed from the tenets of their ideologies brought the two otherwise conflicting movements together. CAIR, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), and other such organizations have consistently underscored their aversion to Jewish communities, not just the political issue of the State of Israel. ISNA was once part of Jewish organizational outreach efforts, but eventually left these attempts. In no cases of dialogue between Islamist groups in the US and Jewish organizations did the issue of community antisemitism and Islamist doctrinal view of the Jews ever shift, as is obvious from all public records of rhetoric by the Islamist organizations and activists.
Worse, following the Texas synagogue hostage-taking, CAIR and others raised the alarm about the possibility of Islamophobia rising as a result of an Islamist gaining the limelight, and thus perpetuated a victimhood narrative rather than joining in with other communities to condemn anti-Semitism. CAIR and other Islamist organizations will once in a while join group efforts to “fight anti-Semitism,” but only if Islamophobia is brought up simultaneously, rejecting the particularism and unique nature of rising anti-Semitism in the U.S. Victim Olympics naturally strike many as insincere and self-serving, but the situation may be more sinister. While it is certainly possible that Akram was merely inspired by CAIR’s campaign to free Siddiqui, it is becoming increasingly apparent that Akram had some organized help at various stages of his plan.
It is also clear that his target was not randomly selected, as a recording of his phone call recently revealed. Akram cursed the U.S., attacked Jews, and also boasted of having hundreds of ammunition rounds for a firearm he had illegally procured. The released details raise more questions than they answer. Where did Akram get the money to purchase the weapon? How did he, with his radical affiliation, evade U.S. security scrutiny? How did Akram get the funding to travel? Who were his contacts in the U.S.? Why did he call a female Reform rabbi in NYC—twice? Why were authorities not alerted when Akram was turned away from a local mosque in Texas after being refused a place to stay?
But the elephant in the room has thus far not been addressed: was Akram merely inspired by CAIR’s campaign or was there some level of coordination between CAIR and their more violent fellow travelers across the pond? After dodging the Holy Land Foundation indictments, CAIR took measures to restore its image by changing its board, but its co-founder and national executive director Nihad Awad remained. Furthermore, CAIR’s coordination of political causes with other Muslim Brotherhood front organizations and with NIAC, the unregistered Iran lobby group co-founded by Trita Parsi, which became best known for its defense of the JCPOA, indicate that CAIR’s ideological proclivities have not changed. It has certainly not gone out of its way to condemn Hamas. A recent sting operation revealed that CAIR has not in fact cut ties with Hamas. Hamas is another Muslim Brotherhood byproduct, designated as a terrorist organization in the U.S., and viewed as such throughout the Middle East. If CAIR is still in cahoots with Hamas, what is stopping it from working with other extremist groups such as the Tablighi group?
Perhaps this incident will finally start raising awareness in the Jewish community of the threat of political Islam to Jews specifically. While the onus of the woke ideologues is on the poorly named “white nationalism” (a term that makes no sense), anti-Semitism endemic to Islamist movements evades scrutiny by all but a few conservative-leaning groups. Alas, even the classical liberals and conservatives have overall been at best nonchalant about the threat of political Islam to democratic institutions, liberal values, and law and order. On the one hand, there is a significant ignorance of political Islam ideologies that makes many reluctant to call out its dogma for fear of inadvertently offending Muslims. On the other, the overall political context makes the problem of political Islam a low priority for most people, Jewish communities and classical liberals included.
The political apathy is explainable by several factors. First, political Islam groups have made a cozy alliance with Democratic party operatives, through a combination of generous political donations and influence campaigns, and by outright disinformation, presenting themselves as the mainstream of Muslim American communities and as the authoritative voices on Muslim civil rights issues. In reality, these groups are a fringe minority recycling and cross-pollinating members from charity to charity, who nevertheless go to great lengths to suppress alternative voices. CAIR and others receive the sort of support that nascent community organizations do not; they portray themselves as pan-Islamic organizations ignoring the fact that Muslim American communities are culturally and religious diverse.
They have also gained legitimacy by being the only game in town and forming partnerships with political training groups, intelligence agencies and law enforcement, and soft power institutions. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood is dying throughout the Arab world, and its leadership in Europe has splintered between Turkey and London. Faced with corruption, internal power struggles, mismanagement, and conflicting priorities, the movement seems to be propped up more by leftist fellow travelers and the media than by the natural following it once enjoyed. Perhaps the repeated corruption, ethical violations, and mismanagement by Islamists in power have done more damage to the image of political Islam movements than any counterpropaganda could. In the U.S., however, the trend is going in the opposite direction, at least in the levers of power if not objective recruitment numbers.
The more conservative-leaning population in the United States may not be sympathetic to Islamists but does not prioritize their threat either, choosing to focus on either violent terrorist organizations or on state actors such as Iran, China, or Russia. The threat of ideological infiltration and subversion of U.S. educational, political, and media institutions is seen to be more a result of “woke” ideology than Islamism. However, Islamist movements are typically flexible in their partnerships, which results in sometimes surprising alliances of woke ideologues and conservative Islamists. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib’s support for radical/woke leftist causes at home while pulling the support for conservative Old Guard and regimes in Muslim majority states is just one absurd example of this apparent double standard. Conservative-leaning audiences are not primed for fighting ideological threats. Political leaders (with few exceptions) either generalize and project Islamism on Muslims, incurring a backlash, or otherwise rank the threat of political penetration as low on the radar if not outright paranoid. Others do acknowledge the threat but still see state actors as the immediate danger. Unlike state actors, political Islam movements are hard to define and quantify—and they change names and identities to avoid detection and designation.
There is also a category of political leaders who are fully aware of the Islamist threat but intentionally refuse to confront it; while even corruption cannot force them to go outright against the party line on such organizations, they can be convinced to keep silent, avoid raising awareness, or downplay the priority. At the end of the day, only a handful of effective political leaders understand the full scope of Islamist activity and the danger it presents but fighting in isolation generally does not lead to successful legislative or executive outcomes. So far no Republican administration has moved to crack down on Islamist financing.
To change the status quo, it is not enough to propose bills outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood or designating it as a terrorist organization, particularly since no administration is likely to move on such an effort. The reasons for that include the different legal definitions of terrorism in the U.S. from that of other countries that have already done so; effective political lobbying by Muslim Brotherhood front organizations and their partners in U.S. government institutions; a general lack of interest and consensus; and a lack of awareness among voters. Educational outreach, public hearings on transparency and ideology of these organizations, and mobilization by soft power institutions such as think tanks are necessary to make this cause a priority. Furthermore, viewing Islamists as an organized crime structure rather than as terrorists might be an easier track to pursue legally, given that terrorism is only one aspect of the Islamist threat, propaganda and political operations, such as lobbying and potentially bribery, being far more prevalent and successful in the United States. Likewise, pro-Islamist institutions are funded far better than their opponents.
Those who are concerned about Islamism and Islamist anti-Semitism should push for the creation of viable educational and investigative initiatives and mechanisms. Jewish and pro-Israel groups should not rest on the laurels of fighting popular causes du jour such as white nationalism but be at the vanguard of addressing emerging and growing threats before they gain political leverage. The Lady Al Qaeda campaign may be an early effort by Islamists to promote and whitewash anti-Semitic terrorists, but it is not the only one. DAWN MENA, a Washington-based organization claiming to fight for human rights and democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, has formed a partnership with the U.S. State Department to address the killers of Jamal Khashoggi, another Muslim Brotherhood activist and anti-Semite. But upon closer examination, this seemingly humanitarian effort has focused on getting Israeli cybersecurity companies such as NSO banned in the United States, while their social media accounts in Arabic call for BDS and spread blood libels claiming that Israel is an apartheid state.
The Jewish community and the United States in general can no longer afford the luxury of willful blindness and complacency when it comes to the danger of political Islam and its role in governance. Bigotry against Muslims needs to be fought, but the foundation for response to biases lies in the US Constitution, Jewish value of human lives, and independent thinking, not in concepts promoted by ideologues and developed with the sole purpose of chilling debate of religion’s role in society. Finally, the greatest danger of political Islam is to other Muslims. Muslim communities in the US recognize the danger of divisive religious and political efforts; the Jewish organizations should embrace and support individuals who understand the common threat Muslim Brotherhood fronts present to Muslims and Jews by promoting hatred, exclusivity, and fanaticism.