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Testimony before the
Committee on Homeland Security
and Governmental Affairs of the US Senate

June 14, 2017 — Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, US Senate, Dirksen Senate Office Building, Washington DC


Thank you, Chairman Johnson and members of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. I am Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and founder of the AHA Foundation. It is a privilege to speak with you today about the ideology underlying Islamist terrorism, and the connection between non-violent Islamist extremism and violent Islamist extremism.

My testimony is based, with slight modifications, on my recently published monograph, The Challenge of Dawa: Political Islam as Ideology and Movement and How to Counter It.

In the time since my monograph was published earlier this year, a series of attacks in Manchester and London have led British Prime Minister Theresa May to call for tackling the ideology underlying Islamist terrorism. According to May, a series of “difficult and often embarrassing conversations” will be required in order to tackle extremism in the United Kingdom.

In France, under the state of emergency imposed after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, authorities have closed twenty mosques and prayer halls for extremist preaching. In mid-November of 2016, German authorities in sixty cities searched more than 190 mosques, apartments, and of offices connected with “True Religion,” a radical Islamist group accused of radicalizing German Muslims and of recruiting for the Islamic State. These stringent measures follow years of relative inaction.

In the United States, it is refreshing and heartening that President Trump acknowledges the need for an ideological campaign against “radical Islam.” This deserves to be called a paradigm shift. President Bush often referred to a “war on terror,” but terror is a tactic that can be used for a variety of ideological objectives. President Obama stated that he was opposed to “violent extremism” and even organized an international summit around this subject.

In what follows, however, I shall refer to “political Islam” rather than radical Islam. Political Islam is not just a religion as most Western citizens recognize the term “religion,” a faith; it is also a political ideology, a legal order, and in many ways also a military doctrine associated with the campaigns of the Prophet Muhammad. Political Islam rejects any kind of distinction between religion and politics, mosque and state. Political Islam even rejects the modern state in favor of a caliphate. My central argument is that political Islam implies a constitutional order fundamentally incompatible with the US Constitution and with the “constitution of liberty” that is the foundation of the American way of life.

There is no point in denying that political Islam as an ideology has its foundation in Islamic doctrine. Muhammad is the founder of Islam. He is regarded as the last Prophet by Muslims. However, “Islam,” “Islamism,” and “Muslims” are distinct concepts. Not all Muslims are Islamists, let alone violent, but all Islamists — including those who use violence — are Muslims. I believe the religion of Islam itself is indeed capable of reformation, if only to distinguish it more clearly from the political ideology of Islamism. But that task of reform can only be carried out by Muslims.

Insisting that radical Islamists have “nothing to do with Islam” has led US policy makers to commit numerous strategic errors since 9/11. One is to distinguish between a “tiny” group of extremists and an “overwhelming” majority of “moderate” Muslims. I prefer to differentiate among Medina Muslims, who embrace the militant political ideology adopted by Muhammad in Medina; Mecca Muslims, who prefer the religion originally promoted by Muhammad in Mecca; and reformers, who are open to some kind of Muslim Reformation.

These distinctions have their origins in history. The formative period of Islam can be divided roughly into two phases: the spiritual phase, associated with Mecca, and the political phase that followed Muhammad’s move to Medina. There is a substantial difference between Qur’anic verses revealed in Mecca (largely spiritual in nature) and Qur’anic verses revealed in Medina (more political and even militaristic). There is also a difference in the behavior of the Prophet Muhammad: in Mecca, he was a spiritual preacher, but in Medina he became a political and military figure.

It cannot be said often enough that the United States is not at war with Islam or with Muslims. It is, however, bound to resist the political aspirations of Medina Muslims where those pose a direct threat to our civil and political liberties. It is also bound to ensure that Mecca Muslims and reforming Muslims enjoy the same protections as members of other religious communities who accept the fundamental principles of a free society. That includes protection from the tactics of intimidation that are so central to the ideology and practice of political Islam.

The Background

The conflict between the United States and political Islam in modern times dates back to at least 1979, when the US embassy in Tehran was seized by Islamic revolutionaries and fifty-two Americans were held hostage for 444 days. In the decades that followed the Iranian revolution, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania reminded Americans of the threat posed by political Islam. But it was not until the 9/11 attacks that political Islam as an ideology attracted sustained public attention. The September 11, 2001, attacks were inspired by a political ideology that has its foundation in Islam, specifically its formative period in Medina.

Since 9/11, at least $1.7 trillion has been spent on combat and reconstruction costs in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The total budgetary cost of the wars and homeland security from 2001 through 2016 is more than $3.6 trillion.12 Yet in spite of the sacrifices of more than 5,000 armed service personnel who have lost their lives since 9/11 and the tens of thousands of American soldiers who have been wounded, today political Islam is on the rise around the world. Violence is the most obvious — but not the only — manifestation of this trend. Jihadist groups have proliferated all over the Middle East and North Africa, especially where states are weak and civil wars rage (Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and Syria, not forgetting northern Nigeria). Islam-inspired terrorists also have a global reach. France is in a permanent state of emergency, while the United States has been profoundly shaken by terror attacks in Boston (the Marathon bombers); Fort Hood, Texas; San Bernardino, California; Orlando, Florida; and Ohio State University, to name but a few.

Of the last sixteen years, the worst year for terrorism was 2014, with ninety-three countries experiencing attacks and 32,765 people killed. The second worst was 2015, with 29,376 deaths. In 2015, four radical Islamic groups were responsible for percent of all deaths from terrorism: the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), Boko Haram, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda. Although the Muslim world itself bears the heaviest burden of jihadist violence, the West is increasingly under attack.

How large is the jihadist movement in the world? In Pakistan alone, where the population is almost entirely Muslim, 13 percent of Muslims surveyed — or more than 13 million adults — said that bombings and other forms of violence against civilian targets are often or sometimes justified in order to defend Islam from its enemies.

Disturbingly, the number of Western-born Muslim jihadists is sharply increasing. The United Nations estimated in November 2014 that some 15,000 foreign fighters from at least eighty nations have traveled to Syria to join the radical jihadists. Roughly a quarter of them come from Western Europe.

Yet the advance of political Islam manifests itself not only in acts of violence. Even as billions are spent on military intervention and drone strikes, the ideological infrastructure of political Islam in the United States continues to grow because officials are concerned only with criminal conspiracies to commit acts of violence, not with the ideology that inspires such acts.

According to one estimate, 10−15 percent of the world’s Muslims are Islamists. Out of well over 1.6 billion, or 23 percent of the globe’s population, that implies more than 160 million individuals. Based on survey data on attitudes toward sharia in Muslim countries, total support for Islamist activities in the world is likely significantly higher than that estimate.

Understanding Dawa

From 9/11 until now, the dominant Western response to political Islam has been to focus only on “terror” and “violent extremism.” This approach has failed. In focusing only on acts of violence, we have ignored the ideology that justifies, promotes, celebrates, and encourages those acts. By not fighting a war of ideas against political Islam (or “Islamism”) as an ideology and against those who spread that ideology, we have made a grave error.

If Islamism is the ideology, then dawa encompasses all the methods by which it is spread. The term “dawa” refers to activities carried out by Islamists to win adherents and enlist them in a campaign to impose sharia law on all societies. Dawa is not the Islamic equivalent of religious proselytizing, although it is often disguised as such by blending humanitarian activities with subversive political activities.

In theory, dawa is the call to Islam and consists of communication or proselytization. In practice, dawa by Islamist groups constitutes a process of radical ideological indoctrination, often under the cover of humanitarian relief work that is connected to jihad. Dawa activities carried out by Islamists target the individual, the family, the educational system, the workplace, the broader economy, society as a whole, and the political system.

Dawa as practiced by Islamists employs a wide range of mechanisms to advance the goal of imposing Islamic law (sharia) on society. This includes proselytization, but extends beyond that. In Western countries, dawa aims both to convert non-Muslims to political Islam and to bring about more extreme views among existing Muslims. The ultimate goal of dawa is to destroy the political institutions of a free society and replace them with strict sharia. Islamists rely on both violent and nonviolent means to achieve their objectives.

In 1998, Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Sheikh ibn Baz emphasized that dawa and jihad work together:

“The aim of da’wah and jihaad is not to shed blood, take wealth, or enslave women and children; these things happen incidentally but are not the aim. This only takes place when the disbelievers (non-Muslims) refrain from accepting the truth and persist in disbelief and refuse to be subdued and pay the jizya (tax levied on free non-Muslims living under Muslim rule) when it is requested from them. In this case, Allah has prescribed the Muslims to kill them, take their wealth as booty and enslave their women and children . . . this religion (Islam) . . . is superior to every law and system. . . . The truth has been spread through the correct Islamic da’wah, which in turn has been aided and supported by jihaad whenever anyone stood in its way. . . . It was jihaad and da’wah together which helped to open the doors to victories.”

Dawa is to the Islamists of today what the “long march through the institutions” was to twentieth-century Marxists. It is subversion from within, the use of religious freedom in order to undermine that very freedom. After Islamists gain power, dawa is to them what Gleichschaltung (synchronization) of all aspects of German state, civil, and social institutions was to the National Socialists.

There are of course differences. The biggest difference is that dawa is rooted in the Islamic practice of attempting to convert non-Muslims to accept the message of Islam. As it is an ostensibly religious missionary activity, proponents of dawa enjoy a much greater protection by the law in free societies than Marxists or fascists did in the past.

Worse, Islamist groups have enjoyed not just protection but at times official sponsorship from government agencies duped into regarding them as representatives of “moderate Muslims” simply because they do not engage in violence. Islamist groups that have been treated in this way include:

• The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)
• The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC)
• The International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT)
• The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), an umbrella organization with affiliates such as The Islamic Society of Boston.

These are only examples; it is not a comprehensive list.

The Sinews of Dawa

The global infrastructure of dawa is well funded, persistent, and resilient. From 1973 through 2002, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia spent an estimated $70 to $87 billion to promote dawa efforts abroad. 
Some of this money landed in the United States: Saudi Arabia helped finance at least 16 Islamic and cultural centers in California, Missouri, Michigan, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Virginia and Maryland.

Nongovernmental organizations in Kuwait, Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia continue to distribute large sums overseas to finance ideological indoctrination and activities. Powerful foundations such as the Qatar Foundation continue to grant financial support and legitimacy to radical Islamic ideology around the world.

Many Islamic charitable foundations use zakat (mandatory charity) funds to mix humanitarian outreach with ideological indoctrination, laying the ground for future intolerance, misogyny, and jihad, even if no violence is used in the short term. When informal funding mechanisms are included, the zakat funds available could reach “hundreds of billions of dollars” worldwide each year.

The Problem

Let it be said explicitly: the Islamists’ program is fundamentally incompatible with the US Constitution, religious tolerance, the equality of men and women, the tolerance of different sexual orientations, the ban on cruel and unusual punishment and other fundamental human rights.33

The biggest challenge the United States faces in combating political Islam, however, is the extent to which agents of dawa can exploit the constitutional and legal protections that guarantee American citizens freedom of religion and freedom of speech — freedoms that would of course be swept away if the Islamists achieved their goals.

In 2010, one senior American intelligence analyst summed up our predicament:

“In the US there are First Amendment issues we’re cognizant of. It’s not a crime to radicalize, only when it turns to violence . . . America is thus vulnerable to a threat that is not only diversifying, but arguably intensifying.”

To give just one example: A cleric in Maryland, Imam Suleiman Bengharsa, has openly endorsed the Islamic State, posted gruesome videos, and praised terrorist attacks overseas. As of February 2017, however, he remains a free man and US authorities insist nothing can be done against him because he has not yet plotted to commit a specific act of violence. One expert has said that Imam Bengharsa “can take his supporters right up to the line. It’s like making a cake and not putting in the final ingredient. It’s winks and nods all the way.” This is what we are up against.

The global constitution of political Islam is formidable. The Muslim Brotherhood, with its numerous American affiliates, is an important component, but not the only one. Even if one were able to eliminate the Brotherhood overnight, the ideological infrastructure of dawa would remain powerful. Political Islam also encompasses Salafist groups, Wahhabi groups, Deobandi groups, organizations such as Jamaat-e-Islami and Hizb ut-Tahrir. The network of radical Islamist preachers, “charities,” and organizations that perpetuate political Islam is already well established inside and outside the United States.

To resist the insidious advance of political Islam, we need to develop a strategy to counter not only those who use violence to advance their politico-religious objectives — the jihadists — but also the great and complex ideological infrastructure known as dawa, just as we countered both the Red Army and the ideology of communism in the Cold War. Focusing only on “terror” as a tactic is insufficient. We ignore at our peril the ideological infrastructure that supports political Islam in both its violent and its nonviolent forms.

It is not just that jihad is an extension of dawa; according to some observers, it is dawa by other means. Put differently, nonviolent and violent Islamists differ only on tactics; they share the same goal, which is to establish an unfree society ruled by strict sharia law. Institutionally, nonviolent Islamists have benefited from terror attacks committed by jihadists because such attacks make nonviolent Islamists appear moderate in the eyes of Western governments, even when their goals and values are not. This is known as the “positive radical flank effect.” Ian Johnson, a writer for The Wall Street Journal, observed:

“Al Qaeda was the best thing to happen to these [Islamist] groups. Nowadays, our bar is so low that if groups aren’t Al Qaeda, we’re happy. If they’re not overtly supporting terrorism, we think they’re okay. We don’t stop to think where the terrorism comes from, where the fish swim.”

Dawa must therefore be countered as much as jihad. Yet, as things stand, dawa cannot be countered. Its agents hide behind constitutional protections they themselves would dismantle unhesitatingly were they in power. In 2017, Congress must therefore give the president the tools he needs to dismantle the infrastructure of dawa in the United States and to counter the spread of political Islam at home and abroad.
While recognizing that our freedoms are sacrosanct, we must also remember the wise words of Karl Popper, who memorably identified what he called “the paradox of tolerance,” namely that “unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance.”

From Dawa to Jihad?

What is the connection from dawa to jihad — in other words, from the spreading of the doctrine of political Islam to the practice of terrorism? The end goals of Islamists are broadly similar, whether they use violence or not. As one analyst observed, “religious Islamist extremism is a unitary phenomenon of which violent and nonviolent extremism are two sides of the same coin.” The Dutch Intelligence agency AIVD stated in 2004:

In addition to organizations and networks concentrating on Dawa (the intensive propagation of the radical-Islamic ideology through missionary work) there are others who focus on the Jihad (in the sense of armed conflict). Some groups combine the two. The choice of Dawa-oriented groups for non-violent activities does not always imply that they are non-violent on principle. Often they simply do not yet consider armed Jihad expedient for practical reasons (Jihad can be counterproductive or impossible because of the other side’s superiority) or for religious reasons (the Jihad against non-believers is only possible when all Muslims have returned to the “pure” faith) . . . In particular, Dawa-oriented radical-Salafist organizations and networks from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states strongly emphasize “re-Islamization” of the Muslim minorities in the West. Their efforts are purposefully aimed at encouraging Muslims in the West to turn their back on Western values and standards.

Shaul Shay, former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council, has warned that the leap from dawa to jihad is not a great one:

Alongside the social and humanitarian activity of Dawa organizations, the Muslim believers were expected not to be content with merely strengthening their faith, but also to take action in the defense of Islam. From there the leap to adopting jihad concepts was not great.

Often dawa happens near conflict zones. In places where Muslims seem beleaguered, Islamic “charitable” efforts are nearly always accompanied by dawa. Hotspots of such activity include Afghanistan in the 1980s; Bosnia and Chechnya in the 1990s; Pakistan; the Palestinian territories; and many parts of sub-Saharan Africa today. In Bosnia in 1994 alone, Saudi donations to Islamic NGOs amounted to $150 million.

For Islamist groups in the Middle East such as Hamas, according to a 2006 study, dawa efforts are “crucial to terrorist activity: they provide cover for raising, laundering, and transferring funds, facilitate the group’s propaganda and recruitment efforts, provide employment to its operatives, and serve as a logistical support network for its terrorist operations.”

In Western countries, dawa efforts are often part of a strategy known as wassatiyya. The purpose of wassatiyya, the powerful Sunni cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi has said, is to conquer the West not by “the sword or armies, but by preaching and ideology.” Al-Qaradawi argues that the “Islamic Movement” is meant to “re-establish the khilafah” and “implement the Shari’ah of Allah.” To carry out wassatiyya, Qaradawi argues that Muslim communities in the West should have “their own religious, educational and recreational establishments.” He urges Islamists in the West “to have your small society within the larger society” and “your own “Muslim ghetto.”” Islamists committed to wassatiyya “speak of the West as a realm for Islamic proselytizing, or as a land of the religious call, a “Land of Dawa.” They explicitly regard it as territory to settle or colonize through immigrating, out-breeding non-Muslims, and converting as many people as possible to the tenets of political Islam.

The Moral Difference between the Constitution of Political Islam and the Constitution of Liberty

The most fundamental distinction between the constitution of political Islam and the constitution of liberty is in their differing approaches to the human individual and human life. For us, the individual life is an end in itself. The US Constitution grants individual human beings natural, inalienable, God-given rights. The job of the US government is to protect those inherent rights.

This could not be more different from a constitution that strips away all those rights so that sharia can be spread and implemented. For agents of political Islam, the individual life is merely an instrument. As analyst Cheryl Benard has observed, supporters of political Islam have as their goal:

. . . an ascetic, highly regimented, hierarchical society in which all members follow the requirements of Islamic ritual strictly, in which immorality is prevented by separating the sexes, which in turn is achieved by banishing women from the public domain, and in which life is visibly and constantly infused by religion. It is totalitarian in its negation of a private sphere, instead believing that it is the task of state authorities to compel the individual to adhere to proper Islamic behavior anywhere and everywhere. And ideally, it wants this system — which it believes to be the only rightful one — to expand until it controls the entire world and everyone is a Muslim.

The Threat of Dawa to the Constitutional Order

In analyzing the threat of radical Islam in its 2004 report, the Dutch Intelligence Agency AIVD defined dawa as “propagation of radical-Islamic ideology.” Beyond the threat of violence, the AIVD recognized that radical dawa activities undermine the “constitutional order” although they are “not necessarily violent by nature.” The AIVD agency also flagged the gradualist character of dawa:

The possible underestimation of these other kinds of potential threats from radical Islam is also a result of the fact that these are far more difficult to identify than acute threats of violence. They often involve insidious dangers. Also, the need for investigating such insidious dangers is more difficult to explain. Not everyone is immediately convinced that from the perspective of the democratic legal order certain forms of isolationism (taking the law into one’s own hands, no longer recognizing the government’s authority, developing parallel social structures) may constitute a problem.

The ultimate goal of dawa is nevertheless to get rid of the non-Islamic political order and replace it with the order of Islamic law. In the words of Albrecht Hauser:

“The idea of a global caliphate not only embracing the Ummah but also conquering the West for Islam is a dangerous Islamist dream. Some want to achieve this goal through da’wah; others think jihad is the best approach . . . If the West puts its collective head in the sand by denying the danger that political and militant Islam represents for liberally conceived civil society, its own refusal to act with seriousness will lead to bondage and dehumanization.”

Shaul Shay observes that governments in Muslim-majority countries are well aware of the connection between dawa and jihad and have applied tight supervision over dawa activities. Tight supervision, however, is not a solution to the problem presented by dawa; it is a way of postponing a confrontation. By contrast, Western governments are generally ignorant of Islamist ideology and strategy. They tend to see only the humanitarian side of dawa efforts, not dawa’s subversive side.

Jeffrey Bale, an analyst who has studied the phenomenon for decades, observes that “the gradualist but nonetheless corrosive cultural, social and political activities of the [Muslim] Brotherhood . . . represent a far greater danger to the West in the long run than the jihadists do.” Yet it is precisely this danger that the US government has chosen to ignore by focusing on the Osama bin Ladens of the world. This is not to say that we should stop fighting Islamist icons such as bin Laden, but rather that we should devote attention to the dawa path that they take in becoming jihadi icons.

The Agents of the Constitution of Political Islam

Today, there are three primary agents of political Islam:

  • Governments, primarily those of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and Iran, which fund radical dawa efforts and, occasionally, jihadist efforts in areas such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, and the Palestinian territories. President Obama’s former representative to Muslim communities, Farah Pandith, visited eighty countries between 2009 and 2014. “In each place I visited, the Wahhabi influence was an insidious presence . . . funding all this was Saudi money, which paid for things like the textbooks, mosques, TV stations and the training of Imams,” she wrote in 2015.
  • Nongovernmental movements and organizations, including local organizations, which directly undertake dawa. Sunni Islamic NGOs such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates concern us more than Shiite NGOs at the present time because they are more numerous and more active in the West. Many well-funded Islamic “charitable” foundations support dawa indoctrination, even if they stop short of funding jihadist activities themselves.
  • International organizations such as the OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) and its affiliated institutions, which work to spread political Islam around the world and legally ban any criticism of such activities.These agents of the constitution of political Islam are what I would call the stakeholders. There is a difference between a movement and a formal organization. The Muslim Brotherhood is an entity that is simultaneously a movement and a formal organization. It has numerous affiliate organizations and connections with various governments, front groups and individuals.

The Infrastructure of Dawa 

Many of the problems today stem from seemingly charitable Islamic organizations that mix humanitarian work with Islamist ideological indoctrination, planting the seeds of future intolerance, misogyny, and violence. 
The CIA estimated in 1996 that a third of the fifty Islamic NGOs conducting humanitarian work in the world “support terrorist groups or employ individuals who are suspected of having terrorist 
connections.”65 After 2001, the shock of 9/11 led US Treasury officials to attempt to curtail charitable funding of violent Islamist organizations such as Hamas, but funding of dawa continued.

From 1973 through 2002, the Saudi kingdom spent an estimated $70-$87 billion to promote dawa abroad. To give just one example, the Saudi Al-Haramain Foundation (closed in 2004) built 1,300 mosques, sponsored 3,000 preachers, and produced 20 million religious pamphlets.

In 2015, the British-based Development Initiatives group estimated that “the global volume of Zakat collected each year through formal mechanisms is, at the very least, in the tens of billions of dollars.” If informal mechanisms are included, “the actual amount available is likely to be much higher, and could potentially be in the hundreds of billions of dollars.”

In his analysis of the problem of Islamic charitable associations’ links to terror groups, Robert Looney noted that “money is quite fungible and some charity organizers are adept at creating gray areas.” Around the world, there are countless people who operate in the “informal market” or the criminal market.

Foreign funding of radical ideologies in Pakistan has caused destabilization. Thousands of schools in Pakistan funded with Saudi money, according to Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), “teach a version of Islam that leads . . . into an . . . anti-Western militancy.”

In Africa, and particularly in Somalia, Islamic NGOs generously financed by Gulf money have aggravated political tensions by engaging in Islamist ideological indoctrination. According to one recent study, the spread of Islamic extremism in northern Nigeria began “with graduates of the Islamic University of Medina [in Saudi Arabia] who returned home in the 1990s and 2000s.” Although the founder of Boko Haram, Muhammad Yusuf, was not himself a Medina graduate, he was a protégé of Shaykh Ja’far Mahmud Adam, who had studied at Medina.

Dawa in America

Over the past thirty years, “a vast web of ideological institutions in the West: think tanks, media outfits, educational centers, and Sharia councils” has been set up, often with money from Gulf foundations and individuals. Although Islamists do openly discuss their objectives, they are often discreet and much valuable information about their operations has been discovered only by chance. The network of dawa is tightly knit. In the United States, many leaders of the Islamist movement are related by marriage and long-standing ties of friendship; the leadership is a relatively small circle of several hundred people who work toward similar strategic objectives.

Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom found in 2005 that “Saudi-connected resources and publications on extremist ideology remain common reading and educational material in some of America’s main mosques . . . including Los Angeles, Oakland, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Washington, and New York.” The publications contained anti-American, anti-Semitic, and jihadist ideology, and advocated removing women from the public sphere entirely. Since 2005, a number of overtly hateful materials have been removed from American mosques, but as of 2017 the ideological infrastructure of political Islam in America remains largely intact. Removing hateful materials from Mosques and Islamic schools is like catching water from a leaking roof with a sieve. If the rest of the ideological infrastructure — the Board, the teachers and the Imams and the funding — remains intact, the content resurfaces; the message is disseminated to the students and the congregation anyway.

A crucial feature of dawa is its conscious deceptiveness. At a 1993 meeting of Hamas members and sympathizers in Philadelphia, Shukri Abu Baker, the former chief executive of the Holy Land Foundation, declared that “war is deception” and urged that “caution should be practiced not to reveal our true identity.” Also present at this meeting was CAIR founder Omar Ahmad, who compared the agent of dawa with “one who plays basketball; he makes a player believe that he is doing this while he does something else . . . politics is a completion of war.” To conceal CAIR’s support for Hamas, Ahmad recommended creating neutral-sounding front organizations such as a “Palestinian- American Friendship Association . . . This will be done in order to . . . put some honey a little bit at a time with the poison they’re given. But if from the first night you . . . call it ‘The Islamic Society for Youths’ Welfare,’ they will shut the door in your face.”

The case that best illustrates the dawa mode of operation in the United States is that of the Islamic Society of Boston. Among the many preachers and speakers who have appeared at the ISB in recent years are the notorious anti-Semites Yasir Qadhi, a member of the terror- linked Al Maghrib Institute; Salah Soltan of the Muslim Brotherhood; Abdul Nasir Jangda, the founder of the Qalam Institute; and his associate, AbdelRahman Murphy. Other speakers at the ISB have included Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim Brotherhood writer who has said killing Israeli schoolchildren is “contextually explicable;” Omar Suleiman, who has described homosexuality as a “disease” and a “repugnant shameless sin;” and Mufti Hussain Kamani, who has argued that a Muslim man must only fulfill his sexual desires “with his spouse . . . [or] with a female slave that belongs to him.” Kamani has also justified stoning adulterers to death and wife-beating.

The ISB illustrates the extent to which dawa in America is funded from abroad. A lawsuit initiated by the ISB in 2005 led to the disclosure that the organization had received over $8.6 million in donations from sources such as the Islamic Development Bank, which, at the time, was funded by the governments of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Libya; Saudi Arabia’s National Commercial Bank (NCB); and Lajnat al Dawa al Islamia, a charity connected to the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood and which, in 2004, the US government designated as a terrorist entity.

The ISB also illustrates the intimate connection from dawa to jihad. Over the past decade, no fewer than twelve congregants, supporters, staff members, and donors of the ISB have been imprisoned, deported, or killed, or are on the run. Notable examples are Abdulrahman Alamoudi, the founder of the ISB, who was jailed by an American court in 2004 for conspiring with the Libyan regime to assassinate Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia; Aafia Siddiqui, a regular worshipper at the ISB, now serving a prison sentence after plotting large-scale terror attacks on New York; and Tarek Mehanna, another ISB congregant who in 2012 was convicted of attempting to murder Americans and providing support to al-Qaeda. Both the Tsarnaev brothers, who carried out the Boston Marathon bombings, worshipped at the ISB.

The dominant strategy from 9/11 through the present, focusing only on Islamist violence, has failed. In focusing only on acts of violence, we have ignored the ideology that justifies, promotes, celebrates, and encourages violence, and the methods of dawa used to spread that ideology.

Without question, certain military operations against jihadist groups could be conducted more effectively. The virtual abandonment of Iraq, the overreliance on air power and drone strikes, the belief that terrorist networks can somehow be decapitated: all of these have been fundamental tactical errors. Nevertheless, a return to the highly effective counterinsurgency tactics of the Iraq “surge” and its counterpart in Afghanistan, while necessary, cannot be regarded as a sufficient response to the threat we face. Plainly, we cannot continue to fight political Islam by engaging in large-scale foreign military interventions. The American public has not unreasonably lost faith in that approach. So what else can be done?

First, we need a paradigm shift that recognizes how violent jihad is intertwined with the ideological infrastructure of dawa. In the old paradigm, we focused on combating Islamic terrorism.

In the new paradigm, we must continue to seek the destruction of groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, but we must also develop a suitable strategy to combat dawa.

This will reopen — if it was ever over — the contentious debate on how to balance civil rights with the need for security. There are trade-offs to be made here, as always. It is clearly fatalistic to suggest, as the Obama administration did, that Americans must learn to live with the terrorist threat and that, on the basis of statistics, Americans are more in danger from their own bathtubs than from Islamist terrorists. The terrorist threat cannot be measured only by the number of successful terrorist attacks. The threat also includes the many attacks that were thwarted by effective security measures and, more importantly, the unknown plots currently being hatched, and the probability that such plots will grow more numerous and more dangerous in the future. Bathtubs do not plot to overthrow the American way of life. The Islamists do.

It is the job of Congress to find the right balance in the face of this specific threat between our rights and freedoms and a policy package that is effective in combating the threat. Protection of the religious rights of the members of the Muslim minority who are not engaged in Islamist dawa should be an integral part of that package.

Congress must give the president in this war the tools he needs to identify and dismantle the infrastructure of dawa in the United States: the network of radical Islamist centers, associations, and mosques that perpetuate political Islam in its most radical form, even if they themselves do not perpetrate the violence that they so often preach.

This work is urgent. Two successive administrations have approached the problem of political Islam with a completely flawed strategy: the illusion that a line could somehow be drawn between Islam, “a religion of peace,” adhered to by a moderate majority, and “violent extremism,” engaged in by a tiny minority.

President Trump has already identified a different course of action. In August of 2016 he pledged that his administration would “speak out against the oppression of women, gays, and people of different faith” in the name of Islam. While the Obama administration has shunned proponents of Islamic reform, Trump vowed to “be a friend to all moderate Muslim reformers in the Middle East, and [to] amplify their voices. This includes speaking out against the horrible practice of honor killings,” as well as establishing as “one of my first acts as president . . . a Commission on Radical Islam which will include reformist voices in the Muslim community.” He also declared that “we should only admit into this country those who share our values and respect our people” — screening would-be immigrants for links not just to terrorism but also to political Islam as an ideology. It is now time to turn these words into action.

Policy Recommendations

In my monograph The Challenge of Dawa: Political Islam as Ideology and Movement and How to Counter It, I provide a detailed set of policy recommendations. Among them:

  • The administration should systematically map the infrastructure of subversive dawa activities around the world, in particular the connections of the global infrastructure
to the United States: funds, individuals, institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and governmental support.
  • As a condition of US friendship, the administration should require foreign governments as well as Islamic NGOs to stop supporting and financing subversive Islamist activities in the United States. Of particular interest here are Qatari, Kuwaiti, and Saudi “philanthropic” foundations.
  • The administration should acknowledge that combating political Islam by military means alone is not working.
  • The administration should understand the significance of Islamist dawa: the subversive, indoctrinating precursor to jihad. 
In reaching out to the Muslim American community, the administration should ally itself with genuine Muslim moderates and reformers, not with “nonviolent” Islamists.
  • Congress should carefully weigh the balance between civil liberties and that which is required to dismantle networks of dawa.



Source: Hearing Before the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, United States Senate, 115th Cong., 1st Session, June 14, 2017 (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 2018), pp. 43-64.