California is home to the country’s largest number of Muslims, according to the Pew Research Center an estimated 1% of the population, or approximately 398,000 of the total 39,776,830. No surprise given California’s population and long history of cultural diversity. But where does California’s Muslim population reside, and what exactly do they believe? Which of Islam’s many sects dominate the dialogue?
Demographers face a challenge in estimating exact figures for religious adherents by state – the US Census does not ask about religious affiliation – however, it is much more difficult to answer the pressing national security question: how many Muslims in America embrace and promote Islamism, a political ideology which fights for the implementation of illiberal Islamic law across the globe using both violent terrorism and non-violent political activism?
We will seek to answer that and other questions about the nature of Islamism and its efforts to influence American Muslims today by examining the mosques, Muslim organizations, and prominent Islamist activists of Southern California.
Part one will focus on two mosques of concern located in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. Future installments will look at mosques and organizations of concern in San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange and Los Angeles counties. Further installments will also feature the courageous moderate Muslims of California opposing radicalism in their communities.
But first, a question of methodology: how can one determine whether a mosque or Muslim charity is likely to be promoting radical views? An old aphorism applies: you are the company you keep. A mosque defines its moral boundaries by a) which Muslim organizations it partners with, b) who it features as speakers at its events, and c) the history, associations, and words of its imam(s) or lay leadership. For decades now law enforcement, national security professionals, and Middle East specialists have identified many of the organizations founded by Islamists and which promote Islamism today.
Many of Islamism’s most influential leaders, such as imam Siraj Wahhaj of Brooklyn’s Al-Taqwa mosque, possess long records of hateful, anti-Western, and bigoted statements. Fundamentalist preachers and radical activists have been identified by moderate Muslim groups, law enforcement professionals, and concerned citizens. Yet these theologians and scholars often remain regulars on the “Islamist lecture circuit,” giving speeches and collecting honorariums at annual fundraising banquets.
Wahhaj has addressed Southern California Muslim audiences regularly over the years. On March 9, 2013 Wahhaj spoke at the annual banquet of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California (ISCSC). He has also preached for the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), notably at the 21st annual banquet on November 18, 2017; the organization’s 15th anniversary gala on November 5, 2011; and the 12th anniversary banquet on November 1, 2008.
Khan founded the Muslim Student Association (MSA) at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1975. The MSA chapter is listed as a component of “our community” on the ISSB’s website. ISSB and its mosque’s close connection with the MSA should raise serious concerns.
Today MSA groups help to radicalize Muslim students on campuses all across the country. They lead disruptions against pro-Israel speakers such as in 2004 when the Santa Barbara MSA shouted down a lecture by Italian imam Abdul Hadi Palazzi, attacking him as a Zionist and a “finished man.”
A 2004 investigative article published by The Chicago Tribune reveals “A rare look at secretive Brotherhood in America” and explained the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in using MSA chapters to promote Islamist ideas: “U.S. Brotherhood was influential from its beginning – in 1963 it helped establish the Muslim Students Association, one of the first national Islamic groups in the U.S.” In 2007 the New York Police released a report describing the MSA as an “incubator” for extremism.
MSAs around the country also sponsor Islamist activists’ lectures – such as Linda Sarsour and Malik Ali. At the 2011 MSA conference Ali led attendants in what he described as “the pledge of allegiance” but what was actually the Muslim Brotherhood’s creed, emphasis added:
“Allah is my Lord; Islam is my life; the Qur’an is my guide; the Sunna is my practice; Jihad is my spirit; Righteousness is my character; paradise is my goal; I enjoin what is right; I forbid what is wrong; I will fight against oppression; and I will die to establish Islam.”
Sarsour has been an apologist for states operating under strict Islamic law, tweeting on September 22, 2011 that “shariah law is reasonable and once u read into the details it makes a lot of sense. People just know the basics”. In 2017 Sarsour also said “My favorite person in this room, that’s mutual, is Imam Siraj Wahhaj, who has been a mentor, and motivator and encourager of mine.”
And so it should come as little surprise that the ISSB also hosts controversial clerics. The ISSB lists recent speakers and among them is Imam Zaid Shakir, who has advocated for Islamic law, telling the New York Times in 2006, “he still hoped that one day the United States would be a Muslim country ruled by Islamic law, ‘not by violent means, but by persuasion… Every Muslim who is honest would say, I would like to see America become a Muslim country,’ he said.”
The Islamic Center of Conejo Valley (ICCV) in Newbury Park began in 1987 and since 2004 has been led by imam Ahmed Patel, who has appeared at the nearby Islamic Center of Ventura County’s events and retired this year. On March 17, 2017 the mosque held “CAIR: The Road Ahead,” an event promoting CAIR and featuring Hussam Ayloush, the longstanding executive director of its Los Angeles chapter. Given this CAIR event it’s little surprise that in October of 2017 two gay Muslims attended the mosque and reported being “not very welcomed.”
Opposition to LGBTQ Muslims has also manifested in CAIR before, notably in 2015 when CAIR-Arizona refused to assist a transgender Muslim in a lawsuit, and in the actions of CAIR-Michigan Executive Director Dawud Walid who is known for harassing gay Muslims. The aforementioned CAIR regular speaker Wahhaj also affirms the organization’s anti-gay orientation in his preaching. Patel appears to embrace this view as well, telling the VC Reporter in December 2016, “Islam as a religion does not allow some of these practices mentioned such as gay marriage. The Islamic Center must adhere to those values and we have no way of changing those values because they are the laws of Allah.”
CAIR possesses a troubled history with law enforcement: in 2008 they were named as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the Holy Land Foundation fundraising trial and in 2009 as a result, the FBI announced it would no longer work with the group. CAIR filed an amicus brief in an effort to remove the designation, prompting federal prosecutors to respond (page 58, footnote 13), “from its founding by Muslim Brotherhood leaders, CAIR conspired with other affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood to support terrorists.”
Despite CAIR’s protestations that such investigations into their background are Islamophobic, Muslim countries such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have also targeted CAIR for its extremist behavior, designating them a terrorist organization in 2014.
Ayloush has earned his share of headlines with his frequently radical, anti-American rhetoric, one example being in December 2015 when he said,
“Let’s not forget that some of our own foreign policy, as Americans, as the West, have fueled that extremism… When we support coup leaders in Egypt or other places, when we supports dictatorship, oppressive regimes around the world that push people over on the edge, then they become extremists, then they become terrorists. We are partly responsible.”
The mosque possesses two other concerning connections to Islamic extremism. First, where did Patel educate himself to become an imam and what is taught there? One bio states he attended
Darul Uloom al-arabiya al-islamiya in England, graduating in 1993 and memorizing the Qur’an. The term “Darul Uloom” from Arabic translates as “house of knowledge” and it signals that a mosque or school is in the Deobandi tradition, a movement that began with Indian and South Asian Muslims in the 19th century rebelling against British rule, but that came to be shaped in the 1970s by Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi ideology.
Second, in 2016 ICCV participated in “Open Mosque Day,” an initiative created by the aforementioned Islamic Shura Council of Southern California. While the day’s purported goal is to, in Patel’s words, show that “we want you to know that we’re like you” and to counter, “this notion that mosques were hotbeds of radical activity or that people were being educated to become terrorists” the program’s roots in the Shura Council undercut these ambitions. Visit the Shura Council’s website to see a familiar face advertised prominently for an October event:
“Reclaiming the Legacy of Malcolm X: A Benefit Dinner for the Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational” featured another California appearance from Wahhaj. Given the member organizations which the council includes, it should come as little surprise of its sponsorship of extremist interpretations of Islam. Included are: CAIR-LA; the terrorism-supporting charities of Helping Hand for Relief and Development, the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) Relief, and Islamic Relief; the MSA’s Western division; and the LA branch of the Muslim American Society (MAS), another organization the UAE has designated as a terrorist group for its close connections to the Muslim Brotherhood.
At MAS-LA’s recent 21st annual convention from November 22 through the 24, the prominent Muslim Brotherhood leader Tareq Al-Suwaidan was a keynote speaker. Al-Suwaidan has made openly anti-Semitic statements – “The absolutely most dangerous thing is the Jews. They are the most dangerous. They are the greatest enemy.” — and in 2013 was banned from entering Saudi Arabia.
I’ll close this opening installment with two very important facts that readers should keep in mind as this exploration of California Islam continues. First, it is entirely normal and expected for a strong majority of mosques to be promoting some form or another of radical Islamic ideology. Past studies have confirmed that roughly 80% of American mosques surveyed taught fundamentalist doctrines and most offer Saudi Arabian Wahhabist literature.
That may sound like a scary number at first, but one shouldn’t extrapolate its significance too far until weighing other studies: what percentage of Muslims attend a mosque regularly? In a 2001 study co-written by retired CAIR leader Ihsan Bagby, the number of weekly mosque attendants was estimated at 350,000 or only 6-8%. A more recent 2017 study by Pew suggests much higher numbers: 43% attending weekly, 32% monthly/yearly, and 26% seldom or never. Pew also notes that 64% of American Muslims believe “there is more than one true way to interpret Islam” and 52% say “traditional understandings of Islam need to be reinterpreted.”
Thus, while Islamists may possess a powerful stranglehold over mosques and Muslim charities, the average American Muslim’s mind is still very much open and up for grabs. It remains an ongoing question whether our nation’s Muslim citizens will embrace the radicalism of Wahhaj, Al-Suwaidan, and the Muslim Brotherhood-based groups who support them; or if they will follow the pro-Western path of the UAE, imams like Palazzi, and the Muslim Reform movement. For me, I remain optimistic that someday the latter will finally triumph, bringing Islam and the world’s many Muslim states wholly into the 21st century.