Nate Walker, the Religious Freedom Center’s executive director at Washington, DC’s Newseum, recently praised the TAM Group’s “extraordinary work on rectifying extremist behavior and ideologies” among Muslims at an August 7 seminar there. Yet critical examination of TAM’s leaders and their Made in Saudi Arabia approach to “Countering Extremism” only begs the question of why anyone like Walker would support these Salafist wolves in moderates’ sheep clothing.
TAM’s director, Abdul Haqq Baker, has already created scandal in his native United Kingdom through his leadership of Street UK, a group supposedly countering extremism among British Muslims. The British government in 2011 cancelled a grant to Street UK after its ties became known to anti-Semitic and extremist Salafist clerics who, among other things, had denounced religious freedom proponents as “enemies of Islam.”
At the Newseum event, Baker expressed concern over “very, very dangerous terminology” such as reference to nonviolent extremism that “marginalizes orthodox, socially conservative, practicing Muslims.” Meanwhile, he described Muḥammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the 18th-century founding father of Saudi Arabia’s Islamic orthodoxy, as a “religious reformer” who would “refer back to essential tenets of the religion.”
Joe Bradford, an “American scholar of Islam,” similarly emphasized at the Newseum concerns that officials in the United States or elsewhere would prioritize Islamic interpretations according to the precepts of free societies:
The government is playing favorites and re-reading their religion through national security contexts….When the individuals that represent religious authority in the community are seen as puppets or compromised then we cannot expect those who would lean towards radical beliefs to confide in them.
Yet Bradford’s background as a graduate of Saudi Arabia’s Islamic University of Medina (IUM) gives pause concerning his Islamic authenticity. As Britain’s Guardian newspaper has written, this university is the “leading center for the study and export of Salafi ideas” and “long been known as a recruiting ground for fighters” of global jihad. Bradford himself has written that “Islamic discussions of politics are centered on creating and sustaining ‘pious dictators’” and that therefore the Islamic State “is about as Islamic as all the ‘Islamic’ nations opposing it.”
More disturbing is Bradford’s fellow IUM graduate and Newseum speaker, Tahir Wyatt. His TAM leadership profile proudly notes that a 2012 Saudi royal decree appointed him “as the first person to teach Islam in English at the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, the second holiest site in the Muslim World.” “Islam is intrinsically moderate,” he has previously said, yet he worries about Muslim progressives distorting Islam. For example, reformist interpretations of Islam that would claim a bikini could satisfy hijab covering requirements might allow jihadist groups such as Al Qaeda (AQ) similar interpretive leeway to justify their violence.
Wyatt’s “intrinsically moderate” Islam will appeal to few non-Muslims with his arguments that Muslims should not initiate peace (salaam) greetings with non-Muslims. He has also written that Muslims may utilize a non-Muslim court only if its law “does not contradict Islam” in a dispute and he has cited a sheikh declaring that “elections and Parliaments are not Islamic.” Wyatt has also noted sharia prohibitions on men wearing silk and gold and argues that nothing may be worn “with the intention of imitating non-Muslims.”
Wyatt’s admonitions about Muslims entering non-Muslim houses of worship are particularly disturbing. “It is impermissible for a Muslim to enter upon disbelievers in their places of worship since it increases their numbers,” although a Muslim may enter these places of worship “for a legislative benefit…or something along those lines.” Therefore, Muslims may “enter churches in order to invite the people there to Islam. However, entering them just to look around should be avoided.” His statements provide a cautionary perspective on Bradford’s past inflated assertion that “[r]espect for other people’s texts and respect for other people’s traditions is a part of sharia.”
Despite such illiberal beliefs, TAM staff at the Newseum predictably echoed the TAM website’s statements that no one has “anything to fear from the religion of Islam,” despite “fallacious claims made by various ‘Jihadi’ groups.” Kareem Abdus-Salaam denounced the “all-infamous radical Islamic terrorism” as among terms that “seek to vilify a religion.” Bradford argued that many involved in jihadist terrorism, although highly educated professionals like engineers, lacked “religious literacy.”
By contrast, TAM member Newseum comments reiterated hackneyed arguments indirectly refuted by Bradford that violence among Muslims results from societal and political failings. IUM graduate Mohamed Hussain emphasized a “transfer from generation to generation” of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in his Somali community descended from refugees. Wyatt stated that most Muslims “are radicalized through political grievances,” while Muslims “view ourselves as facing a degree of persecution in the West.”
The TAM website reflects these themes of Muslim victimhood with headlines like “ARE YOU ANGRY AT THE NON-MUSLIMS.” “It causes us all great pain to see Muslims abused, scapegoated, oppressed, ridiculed, treated inhumanely and even killed. None of this is acceptable in Islam,” states one website section. “This empathy is required of every true believing man and women.”
Yet the “resulting manifestation of this empathy is not always correct,” the TAM website adds as a caveat, even though TAM’s description of jihadist motivations sounds positively glowing. “Does the idea of blowing yourself up in the name of Allah and dying as a martyr have a special ring to it?” the website asks. Nonetheless, the website cites general Islamic canons against suicide (although jihadists consider suicide bombing a legitimate act of “martyrdom” in war, and not suicide at all) and notes that Islam provides a “prescription for every situation.”
TAM’s complete hollowness becomes apparent in yet another Saudi connection, TAM’s resident expert on “deradicalization,” Fahd bin Suleiman bin Ibrahim Al-Fuhaid. He is a graduate of and the former Dean of the Faculty of Theology at Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University, a Saudi university with numerous radical alumni. “Shaykh Fahad Al-Fuhaid is teacher in Saudi Arabia’s deradicalization program where he helped individuals transition away from the toxic, extremist ideology,” his TAM profile proclaims.
The sheikh seems a disturbing choice for a “deradicalizer” given his past sectarian pronouncements on Islamic doctrine such as his 2012 statements at a British mosque. “Jihad is something which is the highest part of Islam, the highest level of Islam,” he said, although the legitimacy of such religious warfare depends upon specific criteria. He also said that the word kafir (infidel) could only describe Christians and Jews, but not Muslims in disagreement amongst themselves.
The sheikh exemplifies the failings of Saudi Arabia’s jihadist rehabilitation program along numerous other similar initiatives in countries like France and Indonesia. As a 2010 RAND study noted, “mainstream Saudi scholars and extremists share common assumptions and methodologies of Quranic interpretation that lead to the justification of violence.” Therefore, Foreign Policy noted in 2016 that the sheikh’s fellow “counselors reportedly seek less to disabuse imprisoned militants of their hard-line views than to reinforce the primacy of the Saudi state in determining the appropriate use of violence.” Not surprisingly, a jihadist detained by American authorities at Guantanamo Bay once declared that the Saudi program merely directs jihadists into Saudi Arabian service.
The jihadist rehabilitation program has had correspondingly meager success, as the Saudis admitted in 2010 that “as many as 10 to 20 percent of those released may return to illicit activity,” including many current AQ leaders. Even this success among a mere 231 released detainees from a total 3,033 detainees who have participated in Saudi rehabilitation programs, the Council on Foreign Relations noted, entails a not easily replicated “heavily resourced” program. This “relies heavily on after-care elements like monitoring by security forces and parole-like reporting requirements, financial support for detainees after release, and ongoing contact with both the individual and his family.”
Moreover the Middle East Institute noted in 2015 that the “effectiveness of the rehabilitation campaign is limited mainly to minor offenders and jihadist supporters and sympathizers who may already be looking for a way out of jihadism.” Such individuals “still might be radical enough to spread their beliefs to others.” One French-Iranian expert accordingly concludes that the “only option for dealing with hardcore jihadists is to lock them up.”
TAM will most likely replicate Saudi and other failures abroad in “rectifying extremist behavior,” contrary to Walker. Additionally, individuals like him, a homosexual who became the Unitarian Universalist Church’s first openly gay minister in 2007, should not undermine a free society’s principles of human dignity with TAM’s harsh Islamic orthodoxy. Public and private institutions such as the Newseum with its plush luncheon conferences should follow the United Kingdom’s lead towards Baker and stay away from the TAM Group.