A product of Washington, DC’s February 5-7 Alliance of Virtue for the Common Good conference, the Washington Declaration proclaims a “revived Alliance of Virtue [AoV], global in nature.” Yet the declaration’s platitudes on interfaith harmony demand careful examination, as they are largely the brainchild of Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, a Mauritanian-born Islamic cleric with a radical past, currently based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Notwithstanding the conference’s ballroom setting in Washington’s Marriot Marquis luxury hotel, controversy accompanied this interfaith gathering. Reporters such as Patrick Poole wondered how someone with bin Bayyah’s record could host leading figures, including the newly appointed U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback. Bin Bayyah and his associates have previously justified violence to destroy Israel and defeat the American-led coalition in Iraq, have called for a global Muslim community with an army, and have advocated for censoring anti-Islam speech.
Nor is bin Bayyah’s Washington appearance his first troubling involvement with American officialdom. In 2014, critics condemned President Barack Obama’s United Nations (UN) General Assembly address praising bin Bayyah as a peacemaker and forced the State Department Counterterrorism Bureau to apologize for pro-bin Bayyah tweets. Nonetheless, the next year in the General Assembly, he addressed Vice-President Joe Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch with remarks philosophically preferring Thomas Hobbes over Immanuel Kant. Hobbes’ emphasis on a political stability, however unjust, appealed more to bin Bayyah than Kant’s concern with justice as the underpinning of peace, for the “problem of peace has priority over rights.”
Bin Bayyah’s exact Islamic conceptions of peace and rights raise key questions concerning his understanding of any ecumenical cooperation. As the Washington Declaration notes, the original AoV in seventh-century Mecca included the
Prophet Muhammad, prior to his mission [as Islam’s supposedly revealed final prophet], and leaders from a variety of ethnicities and religions. The Alliance was conceived and implemented to support the rule of law and to ensure fair treatment for the vulnerable.
Bin Bayyah’s previous elaboration on his envisioned modern AoV during a March 2017 Singapore address provokes troubling doubts. As a reporter paraphrased, bin Bayyah advocated that a “way to break down barriers between communities is to bring different faiths together in ‘an alliance of virtues’ through dialogue and inter-faith projects such as feeding the poor.”
Yet his ever-present companion, Hamza Yusuf, an American convert to Islam with his own extremist past, referenced Quran 5:32-33 in his English translation of bin Bayyah’s remarks. Islamic apologists ubiquitously quote in these verses a supposedly universal prohibition against taking human life, yet Yusuf noted that they contain an exception for killing individuals for “corruption that they sow in the earth.” The definition of such “corruption” meriting Islamic resistance has previously included things such as the American-led anti-Taliban coalition fighting in Afghanistan. Thus Islamic studies of the AoV (Hilf al-Fudul in Arabic) require closer inspection, for classical Islamic doctrine approves of Muslim cooperation with non-Muslims provided “it involves no sin.”
What Muslims would define as sinful cooperation is particularly important, given the 2015 AoV theme of Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS), an annual gathering in Toronto, Canada. While RIS is known for its radical speakers, one RIS organizer noted that that year’s conference theme emphasized “cross cultural alliances in order to aid and facilitate social justice.” Yusuf Islam, the musical celebrity formerly named Cat Stevens, who became notorious in 1989 for justifying British novelist Salman Rushdie’s killing as a blasphemer of Islam, gushed in the Huffington Post about his 2015 RIS attendance and the AoV.
Frequent bin Bayyah associates who attended the 2015 RIS included Washington, DC’s former Catholic archbishop, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and the Texas evangelical pastor Bob Roberts, as well as Yusuf. McCarrick and Roberts hosted an “interfaith panel” on an “Abrahamic alliance in troubled times” in 2015, and Roberts attended the 2016 RIS as well. He has longstanding ties to Islamists, including his approving citation of the radical Islamic cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi while calling for pro-Islam censorship, and has argued that America’s support for Israel is on the “wrong side.”
Roberts continued his cooperation with bin Bayyah in 2017, as noted the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers (NRTP), one of the Washington conference organizers. Along with Brownback’s predecessor, Rabbi David Saperstein, and Mohamed Magid, an imam who has presided over Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organizations including the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), Roberts convened the American Peace Caravan (APC). In May 2017, bin Bayyah’s Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies (FPPMS) in Abu Dhabi, UAE, received the APC.
Local media celebrated this delegation of American Jews, Christians, and Muslims that included Roberts, Magid, Yusuf, and Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig (his Washington Hebrew Congregation hosted the Washington conference’s Shabbat of Peace). “Abu Dhabi, the universal capital of peace and tolerance [?], is witnessing the birth of a modern age Hilf al-Fudul (Alliance of Virtue) among religions of the Abrahamic family,” exulted one report. Yet Nashville rabbi Laurie Rice indicated a certain interfaith superficiality to the APC: “We agreed to put aside the harder issues: the Mideast conflict, evangelical proselytizing, and the role of women to name just a few.” Roberts and Magid headed a second APC to Rabat, Morocco, in October 2017.
Roberts later addressed the fourth annual FPPMS in December 2017 in Abu Dhabi, where numerous speakers addressed “Islamophobia,” in accord with the conference theme of “Global Peace and the fear of Islam.” The conference’s final statement recommended establishment of an “international monitoring center to address and study Islamophobia.” Such words can only evoke uncomfortable associations with longstanding efforts of the 57-nation (including “Palestine”) Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to suppress criticism of Islam worldwide.
Conference statements called into question the value of the announcement by Adama Dieng, UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, concerning new FPPMS-UN cooperation on religious education in the Islamic world. “Jihad has never been anything else than self-defense to protect freedom of worship,” dubiously declared Mohammad Al-Issa, the secretary general of the Muslim World League. By contrast, this Saudi-based organization has longstanding ties to terrorism and has advocated Islamic antisemitism and censorship.
The various conference panels included the former pro-sharia Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric, a member of FPPMS Board of Trustees. A rapporteur disturbingly reported Ceric saying that the “West fails to understand that the Sharia is a universal vision, and religious and secular legislation,” while the “East is still hesitant to accept the principles of democracy.” Other panels included the radically anti-Israel Columbia University professor Joseph Massad and his American colleague Sherman Jackson, another Sharia advocate.
The actual AoV Washington conference reflected bin Bayyah’s preceding background with individuals such as NRTP’s Washington, DC, representative Mohamed Elsanousi. He formed the Washington Declaration’s steering committee, along with Magid, McCarrick, Roberts, and Saperstein. Both the OIC and Finn Church Aid (FCA), an anti-Israel Finnish group that supports Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, helped start NRTP in 2013, while FCA continues to host NRTP’s secretariat.
The King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID), a joint Austrian-Saudi-Spanish organization based in Vienna, joined NRTP’s “Core Group” in 2015. Given the Saudi-dominated KAICIID’s past history of promoting liberal values, various Austrian politicians have called for Austria’s withdrawal from KAICIID and its closure. KAICIID Secretary General Faisal bin Abdulrahman bin Muaammar and KAICIID board member Rabbi David Rosen both attended the Washington conference.
Elsanousi has previously met bin Bayyah, when he was vice chair of the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS). This same group, headed by al-Qaradawi, issued the fatwa against American forces in Iraq. Bin Bayyah in 2012 hosted an IUMS conference in his native Mauritania, attended by then-ISNA President Magid and his ISNA Community Outreach Director, Elsanousi.
Elsanousi has peddled all-too common myths about an American government overreacting to terrorist threats that actually have no basis in Islam, and are the product of socioeconomic disadvantage. In his words, after September 11, 2001, a “terrorist hunt of hysterical proportion…encouraged radicalization more than prevented future attacks.” Before Donald Trump’s presidency, he noted with satisfaction that the U.S. “government has long ago stopped using the terms ‘jihad’ or ‘radical Islam,’” and argued that the Islamic State attracted “youth who lack meaning in life” and “uneducated Muslims.” While Middle Eastern Christians suffer severe repression unrelated to foreign events, he suggested without evidence that if “there are attacks against Muslims in the States, we see attacks against Christians in the Middle East. It is a vicious circle.”
No better was conference attendee Shaykh Umar Al-Qadri, a BDS-supporting imam from Ireland who has made public diatribes condemning Israel’s existence and supporting Hamas. In 2016, he claimed after a visit to Iran’s repressive Islamic Republic that the Iranian “people are happy…Christians are able to practice their faith.” For him, the Islamic Republic’s brutal founding father, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was a “figure that knew what ethics are.”
The International Islamic Charity Organization (IICO) Chairman Abdullah Al-Maatouq also attended the conference. He made the notable announcement of a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) initiative to provide a billion meals for the needy worldwide. However, critical observers should note that the IICO has numerous Muslim Brotherhood ties, including documents seized by the Israelis linking the IICO to Hamas.
Al-Issa reprised the totalitarian overtones of the 2017 FPPMS, with statements about “defamation of the followers of religions” and the “phobia of religions.” The Washington Declaration itself condemned “any effort to convey information that is false or defamatory toward the members of any ethnic, racial, or religious group.” This possible justification for Islamic censorship did not comport with the declaration’s emphasis that “each is endowed by our Creator with intrinsic human dignity and related inalienable rights,” including the “freedom of speech.”
Little indicated that the conference had received criticism from speakers and attendees; asked about Poole’s reporting, Roberts dismissed it as “articles that come out from crazy people.” Meanwhile, the evangelical Deborah Fikes supported “Sister Hillary” Clinton over Donald Trump’s “religious nativism” concerning Islam during the 2016 presidential election. Rick Love, her fellow evangelical attendee, parallels Roberts’ anti-Israel and pro-Islam line.
Among the Washington conference’s Jews, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, past longtime president of the Union of Reform Judaism, has come under Pamela Geller’s fire for “his Jew-Hating Friends,” including J Street. This preacher of a “Torah of Liberalism” on issues such as gun control addressed ISNA in 2007 and proclaimed that “anti-Semitism is not native to Islamic tradition.” Conversely, his unreserved statement that the “reason for Jewish terror is Torah” has shocked his fellow Jews.
Yet the background of some conference participants, such as the Finnish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Timo Soini, suggests that they would be skeptical about bin Bayyah and his works. NRTP cites Soini’s ministry as NRTP’s “main financial supporter,” yet he is a self-proclaimed “friend of Israel” who opposes BDS, and his True Finns party is known for its sharp criticism of Islam and immigration. KAICIID’s Rosen praised the Washington conference as an “incredibly historic gathering,” but in the past he has warned that he “would like Christians in Europe to become more Christian…those who do not have a strong identity are easily overrun by those who do.” Fears of sharia also previously led Bishop Anba Angaelos, an international representative of Egypt’s Coptic Church, to support the 2013 military overthrow of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government.
Overall, the Washington Declaration conference offered no improvement over bin Bayyah’s previous project, the 2016 Marrakesh conference and resulting Marrakesh Declaration. The Washington Declaration hailed Marrakesh’s “landmark statement that the oppression of religious minorities is contrary to Islamic values,” but Marrakesh offered the same dubious Islamic theology and cast of characters. Yet Washington conference attendee McCarrick used his prior Marrakesh experience to pronounce bin Bayyah at the 2016 FPPMS wishfully as the “prophet of light and the prophet of reason” with the “correct understanding of Islam.”
For the moment, bin Bayyah’s interfaith coterie of bin Muaammar, Magid, McCarrick, Roberts, Rosen, Yusuf et al. may continue their conference globetrotting from Abu Dhabi to Marrakesh to Washington, DC and beyond. Yet skeptics have good reason to suspect that this is a caravan to nowhere, as did the reported hundreds of congregants who left Roberts’ Texas church after he began his outreach to Muslims such as Magid several years ago. In particular, both the Marrakesh and Washington conferences have notably offered no event videos or listings of attendees and declaration signatories. Rather than virtues, bin Bayyah appears to be raising naïve non-Muslim hopes of global ecumenical harmony with deceptive Muslim attempts to whitewash and protect Islam.