WOLVES IN SHEIKH’S CLOTHING
Jonathan Last takes a troubling look inside moderate Islam
When I first met Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, he was a young counterterrorism expert just breaking into print. I had edited some of his work. He seemed like a normal fellow. But as we spoke, he told me a remarkable story.
Gartenstein-Ross grew up in Ashland, Oregon, one of the West Coast’s hippie enclaves. His parents were liberal, ecumenical Jews who raised him to believe in the beauty of all faiths. There were pictures of Jesus in his living room and a statue of the Buddha in the backyard. Young Daveed was attracted to various liberal causes and concerned with social justice. He went to college in North Carolina, where he converted to Islam. Upon graduation, Gartenstein-Ross went to work for a religious charity, the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, which was run by a group of radicals.
After a year at Al-Haramain, he went to law school, where he eventually left Islam. In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, Gartenstein-Ross learned that the FBI was investigating Al-Haramain for ties to terrorism. He reached out to the bureau and helped build its case.
Gartenstein-Ross has now told his story in a book, “My Year Inside Radical Islam.” It is an important resource for understanding Islam in America.
There are two deep insights in “My Year Inside Radical Islam.” The first is an illumination of one of the pathways to radicalism. When Gartenstein-Ross first converted, he embraced Sufism, a spiritual, moderate sect. He wasn’t looking to become an anti-Western fundamentalist. But the more he interacted with other Muslims, the more he was pushed, in a form of groupthink, to embrace an increasingly restrictive faith. He learned that in Islam, all sorts of things are haram (forbidden). Alcohol, of course. And listening to music. And wearing shorts that expose the thigh. And wearing necklaces. Or gold. Or silk. Or using credit cards. Or shaving. Or shaking hands with women.
As Gartenstein-Ross explains, Islam has commandments for every aspect of life, from how to dress to how to wipe yourself after going to the bathroom. And once he joined the Muslim community, he found that the group was self-policing. Members were eager to report and reprimand one another for infractions. It is not hard to imagine how a well-adjusted, intelligent person might get caught up in such a social dynamic.
The book also illustrates the troubling state of Islamic organizations in the United States. Nearly every discussion of Islamic radicalism and terrorism is prefaced by a disclaimer that of course the vast majority of Muslims are morally opposed to both. This may well be true.
But the problem in the current struggle against Islamic fascism is that the radicals often find succor from moderate Muslims – even “moderates” aren’t always as liberal as one might hope. While Gartenstein-Ross never came into contact with actual terrorists, he was surrounded by people – normal Muslim citizens – whose worldviews were unsettling.
Before 9/11, Al-Haramain’s headquarters in Ashland was seen as a bastion of moderate, friendly Islam. Pete Seda, who ran the office, was publicly chummy with the local rabbi. The group encouraged public schools to bring children to their offices on field trips. All of this was for public consumption. In private, things were somewhat different.
One of Gartenstein-Ross’ co-workers, for instance, often complained about the Nation of Islam, whose members he believed were deviants. He said, “Let them choose true Islam or cut off their heads.”
Al-Haramain hosted a number of visitors, one of whom was a Saudi cleric named Abdul-Qaadir. He preached that those who leave Islam should be put to death. In defending the execution of apostates, he mused that “religion and politics aren’t separable in Islam the way they are in the West. … Leaving Islam isn’t just converting from one faith to another. It’s more properly understood as treason.”
In warning Gartenstein-Ross about his engagement to a Christian, Abdul-Qaadir said, “As long as your wife isn’t a Muslim, as far as we’re concerned, she is 100 percent evil.”
One night at services, a visiting member of the Egyptian branch of Al-Haramain declared that the Torah was “The Jews’ plan to ruin everything.” He continued, “Why is it that Henry Kissinger was the president of the international soccer federation while he was president of the United States? How did he have time to do both? It is because part of the Jews’ plan is to get people throughout the world to play soccer so that they’ll wear shorts that show off the skin of their thighs.” (Former Secretary of State Kissinger was never president of either the United States or FIFA.)
The reaction of Seda – the “moderate” who cultivated a public friendship with the local rabbi – was, “Wow, bro, this is amazing. You come to us with this incredible information.”
Such discourse seems less than rare at American Islamic organizations. A recent New Yorker profile of another homegrown radical, Adam Gadahn (a.k.a. “Azzam the American” and one of the FBI’s most-wanted terrorists), recounted Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman’s visit to the Islamic Society in Orange County, Calif. In his lecture, Rahman, later indicted for helping to plot the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, ridiculed the notion that jihad could be nonviolent and exhorted Muslims to take up fighting against the enemies of Allah. Sitting next to him and translating for the congregation was the local “moderate” imam. The New Yorker reports that “videotapes of the lecture were later offered for sale at the society’s bookstore.”
This would likely not surprise Gartenstein-Ross, some of whose Muslim acquaintances even disapproved of his decision to go to law school. Their objection was that, as a lawyer, Gartenstein-Ross would have to swear an oath to defend the Constitution. As one Muslim told him, “There are some things in the Constitution I like, but a lot of things in the Constitution are completely against Islamic principles.”
This sentiment – not from an al-Qaeda fighter or a fire-breathing radical, but from a normal, devout Muslim – is important. The challenge Islam poses to the West goes beyond mere terrorism.
Jonathan V. Last is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.