In late 2005, the U.S. State Department decided that European Muslims needed America's help. Too many were living in parallel societies, cut off from the mainstream. Extremism and violence were rampant; it was no coincidence that three of the four 9/11 hijacker pilots had been radicalized in Europe or that Islamist terrorists had killed hundreds in London and Madrid. What Europe needed, the State Department figured, was help to set up an international network "to discuss alienation and extremism."
The idea was intriguing. The United States was the target of Islamic radicals, but its own communities seemed to have not produced the violence found in Europe. Experts had long debated the reasons for this. Some cited the fact that often the Muslims who immigrated to the United States either had jobs or planned to study. In Europe, by contrast, Muslims had come to work in industrial jobs that didn't exist anymore. They had working-class levels of education and lacked the skills to find new employment, leaving many frustrated, with too much time on their hands. Social services were thought to be related to the problem. In the United States, unemployed Muslims had few welfare benefits to help them out. If they wanted to survive, they had to work long hours. In Europe those who lacked employment could claim relatively generous welfare benefits and have time to indulge in extremist politics. Other explanations were batted around too: that Islamic violence was largely an Arab and Pakistani phenomenon; whereas a high percentage of Muslims in Europe had immigrated from these regions, those in the United States represented a broader array of homelands.
But no one made the single argument that informed the State Department's plan: that the United States had better Muslim leadership. A State Department-sponsored conference in November 2005 brought together 65 Belgian Muslims and U.S. tutors from the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). The U.S. diplomats thought so highly of ISNA that it seems to have been appointed as a co-organizer of the conference.
From a historical perspective, this was almost comical -- a case of taking coal to Newcastle. ISNA was founded by people with extremely close ties to the European leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational Sunni alliance with an influential and complex presence on the continent. The State Department was importing Muslim Brotherhood Islamists with roots in Europe to tell European Muslims how to organize and integrate. Even more interesting, some of those European Muslims invited to the conference were themselves part of the current Muslim Brotherhood network.
One participant was a Belgian convert named Michael Privot, who at the time was vice president of a Saudi-Muslim Brotherhood organization called the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organizations. This body was founded with direct support from the Muslim Brotherhood's umbrella organization in Europe, the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe. Privot was also vice secretary of the Complex Educatif et Culturel Islamique de Verviers, a center of Muslim Brotherhood activity in Brussels. It was also the home of one of Hamas's fund-raising groups, the Al-Aqsa Foundation (a group banned in several European countries, including Germany and Holland, for supporting terrorism). The meeting offered a chance for Muslim Brotherhood activists like Privot to meet their U.S. counterparts. In addition, the State Department helped bring Belgian Muslims to the United States -- to be trained as imams by ISNA and to participate in an ISNA summer program in Chicago. In short, it was a networking session for the Muslim Brotherhood -- paid for by U.S. taxpayers.
State Department officials acknowledged that they had invited people accused of extremism but said they did not care about track records. Instead, all that mattered were the groups' or individuals' current statements. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, Tom Korologos, said, "Some of the organizations whose members participated in the Conference have been accused of being extremist. It is possible that some individual members of those organizations have made statements that have been termed extremist. Our view, however, was to base our selection on the stated policies and specific actions of organizations and individuals today with regard to harmonious Muslim integration into American and European society." And then, with a rhetorical flourish, he concluded that "four or five more conferences like this can lead to a network of moderate Muslims."