Terrorism expert Steven Emerson is accusing the Council on Foreign Relations of “legitimizing the militant Palestinian Hamas organization” by publishing a newsletter called the Muslim Politics Report.
Emerson, whose documentary “Jihad in America” aired on PBS last year, has called on council President Leslie Gelb to sever the council’s connection to the newsletter and return the Ford Foundation funding it receives for it.
In a series of detailed letters to Gelb outlining his concerns, Emerson said the newsletter’s views “are one and the same as Hamas and other violent militant Islamit organizations.”
Emerson’s charges come at a time of increased focus on the links between Middle East terrorist organizations and groups based in the United States.
In an effort to crack down on international terrorism, President Clinton has recently called for a ban on fund raising in the United States for such groups.
Musa Abu Marzook, a Hamas leader who lived in Virginia, was arrested in July and is being held in New York, pending a hearing to consider Israel’s request to extradite him.
At the same time, an Islamic scholar – Ramadan Abdullah Shallah – recently left his teaching post at the University of South Florida to become head of the militant Islamic Jihad, based in Damascus.
In his letters to Gelb beginning in August, Emerson has focused on the Council on American Relations, or CAIR, a group based in Washington, D.C., that he asserts is a Hamas front.
A report by CAIR on anti-Muslim bias in the United States was given extensive coverage in the summer issue of the Muslim Politics Report, which is published occasionally as a project of the Council on Foreign Relations. The council is a private research organization, which studies American foreign policy issues.
Emerson is not alone in his concern. Daniel Pipes, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, has also written to Gelb on the matter.
CAIR, as “an organization clearly associated with a gang of violent terrorists, is not something you wish to have any institutional connection to whatsoever,” he wrote. “To do so is to place nothing less than the council’s reputation in jeopardy.”
Gelb, for his part, has indicated that he sees the argument as an academic one. In a letter to Emerson dated Sept. 26, Gelb said he always has regarded Muslim radicalism “as a danger to the U.S. and to our friends and [I] support serious efforts to combat them.”
“But,” Gelb continued, “the council is in the business of public education, and I am not, as president of this institution, in the business of censoring knowledge of issues.”
He said the Muslim Politics project, which sponsors the newsletter, “is working has to involve Muslims of diverse affiliations and identities from around the world as well as policy-makers, scholars and commentators from this country with widely differing perspectives.” He also pointed to the disclaimer, which states: “All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in the Muslim Politics Report are the sole responsibility of the individual author.”
The council, the disclaimer notes, “is a home to many views, advocate of none.”
Galb said in an interview last week that Emerson should take his concerns directly to James Piscatori, editor of newsletter, and he would step in only “if things went beyond the pale.”
The council invited Emerson to meet with Piscatori, who is a well known Islamic scholar, and Ethan Kapstein, the council’s director of studies.
Emerson this week said he reluctantly would accept the invitation.
Emerson’s concern initially was focused on the summer issue of the newsletter, which featured a two-page article on a CAIR study.
The article, “A Rush To Judgment: The CAIR Special Report on Anti-Muslim Bias, Harassment and Violence Following the Oklahoma City Bombing,” documented anti- Muslim incidents of harassment in the immediate aftermath of the April bombing. It included a reference to Emerson’s initial reaction to the bombing: “This (the bombing) was done with the intent to inflict as many casualties as possible. That is a Middle Eastern trait.”
Emerson has lambasted the CAIR report, which he changes is filled with fabrications and delegitimizes the critics of Islamic extremists by painting them as critics of mainstream Islam. In his August letter to Gelb, he said the statement CAIR attributed to him was deliberately incomplete and aimed at unfairly presenting him as racist.
“That the council allowed itself to circulate this slanderous comment is nothing short of scandalous,” Emerson wrote.
But most of the seven-page, single-spaced letter was devoted to proving what he calls the CAIR link to Hamas and criticizing the council for giving CAIR space in the newsletter.
No one at CAIR was available to comment on the charges.
“The issue is not of free speech,” wrote Emerson, “but of whether in fact the council is promoting the ulterior militant agenda of a front group.”
For its part, CAIR was a vocal critic of Emerson’s film, “Jihad in America,” calling it in a news release “nothing but fiery rhetoric, unsupported allegations and spurious juxtapositions to build a case against the Muslim community in America.”
In his letter to Emerson, Gelb said, “We have no information on whether CAIR is a Hamas front group, as you suggest. But even if it were shown to be associated with Hamas, it would not mean that we should avoid hearing what it had to say.”
Emerson likened Gelb’s written response to the stance of the University of South Florida has been deeply sullied because of its repeated refusal to listen to public warnings” about the Islamic Jihad connection to the university through various front groups, said Emerson in a November letter to Gelb, referring to the activities of Shallah while he was at the school.
“The university engaged first in a policy of denial; it subsequently found refuge in the claim of `academic freedom.’ It now has been forced to acknowledge that it never heeded any of the warnings.”
“I am writing to you now,” Emerson wrote, “because an outfit now supported by the Council on Foreign Relations functions similarly under the same deceptive veneer.”
In the same letter, Emerson launched a much broader assault on the newsletter, essentially calling it a vehicle for Hamas and other militant Islamic organizations.
Emerson noted for the first time that Piscatori wrote the introduction to the CAIR study. Piscatori signed it as chairman of the international politics department at the University of Wales, and did not refer to his association with the council.
Piscatori referred questions to Kapstein of the council.
“There is no relationship between CAIR and the newsletter as far as I’m aware,” said Kapstein, who defended Piscatori as a “world-renowned scholar.”
When asked whether he believed that the newsletter had a responsibility to know whether it was inadvertently providing a platform for an extremist group, Kapstein said, “We are not an intelligence agency, and we are not a detective bureau and we don’t do a background search” on the contributors who write for the newsletter.
The Anti-Defamation League was noncommittal when pressed on CAIR and the Muslim Politics Report. “At this point we don’t have enough information to comment on the matter,” said Ken Jacobson, director of ADL’s international affairs division.
For Pipes, at issue is the debate over fundamentalist Islam. “Piscatori is one of the group who sees it as a benign phenomenon. He thinks we should have dialogue,” Pipes said.
His camp “draws distinctions between moderates and extremists.” “From my point of view, they are working together,” said Pipes. “This is a radical utopian movement whose key is the readiness to use force,” said Pipes. “We in the West, and Israel as well are an impediment to the achievement of [its] goals.”