Martha F. Lee
This past October, the Pakistani Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of Asia Bibi, a Christian Pakistani woman who had spent eight years on death row after being convicted of blasphemy. Following her acquittal, extremist groups across Pakistan, including the prominent Islamist movement Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), violently protested against the decision and called for Bibi to be executed. Islamists have reportedly been going “house to house” to track down her family.
After striking a deal with leading Islamist parties, the Pakistani government has prevented Bibi from leaving Pakistan. Now, her husband has appealed to the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. to provide the Bibi family with asylum. But while dozens of organizations across the United States have expressed their support for Bibi and the asylum request, there is one group that remains conspicuously silent: the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA).
ICNA is usually a regular commentator on events in South Asia – mourning the death of prominent Islamists in Bangladesh, or condemning jihadist violence against religious minorities in Pakistan. ICNA is also involved in the discussion of asylum rights and immigration reform. In June 2018, the organization denounced the “Muslim Ban 3.0” and reaffirmed its support of all “efforts to bring justice in our legal system.” ICNA officials have even taken part in the recent demonstrations over America’s border with Mexico. ICNA’s own former president Naeem Baig was filmed at the San Diego border expressing the organization’s support for migrants and the message that “love knows no borders.”
But when we asked ICNA if it supports Asia Bibi’s acquittal and her asylum request, ICNA refused to respond.
What might explain this silence on the part of an organization seemingly so dedicated to the support of refugees and migrants? While ICNA may appear enmeshed in immigration activism and other progressive campaigns, its roots actually lie in the same extremist JI movement in Pakistan that has been campaigning for Bibi’s killing. Apparently, ICNA’s loyalty continues to lie with JI as well.
For some years, ICNA was led by Ashraf Uzzaman Khan, a prominent JI activist who was convicted of war crimes in 2013 for his role in the murders of civilians during Bangladesh’s war of independence, in which JI fighters assisted the Pakistani army with the rape and murder of thousands of Bangladeshis. In the decades following the massacres, JI’s violence has continued, and in 2017, the U.S. designated JI Pakistan’s “militant wing,” Hizbul Mujahideen, as a terrorist organization.
Still, ICNA remains closely linked to Jamaat-e-Islami. ICNA’s youth division website promotes the books of JI founder and Islamist theorist Abul A’la Maududi, whose ideas influenced Muslim Brotherhood theorist Sayyid Qutb and, later, terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda. Yusuf Islahi, a leader of Jamaat-e-Islami’s Indian affiliate (JI-Hind), has been an invited speaker at ICNA conventions.
In addition, ICNA established two aid charities which are both tied to Jaamat-e-Islami: ICNA Relief and Helping Hand for Relief and Development (HHRD). HHRD openly funds Jamaat-e-Islami’s charitable arm in Pakistan. And in 2017, HHRD organized a conference in Pakistan with the designated Pakistani terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Salafi-jihadist group responsible for the deadly Mumbai attacks in 2008. HHRD’s Chairman, Mohsin Ansari, is an alumnus of Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT), the student wing of JI’s branch in Pakistan. Over the past month, thousands of students from IJT have been very involved in the protests against Bibi’s acquittal.
Just like ICNA, HHRD has also refused to provide comment on Asia Bibi’s case.
Charities tied to the Muslim Brotherhood — another Islamist network that has a long history of a close partnership with Jamaat-e-Islami — have also failed to offer support for Bibi. Islamic Relief — which was founded by senior Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood official Essam El Hadddad — is also closely involved with immigration activism in North America. But when asked to comment on her case, an Islamic Relief spokesperson refused to mention Bibi at all, only saying that Islamic Relief supports giving “people a voice to control their destiny and encourages policies that helps foster human rights, civility, and success.”
This noncommittal response can also be explained by Islamic Relief’s own ties to extremism and to JI itself. Islamic Relief has been banned as a terror organization by the UAE, because of its links to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. In 2017, the Bangladeshi government also banned Islamic Relief from providing aid to Rohingya refugees, citing concerns about radicalization. Most recently, Islamic Relief published praise of its leading activist in Pakistan, Khalid Mirza, who just so happens to be a prominent leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami branch in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi.
For years, Muslim organizations in America have been at the forefront of the movement for more progressive immigration policies. ICNA and Islamic Relief both showcase their work for refugees on their websites, and have promoted rallies and demonstrations led by progressive, pro-immigration crowds. Islamic Relief insists that refugees do not leave willingly and that “the choice to leave home is excruciating,” while ICNA regularly posts articles chronicling its efforts to assist refugees.
But these prominent American Islamist organizations do not appear keen to extend all this progressive rhetoric to Asia Bibi, whose life is in total, irrefutable danger, as Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamist movements actively and violently campaign for her execution. Islamist silence over Bibi confirms that the progressive values professed by organizations such as ICNA are nothing more than a facade, and that the loyalty of these groups lies not with liberal causes in the West, but with extremists in South Asia.
Martha Lee is a writer for Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.
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