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The American Civil Liberties Union announced on April 21 that it had filed a lawsuit on behalf of five Muslim Americans who were detained near the Canadian border upon returning from an Islamic conference in Toronto. Dozens of media stories followed, depicting the “Reviving the Islamic Spirit” conference in Canada as a harmless “religious” event featuring “mainstream” Islamic groups. In fact, the RIS conferences have featured controversial Islamic speakers and attendees “from all across the globe” and U.S. officials say such events have been used in the past to provide cover for pro-terrorist operatives.

Indeed, the RIS had previously announced the invitation of a sheikh notorious for calling for the termination of the Jews, an alleged neo-Nazi, as well as an Islamic leader whose inaugural conference in Florida featured two suicide-bombing supporters.

Some writers and commentators, such as Daniel Pipes, a specialist on Islam, hailed the U.S. government for stopping the participants in the conference from entering the United States. He said it was a matter of national security and protection of the homeland. Controlling the border flow, he said, is absolutely necessary and of “paramount importance.” But such views were not highlighted or even mentioned in the media coverage of the controversy.

Interestingly, however, Imam Siraj Wahhaj, a controversial African-American Muslim leader, attended the recent RIS conference and returned without incident. He was a character witness for Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, the Muslim cleric convicted of taking part in the first bombing of the World Trade Center. He ignored repeated requests to talk to Accuracy In Media about his views and attendance at the RIS event. The title of his address was, “In the Spirit of Forgiveness.”

The imam of the Masjid At-Taqwa mosque in Brooklyn, N.Y., and a board member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Islamic Society of North America, Wahhaj heads the Muslim Alliance of North America. He has declared that the United States must accept “the Islamic agenda” and has been quoted as saying that the American government must be replaced with a caliphate, or Islamic rule. On the other hand, he appeared on the CBS “60 Minutes” program to condemn the 9-11 attacks, and his website says he has been praised by the police for his anti-drug efforts.

AIM made numerous attempts to speak with Wahaj about the detentions and his role in the conference, but was eventually told by an individual answering the phone at his mosque, “He can’t talk to you about that.” The individual confirmed that Wahaj himself was not detained upon returning from the conference.

The ACLU claims that the five Muslim American plaintiffs were unlawfully detained, interrogated, fingerprinted and photographed near Buffalo, N.Y., when they returned from the RIS conference in December of 2004. The lawsuit names officials with the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection as defendants, and charges the defendants’ actions violated the plaintiffs’ right of freedom of religion, rights of free speech and assembly under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment.

The ACLU claimed that the conference was “endorsed by prominent [Canadian] politicians.”

This is, in fact, true. One of those officials speaking at the conference was Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who told the December crowd: “Let me state for the record, the RCMP will not tolerate racism and will not tolerate stereotyping. It is contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is contrary to the internal policies of the RCMP. And it is contrary to the values of our organization.” These remarks were very similar to statements Zaccardelli made at the 2003 RIS conference.

The ACLU lawsuit finds fault with the line of questioning of the plaintiffs as well. Officials allegedly asked, “What was the conference about? What did you do at the conference? Why did you attend the conference? What did the speakers discuss? Did anyone ask you to harm Americans?”

The bulk of media reports focused on the “degrading” experience which was termed a “hassle” or worse. No single media story analyzed by AIM reported the copious evidence available from public sources that Islamic conferences have been used to promote or feature groups and individuals sympathetic to terrorism and terrorist groups.

The Associated Press reported one plaintiff as saying she attended the conference to “hear respected scholars and learn more about her religion.” At the border, she said, her husband was taken behind closed doors and asked “very offensive questions.” The Washington Post’s description of the conference was limited to “a religious conference” and the title: “Reviving the Islamic Spirit.”

Deep inside the Post story, Kristi Clemens, spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, was quoted as saying,

In this instance, we had credible intelligence that conferences similar to the one from which these individuals were leaving were being used by terrorist organizations to fundraise and to hide the travel of terrorists themselves.

That sounds somewhat mysterious and may seem to involve classified information about terrorist threats to America. But much information about the nature of past RIS conferences is already on the public record and worrisome enough. The Post and other media did not report the following:

  • RIS’s two-day conference in January 2003 advertised Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al-Sudais as a speaker. The year prior, the Associated Press reported that before 2 million followers, al-Sudais, the chief cleric of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, prayed to God to “terminate” the Jews whom he called “the scum of humanity, the rats of the world, prophet killers … pigs and monkeys.” The sheikh has also characterized Jews as “evil,” “evil forefathers,” a “continuum of deceit,” and full of “tyranny” and “treachery.” Due to logistical problems, the sheikh, the biggest headliner of the event, missed the conference. Jeewan Chanicka, media relations director for the Toronto conference, called the sheikh’s absence “unfortunate.”

  • The same conference featured Zulfiqar Ali Shah as a speaker. Shah is the former president of the Islamic Circle of North America, an organization linked to Jama’at-I-Islami, a fundamentalist Pakistani group that calls bin Laden the “hero” of the Islamic world, and raises millions of dollars for jihad around the world. Shah is currently chief executive officer of the Universal Heritage Foundation based in Kissimmee, Fla. I attended the inaugural conference of that group, which was held just days before the Toronto conference mentioned above. The conference featured as speakers suicide-bombing supporters Abdul Malik Ali and Wagdi Ghuneim. Shah ran into some media static when the Florida press found out his headliner was advertised also to be the “terminate the Jews” sheikh.

  • Mokhtar Maghroui, who spoke at the UHF conference featuring the suicide bombing supporters, also spoke at the last two RIS conferences.

  • The 2003 RIS conference featured William W. Baker, who was outed as a neo-Nazi by investigative reporter Stan Brin in the Orange County Weekly.

The major media do the public a serious disservice when they omit any account of known controversies regarding Islamist conferences. The public is left with a one-sided ACLU view when U.S. law enforcement officials take action to monitor the activities taking place. Daniel Pipes argues that, “Were the plaintiffs to prevail in this case, attending religious conferences would instantly become the favored method for terrorists and other Islamists to cross the American border without hindrance.”


Sherrie Gossett is associate editor of the AIM Report.

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