Mainstream US Muslim organizations are heavily influenced by Saudi-funded extremists, according to Yehudit Barsky, an expert on terrorism at the American Jewish Committee.
Worse still, Barsky told The Jerusalem Post last week, these "extremist organizations continue to claim the mantle of leadership" over American Islam.
The power of the extremist Wahhabi form of Islam in the United States was created with generous Saudi financing of American Muslim communities over the past few decades. Over 80 percent of the mosques in the United States "have been radicalized by Saudi money and influence," Barsky said.
Before the 1970s, she explained, "Muslim immigrants who came to the United States would build a store-front mosque somewhere. Then, since the 1970s, the Saudis have been approaching these mosques and telling them it wasn't proper for the glory of Islam to build such small mosques."
For many Muslims, it seemed the Saudis were offering a free mosque. However, Barsky believes for each mosque they invested in, the Saudis sent along their own imam (teacher-cleric).
"These [immigrants] were not interested in this [Wahhabi] ideology, and suddenly they have a Saudi imam coming in and telling them they're not praying properly and not practicing Shari'a [Islamic law] properly." This Saudi strategy was being carried out "all over the world, from America to Bangladesh," with the Saudis investing $70-80 billion in the endeavor over three decades.
Barsky, who heads the AJC's Division on Middle East and International Terrorism and is the executive editor of Counterterrorism Watch, said this means that "the people now in control of teaching religion [to American Muslims] are extremists. Who teaches the mainstream moderate non-Saudi Islam that people used to have? It's in the homes, but there's no infrastructure. Eighty percent of the infrastructure is controlled by these extremists."
The same is true, Barsky said, of many of the mainstream Muslim organizations in America. Many of them are "pro-Saudi and pro-Muslim Brotherhood organizations."
As examples, she listed three important groups: the Islamic Society of North America, which "supports the Muslim Brotherhood and the Saudi regime;" the Islamic Circle of North America, which "is composed of members of Jamaat e-Islami, a Pakistani Islamic radical organization similar to the Muslim Brotherhood that helped to establish the Taliban;" and the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), "founded in the 1980s by pro-Hamas activists."
The problem is most acute when it comes to interfaith relations. When advising colleagues on interfaith work with their Muslim counterparts, Barsky tells them "to proceed with caution, [since] some of the [extremist] organizations have concluded that interfaith dialogue is a good way to spread the ideology."
Indeed, despite instructions given in Saudi embassy literature - and available in many mosques throughout the country - which blast Jewish and Christian "corruption and immorality" and teach Muslims that "the only way to survive is to have no contact with the infidel Christians and Jews," these organizations reach out to Jews and Christians.
Barsky explained that interfaith dialogue gives such organizations a public legitimacy that their ideology would deny them if they expressed it outright.
"So there's a problem," Barsky concluded, "with knowing who these people are, who is really moderate. [These organizations] come to the Jewish community to talk about interfaith, while they still teach anti-Western and anti-Christian doctrines to their followers. Some of the leaders have even condoned suicide bombings in Israel and against American armed forces."
Her advice to American Jewish organizations who want to take part in interfaith activities: "Take time to learn who they are and what they're saying. It's more complicated than just respecting each other."
As for finding true moderates in the American Muslim community, Barsky said such organizations "have quite a way to go before they will have the level of organization" displayed by the extremist organizations. "So there's a moderate voice that hasn't been heard. But it's starting to be heard, and that's because of the anger over [organizations such as] CAIR claiming the mantle of leadership."
For example, organizations such as the Arizona-based American Islamic Forum for Democracy and the Washington-based Center for Islamic Pluralism are both new and "have gathered under their umbrella a number of moderate organizations."
As for combatting Islamic radicals in America, Barsky thinks Americans need to change the way they think about Wahhabi Islam.
"The United States has a hard time understanding the extremists' ideology. Americans don't like to interfere in the religion of other people. But the reality is that this isn't religion, but a politicized radical ideology. It's very dangerous," she warned, adding that the people who are being taught this ideology are prime targets for recruitment by terror organizations.
"If we don't understand that [these groups] are dangerous," she concluded simply, "we're going to suffer the consequences."