Last week, four imams headed to a conference in Charlotte were denied the ability to fly by two separate airlines, presumably because of their religion and dress.
That's their claim, and so far the airlines involved haven't denied it. At a press conference last week, they asked people to look beyond how they dress and "get to know their fellow American Muslims." So who is behind the North American Imams Federation, the group that held the Islamaphobia conference and the press conferences on the imam's behalf?
NAIF's board of directors and membership includes or has recently included more than a dozen people with connections to terrorism, including unindicted (a term that means federal authorities believe someone played a role in a plot, but lack the evidence to indict) co-conspirators in terror attacks or terrorist fundraising groups. It would take several columns to name them all, but here are the highlights.
In 2006, another set of imams made headlines after they were removed from a plane flying from another NAIF conference. Their behavior, including shouting "Allah" before boarding, frightened passengers who complained. The airline later settled a suit with the imams.
One of those imams was Omar Shahin, a current NAIF board member and NAIF's former president. According to the Arizona Republic, Shahin has been under the "FBI's microscope" since the 1980s, when he ran a mosque that "was a hub for adherents to the radical Wahhabi school of Islam, some of whom later became important aides to Osama bin Laden." Shahin also raised funds for two groups later convicted of fundraising for terrorists.
His book,The Muslim Family in Western Society: A Study in Islamic Law, quotes an extremist Islamic scholar who studied under the man credited with inspiring al-Qaeda, the Republic reported.
Siraj Wahhaj, board member and secretary of NAIF, is an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing trial. In city after city, Wahhaj's presence causes protests once people find out who he is. Wahhaj defended the "Blind Sheikh" Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was later convicted in two bomb plots, as a character witness in court, describing him as a "respected scholar." He's also defended the World Trade Center plotters, calling — according to an article published by the New York Post (July 21, 2008) — the FBI and CIA the "real terrorists."
NAIF Chairman El-Tayeb Abuelyaman says he's unaware of the unsavory backgrounds of NAIF leaders because he doesn't read many newspapers. Abuelyaman says they haven't been convicted of anything, and if they are, they might be removed from NAIF. After our interview, Wahhaj's name was removed from the board of directors listing on its website.
But Wahhaj is still listed as 1st vice president of Majlis Ash-Shura, the New York group over which Imam Al-Amin Abdul Latif presides. Latif is one of the four imams who weren't allowed to fly. Wahhaj taught at the same "Jihad Camp" in Pennsylvania where men took part in paintball practice and learned about the afterlife before post-9/11 scrutiny of such camps shut them down. In 2010, Latif's group, Majlis Ash-Shura, marched on behalf of Aafia Siddiqui, who was convicted of attempted murder of American soldiers in Afghanistan.
Masjid Al-Noor, the mosque of Imam Mohamed Zaghloul, one of the imams removed from the planes last week, got caught in a flap over a scheduled speech by notorious Hamas fundraiser Mohammed al-Hanooti, an unindicted co-conspirator in both the World Trade Center Bombing trial and the Holy Land Foundation terrorism fundraising trail. After the local paper asked questions, the al-Hanooti event was pulled from the website.
The imams denied the ability to fly may be genuine victims of discrimination. But for the NAIF to ask the American public to trust its members is a stretch.