ISIS Targets American Imams for Believing Muslims Can Thrive in U.S.

The Daily Beast/April 14, 2016

By Katie Zavadski

ISIS just put three American imams on their kill list. One stunned preacher says it's like a twisted episode of 'The Walking Dead.'

Three American imams got put on ISIS’s hit list for promoting the idea that Islam and the West can coexist.

The terrorist group’s latest issue of propaganda Dabiq attempts to theologically justify an attack on the religious leaders in an article titled “Kill the Imams of Kufr in the West.” The men are worse than hypocrites, ISIS says, because they say Muslims can thrive in America.

“The person who calls himself a ‘Muslim’ but unapologetically commits blatant kufr [disbelief] is not a munafiq [hypocrite], as some mistakenly claim. Rather, he is a murtadd [apostate],” Dabiq claims.

One of the Americans, who The Daily Beast will identify with pseudonyms because of the direct threats on their lives, responded with dark humor.

“Nothing like death threat with a danish and a latte in the morning,” Muhammad told The Daily Beast.

This is the first time ISIS has put out a direct hit on U.S. imams.

Muhammad is treated with contempt by jihadists who call him “the joke of al-Azhar,” a reference to his time at the esteemed Islamic university in Egypt.

“I mean, it’s certainly concerning,” he said, adding that he’s been contacted by the Department of Homeland Security about the threat. “They maybe want to brief me on things to look for, to be cautious of,” he said.

The irony of being on the most extremist group’s hit list isn’t lost on Muhammad, who for years has been accused of Islamic extremism by the far right in America.

“In a way, [Dabiq]’s attacking what many of us think makes our country awesome. And at the same time, it repudiates people on the right,” he said. “If people like myself are radical extremists, then why is ISIS putting a death threat on us?”

Muhammad is a preacher’s grandson from Oklahoma who dabbled as a DJ before converting to Islam and studying abroad with Muslim scholars.

ISIS maligns him for using a “Southern inner-city accent sprinkled with thug life vocabulary and the latest pop culture references when addressing young crowds” but switching “to an ordinary voice when speaking” on television.

“Their critique of me is more of a cultural critique,” Muhammad said. In ISIS’s theology, ”being adherent to God is creating a mono-culture.”

“That’s not why you kill somebody,” he laughs, adding sarcastically: “I don’t like Daryl from The Walking Dead, but I don’t like him because of his accent.”

He knows he’s in good company in ISIS’s crosshairs, joining a diverse list of Muslims that includes a U.S. congressman, an aide to Hillary Clinton aide, and Muslim government officials.

Muhammad ran a large New England mosque for several years and was known for his interfaith efforts. (The image ISIS used of Muhammad showed him shaking hands with a rabbi.)

On a visit to the mosque, this reporter found his congregants embodied the kind of American Islam that ISIS fears: It embraces converts and those raised Muslim, immigrants and native-born Americans, black, white, and Arab. Some female attendees don’t wear the hijab, while others don head-to-toe black and a niqab.

Ahmed, another convert on the hit list, might be even more popular among Muslim-Americans than Muhammad. Raised Greek Orthodox, he embraced Islam as a young man and briefly followed a Scottish sheikh before studying in the Middle East and North Africa. The already-popular imam’s fame skyrocketed after the September 11 attacks, when he became the voice of American Islam and called on Muslims to engage with American public life.

Ahmed is derided in the magazine for his embrace of Sufi Islam and for condemnation of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. ISIS called the sheikh “perhaps the pinnacle of apostasy in Americanist Islam.” His gravest sins, in the group’s eyes, include praising the U.S. Constitution and saying that he believes in American exceptionalism.

Omar, the other American on the list, is a marked man for calling himself a patriotic American.

His respect for the separation of church and state and the Constitution makes him a target. Under his photo, Omar is identified as a “murtadd.”

These three Americans sit at different points on the ideological spectrum, but other imams from around the world named in a long ISIS screed hold truly extremist views. One applauds suicide attacks on Israel; another has been banned from entering Australia, the U.K., and other countries over his views. All of the imams, however, are on the ISIS hit list for the same reason: denouncing the Islamic State.

This wouldn’t surprise Muhammad, the imam criticized for his connection to pop culture. He told the Daily Beast that about a year ago he met with other imams to consider a response to the propaganda put out by ISIS and Al Qaeda. They hoped to start a theological discussion over the theological issues raised in their publications.

“And then we started reading the magazines, and said, ‘You know what? They’re not taking religious positions,” he said.

“One of the great teachers used to say, I argued with a scholar and won, and argued with a fool and lost.”

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