- Other Views
- March 10, 2006
- 33 minutes read
A rare look at secretive Brotherhood in America
Over the last 40 years, small groups of devout Muslim men have gathered in homes in U.S. cities to pray, memorize the Koran and discuss events of the day.
But they also addressed their ultimate goal, one so controversial that it is a key reason they have operated in secrecy: to create Muslim states overseas and, they hope, someday in
These men are part of an underground
Still, the U.S. Brotherhood has had a significant and ongoing impact on Islam in
Leading the U.S. Brotherhood during much of this period was Ahmed Elkadi, an Egyptian-born surgeon and a former personal physician to
His story, combined with details from documents and interviews, offers an unprecedented look at the Brotherhood in
Indeed, because of its hard-line beliefs, the U.S. Brotherhood has been an increasingly divisive force within Islam in
Many Muslims believe that the Brotherhood is a noble international movement that supports the true teachings of Islam and unwaveringly defends Muslims who have come under attack around the world, from Chechens to Palestinians to Iraqis. But others view it as an extreme organization that breeds intolerance and militancy.
“They have this idea that Muslims come first, not that humans come first,” says Mustafa Saied, 32, a Floridian who left the U.S. Brotherhood in 1998.
While separation of church and state is a bedrock principle of American democracy, the international Brotherhood preaches that religion and politics cannot be separated and that governments eventually should be Islamic. The group also champions martyrdom and jihad, or holy war, as a means of self-defense and has provided the philosophical underpinnings for Muslim militants worldwide.
Many moderate Muslims in
Documents show that the U.S. Brotherhood has been careful to obscure its beliefs from outsiders. One document tells leaders to be cautious when screening potential recruits. If the recruit asks whether the leader is a Brotherhood member, the leader should respond, “You may deduce the answer to that with your own intelligence.”
Brotherhood members emphasize that they follow the laws of the nations in which they operate. They stress that they do not believe in overthrowing the U.S. government but rather that they want as many people as possible to convert to Islam so that one day – perhaps generations from now – a majority of Americans will support a society governed by Islamic law. Muslims make up less than 3 percent of the
Federal authorities say they have scrutinized the U.S. Brotherhood for years. Agents are investigating whether people with ties to the group have raised and laundered money to finance terrorism abroad. No terrorism-related charges have been filed.
Former leader Elkadi, who has been questioned at length by federal authorities about the inner workings of the Brotherhood, says the group has served Muslims in the
“Islam is for everyone,” he says. “It’s good for
Mohammed Mahdi Akef, head of the international Muslim Brotherhood, based in Egypt, lauds Elkadi and the activities of the U.S. Brotherhood.
“They have succeeded in saving the younger generations from melting into the American lifestyle without faith,” he says. “They have saved their children.”
Once one of America’s most influential Muslims, Elkadi now spends most of his days in front of the TV in his two-bedroom condominium in Sterling, Va., across the Potomac River from Washington.
Earlier this year he was diagnosed with a neurological disorder that affects motor skills, speech and memory. He often has difficulty expressing himself and seldom speaks more than two sentences at a time. Sometimes, he says, he smiles for no reason other than to try to remain cheerful.
But on many days his memory is clear, and his statements about the major events of the U.S. Brotherhood have been confirmed by others associated with the group.
Elkadi, a 64-year-old with a closely trimmed white beard, says he is willing to speak about the Brotherhood because he believes he has nothing to hide. Both he and his wife, Iman, 60, say they have devoted much of their lives to the Brotherhood, and Elkadi says the reason for that is simple: “It’s genetic.”
Both of their fathers were early Brotherhood leaders in
The Brotherhood slogan became: “Allah is our goal; the Messenger is our model; the Koran is our constitution; jihad is our means; and martyrdom in the way of Allah is our aspiration.”
Over time, the Brotherhood gained notoriety for repeatedly attempting to overthrow the Egyptian and Syrian governments and for spawning violent groups, including the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Palestinian group Hamas.
Today the Brotherhood remains based in
And while Brotherhood activities vary from country to country, and chapters are officially independent, international leaders in
In recent months Akef, the international Brotherhood leader, repeatedly has praised Palestinian and Iraqi suicide bombers, called for the destruction of Israel and asserted that the United States has no proof that al-Qaida was to blame for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Iman Elkadi’s father, Mahmoud Abu Saud, was particularly involved in the Brotherhood’s beginnings in
He also was jailed repeatedly for his Brotherhood activities.
“My grandfather would tell me that if my dad didn’t come home for dinner, he would send someone to check the jails,” Iman Elkadi recalls.
The Elkadi and Abu Saud families were linked in marriage in 1963 after Ahmed Elkadi, then a 22-year-old preparing to go into the Egyptian military, ran into his future father-in-law at a mutual friend’s office. When the young Elkadi learned that Abu Saud had an unmarried daughter, he inquired about her. The father, familiar with the young man’s family and its devotion to the Brotherhood, invited him to their home.
Soon after, the families arranged for Ahmed and Iman to marry. The wedding was held in
Iman Elkadi says: “They asked my husband, `Couldn’t you find anybody else to marry except Mahmoud Abu Saud’s daughter?’”
The Elkadis arrived in the
But to protect themselves and their relatives back home from possible persecution, they publicly called themselves the Cultural Society and not the Brotherhood.
Many young Muslim professionals joined, including Elkadi. One of his daughters, Mona, recalls that when she was a teen, she often fielded phone calls from women who did not know that their husbands were in the Brotherhood and wondered where they were on a given night.
She says the husbands “put the fear of God in me about keeping this a secret. I’d get lectures from some of the men about how I was going to expose them.”
Not anyone could join the Brotherhood. The group had a carefully detailed strategy on how to find and evaluate potential members, according to a Brotherhood instructional booklet for recruiters.
Leaders would scout mosques, Islamic classes and Muslim organizations for those with orthodox religious beliefs consistent with Brotherhood views, the booklet says. The leaders then would invite them to join a small prayer group, or usra, Arabic for “family.” The prayer groups were a defining feature of the Brotherhood and one created by al-Banna in
But leaders initially would not reveal the purpose of the prayer groups, and recruits were asked not to tell anyone about the meetings. If recruits asked about a particular meeting to which they were not invited, the response should be: “Make it a habit not to meddle in that which does not concern you.”
Leaders were told that during prayer meetings they should focus on fundamentals, including “the primary goal of the Brotherhood: setting up the rule of God upon the Earth.”
After assessing the recruits’ “commitment, loyalty and obedience” to Brotherhood ideals, the leaders would invite suitable candidates to join. New members, according to the booklet, would be told that they now were part of the worldwide Brotherhood and that membership “is not a personal honor but a charge to sacrifice all that one has for the sake of raising the banner of Islam.”
Mustafa Saied, the Floridian who left the Brotherhood six years ago, recalls how he was recruited in 1994 while a junior at the
“It was a dream, because that’s what you’re conditioned to do – to really love the Ikhwan,” Saied says, using the Arabic term for Brotherhood members.
After he joined, he learned the names of other local members.
“I was shocked,” he says. “These people had really hid the fact that they were Brotherhood.”
He says he found out that the U.S. Brotherhood had a plan for achieving Islamic rule in
“They’re very smart. Everyone else is gullible,” Saied says. “If the Brotherhood puts up somebody for an election, Muslims would vote for him not knowing he was with the Brotherhood.”
Saied says he left the group after several years because he disliked its anti-American sentiments and its support for violence in the
“With the extreme element,” he says, “you never know when that ticking time bomb will go off.”
By the 1970s, Elkadi had moved to
Members were required to pay 3 percent of their income per year, with the money going to travel, books and annual conferences, the Elkadis say. The conferences were held under the Cultural Society name, usually in large hotels and always on Memorial Day weekend. They were invitation-only, with word spread through the prayer groups. Some years, up to 1,000 people attended; every other year, elections were held.
While the U.S. Brotherhood was influential from its beginning – in 1963 it helped establish the Muslim Students Association, one of the first national Islamic groups in the
And when he was elected president in 1984, he vowed to do just that.
Elkadi had a strategy to make
By 1990, U.S. Brotherhood members had made headway on that plan. They had helped establish many mosques and Islamic organizations. Some of those efforts were backed financially by the ultraconservative Saudi Arabian government, which shared some of the Brotherhood’s fundamentalist goals.
Elkadi himself helped create several noted Islamic organizations, including the Muslim Youth of North America, which attempted to draw thousands of high school students to Islam by sponsoring soccer teams, providing college scholarships and offering a line of clothing. He served as president of the North American Islamic Trust, a group that helped build and preserve mosques.
Some of those organizations eventually would distance themselves from the Brotherhood. The Islamic Society of North America, the umbrella group for the Muslim Youth of North America and the Muslim Students Association, says Brotherhood members helped form those groups but that their overall influence has been limited.
Groups that the Brotherhood helped form printed Islamic books, many of which were distributed at mosques and on college campuses. They included Sayyid Qutb’s “In the Shade of the Koran” and “Milestones,” which urge jihad, martyrdom and the creation of Islamic states. Scholars came to view his writings as manifestos for Islamic militants.
“These books had questionable paradigms, especially a dichotomous division between `us’ and `them,’” said Umar Faruq Abdallah, a noted Islamic scholar who now heads a Muslim educational group in suburban
Inamul Haq, professor of religion at
Without the Brotherhood, he says, “We would have seen a more American Islam culture rather than a foreign community living in the
In his own community, Elkadi practiced what he preached. After moving to
Called the Akbar Clinic, the two-story brick building had a surgery center, an emergency room and dental, psychiatry, nutrition and acupuncture services.
Inside the clinic, Elkadi set up a small mosque and an Islamic school. The school occupied several rooms on the second floor until the students became too loud and classes had to be moved to a trailer on clinic grounds.
In many eyes, Elkadi was a true Muslim leader.
“Everyone flocked to him whenever there was a problem,” says Aly Shaaban, a Muslim leader in
But things were beginning to unravel for Elkadi. By 1995 he had lost virtually everything he had worked for: his clinic, the school, his medical license and the presidency of the U.S. Brotherhood.
First to go was the clinic. Elkadi had fallen behind on the bills, and by 1988 creditors had won thousands of dollars in judgments against him. To prevent a sheriff’s sale, the Islamic bank in
But Elkadi faced an even more serious professional problem:
Regulators determined that Elkadi had performed unneeded stomach surgery on nine patients. The Florida Board of Medicine concluded that Elkadi “exhibited a total lack of judgment” and was “not a competent physician.” The board revoked his license in 1992.
At the time, Elkadi adamantly denied the allegations and accused
By the mid-1990s, his problems deepened. Not only was he forced to close his now-overcrowded and dilapidated school because of financial difficulties, he learned that Brotherhood leaders wanted him out as president.
It remains unclear why he lost his position. Current and former Brotherhood members say they do not know or that Elkadi simply was voted out of office. Elkadi and his wife say he was removed because he was not conservative enough. They say he had been pushing for women and other Islamic groups to be more involved in the Brotherhood, and some members did not like that.
“For some members, it’s a very ingrown type of mentality,” Iman Elkadi says. “You work only among Muslims, don’t contact non-Muslims, so that your work is limited to a small circle.” She says the Elkadis believed that “the message of Islam is for everybody.”
Elkadi’s daughter says he took the rejection hard. Elkadi now says he is not angry about his ouster and still loves the organization and its members. “They are good people because they follow Islam,” he says.
In recent years, the U.S. Brotherhood operated under the name Muslim American Society, according to documents and interviews. One of the nation’s major Islamic groups, it was incorporated in
Some wanted the Brotherhood to remain underground, while others thought a more public face would make the group more influential. Members from across the country drove to regional meeting sites to discuss the issue.
Former member Mustafa Saied recalls how he gathered with 40 others at a Days Inn on the Alabama-Tennessee border. Many members, he says, preferred secrecy, particularly in case
“They were looking at doomsday scenarios,” he says.
When the leaders voted, it was decided that Brotherhood members would call themselves the Muslim American Society, or MAS, according to documents and interviews.
They agreed not to refer to themselves as the Brotherhood but to be more publicly active. They eventually created a Web site and for the first time invited the public to some conferences, which also were used to raise money. The incorporation papers would list Elkadi – just months away from his ouster – as a director.
Elkadi and Mohammed Mahdi Akef, a Brotherhood leader in
“We have a religion, message, morals and principals that we want to carry to the people as God ordered us,” he says. “So why should we work in secrecy?”
An undated internal memo instructed MAS leaders on how to deal with inquiries about the new organization. If asked, “Are you the Muslim Brothers?” leaders should respond that they are an independent group called the Muslim American Society. “It is a self-explanatory name that does not need further explanation.”
And if the topic of terrorism were raised, leaders were told to say that they were against terrorism but that jihad was among a Muslim’s “divine legal rights” to be used to defend himself and his people and to spread Islam.
But MAS leaders say those documents and others obtained by the Tribune are either outdated or do not accurately reflect the views of the group’s leaders.
MAS describes itself as a “charitable, religious, social, cultural and educational not-for-profit organization.” It has headquarters in
Shaker Elsayed, a top MAS official, says the organization was founded by Brotherhood members but has evolved to include Muslims from various backgrounds and ideologies.
“Ikhwan (Brotherhood) members founded MAS, but MAS went way beyond that point of conception,” he says.
Now, he says, his group has no connection with the Brotherhood and disagrees with the international organization on many issues.
But he says that MAS, like the Brotherhood, believes in the teachings of Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, which are “the closest reflection of how Islam should be in this life.”
“I understand that some of our members may say, `Yes, we are Ikhwan,’” Elsayed says. But, he says, MAS is not administered from
MAS says it has about 10,000 members and that any Muslim can join by paying $10 a month in dues.
But to be an “active” member – the highest membership class – one must complete five years of Muslim community service and education, which includes studying writings by Brotherhood ideologues al-Banna and Qutb.
There are about 1,500 active members, including many women. Elsayed says about 45 percent of those members belong to the Brotherhood.
MAS’ precise connection to the Brotherhood is a sensitive issue, says Mohamed Habib, a high-ranking Brotherhood official in
“I don’t want to say MAS is an Ikhwan entity,” he says. “This causes some security inconveniences for them in a post-Sept. 11 world.”
Elsayed says MAS does not believe in creating an Islamic state in
MAS collected $2.8 million in dues and donations in 2003 – more than 10 times the amount in 1997, according to Internal Revenue Service filings.
Spending often is aimed at schools, teachers and children, the filings show. The group has conducted teacher training programs, issued curriculum guides and established youth centers. It also set up Islamic American University, largely a correspondence school with an office in suburban
Until 18 months ago, the university’s chairman was Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a prominent cleric in
“We were praying five times a day,” Karim says. “It was like a proper Islamic environment. It brought me back to Islam.”
At a summer camp last year in
Part of the
One passage states: “Until the nations of the world have functionally Islamic governments, every individual who is careless or lazy in working for Islam is sinful.” Another one says that Western secularism and materialism are evil and that Muslims should “pursue this evil force to its own lands” and “invade its Western heartland.”
In suburban Rosemont, several thousand people attended MAS’ annual conference in 2002 at the village’s convention center. One speaker said, “We may all feel emotionally attached to the goal of an Islamic state” in
Federal authorities say they are scrutinizing the Brotherhood but acknowledge that they have been slow to understand the group.
In 2002, customs agents stopped Elkadi at
Elkadi remains highly regarded in some Muslim circles. An article in 2000 in the MAS magazine praised him as a great Muslim in the ranks of al-Banna and Qutb.
He and his wife say they hope the Brotherhood succeeds. After all, they say, everyone in the Brotherhood agrees on the main issue.
“Everyone’s goal is the same – to educate everyone about Islam and to follow the teachings of Islam with the hope of establishing an Islamic state,” Iman Elkadi says. “Who knows whether it will happen or not, but we still have to strive for it.”
Chicago Tribune correspondents Evan Osnos, Stephen Franklin and Hossam el-Hamalawy contributed to this report.