Weddady’s Free Arabs, American Islamic Congress and the pro-Israel funders who helped them rise

Man wearing blue robe looks at his phone in a radio station suite

Social media activist Nasser Weddady’s career has been promoted by pro-war and anti-Palestinian forces determined to undermine Muslim communal organizing across the US. (Flickr)

On 18 April, three days after a bombing killed three and left many more wounded at the Boston marathon, a figure unknown to most Americans stepped suddenly into the national spotlight. At a nationally broadcast interfaith service addressed by President Barack Obama, a Mauritanian-born social media activist named Nasser Weddady appeared on stage as the designated representative of Boston’s Muslim community. Introduced as the chairman of the New England Interfaith Council and the civil rights outreach director for the American Islamic Congress (AIC), Weddady delivered a well-received sermon referencing Jewish and Islamic scripture on non-violence.

Unlike the notable Jewish, Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Protestant religious figures chosen to speak at the service, Weddady was not an ordained clergy member, nor was he known to many members of the community he claimed to represent. In fact, he was a last-minute replacement for Suhaib Webb, a Muslim educator and imam of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, the largest Muslim house of prayer in New England.

Commenting on Twitter that the office of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick “made the call” to replace him, Webb said the governor chose “Muhammad Weddady,” misidentifying Nasser Weddady. When another Twitter user asked Webb who Weddady was, he responded, “No idea.”

A report by the right-wing, pro-Israel website suggested that Webb’s replacement by Weddady was politically motivated (“Muslim Brotherhood-linked mosque’s imam replaced as speaker at service for Boston Marathon attack victims,” 21 April 2013).

According to the article, groups including self-styled “terror expert” Steven Emerson’s Investigative Project on Terrorism, the anti-Muslim outfit Americans for Peace and Tolerance created by David Project founder Charles Jacobs, and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) claimed Webb’s mosque “has an anti-Semitic and anti-Israel history that started with its founding by members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the parent organization of Hamas.”

The allegations stemmed from a failed campaign directed by Jacobs and assisted by the ADL, Emerson and other anti-Muslim elements to block the construction of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. In May 2010, after the dust cleared, Governor Patrick appeared at the mosque, seemingly rebuking the cast of Islamophobes that smeared it as a terrorist front. Patrick told the congregation, “Yours is a peaceful faith, and I know that … .” Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley also offered support for the mosque, dispatching a staffer to attend Patrick’s speech and earmarking $50,000 in funds to “sensitivity training for law enforcement officials” (“‘Yours is a peaceful faith’,” Boston Globe, 23 May 2010).

Disturbing history

The report has not been confirmed by Governor Patrick’s office, Webb, or by Weddady. However, the replacement of Webb, perhaps the most notable Muslim religious authority in New England, with an obscure lay figure raises questions about why the local Muslim community was not able to delegate its own representative.

And who was Weddady? Was he, in fact, a rising human rights activist promoting tolerance among Bostonians and spreading freedom abroad? And was his employer, the AIC, simply a group of earnest Muslim do-gooders “trying to build bridges among people of different faiths and ethnicities,” as Public Radio International’s The World claimed it was on its 16 April edition?

An investigation of the American Islamic Congress by The Electronic Intifada revealed a disturbing history that stretches back to the invasion of Iraq, with political patronage from the Bush administration building the organization from the ground up. Despite its claim to promote tolerance, the AIC has depended on substantial support from the very same elements that fought tooth and nail to sabotage the Islamic Society of Boston, and which seem determined to undermine Muslim communal organizing efforts across the country.

The organization has managed to maintain US government funding during the Obama era, serving as a faithful arm of soft American power in the Middle East while nurturing the creation of Weddady’s new “Free Arabs” website, a self-proclaimed portal to “Democracy, Secularism, [and] Fun” that eschews criticism of Western policies towards the Middle East while promoting US military intervention in Syria.

Weddady and AIC co-founder and Executive Director Zainab Al-Suwaij did not respond to calls and emailed queries requesting comment for this article.

According to Internal Revenue Service 990 information filings, the AIC is funded largely by a pool of right-wing donors responsible for bankrolling key players in America’s Islamophobia industry, from Charles Jacobs to Emerson’s Investigative Project on Terrorism and Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum. These same donors have pumped millions into major pro-Israel organizations, including groups involved in settlement activity and the Friends of the IDF, which provides assistance to the Israeli army.

Among the AIC’s most reliable supporters is the Donors Capital Fund, which has provided at least $85,000 in funding since 2008. Donors Capital was among the seven foundations identified in the Center for American Progress’s 2011 report Fear Inc. as “the lifeblood of the Islamophobia network in America.” Another foundation singled out in the report, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, has donated $325,000 to the AIC between 2005 and 2011.

The Bradley Foundation is one the most generous donors to the American conservative movement, according to People for the American Way’s Right Wing Watch project, pumping millions into right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, key bastions of neoconservativism. It has also supported the work of Charles Murray, a right-wing author who notoriously argued in his 1994 book, The Bell Curve, that intelligence was based on race, and that blacks and Latinos were genetically inferior to whites and Asians.

Some of the most virulent anti-Muslim agitators, from David Horowitz to Frank Gaffney to Daniel Pipes, who has called for razing entire Palestinian villages and other forms of collective punishment, have received more than $5 million from the Bradley Foundation.

Aided by Adelson

In 2009, the AIC received a $95,500 donation from the Adelson Family Foundation, the charitable entity of Las Vegas casino baron Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam. Adelson is best known for his attempts to unseat President Barack Obama through million dollar donations to the 2012 presidential campaign of Republican former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

A major donor to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Birthright Israel program that sends Jewish American youth on free trips to Israel, Adelson is also a key financial benefactor of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career (“The Bibi Connection,” Al Akhbar English, 12 January 2012).

In December 2011, Adelson told a Birthright Israel group that Palestinians were “an invented people.” “Don’t let Muslim student organizations take over the campuses,” he urged the Jewish college students. Adelson has never explained his funding of the AIC, perhaps the only Muslim-oriented recipient of his donations (“Sheldon Adelson to Birthright group: Gingrich is right to call Palestinians ‘invented people,’Haaretz, 26 December 2011).

Of all the right-wing, pro-Israel donors to the AIC — and there are too many to mention here — none has been more generous than the Klarman Family Foundation, which provided the group with $425,000 from 2005 to 2011. The foundation is the charitable vehicle for Boston-based pro-Israel billionaire Seth Klarman. He is the principal funder of The Israel Project, an Israeli government-linked public relations and lobbying group run by former AIPAC spokesperson Josh Block, which has, among other things, taken dozens of journalists on helicopter tours in Israel and the territories it occupies (“Israel Project brags on planting story in CNN and taking 38 journalists on helicopter trips in Israel,” Mondoweiss, 18 April 2013).

Besides the AIC, Klarman has donated to a who’s who of anti-Muslim and pro-Israel groups, including the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), the American Jewish Committee, The David Project, Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum, and Friends of Ir David Inc., the US tax-exempt fundraising arm of the settler organization behind a wave of Palestinian expulsions in the occupied East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan.

Klarman is also a major donor to Birthright Israel, AIPAC-founded think tank the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and the pro-Israel neoconservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

The AIC is not the only putatively Muslim group funded by Klarman. In 2011, Klarman made his first donation to the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, the shell organization that serves as the personal platform for Zuhdi Jasser. The previously unknown Jasser, a physician from Arizona with no academic or theological credentials, is one of the country’s most outspoken Muslim proponents of law enforcement surveillance of Muslim communities.

Two years earlier, Jasser was welcomed onto AIC’s board of directors, joining a host of like-minded neoconservatives.

“Demographic jihad”

Daniel Pipes, one of America’s foremost anti-Muslim activists, has promoted the AIC as one of the “moderate groups” presenting a counter-weight to Muslim organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which he has repeatedly labeled as a front for a secret plot to place the US under the control of “sharia law.” A staffer for a major Muslim-American civil rights organization told me that AIC’s leadership refused to participate in any initiative with the organized Muslim American community.

Described by his frequent host Glenn Beck as “the Muslim we were all looking for after 9/11,” Jasser starred in an Islamophobic propaganda film, The Third Jihad, warning that Muslims were organizing a takeover of the US through “demographic jihad.” He gained prominence as the lead Muslim witness in the congressional hearing on “Muslim radicalization” hosted by New York Republican Congressman Rep. Peter King, and has vehemently defended the New York Police Department’s profiling of Muslims.

In October 2012, AIC director Zainab Al-Suwaij signed a letter authored by Jasser and addressed to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urging her to bar Pakistani politician Imran Khan from entering the US (“AILC Press Release: Secretary Clinton should bar Imran Khan from entering the U.S.,” 23 October 2012).

Jasser described Khan, one of Pakistan’s most outspoken opponents of US drone strikes, as “an anti-American politician who regularly defends the Taliban.” The letter contained the signatures of more than a dozen obscure Muslim figures, including Farid “Frank” Ghadry, a neoconservative favorite and AIPAC member who has attempted to promote himself, Ahmed Chalabi-style, as the future leader of a free Syria, including before the Israeli Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

Another neoconservative activist seated on the AIC’s board, Hillel Fradkin, is a scholar of Islamic studies who signed the notorious Project for the New American Century letter calling for the United States to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Then there is Khaleel Mohammed, a professor of religion at San Diego State University whose views have endeared him to hardline Islamophobes. A contributor to Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Quarterly, Mohammed argued in a friendly interview with David Horowitz’s far-right FrontPageMag that the Quran states that “Israel belongs to the Jews.” “Only when Muslims themselves accept Israel will they be following their Quran,” Mohammed claimed (“The Koran and the Jews,” 3 June 2004).

Mohammed is the faculty advisor for AIC’s student group at San Diego State University, Project Nur, and to the school’s Graduate Program in Homeland Security. On his personal website, Mohammed declared that Muslims who did not rise up to fight “the world terrorists” were betraying their Islamic duty. “The Quran makes it absolutely clear that Muslims must bear arms against errant Muslims in times of need,” he wrote. “It is either one or the other. We must either fight against terrorism or deem our silence as evidence of complicity” (“Statement on Terrorism,” 10 September 2004).

Bush’s Iraqi fixer

In August 2004, two years after she founded the AIC, Zainab Al-Suwaij appeared before the Republican National Convention to speak in support of George W. Bush’s re-election and the invasion of Iraq. “America, under the strong, compassionate leadership of President Bush, has given Iraqis the most precious gift any nation has ever given another — the gift of democracy and the freedom to determine its own future,” Suwaij proclaimed, according to a Fox News transcript.

Al-Suwaij was born into a Shiite family in Iraq that suffered under the regime of Saddam Hussein. When she appeared at the helm of the AIC just months after the 11 September 2001 attacks and with an invasion of Iraq on the way, her organization was little more than a shell, with no board of directors and only a little more than $12,000 in its coffers. By 2004, however, Al-Suwaij was earning six figures, with government contracts pouring into her organization along with requests from national media outlets. The US occupation of Iraq was propelling her ambition.

On 21 March 2003, two days after the US invasion of Iraq began, Al-Suwaij appeared on ABC’s 20/20 alongside three other Iraqi women representing a now-defunct group called Women For Iraq.

The women told host Barbara Walters that those protesting the invasion were “missing the point,” and thanked the US military for “freedom and liberty.” Days before, the four of them were invited to the White House to meet with a grateful Bush.

The following year, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced a $10 million grant for women’s “democracy training” in Iraq. Much of the money went to the Independent Women’s Forum, a militantly anti-feminist Republican organization then run by Lynne Cheney, the wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, and originally founded as Women For Clarence Thomas — a support group for the embattled, ultra-conservative Supreme Court nominee. Two organizations were brought in on the mission as subcontractors: the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, the hard core neoconservative think tank currently promoting a US military assault on Iran, and the AIC.

In 2004, the Bush administration funneled $542,123 to the AIC; a year later, the Independent Women’s Forum paid the AIC $533,052 in State Department grants to serve as its “subcontractor” in Iraq. In 2006, the AIC received $465,780 in compensation from the Independent Women’s Forum for its work. According to IRS 990 information returns filed by the AIC, hefty State Department grants poured in to the group’s coffers throughout Bush’s second term in office.

An Independent Women’s Forum report on its work in Iraq contained few details about the concrete results it achieved. However, it hinted at a slew of embarrassing failures, including an Iraqi women’s conference held in Jordan in 2005 where participants arrived exhausted, famished and shell-shocked after being shot at by unnamed assailants. According to the report, the women were not provided with the food or lodging they requested, and “providing and confirming flights for the participants in a very short period of time proved impossible” (“Advancing Women’s Rights - Two Years in Iraq” [PDF]).

When Al-Suwaij attempted to open women’s centers in Basra and Karbala, local officials rebuked her — “this segment of the grant was never fully realized,” the report noted. A more successful forum organized through the AIC instructed Iraqis in Nasiriyah on “coughing into one’s elbow instead of into one’s hand, and other basic health concepts.”

Despite having participated in a dubious mission that was widely criticized as right-wing political patronage, the AIC has maintained a steady stream of government funding since Barack Obama entered the White House. In 2009, the AIC received more than $433,000 from the State Department to conduct conflict resolution programs in Iraq, claiming to have “diffused 60 conflicts” in the country. Two years later, it reaped $1.28 million in government funding for Iraqi conflict resolution and to train “social entrepreneurs” in Tunisia; over $170,000 of the government money was earmarked for democracy promotion. Today, the AIC maintains offices in Tunis and Cairo, both apparently supported by State Department grants.

To help coordinate its efforts across the Middle East and at its gleaming new cultural center in Boston, the AIC has turned to social media activist Nasser Weddady.

“Democracy, secularism, fun”

The son of a prominent Mauritanian diplomat and opposition politician, Weddady was hired by the AIC in 2007 as outreach director for the organization’s Hands Across the Mideast Support Alliance (HAMSA). HAMSA is overseen by Jesse Sage, a protégé of hardline anti-Muslim activist Charles Jacobs, who hired him to direct the American Anti-Slavery Group that spearheaded a nationwide Sudan divestment campaign. Weddady boasts on his bio that he has briefed the Boston Joint Terrorism Task Force, a division of the FBI, and claims to speak five languages fluently, including Spanish, French and Hebrew.

A profile of Weddady by Karen Leigh in The Atlantic describes him as a hidden force behind the Arab revolts — “an activist quietly pulling strings from Boston.” According to Leigh, Weddady is among the “top four most-influential Twitter users of the Arab Spring uprisings” and “is networked in every country in the region.” Leigh went on to claim “Weddady’s network” was largely responsible for the release of several activists jailed in Syria and Egypt during the Arab uprisings (“Behind the Arab Revolts, an Activist Quietly Pulling Strings From Boston,” 25 January 2012).

One of Weddady’s most high-profile projects is the “Dream Deferred Essay Contest.” With approximately $58,000 in grants since 2005 from the Earhart Foundation, a right-wing charity best known for funding conservative efforts to unravel affirmative action programs for minority students in the US, the “Dreams Deferred” competition has doled out cash prizes to Arab youth for essays detailing repression and cultural problems like female genital mutilation in their countries. Among the winners selected by a panel chaired by famed American feminist Gloria Steinem was Maikel Nabil Sanad, an Egyptian anti-military conscription activist who told Israel’s Ynet “I am pro-Israel,” and who supported Israel’s brutal assault on the Gaza Strip in 2008-09, blaming Palestinians for provoking Israel “to defend itself” (“Egyptian refusenik: I’m pro-Israel,” 25 October 2010).

In 2012, Palgrave Macmillan published an anthology of “Dreams Deferred” contest winners co-edited by Weddady and called Arab Spring Dreams. The book earned a glowing review from The Times of Israel, the Israeli publication financed by top AIC funder Seth Klarman. The blogger iPouya offered a less charitable critique, accusing the authors of committing a multitude of embarrassing factual errors.

Weddady co-edited the anthology with one of the neoconservative movement’s rising stars — Sohrab Ahmari, an Iranian-American former fellow at the right-wing Henry Jackson Society, and assistant books editor at The Wall Street Journal, who has been described by MJ Rosenberg at The Huffington Post as “the neocons’ favorite Iranian” (“Neocons Do Not Speak for Iranian-Americans,” 27 March 2012).

Ahmari is a vocal proponent of a US military strike on Iran to precipitate regime change, a position he advocated last year in an article for Commentary (“Can Iran Be Saved?” March 2012).

In the introduction to their book, Weddady and Ahmari explain their decision to exclude the Palestinian narrative from the anthology on the grounds that “a [Palestinian] state there, or a treaty here, are of little consequence to the Middle East’s struggle for civil rights.”

While speaking on a panel at the American Jewish Committee’s 2012 national conference in Washington, DC, Ahmari argued that the US “should try to actively shape the outcomes of the Arab Spring. In other words, we don’t have the opportunity to be humble and stay away from the region and favor all actors equally,” he stated, as video of the event shows. “… What needs to happen from the Western perspective is to be equally engaged, morally and militarily, to make sure the Arab Spring reflects our preferences rather than Tehran’s.”

Views like these have found an occasional home at Free Arabs, the website co-founded by Weddady. Described as a forum for Arab liberals who “confront both oppressive autocrats and religious zealots with audacious reporting,” the website’s launch generated a wave of online criticism and debate. Many critics pointed at “The Fatwa Show,” a comical portrayal of ultra-conservative Muslim sheikhs who issue absurd edicts against high heels and body hair.

Others homed in on “The Horrific 4,” a narrative series aiming to “push to an extreme the worse [sic] prejudices seen in the Arab world, sometimes with a satirical tone.” No satire was apparent, however, when “Yehudi,” a fictional Mizrahi Jew from Israel who appeared as part of the series, claimed, “we Middle Eastern Jews [living in Israel] … are the most free Arabs in the world” (“Mizrahi Jews are the ultimate pan-Arabs,” 24 October 2012). Without a trace of irony, Yehudi added: “Yes, we Middle Eastern Jews in Israel are the ultimate pan-Arabs — and we are free to explore that cross-cultural mix and blaze new identities in one of the most experimental societies in the world.”

Free Arabs states on its website that it was born from “a network of creative next-generation Arab activists facilitated by the American Islamic Congress, backed by a small grant from the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.” Until 8 May, Free Arabs listed as a sponsor Stanford University’s Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, where the Moroccan journalist Ahmed Benchemsi — a co-founder of Free Arabs — serves as a visiting scholar.

The Stanford program that houses Benchemsi is overseen by Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Larry Diamond, a liberal interventionist academic and former senior advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority that governed the US occupation of Iraq. Diamond emerged as a critic of the war after the occupation turned into a bloodstained boondoggle, but maintained that the invasion was just (“What went wrong in Iraq,” Foreign Affairs, September-October 2004).

Almost a decade later, with the Arab revolts in flux, he sees new opportunities for the exercise of hard American power. In a recent commentary for The Atlantic, Diamond and Stanford’s Lina Khatib argued for US military intervention in Syria, warning that the failure to intervene would have “catastrophic consequences for regional stability and for the position of the United States in the Middle East” (“The Case for Intervening in Syria,” 25 April 2012).

Three days later, Free Arabs republished Diamond and Khatib’s piece, headlining it, “Syria - No More Excuses!

Around this time, Weddady was busy organizing a 2 May panel discussion at AIC’s Boston cultural center that would be co-hosted by the the leading pro-Israel advocacy group the American Jewish Committee. Themed as “A New Vision of Muslim-Jewish Relations,” the event’s keynote speaker was Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick.

Built into the original scaffolding of Bush’s imperial project, the AIC emerged unscathed from its dramatic collapse, finding favor in a new era among Obama’s top allies. As Washington grasps for strategies to influence the course of the Arab revolts, Weddady and his colleagues are earning new opportunities, and ample compensation.

Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and best-selling author.

Updates and corrections: This article has been updated since publication to indicate that Sohrab Ahmari is no longer a fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and is now assistant books editor at The Wall Street Journal. An earlier version of the article also incorrectly stated that the funds earmarked by the Massachusetts Attorney General for sensitivity training for law enforcement officials were state funds. The article has since been corrected. 

Until 8 May, the Free Arabs website stated, “Development of the initiative was enabled by Ahmed Benchemsi’s fellowship at Stanford University’s program on Arag [sic] Reform and Democracy at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.” This has now been deleted from the Free Arabs website. Lina Khatib, Head of the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University (ARD) wrote to The Electronic Intifada stating that her institution is “not one of this website’s [Free Arabs] sponsors” and that while Benchemsi is affiliated with ARD, Free Arabs “is his individual endeavor — and he is free to pursue his personal interests and projects.”