Wahhaj’s popularity in American Islamic circles comes at a time when Western governments are giving increasing attention to the Muslim Brotherhood. A government-sanctioned study in Sweden launched a nationwide debate there in March with a report stating that the Brotherhood was secretly building a parallel society within the country, a conclusion similar to that of a recent British report. In the United States, Congress will soon vote on a renewed push to call on the State Department to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), a measure that would have ramifications for many of the groups Wahhaj and other imams like him support.
The legislation has 46 sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Texas, is optimistic about its chances for approval under a new administration. A similar measure was introduced in the Senate, launching rigorous debate over the risks and benefits of the designation. If Congress passes the legislation and President Trump signs it, the State Department will have to produce a report either agreeing or disagreeing with the FTO recommendation.
Samuel Tadros, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and expert on Islamism, says the FTO designation is too broad and unsuitable for every branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (Tunisia’s Ennahda is one example of a moderate splinter group.) And if the State Department decides against the FTO designation—which he believes would happen—the Muslim Brotherhood will claim the decision implies approval of the group. That is why Tadros prefers the path through the Treasury Department—a lengthier process but one that would “target the splinter groups and through that, build each case.” The Muslim Brotherhood branches in Egypt, Syria and Yemen are a good start.
But most analysts agree with at least the premise behind the legislation: To fight global jihad, lawmakers and officials must better identify and combat those manufacturing the Islamist ideology feeding into the movement. The question is whether prominent figures like Imam Wahhaj are quietly stoking jihadists.
After Wahhaj finished his fundraising appeal at ISOC, he rushed to the men’s prayer room and paused to remove his shoes, providing an opportunity to ask him if he still believes Sharia law is superior to the U.S. Constitution: “Well, that’s tricky. But generally, Sharia is for a Muslim majority country, not a non-Muslim majority.” On the Sharia death penalty for adultery, he was equally cautious: “Again, it is so far from us. They can do that in their country but not here.”
Former Muslim Brotherhood member Pierre Durrani, one of the authors of the Swedish report on the group, heard Wahhaj speak several times in the ’90s and describes him as a “Salafi light” imam who works closely with the Brotherhood. The Swedish native says its “better to have the Muslim Brotherhood in the mosques than al-Qaeda,” but notes their similar ideological roots. Both desire the rebirth of a Muslim caliphate and the decline of Western civilization.
Durrani lists ways to differentiate moderates from Islamists: Look at who they invite to conferences, the literature they promote, their political ideology, and the posts they “like” on social media. “You have to triangulate the movement, and it is difficult detective work.”
The Orange County mosque hosting Wahhaj shows the difficulty. The mosque’s imam, Muzammil Siddiqi, supported former President George W. Bush for his conservative stance on social issues and made a media appearance with him just three days after 9/11. But according to a 2007 New Yorker article, Siddiqi invited Abdel-Rahman to speak at his mosque in 1992 and translated as the sheik dismissed nonviolent interpretations of jihad as weak. And Adam Gadahn—a former al-Qaeda spokesman who died in 2015 during a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan—attended Siddiqi’s mosque in the ’90s.