A Canadian Salafist Abroad

The members of the nascent Muslim community he joined were struggling then to define the meaning of halal, haram, hilal and hijab. Given the topics addressed at JoF, it appears the now robust Muslim community of 400,000 is stuck on the same tune. Not surprisingly, so are the city’s daily newspapers. The media’s primary role is to cover not cover-up.

Philips early arrival and the Friday sermons he gave in the weeks leading up to the conference first got the attention of the National Post. Philips’ apparently ‘backward position’ on homosexuality provided a convenient ‘hook in’ for the media attention he would receive. Keen-eyed reporters could have jumped all over his book “Polygamy in Islam” where he advocates in favor of a man taking up to four wives. Or, his sectarian denunciation of Shi’ites as ‘kafirs’, a favorite subject of his during the 1980’s Iran-Iraq war when his Saudi employers generously funded his English translations of “The Mirage in Iran” and “The Devil’s Deception.” Instead, the media went with homosexuality.

It might come as a surprise to Philips that timing, not a Zionist-homosexual conspiracy, is an integral newsroom ingredient. The mayor of Toronto received his fair share of the media limelight after he declined to participate in the Pride Parade, opting instead to take his family outing. Was the mayor a closet homophobe? Speculation ran amok. The city was abuzz with gossip.

JoF and Pride were timed for the same July 1-3 holiday weekend. As hundreds of Muslims crammed into the Metro Convention Centre, just a few blocks south, thousands of revelers swayed to the music of Pride.

On the eve of the conference/parade the Toronto Star reported that in an interview “Philips cheerfully advocated death as a punishment for males who confess to homosexual behaviour, or are seen performing homosexual acts by four reliable witnesses, in countries governed by Islamic law.” (June 30) It is not exactly clear what Philips’ motive might have been for expounding on the Islamic legal ramifications of homosexuality. Perhaps he was troubled after a recent visit to Bannu in the NWFP of Pakistan or to villages and cities in Afghanistan where the practice of ‘bacha bazi’ (systemic sexual abuse of boys) runs deep. Edifying believers in the Muslim world on the nuances of his Salafist dogma with all its hateful “al-wala wal-bara” overtones might be a more productive exercise.

Muslim leaders in Toronto have argued the issue in the public square for decades. They’ve had their say, been heard, duly noted, lost that battle and many of us thought – moved on to other issues.

Twenty years ago the then Toronto Board of Education (TBE, now the TDSB) asked for input on its new teacher’s guide on homosexuality, lesbianism and homophobia. Journalist Zuhair Kashmeri quoted Imam Abdullah Hakim-Quick, a member of a special TBE committee that deals with religious practices, as saying that homosexuality is “considered deviant behaviour punishable by death under Islamic law.” (NOW, July 30-Aug. 5, 1992). Incidentally, Hakim-Quick also converted to Islam in Toronto in 1972 and has had a life-long friendship with Philips.

Hakim-Quick, who was an Imam at the Jami’ mosque for five years, clarified to Kashmeri that death was only applicable in countries where Islamic law prevailed. In other words, no where on God’s earth. As for Toronto Muslims who were identifiably gay, Imam Hakim-Quick told Kashmeri that “people can’t be blackballed for being gay…I would counsel them. I would encourage them to come to the mosque. It is the house of Allah. Allah guides whom he pleases.” At the time, his position sounded fairly progressive. I recall many hard-liners in the community chastising him for not taking a more hardball approach.

In a companion piece to Kashmeri’s, Ali Sharrif wrote an article titled: “Shielding Children from Sex.” In it he quoted Abdullah Idriss, then principal of ISNA’s school, as saying that the TBE guide “has been designed to attack the heterosexual family. It has complete disregard for the cultural and religious diversity of those who are not white, or Westernized enough to adopt Western ideals. So what are Muslim students to do now? Give up their faith and adopt homosexual ideals contrary to their culture and religion?” (NOW, July 30-Aug. 5, 1992). The comment speaks for itself. Shaykh Abdullah Idriss too was a featured speaker at the JoF conference.

Philips comment that “homosexuality is evil” – the unequivocal position of both the Bible and the Quran – got the attention of German immigration officials. That too had to do with timing. The Germans interpreted his comment as advocating the killing of homosexuals and banned him from entering the country. So did Britain and Australia. India froze his visa application for other reasons, making it difficult, if not impossible, for him to attend his friend Zakir Naik’s Peace TV’s annual shindig.

Even if Philips, like Imam Hakim-Quick 20 years ago, had offered important caveats to the Star reporter such as the credibility of the witnesses, a fair trial, a successful conviction or confession, only applicable in countries governed by Islamic law, none of it is relevant to anyone in Canada. And because his comments have no legal implications to the citizens of this city, something he is well aware of, they must have been designed to tug at the moral cords of his audience, many whom no doubt regard him as a “charismatic and articulate” scholar of Islam.

Bell quoted Philips as saying that “AIDS is a form of divine punishment.” I am not sure exactly when this observation was revealed to him, but the majority of Muslim scholars, including the great Al-‘Izz ibn Abdus-Salam, saw tremendous spiritual benefits in all forms of tribulations. The exception, according to Philips’ doctrine, must be AIDS because it is the one disease most frequently associated with the gay and lesbian community.

Could the Germans be right? Was Philips inciting vigilante attacks on gays and lesbians? Canadian authorities are asking similar questions.The answer might be in his past. J.M. Berger, author of “Jihad Joe: Americans who go to war in the name of Islam,” provides a rare glimpse of Philips’ vision. Bell outlines some salient details in his National Post article.

For example, Philips ran an “off the books” Saudi paramilitary operation in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 1990’s.  Here is a portion of Bell’s article.

…the Saudis approached Mr. Philips in 1992 to start a program that would send American Muslim ex-servicemen to Bosnia to train Muslim fighters battling Serbian forces. They brought the plan to Mr. Philips because he had helped convert hundreds of American troops stationed in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War.“I was approached by a couple of military people and asked if I knew any of the troops that had accepted Islam, gone back to the States and had left the American military, you know, who might be willing to go to Bosnia to help train the Bosnians,” the book quotes Mr. Philips as telling the author. “What they said they were looking for was something like an A-Team of specialists who would then go and train them to help in resisting the Serbian slaughter.”Writes Mr. Berger: “That request marked the start of a program that would soon spiral out of control, embroiling U.S. military veterans in a jihadist circle with links to al-Qaeda and to a stunningly ambitious homegrown plot to kill thousands of innocent victims in New York City.”Asked about the book, Mr. Philips called it “a mixture of fact and fiction.” In an email, he said he was “a Canadian Muslim scholar who 20 years ago tried in a limited way to help his Muslim brothers who were being slaughtered by the Serbs in what came to be known as the biggest massacre and act of ethnic cleansing in the middle of Europe since World War II.”The first stop of Project Bosnia, as the book calls it, was Switzerland, where Mr. Philips met Hasan Cengic, a Bosnian official, imam and gunrunner who agreed to fund the program through a charity called the Third World Relief Agency, which was largely financed by Saudis.

“After the meeting, Philips started to canvass his military friends back in the United States,” the book says. One of them, identified only as Tahir, was a Vietnam vet who had met Mr. Philips during the conversion program in Saudi Arabia. The book said he is also an alleged al-Qaeda member, although Mr. Philips denied that.

Tahir personally escorted about a dozen recruits, including several Special Forces veterans, to Bosnia, where they set up outside the northeast city of Tuzla. Most of the military trainers left following the mission but some stayed on to fight, the book says.

An American who had fought in Afghanistan, Abdullah Rashid, later replaced Tahir. Unable to recruit veterans, Mr. Rashid decided instead to train non-veteran American Muslims and send them to Bosnia. “Philips agreed and provided him with money to get started,” reads the book.

The recruits, who were from New York and Philadelphia, trained at a camp in rural Pennsylvania but some of them decided that, rather than traveling to Bosnia for jihad, they would instead attack America, specifically New York City.

A Day of Terror was planned, during which bombs would be detonated throughout the city. The United Nations and FBI buildings were among the targets. “The plan they were most close to acting on was to set off truck bombs in the Lincoln and Holland tunnels in New York during rush hour, which would have killed thousands, probably more people than 9/11,” Mr. Berger said.

Told the group was talking about attacking America, Mr. Philips said he rejected the idea and told Mr. Rashid to disband the group or send them overseas. “It was just totally inappropriate. It becomes, some kind of, you know, terrorism really, you know, unleashing violence against civilian population. It’s not acceptable,” the book quotes him as saying.

The FBI got wind of the plot while investigating the failed 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center. Ten people were eventually convicted over the New York plot, including Omar Abdel-Rahman, an anti-American Egyptian cleric known as the Blind Sheikh.

Mr. Philips was never charged and told the National Post he has been “from the beginning opposed to the Qaeda and any form of terrorism in the name of Islam,” and that he “continues to oppose suicide bombing directed against civilian populations anywhere.”

He said “some bits” of the book were correct but others were left out. For example, he claims the New York conspirators were actually “set up” by the FBI informant, whom he said “was the one feeding them ideas.”

Said Mr. Berger, “It’s very difficult to evaluate Philips as a source. He’s very charismatic. You want to believe him but certainly he has a pretty long history of controversy that surrounds him and certainly there are a lot of people in [the U.S.] government at least that would like to sit him down for a very long talk.”

Although somewhat curtailed in his travels, Mr. Philips still reaches his followers through the Islamic Online University, which he founded a decade ago, and his website, which calls Jews “misguided human beings who need Islam.”

Asked why some governments don’t seem to want him visiting, he replied, “Well, I think mainly it is an issue of assimilation. I mean, they want Muslims in their countries to assimilate and be indistinguishable from the regular local population.

“That’s what I see at the bottom of it.

This is a farcical excuse that should be rejected by any Muslim with a brain. By his own admission, Philips recruited mercenaries from the U.S. to run a paramilitary army in Europe on behalf of a third country. While many might sympathize with his adopted cause given the slaughter of Muslims in Bosnia, these tasks are normally assigned to people like Ollie North of the Iran-Contra Affair, certainly not to a man of the robe and the author of numerous books on Jinns and witchcraft. But Philips did worst. He traded his religious knowledge and the experience of his own conversion for a price in order to prey on vulnerable men convincing many to join a mercenary army in Europe. With Philips’ blessing many of his recruits would have certainly joined Al-Qaeda in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and hard evidence, not an FBI conspiracy, proves that they planned domestic terrorist attacks in the U.S. I spent a full year researching the New York terror plot for an award-winning CBC 5th Estate documentary that aired in 1994.

There is absolutely no doubt that former Arab-Afghan Jihadists ran the league of foreign paramilitary warriors out of Sarajevo between 1992-1996. There is likewise no doubt that many of them returned to Afghanistan in 1996 to pledge allegiance (bi’ah) to Osama Bin Laden after he fled Khartoum for Kabul. That’s why Philips’ legal ramblings have been interpreted as inciting to violence and it’s precisely why his travels have been drastically curtailed. Was he speaking in Toronto with the conscience of a scholar or the forked tongue of a warrior?

There are times when I believe that our community exhibits a high level of maturity in expressing itself and demonstrating transparency even at critical times of rampant Islamophobia, but inviting Philips to speak at a major Islamic conference and then defending his irrelevant rants sets us back as a community and does more harm than good.

(Note: In a future blog I intend to spell out why I think the hateful and innovated doctrine of “Al-Wala Wal-Bara,” a foundational value of Salafist of all stripes, makes it impossible for Muslims to live as minorities in the West).

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