The International Visitor Program is one of many devices used by the U.S. government since 9/11 to bridge the gap with the Muslim world. Over the last two years the program, which is run by the State Department, has been used to bring foreign Muslim leaders to the United States “to increase mutual understanding through communication.” These trips include meetings with American officials and community leaders, all at the expense of the State Department. The program is undoubtedly well intended, but there are indications that Foggy Bottom has not always been careful in choosing the participants. In fact, last September, one of the participants was Haci Karacaer, spokesman for the Dutch branch of Milli Gorus (MG), a group that has been monitored by European intelligence agencies for years.
Milli Gorus (meaning “national vision”), which counts 210,000 members, claims to defend the rights of the immigrant Turkish population in Europe, giving them a voice in the democratic political arena while preserving their Islamic identity. But there is concrete evidence that MG has a different agenda. While publicly declaring their interest in democratic debate and a willingness to see Turkish immigrants integrate into European societies, some MG leaders have expressed contempt for democracy and Western values. Moreover, there is evidence that members of the group dream of introducing Islamic law to Muslims living in the West.
Germany, where MG has its strongest foothold, has monitored the activities of the group since the 1980s. Germany’s domestic intelligence agency has repeatedly warned about MG’s activities, describing the group in its annual reports as a “foreign extremist organization,” oriented toward Islamic law “as opposed to ideological pluralism in a secular state.” The agency also reported that, despite the public declarations of its leaders, “MG is anti-democratic and hostile toward integration.” And, in 1996, a Hamburg court described the group as a “threat to the democratic order in Germany.”
Confronted with the embarrassing anti-Western statements of MG leaders in Germany, Mr. Karacaer claimed that all contacts between the Dutch and German branches had been severed, and that the Dutch branch is moderate and pro-integration. Nevertheless, there is evidence that the two branches still operate together, as MG’s 2002 European meeting was organized by the Dutch branch and held in the Dutch city of Arnhem.
The Arnhem meeting provided a glimpse into MG’s ideology. A crowd of over 20,000 hailed former Turkish Prime Minister Nehmettin Erbakan as a hero, and Erbakan did not disappoint. After a tirade against the evils of integration in the West and American policies, he declared that “after the fall of the Wall, the West has found its new enemy in Islam.” According to Turkish journalist Mehmet Ulger, the standing ovation Erbakan received should not surprise, since the imams in the more than 500 mosques controlled by MG are known to deliver even fiercer sermons. A few days after 9/11, the imam at the Yunus Emre mosque in The Hague warned worshippers that “believers must not be governed by people who are not of the same belief, otherwise they go against the Quran.” This ideology is also propagated through MG’s books and publications. Milli Gazete, the group’s official magazine, once stated that “MG is a shield protecting our fellow citizens from assimilation into barbaric Europe.”
One wonders why the U.S. embassy in The Hague decided to sponsor a visit from the spokesman of such a group. Some believe that the answer lies in the cunning public image Mr. Karacaer, a well-educated, soft-spoken man adept at dealing with Western media and institutions, has built. Over the last few years, he has tried to remove the image of MG as an anti-Semitic, anti-integration organization, and has claimed that MG’s new generation does not follow the group’s old rhetoric.
Although many in Holland believe that Karacaer is indeed the new, moderate face of MG, some remain highly skeptical. Faud Hussein, an adviser to the newly instituted Iraqi Education Ministry who lived in the Netherlands, told the Dutch newspaper Trouw: “The younger generation of MG is more informed about Dutch society, but this does not mean they are supporting a different ideology. The objective (of MG) is still the Islamization of the Turkish community and then of the state.” Mr. Karacaer is the perfect choice to showcase MG’s new moderate façade–and the State Department, unfortunately, fell for this ruse. Officials at the U.S. embassy in The Hague declined to comment about their decision to select Mr. Karacaer as a representative of Dutch Muslims.
The State Department is rightly intentioned in improving the perception of the U.S. among Muslims, but rewarding the leader of an anti-Semitic, anti-Western group that advocates the introduction of Islamic law in the West with a three-week trip to the United States sends the wrong message. Only truly moderate Muslims who do not maintain a double image should be engaged.
–Lorenzo Vidino is an attorney and terrorism analyst at the Investigative Project, a Washington, D.C.-based counterterrorism research institute.