At bottom, Islamists are Muslims who want to make the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad the basis of government. In Egypt, they are organized as the Muslim Brotherhood, exercising their clout through social, charitable, educational, and political channels. Islamists don’t enjoy similar influence here, but they have long been a prominent factor in the political life of American Muslims.
This does not mean that Islamists reflect the views of the majority of Muslims in either country. Nor does it mean that most Muslim-American leaders are members of the Muslim Brotherhood, though many have been and some may still be. The key point is that the leadership of the Muslim American community does have historical ties and intellectual debts to Islamism. Here, as in Egypt, Islamism has importantly shaped the discourse and the organizations that Muslims are now using to carve out civic and political space for their religion.
Does this mean that America’s freedoms are in danger from these same Islamists? We think not. But we are struck as well by the tendency of many in the United States, including the media and various government agencies, to ignore the Islamist influences on established Muslim-American organizations and their leaders. For example, the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), which has origins and ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, is routinely described and treated as though it were just another civil rights or advocacy organization.
In turn, such studied ignorance in the face of this easily verified history, has created a backlash among other Americans that something important is being hidden from them – a sure recipe for generating conspiracies and popular distrust of Muslim Americans more generally.