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Cold War, Holy Warrior

Ike was president. Washington was desperate for Arab allies. Enter an Islamist ideologue with an invitation to the White House and a plan for global jihad.

AS INFLUENTIAL as he was in the Middle East throughout the '60s and '70s, Ramadan was virtually invisible to the West. The first time Americans might have heard his name was in connection with a bizarre murder in Washington; it would turn out to be the first instance of Islamist terrorism in the United States. On July 22, 1980, the doorbell rang at the home of Ali Akbar Tabatabai, a former press counselor at the Iranian Embassy in Washington who, after the fall of the shah in 1979, had founded the Iran Freedom Foundation and had become a leading opponent of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamist regime. On his doorstep that day was a young man, dressed as a mailman. He fired several shots into Tabatabai's abdomen, killing him.

The assassin, who'd borrowed a mail truck from an unsuspecting friend, was an American Muslim named David Belfield. Investigators tracking Belfield, who was now calling himself Daoud Salahuddin, found that he'd fled first to Geneva and then to Iran. Then they discovered a curious fact: Just before the murder, a series of phone calls to Said Ramadan were placed from a pay phone near Belfield's workplace in Washington. Ramadan—an enthusiastic supporter of Khomeini's revolution—also spoke with the fugitive in Geneva, coordinated his escape with the Iranian Embassy in Switzerland, and made a call to Ayatollah Khomeini's son in Iran to make sure that Belfield made it safely to sanctuary in Tehran. It later turned out that Belfield had talked to Ramadan before accepting a job as a security guard at the Iranian Embassy in Washington; according to The New Yorker, Belfield pocketed $5,000 for the assassination from his "handler" in the Iranian government.

Belfield and Ramadan had first met in June 1975 when Ramadan spent several months in the United States, a tour that included speaking engagements at Washington's Islamic Center, an Eisenhower-era mosque on Massachusetts Avenue adjacent to Rock Creek Park. Their first encounter was in Ramadan's hotel room; after that, Ramadan stayed for three months at Belfield's modest home on Randolph Street in Washington. Ramadan regaled Belfield with tales of jihad, and the young American began almost to worship the Egyptian. According to an account of the relationship published much later in the Washington Post, Belfield became Ramadan's "personal secretary, special emissary and devoted servant. Ramadan became his spiritual leader for life." Ramadan told Belfield that if he were to undertake violent action in support of Islamic revolution, "he wouldn't be emotionally scarred by it—it would ‘be accomplished and simply forgotten.'" Belfield would later tell The New Yorker, "His tone was emphatic. And for me it was taken as a command."

From Iran, Belfield became an emissary of sorts for Ramadan. At one point he contacted Libya's Muammar Qaddafi on Ramadan's behalf; later, he delivered a missive from Ramadan to Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani. For two years, Belfield himself served in Afghanistan as a jihadist, fighting the Soviet occupation.


By the 1980s and 90s, with Khomeini's regime in Iran and Zia ul-Haq's Islamist dictatorship in Pakistan firmly entrenched, the Afghan jihad under way, and the Muslim Brotherhood established as a potent, underground opposition movement in Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and elsewhere, Ramadan's early spadework had borne fruit throughout the Middle East. But even as Islamism came into its own, an aging Ramadan was fading from prominence, and in 1995, at age 69, he passed away. His son Hani took over the reins of the Islamic Center while another son, Tariq, a professor in Switzerland, publicly eschewed his father's radicalism. In 2004, Notre Dame University invited Tariq Ramadan to come to Indiana as a professor, but he was barred from entering the United States when the Department of Homeland Security refused to grant him a visa.

Today, Ramadan's legacy is evident everywhere. The Muslim Brotherhood remains a powerful, transnational secret society committed to the creation of a fraternity of Islamic republics that would be governed according to their vision of seventh-century Muslim laws. And it has used the backing of Iranian and Arab petroleum potentates to create a powerful political infrastructure, from Egypt to Syria (where its violent underground presence poses a direct threat to the secular, nationalist regime of Bashar al-Assad) to the chaos of Iraq, where the Sunni opposition is being steered in a fundamentalist direction by, among others, the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Brotherhood branch.

Among American analysts, the Brotherhood still has its defenders. Professors John O. Voll and John L. Esposito of Georgetown University, both scholars of Islam, defend it as a moderate Islamist organization that rejects extremism and violence and note with approval that some U.S. officials see the Brotherhood as "important potential allies in the war on terrorism." Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer who is now a fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, argues in his 2004 book, The Islamic Paradox, that even if the Brotherhood were to seize power in Egypt and suppress democracy, "the United States would still be better off with this alternative than with [the current] secular dictatorship." From the U.S.-allied theocracy emerging in Baghdad to the right-wing Islamists of Pakistan, America's fatal fascination with fundamentalism continues.

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