Waleed Basyouni is trying to take something good from the fact that the Islamic State terrorist group has specifically targeted him for death.
In the twisted way in which the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, views the world, Basyouni says he would not be considered a threat to the terrorists if he wasn’t doing something right.
“I have a long history with these jihadist groups speaking very vocally against them,” Basyouni, a Houston imam, told The Daily Signal.
“When we, as Muslims, come out and show there is another choice, you can be successful or accepted in keeping a Muslim identity and also a national identity, that in itself will destroy what ISIS is calling for, even if it makes us a target. I take pride from that. It means whatever I am doing is hurting them and I am glad to know that.”
Last month, ISIS published a hit list in its online propaganda magazine, Dabiq, targeting moderate Muslims living in the West.
In an article titled, “Kill the Imams of Kufr in the West,” ISIS calls for its followers to kill “overt crusaders” and “politically active apostates” who “involve themselves in the politics and enforcing laws of the kufr [disbelievers].”
The target list includes high profile Muslim American political figures Rashad Hussain, who has served as the U.S. special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn. And for the first time, ISIS put out a direct hit on U.S. imams, or religious leaders, including Basyouni.
In an hour-long phone interview with The Daily Signal this week, Basyouni described what it’s like being on an ISIS kill list, and why the threat won’t stop him from preaching Islam the only way he knows how, and condemning those who twist the religion into something it isn’t.
There is nothing scary about Basyouni, a baby-faced 46-year-old Muslim whose idea of extreme is indulging in sports like scuba diving and mountain climbing.
Basyouni is the imam of the Clear Lake Islamic Center in Houston. Known since before 9/11 to deliver sermons in which he challenges prominent terrorists by name, including Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, Basyouni travels the world spreading his counter-narrative message.
“We try to educate Muslims about the true religion so that we can build a resilient community immune from extreme messages that ISIS and other terrorist groups are trying to spread,” said Basyouni, who is also the vice president of the AlMaghrib Institute, an educational nonprofit for Muslims that he says has more than 130,000 students across the world.
“That’s what bothers ISIS the most—the firewall we are building inside the communities through education,” Basyouni added.
Born in Egypt, and raised in Saudi Arabia, Basyouni moved to the United States in 1997.
Basyouni immigrated first to Montana to be with his wife, who had previously come to the state from Saudi Arabia.
Already possessing bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Islamic studies from Al-Imam Muhammad University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Basyouni earned a doctorate in theology from the Graduate Theological Foundation in Indiana.
He’s proving that Islam and the West can co-exist, much to ISIS’ chagrin.
“I chose to live here,” Basyouni said. “I chose to be an American citizen and I truly believe this is the greatest country in the world today. I will stand out against any threat to this society at large. If I can make this place safe, I will do it.”
Basyouni believes that his religious expertise, and exposure to different teachings of Islam, taught him to be an “independent thinker,” and gives him the credibility to confront ISIS. His authority is bolstered by his large following: Basyouni has more than 30,000 Twitter followers, and over 230,000 people have “liked” his Facebook page.
“This is my duty as a Muslim scholar,” Basyouni said. “These guys have abused my religion. We have a verse in the Quran that says people of knowledge will explain it to the people and defend their religion. This kind of counter messaging is what gives me superiority over others because I can strip down the evidence and names they use to claim legitimacy.”
Basyouni learned he had become an ISIS target from a friend—a former Department of Homeland Security employee—who also made the hit list.
To ensure his safety, Basyouni says he quickly contacted his local FBI connections, who he says he has a “working relationship” with (he’s a 2012 graduate of the bureau’s citizens academy).
Basyouni’s young children, a 15-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son who he preferred not to name, reacted to the news in their own way.
“I told them to take it easy and it’s not a big deal, but my daughter heard from a classmate in school that, ‘Your dad is on the ISIS kill list,’” Basyouni said. “She came to me and said, ‘Papa, is that true they are going to kill you?’ I said, ‘I hope not.’ I never thought I’d have that conversation with my 15-year-old daughter.”
Basyouni says he has received supportive calls from leaders of Houston area synagogues and churches, neighbors, and officers in the local police department. While Basyouni promises to be more cautious when he travels—and he will consider hiring private security—he says he won’t limit his activism.
“I take the threat seriously, absolutely,” Basyouni said. “Some of my friends have told me to be more general, and not name names. I believe these issues have to be addressed very bluntly and explicitly. I think it would be wrong if I limit my activity. I would be giving them [ISIS] what they want and not what they deserve. They make these threats just to scare us and stop us from doing what we are doing. But I am not scared.”