ISNA’s Four Decades of Extremist Leadership: Sayyid Syeed


Last year at this time I wrote about the annual ISNA convention in Houston. It was a dull pow-wow, with a lame social media presence to match. This year’s convention seems to be dramatically different: Trevor Noah of The Daily Show is the marquis speaker. Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Julian Castro are joining. But they don’t know what they are stepping into.

Beware of ISNA’s Chairman Sayyid Syeed

Last year I mistakenly thought that Sayyid Syeed was finally done leading the organization. He seemed to have disappeared from ISNA events and social media. And rumors abounded about his dissatisfaction with the Turkish government’s increasing attempts to meddle in ISNA’s affairs. It seemed the man who had created ISNA decades ago out of the Muslim Students Association and then stewarded the organization for nearly four decades might finally be done.

I was wrong. Mea culpa. At last year’s convention, Syeed was instead re-elected Chairman. His grip on the organization appears to be as strong as it was in the early 1980s back when he birthed it. And that’s a big problem. The man won’t let go. And he tarnishes the entire Muslim American community with a long trail of extremist leadership. Bernie Sanders and Julian Castro should beware.

Discovering the Extremist Bigotry in Sayyed Syeed’s Islamic Horizons 

After I moved to America, I first heard about Syeed from Musab, a former work colleague and an old-timer who took me under his wing. Musab had come to the US in the 1970s (like Syeed) to study. He participated in the early days of the MSA and witnessed the growth of ISNA under Syeed’s leadership.

Musab and his wife Haniya lived alone (their children were all grown up) and took pity on me as a F.O.B. still figuring out America. We spent Eids and iftars together, with Haniya providing delicious home-made food during Ramadan. The couple saw it as their job to help take care of me… and keep me out of trouble.

I was pretty naive then about American Islamist groups. Musab quickly set me straight: “Listen my son, you’re still new here. Your green card isn’t through yet, and won’t be for at least another 3 years. You can’t afford to hang out in the wrong place.” 

I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know what to say as Musab’s warning completely blindsided me. 

“You don’t know the history of the people running the mosques around here, and you don’t know what I have seen over the years. Look, go wherever you want. I’m just trying to look out for you here.” 

I actually started laughing: “Uncle Musab, if you’re trying to scare me, well done. I’m scared because I don’t have the foggiest idea about what you’re talking about.”

Musab went to his study and came back with a box full of old magazines. They were copies of Islamic Horizons, the MSA and then ISNA publication that Sayyid Syeed chaired for many years. “Read through these,” Musab said.

My eyes popped out of their sockets.

Sayyid Syeed’s Hardcore Ideology Presented Unadulterated for Muslim Students

Musab handed me a copy of the April 1978 (Rabi’ al-Thani 1398) edition of Islamic Horizons. The front page editorial was titled “MSA – Goals and Strategy.” Without imagining Trevor Noah or Bernie Sanders would one day be hanging out on their stage, the MSA leaders wrote very openly about their beliefs:

The MSA doesn’t claim to be an Islamic movement in the sense Ikhwanul Muslemoon was, or Jamaat e Islami Pakistan projects itself. These two great exponents of Islam in today’s world are comprehensive in their scope and sweeping in their formulation of their critique on the current systems of the world. Conceptually, we find ourselves in agreement with them. We do subscribe to their view that the present-day ideologies are outmoded, that the crises in human spirit is deepening and any solution short of total Islam will only accelerate the fall of humanity down the precipice. That’s why we consider the leaders of Ikhwan and Jamaat as benefactors of our ummah, and we don’t feel shy to quote them to correct our members’ perception about Islam…


Right there on the front page of the Syeed’s publication was a clear embrace of hardcore Islamist ideology, Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami (Pakistan) leaders, and a program to implement “total Islam.”


“Keep reading,” Musab urged me. And that’s when I went down the rabbit hole. Crude misogyny, bigotry, homophobia, scapegoating, and fear-mongering. Not the kind of values Bernie Sanders, Trevor Noah, or Julian Castro stand for.

[To be continued.]