For the better part of three days in March 1977, a group of terrorists held downtown Washington in a stranglehold. First, seven men with a fearsome arsenal seized the headquarters of B’nai B’rith, the storied Jewish service organization just a few blocks northwest of the White House. It was the middle of the workday, and the building was filled with employees of the charity; the invaders soon had more than 100 hostages under their control.
As police raced to set up a cordon outside, another three armed men seized the Islamic Center of Washington, just over a mile away on stately Embassy Row. The largest mosque in the country at the time, the center stood less than 1,260 yards from the vice president’s residence.
Then, a short time later, two more gunmen stormed the District Building, home of Washington’s city government, where they engaged in a wild firefight that left a local news reporter dead. The shoot-out took place just down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House; from a window in the residence, President Jimmy Carter could see the District Building under siege.
All of the hostage takers were followers of the Hanafi Movement, a group of African American Muslims led by Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, a troubled visionary who aspired to be an Islamic caliph in the U.S. With all three buildings under his control, Khaalis, installed at the B’nai B’rith headquarters, said his men would start beheading hostages if authorities did not meet an expansive series of demands.
An unusual highlight of his list: stop the screening of a Hollywood movie that was scheduled to premiere in Times Square that afternoon. Muhammad, Messenger of God, a sprawling swords-and-sandals biopic of the prophet, was the passion project of an enterprising Syrian-born U.S.C. film grad. It creatively avoided the traditional Muslim prohibition on showing images of the prophet by endowing the camera with his perspective so that viewers were meant to feel they were seeing the world through Muhammad’s eyes. This innovation did not appease Muslim critics, including Khaalis, who told Washington police he wanted the screening halted at once.
The cops did manage to stop the screening, but the standoff went on for 39 hours before Khaalis and his gunmen were apprehended and the hostages were released.
All of this transpired at the very heart of America’s government. Yet, somehow, the Hanafi siege has been largely forgotten—it’s become one of those “How did I not know about this?” historical episodes that send you down a Wikipedia rabbit hole. In American Caliph, a fascinating and meticulously researched new history of the crisis, the journalist Shahan Mufti makes a convincing case for its broader significance. The attack, he points out, was “the largest hostage taking in American history and the first such attack by Muslims on American soil.”
American Caliph provides a nuanced portrait of Khaalis, the Hanafi leader whose grand ambitions give the book its title. A disciple turned critic of Elijah Muhammad, the Black Muslim leader of the Nation of Islam, Khaalis wanted his movement to challenge the Nation as the dominant face of Islam in the U.S. His most prominent convert was a seven-foot-two-inch U.C.L.A. basketball star to whom Khaalis gave a Muslim name: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
For a time, the Hanafis exuded a friendly openness, hanging an American flag above the door of the D.C. mansion that served as their headquarters. Then, in January 1973, a team of assassins with links to the Nation of Islam descended on the Hanafi mansion, searching for Khaalis. The Hanafi leader was away, but they proceeded to murder seven people, five of them children, including Khaalis’s nine-day-old granddaughter. The horrendous killings, combined with the justice system’s subsequent protracted, and, to Khaalis’s mind, insufficient prosecution of the killers, left him unhinged and determined to seek spectacular revenge. His quest reached a crescendo with his siege of Washington in 1977.
Mufti interlaces Khaalis’s story with that of Moustapha Akkad, the thwarted director of Muhammad, Messenger of God. The publicity from the siege tanked the film’s commercial prospects, but Akkad found a way to make lemonade from lemons, investing in a horror script from an upstart director. Its title: Halloween. Mufti points out that in that film, the first in the blockbuster franchise, the chilling perspective of the killer Michael Myers is communicated through “a floating camera angle … the same camera angle that had represented Muhammad in Akkad’s debut film.”
Khaalis’s fate was less grand. Convicted of second-degree murder, he was given an effective life sentence for his role in masterminding the siege. In 2000, his wife, Khadija, wrote to the Clinton administration seeking clemency for her husband. “We have undergone much more than the average family,” she said; “there has been so much in our lives that it would fill a large book.” Her petition was denied, and Khaalis died in prison in 2003. But Khadija was right: her family’s story was far from average. And in Mufti’s capable hands, it has made for a haunting book.
Jonathan Darman is the author of Becoming FDR: The Personal Crisis That Made a President