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'American Caliph' revisits one of the most dramatic hostage crises in U.S. history


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. When I first looked at the new book by our guest, journalist Shahan Mufti, I was amazed I had no memory of the events he describes, which occurred when I was in my 20s. In March 1977, nearly 150 people were taken hostage in Washington, D.C., by a group of gunmen who stormed three different locations - the headquarters of a prominent Jewish group, the Islamic Center of Washington and the offices of the District of Columbia city government, where a councilman named Marion Barry took a shotgun pellet in his chest and had to be hospitalized. The assault that led to a two-day standoff was orchestrated by a Hanafi Muslim leader named Hamaas Abdul Khaalis. Among other things, he was outraged by a movie about the life of the Prophet Muhammad, financed by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi that was premiering that day in New York. The attack also grew out of a bitter and violent dispute between Khaalis' group and the Nation of Islam, which Khaalis had once been a leading member of.

Mufti spent seven years researching the events, and he describes them in riveting detail. Shahan Mufti is a veteran journalist who was born in the United States and raised both in the U.S. and Pakistan. He's been a reporter in the U.S. and overseas and is the author of "The Faithful Scribe," a book that's both a personal memoir and a history of modern Pakistan. He's currently chair of the Department of Journalism at the University of Richmond. His new book is "American Caliph: The True Story Of A Muslim Mystic, A Hollywood Epic, And The 1977 Siege Of Washington, D.C."

Well, Shahan Mufti, welcome to FRESH AIR.

SHAHAN MUFTI: Thank you, Dave. It's great to be on the show.

DAVIES: Before we get started, I just want to offer this note to our listeners. Our conversation today will include a description of harm to children. We won't dwell on it at length or include graphic details, but it is part of the story that unfolds here. So let's talk about the man who is at the heart of this story, Hamaas Abdul Khaalis. Tell us a bit about him, his early life.

MUFTI: Yeah. Hamaas Abdul Khaalis is the central character of the book. He's the one who led the attack on Washington, D.C. He's an African American man born in the Midwest, in Gary, Ind., in 1922. He is a remarkable personality. He has a lot of, you know - but one of the things that stands out, especially for people who remember him from his childhood, is his musical talent but also his personality. He was a quirky personality and exhibited some kind of strange antisocial behaviors. My reader first meets Khaalis, though, as he is at a U.S. Army base. He's a Buffalo soldier, and he's about to be deployed to Europe in the Second World War.

But my reader will meet him first when he's going through a psychiatric evaluation at the station hospital on the base. And that's where it first emerges that he may be suffering from some - possibly from some kind of mental illness or disorder. And he's let go from the Army and somehow slips through the cracks in the bureaucracy and ends up in Harlem as a jazz musician and a very successful one. And he tours through Europe with his band. But that is also where he first encounters in Harlem Islam and becomes a Muslim.

DAVIES: Right. The Nation of Islam, their practices and beliefs were distinct from Sunni Muslims, which were also in the United States, many of them who had emigrated from other countries. So remind us of what the Nation of Islam's particular beliefs and theology were.

MUFTI: Yeah. The Nation of Islam is a fascinating organization, and I get into it in some detail in the book. But they have beliefs that are - have borrowed from Islam but some of them are entirely original. And they believe in the superiority of the Black race. And so the Nation of Islam teaches its followers that the white man was a creation of a scientific experiment, eugenics experiment gone awry, and that the white man is actually the devil and the Black man is divine. And this movement is - attracts a lot of people in Detroit at first and throughout the Midwest and the Northeast. And the movement starts to grow in Black communities across the Northeast and Midwest and even out on the West Coast. And it really is a message that is empowering in some ways and - but is also resentful of the place that African Americans occupy in American society at that time. And what alarms - and the FBI is very early on to this. And what alarmed them most is also the militant wing of this organization.

DAVIES: But the Nation of Islam, whose adherents call themselves Black Muslims, become a larger and larger force. They establish a lot of businesses. They open mosques in other cities, and they attract the attention of the FBI. And there was also a TV documentary series called "The Hate That Hate Produced," which elevated their profile. Khaalis, the guy at the center of your book, of our story here, moves to Chicago to work directly under Elijah Muhammad - he's part of his inner circle - eventually has a falling out over a personal matter, which you describe - it's pretty colorful - and returns. He goes to New York and then becomes a follower of a different strand of Sunni Islam, the Hanafi strand. So Khaalis forms his own group. And it's interesting that this is a guy who'd been to college. He had been a successful jazz musician. But some of the things that he and his followers do then - well, less than exactly law abiding, right? I mean, they rob banks.

MUFTI: Yeah, they're on a mission. And Khaalis for, you know, he - the thing that I found out about him, even though he's in and out of trouble with the law, he - there is a question that lingers over him and his mental illness or whether he has one or is he just a master manipulator? These are questions that I kind of hover over the whole story. But one thing he - that I do - you know, is undeniable is that when he set out to do something, he really succeeded. Like I said, he completed college. He really, you know, shot through the ranks of the Nation of Islam, then jazz. And then with his new mission of bringing Sunni Islam, Hanafi Islam, to America, he has a mission for which he gathers his - which he - you know, he brings people to the cause, most of them young men, African American men. And they - in the beginning especially, they really don't - they are - they will do anything to get their mission started, including trying to rob banks. They get into a really - you know, they try to take over the Black Arts Repertory Theatre and school, which was led by LeRoi Jones, later known as Amiri Baraka. They get into a gun fight...

DAVIES: With guns, right?

MUFTI: Yes, with guns. They move in. They move in with guns and establish a school, get some press coverage. And so, yeah, I mean, they're really in a fight to kind of establish supremacy, their supremacy of American Islam, but also kind of this mission of bringing the true Islam to America. Khaalis is not holding back. And they get involved in all kinds of schemes in New York City and then later in Washington, D.C., to make sure that they win.

DAVIES: And people who know this history will recall that Malcolm X was this charismatic star of the Nation of Islam who eventually broke with Elijah Muhammad, condemning corruption and infidelity from Elijah and then was - Malcolm X was assassinated, I believe, in 1965. And Elijah Muhammad then recruits another star, the boxer Cassius Clay, who becomes Muhammad Ali. And it's interesting that Khaalis is - gets his own star athlete to join his movement.

MUFTI: That's right. He's - Khaalis has his eye, even though Khaalis moved to New York, away from Chicago, away from Elijah Muhammad. But it was - I mean, from the very beginning, he was in competition with Elijah. And Muhammad Ali, when he joined - Malcolm X actually brought Muhammad Ali into the Nation of Islam. But the two kind of quickly fell out. And, you know, Muhammad Ali almost turned against Malcolm X towards the end of Malcolm's - right before Malcolm's death. But Muhammad Ali really propelled the Nation of Islam into a kind of a global consciousness, even - the way that even Malcolm X could never have done. His star power was just immense. And all over the world, especially in North Africa, the Middle East and in the Muslim world. So Muhammad Ali's kind of - as he becomes Elijah Muhammad's poster boy, he really propels the Nation of Islam into another realm.

Khaalis is watching all this. And Khaalis in New York is - you know, they - like we were talking - I mean, they are robbing - trying to rob banks. They are trying to get people - turn - you, join their cause. But they're - Khaalis is nowhere near achieving what he wants to, which is kind of the level of recognition and popularity that Elijah has. And so - but a very chance kind of encounter with - he sees a young UCLA basketball star, Lewis Alcindor, on TV and decides to make a play for him. He knew - actually knew his father from the Jazz days in Harlem. And he's able to bring Lewis Alcindor to his Hanafi group and gives him the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And very soon after, Kareem joins Khaalis and really throws himself into the Hanafi movement.

And Kareem becomes one of the, you know, top drafts in the NBA, signs a million-dollar contract with the Milwaukee Bucks and then starts financing the Hanafi operation - a lot of it. And that really is what allows Khaalis and the Hanafis to - well, most importantly, move to Washington, D.C., establish a really nice headquarters on 16th Street and plant themselves in the heart of the American capital, in the heart of American power. And that is really the moment, with Kareem's help, that Khaalis is able to finally - he finds himself in a position where he - in his mind, he's finally able to challenge the power of the Nation of Islam, you know, in a real way.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with journalist Shahan Mufti. He is chair of the department of journalism at the University of Richmond. His new book is "American Caliph: The True Story Of A Muslim Mystic, A Hollywood Epic And The 1977 Siege of Washington, D.C." We'll be back after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Shahan Mufti. He is chair of the department of journalism at the University of Richmond and a veteran journalist himself. His new book is "American Caliph: The True Story Of A Muslim Mystic, A Hollywood Epic And The 1977 Siege of Washington, D.C."

So this person that we've been talking about, Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, has established his own Muslim movement in the Hanafi tradition. In the early '70s, he is in a growing feud with the Nation of Islam, and he sends a bunch of letters, among them, one which particularly insulted Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. And it seems that from then on, it was kind of war between these two leaders and these two movements, wasn't it?

MUFTI: Yeah. So this moment where - Khaalis has established himself, with the help of Kareem, at this headquarters in a really, you know, beautiful building on 16th Street in Northwest Washington, D.C. By the way, the FBI and the Washington police are already watching this kind of (ph) as soon as they move to Washington, D.C., and they're watching them pretty closely. But one thing that they don't notice is that Khaalis buys a Xerox machine. You know, they don't make much of it. But that's kind of his plan for this, is that he's going to start writing letters and printing copies of these letters and sending them around the country to Elijah Muhammad's followers.

In these letters, Khaalis is - with his kind of makeshift mass media operation, Khaalis tells the story of Elijah Muhammad as he understands it, which is that he is a charlatan. He is an agent of Zionists who has been sent - who is doing the work of misleading Black Americans and making them - you know, turning them away from true Islam. And he tells the stories that are, you know, circulating among Sunni Muslims at that time, that - you know, about his past and about, you know, his criminal past, but also about how he's, you know, basically making a lot of this stuff about the Nation of Islam up. A lot of this - so these letters go out to all the temples of the Nation of Islam and to the ministers. And the Nation of Islam by this time is a massive national organization, coast to coast, and has thousands, tens of thousands of followers.

And a part of this organization - within this organization, there is a really an element of an organized crime unit that's also developed. And people within that organized crime unit take note of these letters. They're coming from a defector who has inside knowledge of the Nation of Islam. And so they receive these as - almost as threats, but at the very least as threatening - letters that threaten the existence of the Nation of Islam.

DAVIES: Right. And that brings us to the part of the story - I'm just going to alert our listeners. I'd mentioned earlier that there is a description of harm to children in this story. We're about to get to that. So if you want to step away for a couple of minutes, this might be the time to do it. In Jan. 1973, a group of men, essentially a hit squad, arrives at the Hanafi headquarters there that Khaalis had established in Washington, D.C. He was not there. They were clearly there to find him. There were more kids than adults there. What happened?

MUFTI: So this hit squad originated from Temple 12 of the Nation of Islam in Philadelphia. And this was a notorious temple in the Nation of Islam, known for - it's really kind of where the organized crime unit of the Nation of Islam was headquartered in some ways in Philadelphia. They kind of come in cars and on trains and arrive in Washington, D.C., the day before Nixon is - second inauguration. So the - D.C. is buzzing, but these men are on a mission to eliminate the threat of Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, kind of eliminate the Hanafi organization.

They arrive at the headquarters one afternoon, like you said, to assassinate Khaalis. But what they find is a house full of mostly kids and Khaalis' close family members, including his wives. He had multiple wives. They enter and cut loose and in a fashion that this - this organization that had developed in Philadelphia was called the Black Mafia, but also the Muslim mob. And they were notorious in Philadelphia for real violent crime. And in their typical fashion, they unleashed on the children in the house and on the grown-ups as well.

And they went - you know, gathered everybody in the house. There was about a dozen people in the house. And they started - after not finding Khaalis there, they got frustrated and cut loose and started shooting the - well, some of the children first, Khaalis' children. Some of them were - Khaalis' eldest son was 25 at that time and really emerging as his heir apparent to the organization as well. He was shot in the head. And the children - there were children between the ages of seven years old and nine days old. One of Khaalis' babies was - from his second wife - was nine days old at that time.

And these men decided that they could not leave behind - even leave behind the children as potential witnesses and decided to drown them. And it was - it - and it was just - you know, it was a horrific massacre. The next morning's papers called it the worst massacre in the history of the nation's capital.

DAVIES: A total of seven killed - I tallied this up - two adults, five children, and then two other adults who actually survived with bullet wounds to the head, one of them a daughter of Khaalis who later testified at the trials of the assailants, if I have all this right. You know, it seems like most of the violence came from the Nation of Islam, and indeed the - Khaalis' group didn't seem to - although they did rob banks. I mean, they didn't engage in violence before this, right? But I'm just kind of wondering why all of this turbulence, why not - I don't know - why do you think this developed as it did?

MUFTI: Oh, this is happening - I mean, this is happening in the larger context of, you know, the Black power movement growing, the Black Panthers emerging in the '60s. So Khaalis' movement, the Hanafis, are in some ways straddling a - you know, they are - they have one eye on the unrest in America. You know, this - for Khaalis, the hot summer of 1967 and then MLK's assassination in 1968, and, you know, not just for Khaalis, but Kareem as well, the two kind of important figures in this movement, they're watching what's happening in America. But interestingly, you know, they're also tying it to being Muslim. They're able to tie it to what they're seeing in the Middle East, for example - the 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors. They're looking at the plight of the Palestinians, somehow - and equating that in some ways to what African Americans are experiencing in this country.

So it's a really interesting, you know, place to be looking at. And as Black American Muslims, they were interpreting a lot of what they were seeing in America and putting it in a global context the way that maybe not everybody was. And, you know, the turbulence that - but, you know, there was enough going on in the United States with some militant African American civil rights organizations as well. Like I said, the Black Panthers were - they were the revolutionary action movement, which was allied with Malcolm X. A lot of these groups were carrying out their own militant attacks in America, not just them. I mean, I was amazed doing research on this...

DAVIES: There's the Weather Underground. I mean, there were other groups, too, right?

MUFTI: Yeah, exactly. There is so much happening in the United States in the '60s and '70s as far as militancy goes.

DAVIES: Well, let's take a break here, and then we'll get back to our conversation in just a moment. We are speaking with Shahan Mufti. He is chair of the journalism department at the University of Richmond. His new book is "American Caliph: The True Story Of A Muslim Mystic, A Hollywood Epic, And The 1977 Siege Of Washington, D.C." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with journalist Shahan Mufti, whose new book describes the largest hostage taking in American history. It occurred in Washington, D.C., in 1977 when a Muslim leader named Hamaas Abdul Khaalis led an assault on three locations in the nation's capital. He was angry about the premiere of a movie on the life of the Prophet Muhammad and the murder four years earlier of seven of his family members and followers by supporters of the Nation of Islam, with whom Khaalis was engaged in a bitter dispute. Mufti's book about the events is "American Caliph: The True Story Of A Muslim Mystic, A Hollywood Epic, And The 1977 Siege Of Washington, DC."

You know, before we get to the hostage incident, which is at the heart of this story, we have to talk a little bit about the movie. There is a film here, which could be a whole book by itself. But - so let's give it a brief description here. There was a film director, a Syrian-born gentleman, Moustapha Akkad. He has an idea to kind of tell the Western world about Islam by, you know, portraying the critical events in the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Of course, there is, I think, generally in Islam a prohibition of depicting the prophet in any way. How did he propose to handle that? And how does he get funding for this?

MUFTI: Right. So as Khaalis and, you know, his group are watching the events in the Middle East, the 1967 war between Israel and Arab neighbors, Akkad, this man born in Aleppo, Syria, who has come to the United States in the '50s just with one dream of making it in Hollywood, he's also watching these events in the Middle East. And that's kind of what inspires his project. He wants to tell the story of Islam to America. And his medium is film. He wants to be the Arab David Lean. He wants to create an epic, an unforgettable epic in which the - he will tell the West the story of Islam and specifically the story of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad.

The hitch here is that you cannot show Muhammad That's the widely accepted belief of a majority of the Muslims around the world. There is - and it's a complicated history because Muhammad has been depicted in paintings in Islamic history. But it's a widely accepted taboo. His workaround with - is simply to not show Muhammad, but actually use the camera to kind of relay his point of view. So you can view things through Muhammad's eyes in the film. And this is the workaround and the device that he proposes. And he starts shopping around to Hollywood execs and Hollywood studios. It sounds like an absurd idea to tell the story of Muhammad but never actually meet Muhammad in the film. And he's shot down very quickly. Yeah, so that's his proposal.

DAVIES: But it's fascinating because he eventually gets funding and gets Hollywood stars, right? Anthony Quinn is in it. And he also wisely goes to religious authorities in Islam and kind of gets the boxes checked, right? People said, yep, this is OK. So he gets funding. And he sets up a - starts shooting on location in Morocco - huge sets, hundreds of extras, specially trained horses for the big scenes. And then in 1974, (laughter) he has to stop. What happened?

MUFTI: Yeah. And, I mean, it was - it took 10 years, this project, 10 years and $17 million, according to Akkad. Just as a reference, "Star Wars" came out in 1977 as well. And George Lucas, I think, put the cost of that - "Star Wars" at 11 million.

DAVIES: And this was how much?

MUFTI: This was 17 million...


MUFTI: ...Is what Akkad tallied it up to in the end, most of it coming from - well, a lot of it coming from Muammar Gaddafi. Muammar Gaddafi provided not just financing for the film, but a lot of diplomatic cover because he needed it. So like you said, the film was not shut down once, but shooting was shut down several times because there were very powerful figures in the Middle East who were opposed to this project, especially - particularly in Saudi Arabia.

And this council of clerics in Saudi Arabia, the Muslim World League, they were taking serious offense from this project even going forward. And at one point in Morocco, it has to completely shut down. And that's where Muammar Gaddafi steps in. Muammar Gaddafi is a renegade kind of in the - even within the Middle East. And he really takes a liking to this project. He sees a lot of potential for Islamic influence to grow from this movie project. And he takes Akkad in, his thousands of extras and provides him cover, diplomatic cover but also just incredible facilities in Libya and allows the film to go to completion.

DAVIES: So they get it done. They premiere it in London, I believe. And then its American premiere is scheduled for March of 1977. And Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, the Hanafi leader that we've been talking about, happens upon a poster of this. He's at a low point in his life. Members of his family were murdered. He felt he never got justice. And he is enraged about it. And this all leads him to this hostage taking. This is a massive operation. Let's just walk through it. There were three different locations, most of them at the Washington headquarters of B'nai B'rith, which is a longstanding and very large and influential Jewish organization. What happens there?

MUFTI: So just to kind of contextualize this, this is March 9, 1977. Jimmy Carter has been in office all of - what? - 50 days at this point. And he's about to face his first big hostage crisis of his administration. He does not know that. He is hosting the Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin that morning, who - and it's a really important meeting that a lot of people are paying attention to because Carter has come into office. And it's very obvious that peace in the Middle East is going to be a central, central foreign policy focus of his.

While he's doing that, of course, these seven - Khaalis and six other men, so seven Hanafis, enter the B'nai B'rith organization at around 11 a.m. And they take over the entire building. Within an hour, they're holding over a hundred hostages, mostly employees of the organization, mostly Jewish. That is a first hit. Washington police is responding to this, trying to make sense of this when a couple of miles down Massachusetts Avenue, three other Hanafis hit the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C. And they enter there, take close to a dozen hostages, most of them actually Muslim - it's the Islamic Center - and some of them with actual semi-, quasi-diplomatic status. And some of the patrol cars have to peel off from the B'nai B'rith and go to the Islamic Center.

They're still trying to piece this together when the Hanafis hit the third target, which is the district building, which is kind of how - the city council for Washington, D.C. And it's just a few hundred yards from the White House, visible from Carter's bedroom, actually. And the Hanafis over there, the two Hanafis, take over the fifth floor of that building. That is where - that was the most violent site of the whole takeover. The third building is where there was a fire - gunfight between security, police and the Hanafis. And that is where, within a few minutes of the takeover, there are three bodies lying on the marble floor bleeding. One of them is a security guard. One of them is a young radio reporter, a 24-year-old young radio reporter. And the third one is Marion Barry, who is a council member of the Washington, D.C., City Council.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with journalist Shahan Mufti. He is chair of the Department of Journalism at the University of Richmond. His new book is "American Caliph: The True Story Of A Muslim Mystic, A Hollywood Epic, And The 1977 Siege Of Washington, D.C." We'll be back after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Shahan Mufti. He is chair of the Department of Journalism at the University of Richmond and a veteran journalist himself. His new book is "American Caliph: The True Story Of A Muslim Mystic, A Hollywood Epic, And The 1977 Siege Of Washington, D.C."

So this would go on for two days. What were Khaalis' demands?

MUFTI: Khaalis' - well, the first demand that was right out of the gates was Khaalis wanted the film stopped. So the Akkad film had finally found a location, a premiere for March 9 at the Rivoli Theatre in Manhattan, and there was a 2 o'clock premiere showing. And Khaalis, at around noon, relays his first demand, a little after noon, that he wants that film stopped. He does not want that premiere to go forward. But not only that, he wants the actual film reels removed from the United States. He wants the film removed from America. And that is his first and only demand for a long time. The film does start. And I tell - I mean, I tell the story in the book. It's very close, but it is stopped mid-showing in Manhattan.

But by the time they do that, the other demands, Khaalis' other grievances have already come forward. He wants the murderers, the people who had entered the Hanafi Center in '73. Some of them are in prison. Some of them are not. One of them had been acquitted. And some of them had - were still awaiting trial. Khaalis wanted all of them delivered to him at the B'nai B'rith, where he said he would execute justice, which most people assumed to mean that he would behead them or execute them somehow. He also wanted $750, and that was a demand that when I started research for the book, it didn't make much sense to me. It seemed irrational. But that was actually a very specific amount that he had to pay in court fees during the trial of the murderers at the Hanafi Center. It was kind of a symbolic figure for him that was, in some ways, I suggest, the price of justice or price of injustice, in his mind, that he had to suffer.

DAVIES: Well, this went on for two long days. And I thought we should hear a bit of - a little bit of Khaalis' voice. And so what we have here is some tape where - he was on the phone through a lot of this, talking with the police negotiators and quite a few reporters. This is an exchange with an African American TV news anchor named Max Robinson, who had a relationship with Khaalis from his coverage earlier of the massacre of the Khaalis family at the Hanafi Center. So we'll hear - what we'll hear is him talking to Max Robinson about his demands, and you'll hear a reference to the $700 - $750 fine as part of the court proceedings. And also, you'll hear at one point, Khaalis turns away from the phone to give some instructions to his followers who were holding the hostages. So this is during the hostage crisis. The journalist Max Robinson speaks first.


MAX ROBINSON: You were asking that those responsible for the deaths or who killed your children be brought to the B'nai B'rith building.

HAMAAS ABDUL KHAALIS: And the ones that killed Malcolm.

ROBINSON: And the ones that killed Malcolm.

KHAALIS: That's right. I want them.

ROBINSON: And you're asking for the $750.

KHAALIS: I want them and the $750. And be sure you make on the radio that I've turned down millions of dollars. So it's not the 750, but this dog-ass Judge Braman, he hold me in contempt of court because I charged the murderers that murdered my babies. Now, what do you think about that? And you think I'm going to roll over and play dead? What do you think I am? Some kind of jokester? I take my faith serious. You think I went through all that as a joke, Max? Do you?

ROBINSON: I understand what you're saying.

KHAALIS: All right, then.

ROBINSON: After the...

KHAALIS: I'm very serious about my faith.

ROBINSON: You have made the...

KHAALIS: What about those sharpshooters, brother? They may have moved them somewhere else. Keep stacking, boys. Keep stacking, boys. Move it faster. Make them move faster, Latif. Work them.



ROBINSON: You talked to Police Chief Cullinane a few moments ago.


ROBINSON: What were your demands of him?

KHAALIS: Same thing, Max. I'm through. All right? Been talking all day, OK?

DAVIES: And that was Hamaas Abdul Khaalis during the hostage-taking in 1977, when he had nearly 150 people being held hostage. You know, in a situation like this, you hope that hostages can be released without harm, but a fair amount of harm was inflicted in the taking of these folks, wasn't it?

MUFTI: Well, the district building, the third location, like I said, was the deadly one. That's where people died. Well, at least one reporter died immediately. But there was violence at the B'nai - there was a lot of violence at B'nai B'rith. Khaalis had - you know, his antisemitism had - it had always - he kind of had, you know, been introduced to this idea in some ways, as far as I could tell, in the Nation of Islam. But even though he rejected all the teachings of the Nation of Islam and completely turned on that organization, that somehow was a constant in his life, and he really carried a lot of that suspicion of and hatred for Zionism especially, he said. And he carried that into his Sunni Muslim life, too.

And that is - he was there present in the B'nai B'rith. And that is where, you know, there was - there wasn't - nobody died immediately at that location - actually, at no point. But that is where there was a lot of physical abuse. Khaalis himself knocked some people out with - at least one person out with the butt of the gun, it emerged. And people were shot, were bleeding, and, yeah, at several moments were piled up. And for Jewish hostages, you know, a lot - some of these Jewish hostages had actually, you know, escaped the Holocaust in Europe. And for them to be - you know, these - this trauma was triggering, you know, really old wounds.

DAVIES: We are going to take one more break here. We are speaking with Shahan Mufti. He is chair of the department of journalism at the University of Richmond. His new book is "American Caliph: The True Story Of A Muslim Mystic, A Hollywood Epic, And The 1977 Siege Of Washington, DC." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with journalist Shahan Mufti, whose new book describes the largest hostage-taking event in American history. It occurred in 1977 when a Muslim leader named Hamas Abdul Khaalis led an assault on three locations in the nation's capital.

I was going to ask you kind of what you make of him given that, you know, there are any number of cases in his life where he appears to have psychiatric problems. His wife, at one point, committed him for treatment, you know, many years before. I mean, do you think he was mentally ill?

MUFTI: That's a question I think I - in the end, I do leave for the reader to decide. It's interesting - his encounters with a psychiatrist and his mental evaluations are always going on at a time when he's in some trouble. Either he's about to get deployed, or he's just been - you know, he's about to get prosecuted for a bank robbery or something, is where his mental illnesses flare up. Having said that, I am no psychiatrist. And I wouldn't - I cannot diagnose anybody, especially who I never met and who's not around anymore.

But there - many people - you know, his - the way he excelled at manipulating people and the way he had these what I call in the book kind of possible delusions of grandeur, these are also possible manifestations of whatever his mental condition and mental state was. So it's hard to tell. But he was clearly not handicapped always by these - well, by his condition. And in some ways, it'd allow - like, even the - his ability to manipulate people and his ability to, you know, charm people in some ways could point to some condition which allowed him to do that, but also which he suffered from.

DAVIES: You know, maybe the most amazing moment in this really amazing story is how the hostage crisis came to an end. Remarkably, three ambassadors from the countries of Iran, Pakistan and Egypt came in to talk to Khaalis there at the B'nai B'rith building. The police allowed it. Tell us just a little about the conversation and what made the difference, what the breakthrough was.

MUFTI: This was a remarkable moment of the story and something that I think could never happen today, where three foreign ambassadors would be allowed to walk into an active hostage situation and negotiate on behalf of the United States. These three ambassadors were armed only with a copy of the Koran and had selected some verses that they were going to read to Khaalis and try to convince him somehow, through the force of Allah's word, to give up the hostages and let them go.

This meeting went on for over three hours, and it went in late into the night of the March 10. And the first couple of hours, the ambassadors were really relying on their Koranic verses and kind of reasoned Khaalis through - with Khaalis through those words and appealed to his ideas of justice and - but also precision in following Allah's commands, etc. But really, what broke him in the end was not words from the Koran or any religious text. It was a story that the Iranian ambassador told him about - that he had heard from his grandmother about their - his own family and kind of a story - it was a story of cyclical violence and revenge. And that root story really cracked Khaalis in the end.

DAVIES: He embraced the Iranian ambassador for several minutes and wept. You said this was the first time you were aware of him crying over the deaths of his children.

MUFTI: That's right. I spoke to many people who were around Khaalis after the massacre of his family through to the hostage-taking four years later. And not one remembered Khaalis ever shedding a tear, which was remarkable and scary for a lot of people. But this story that the Iranian ambassador told him in the lobby of the B'nai B'rith late into the second night - it was a story about his own family, like I said, and it was a story about how his grandfather had been murdered and how his grandmother had decided to forgive the murderers of his grandfather. Somehow, that story captured a lot of what Khaalis was feeling and had been - what was in his mind and in his heart leading up to the hostage taking. It collapsed the political and the personal and the religious and the psychological in a way that finally penetrated Khaalis' armor. And he broke down. He embraced the ambassador, and he wept for several minutes and just - as everybody in the room just watched silently, wondering what this would lead to. But eventually Khaalis stopped crying, took a seat again and informed the negotiators at the table that he was ready to let all hostages go.

DAVIES: And I think you write that one of the ambassadors said, perhaps you should release 30 hostages as a show of good faith. And he says, maybe I should just release them all. You eventually spoke to the Iranian ambassador about this - still alive. What did he recall of it?

MUFTI: He actually just died last year. And I - but I was lucky enough to visit with him in Montreaux, Switzerland, where he's lived in exile ever since the Islamic Revolution in Iran. And he had a - he was in his 90s when I met him - his mid-90s - but he had a remarkably sharp memory of all these events. He, like so many others I spoke to, spoke with some real tenderness for Khaalis, which I was surprised by, to be honest, to consider the amount of pain Khaalis caused so many people. But there were, you know, negotiators. But there were some, even, hostages and a lot of people who felt the pain that Khaalis had also suffered in his life and spoke of it and were, in some ways, I think - including the ambassador - I think many of them were still trying to make sense after all these years of what had happened to Khaalis.

DAVIES: So he agrees to let them go if he can figure out some terms with the police, and they do it. I mean, part of the arrangement was that he would be released after he surrendered, which is pretty remarkable, considering the gravity of these events - he and some others. But eventually they all went to trial, and Khaalis spent the rest of his life in prison. You know, this is a largely forgotten episode. And neither you nor I remembered it until we discovered it more recently. Why do you think this is worth remembering and retelling?

MUFTI: I started this book and - kind of - you know, I found this episode, like I said, in 2015, and then I've been working on this book - that was the Obama administration. So I started this book at a time when America was a different place. And then I've been working on this book ever since. And I've been, you know - I've been - with one eye, I've been watching what's been going on in America ever since. And, you know, I worked through - on this book through the Trump presidency. And I've worked on this book through the Muslim ban conversation and build the wall and George Floyd's murder and the Black Lives Matter movement and the January 6 attacks on Washington and, before that, people beating down the Supreme Court - door of the Supreme Court when Justice Kavanaugh was being sworn in.

And, you know, it's been interesting experience watching America - American - contemporary American history unfold as I was working on this book. I can think of a lot of reasons why this is a really relevant story. You know, even at this moment, there is an big ongoing controversy where a university professor at a Minnesota university has been fired for showing the images of the Prophet Muhammad in a classroom. And, you know - and that was in some ways my gateway into this story, was that idea of blasphemy in Islam. But, you know, I think it's what has been most - the most powerful thing for me has been kind of seeing the disillusionment that Khaalis felt with America. And I'm seeing a lot of people lose faith in America. And this is the story of what one man was driven to do by - when he completely lost faith.

DAVIES: Well, Shahan Mufti, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MUFTI: It was a real pleasure, Dave. Thank you.

DAVIES: Shahan Mufti is chair of the department of journalism at the University of Richmond. His new book is "American Caliph: The True Story Of A Muslim Mystic, A Hollywood Epic And The 1977 Siege of Washington, D.C." On tomorrow's show, we take stock of the January 6 committee's work - its public hearings, final report and the hundreds of witness interview transcripts it has released. We'll speak with The New York Times' Luke Broadwater, who covers Congress. He was in the Capitol the day of the assault and has reported on the committee's work from the beginning. I hope you can join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.