Journalism professor’s acclaimed book recalls Washington D.C. siege

January 13, 2023

Research & Innovation

Shahan Mufti calls the Hanafi siege of Washington, D.C., “a bit of American history lost.” 

For two days in March 1977, a dozen gunmen from a breakaway sect of the Nation of Islam paralyzed the nation’s capital, seizing three downtown buildings and taking 150 hostages. One person died, and dozens were injured. Yet the first attack by Muslim militants on American soil remained overlooked — until the recent release of Mufti’s book, American Caliph: The True Story of a Muslim Mystic, a Hollywood Epic, and the 1977 Siege of Washington, D.C.

Mufti, chair of the University’s Department of Journalism, learned of the siege after the 2015 terrorist attack of the Charlie Hebdo magazine office in Paris while writing an article about the controversy in Muslim communities over publishing the image of the prophet Muhammad.

“You would be surprised at how many people don’t know about the Hanafi siege,” he said. “The first time I saw mention of it, it gripped me immediately.”

As someone who considers himself well-versed in the issue of militancy and Islamic politics, Mufti was stunned that the siege had received little attention. His curiosity led to his book, the result of six years of copious research. The book has generated national attention: It was named one of the best nonfiction books of 2022 by Publishers Weekly and has received favorable reviews in The New YorkerThe New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and Harper’s Magazine, among others. Mufti also received the 2020 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award for American Caliph.

Fortunately for Mufti, many of the key players were still around. He interviewed more than 100 people and scoured countless police, Secret Service, and FBI files, which he obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, as well as thousands of pages of courtroom transcripts.

The question he’s been grappling with from day one remains: How could the siege have been forgotten? It’s a sprawling story that unfolded over decades across the country.

“It was very well reported in the daily news,” he said. “But nobody looked back. Or maybe they looked back and they couldn’t piece together the complex reasons of why it happened.”

The siege was sandwiched between two watershed events, Mufti pointed out: the massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists and the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. After the Washington siege, the United States began facing off against global Islamic militancy, such as in Beirut and Libya. 

“The threat of domestic terrorism emerged during this period,” he said. “If this same event happened today, or in the last two decades, could this have been forgotten by Americans?”