American Muslims, justifiably worried about increasing attacks on our community, must react strongly to the anti-Semitic sermons by two California Imams. Although one of them has since apologized, his call to “annihilate” Jews cannot be ignored just because of a statement of contrition.
If Muslims want wider support for their concerns about threats to their community, they must also ostracize the Imams and other Muslims engaging in hate speech against other communities.
Ammar Shahin, Imam of the Islamic Center at Davis, called on Allah to “liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque from the filth of the Jews” and to “Count them one by one and annihilate them down to the very last one.” Syrian-born Sheikh Mahmoud Harmoush said at the Islamic Center of Riverside, “Oh Allah, liberate the Al-Aqsa Mosque and all the Muslim lands from the unjust tyrants and the occupiers,” he prayed, “Oh Allah, destroy them, they are no match for You. Oh Allah, disperse them, and rend them asunder. Turn them into booty in the hands of the Muslims.” Imam Shahin says he was reacting to the turmoil in Jerusalem that had led to the shutting down of the Al-Aqsa mosque. His statement of apology says he now recognizes his words were “hurtful” and that he was referring only to the group of Jews that had taken over the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, and not to Jews in general. This is effectively an apology for the hurt caused by the remarks but not the hate behind them. Sheikh Harmoush, who has taught at several California universities and is still leading the congregation in Riverside, can be expected to make a similar ‘apology.’ The current polarization in America benefits people with extreme views as they secure the support of one side in the political divide to help gloss over their conduct. The anti-Semitic remarks of the two imams have been underplayed in the national media and by liberal politicians as no one wants to add fuel to the fire of anti-Muslim sentiment already being encouraged by the other side.
California’s Muslims, feeling under attack from the right wing, seem to have allied themselves with elements in the State that blocked speaking events of ultra-conservative columnist Ann Coulter and British scientist and anti-religion campaigner, Richard Dawkins.
But Muslims would do better by standing up against all bigotry and seek protection for themselves by defending the principles of free speech as well as the value of religious toleration. Muslims must not act against intolerance only when they are its victims. Nor should they react to others’ criticism of their religion by seeking shutting down of debate.
Dawkins has described Islam as “the greatest force for evil in the world today.” Muslims could help refute that characterization more by refusing to support Imams Shahin and Harmoush than they accomplished by refusing Dawkins an opportunity to make his case to a California audience.
That the Muslim community is under attack is well known. According to the FBI, anti-Muslim hate crimes have surged 67 percent over the last year. 2545 incidents targeting 3,052 Muslims were reported in the U.S. between 2001 and 2015 but violence has now reached a level similar to that in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Muslims number only 3.3 million out of a total U.S. population of 323 million. More than 60 percent of Americans have seldom or never had a conversation with a Muslim, according to a study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute. 57 percent Americans say they know little while 26 percent acknowledge they know nothing at all about Islam.
Muslims believe their community under-reports hate crimes –ranging from assault on individuals to attacks on mosques ― which some say are not pursued vigorously by police and prosecutors, especially in small towns.
In such an environment it is especially important for Muslims to speak out against hate crimes across-the-board and disavow prayers for the destruction of other faith traditions. Anti-Antisemitism, imported by immigrant Imams from the Middle East, must be particularly checked.
America’s Jews have supported Muslims in the aftermath of hateful attacks. When a mosque in Texas burned down, for example, the local Jewish community handed the keys of their synagogue to enable Muslims to pray.
It is time for America’s Muslims to demonstrate that they appreciate being woven into the fabric of America’s diversity. Allowing Imams to get away with hateful comments against Jews from the pulpit will do little to demonstrate the American Muslim community’s commitment to universal values of tolerance and religious freedom. The community must weed out its own bigots if it wants fair-minded Jews and Christians to support it against the bigotry of others.
The correct stance for American Muslims over the hateful comments of Imams Shahin and Harmoush would be to demand their removal from their positions. Next time an Imam makes anti-Semitic comments in a Friday sermon, it should be his congregants that must react well before media reports force a half-hearted apology.
Farahnaz Ispahani, a former members of Pakistan’s parliament, is Global Policy Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC and a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Religious Freedom.