From Lebanon to Norway -- now most recently in California -- pulpits at mosques are ripe with raw Jew-hate. This hate is not denounced by the immediate community. When news broke recently that Imam Ammar Shahin of the Islamic Center in Davis, California, delivered a one- hour war-drum sermon against Jews concerning the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, the imam and the members of mosque stood shamelessly behind his bidding to "Liberate the Al Aqsa mosque from the filth of the Jews. Annihilate them down to the very last one."
That is a call for genocide.
On the same day, in front of a congregation of Friday worshippers, another imam, Mahmoud Harmoush, in Riverside, California, also gave a Jew-hating sermon. Harmoush openly said:
"Oh, Allah, liberate the Al Aqsa Mosque and all the Muslim lands from the unjust tyrants and the occupiers... 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 Mahmoud Harmoush (left), of the Islamic Center of Temecula Valley, in Riverside, California, recently gave a Jew-hating public sermon. (Image source: US Marin Corps/Lance Cpl. Derrick Irions)
The Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem made headlines recently, when Israeli forces placed necessary metal detectors -- the same as protect many other mosques -- at the entrances to the religious site of Jerusalem's Temple Mount, after a deadly terrorist attack in which three Israeli Arabs shot and killed two Druze Israeli policemen days earlier. Palestinians then launched a protest against the security measures, which had been installed to protect Muslim worshippers as well as to protect the mosque from being destroyed by weapons that were being brought into it.
Palestinian protestors claimed that the metal detectors were a violation of their religious freedom, even though no one had forbidden Muslims to go to the Temple Mount other than the Palestinian Authority itself.
For Muslims in other parts of the world, inflammatory outrage against Israel -- often based on spurious charges -- has always been given immediate priority, while serious human rights violations by Muslim nations, dictators, and mobs are shrugged off as problems "over there."
In the U.S., the reactionary sermons in "liberal" California received negative media coverage. Congressmen John Garamendi and Brad Sherman openly admonished the sermons, and there was welcome pushbackfrom the Muslim community. A week after the sermons were delivered and largely defended by the immediate Muslim community despite public denunciation, Imam Ammar Shahin, after public pressure, offered a public apology; Imam Mahmoud Harmoush also apologized.
The war-mongering rhetoric of the imams were not slips of the tongue or off-hand comments. Their rhetoric is the same packaged radical ideology churned out in madrassas, terror camps, and online extremist publications. These are calculated and crafted messages that appear to convey the assumption that their religious "authority" will not be challenged. Their words were not indicative of American Islam or what it means to be a Muslim American who embraces tolerance and religious liberty for all, often putting a religious identity second to a collective national identity.
What is even more telling is that in the instance of Imam Shahin of Davis, not only did the mosque's board and larger community stand behind him and his sermon; they also chose to attack the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which did the hard work of uncovering these stories. Rather than those who attended the mosque voicing their concern in public, it was MEMRI that did the footwork Muslim communities should be doing internally -- which includes acting as watchdogs against hate speech. What the American Muslim community should be doing, (instead of, by their silence, implicitly backing the calls for genocide) is helping to launch the flagship Reform Project, devoted to amplifying voices of liberal Muslims.
As a southern California native, and an American Muslim who is part of a larger network of progressive Muslims advocating for desperately-needed self-examination, I would like to say that these apologies are simply not good enough. Within days of the sermons, we launched a petition against Imam Ammar Shahin, calling for his immediate termination on the basis of an inexcusable interpretation of the faith; gross abuse of power; manipulating innocent worshippers; disregarding the unacceptable cruelty that this might be inflicting on others (in this instance, Jews); and for further alienating and endangering American Muslims who will suffer backlash and suspicion for the sermon.
Voicing concern about backlash, or fear of backlash, is detrimental to American Muslims. It handicaps our ability to speak freely and publicly denounce calls for war against an entire population. Instead of voicing a deeply passionate resistance to using a mosque pulpit, or any pulpit, for advocating genocide -- a sentiment privately disclosed in multiple conversations with California-based American Muslims -- the public response is silence.
This silent refusal by many Muslims to condemn attacks that are openly inspired by Islam does not come from aggression, but from a fear of challenging religious authority or needfully holding our own community accountable. In a post-Trump era, Muslims are not worried about what Jews, Americans or a new administration will do. Many of us fear first and foremost our own community for the ostracism and harassment we risk if we rise as a dissenting voice. For this reason, it is critical to underscore that these imams not only antagonize fragile relationships and stir chaos in an already tense time; they do much more than that. Their actions alarm the local Jewish community, who must live with the fact that one block from their homes is someone who wants their family dead. These imams deliberately harm the ability of their own Muslim communities to evolve and embrace pluralism.
The petition was supported by outstanding American Muslims and their organizations -- those that value tolerance, respect for the religious values of others, and pluralism. Organizations that signed the petition include the Muslim Reform Movement, Muslims for Progressive Values, as well a handful of other strong southern California Muslim American activists, such as Anila Ali and Soraya Deen.
Within days, the petition received literally thousands of signatures. All it demanded was that those imams be fired. The truth is that the entire mosque board that defended and allowed these imams to speak at length, without interruption, should step down. Members of the interfaith community (best described by the Islamic scholar Tarek Fatah as an "interfaith harem") also need to take a hard look at their own complicity. Partnering with Jew-haters is of no service to anyone -- not Jews, not Christians, and not the Muslim community. There is also the larger issue of the ineffectiveness of many interfaith groups and their tendency to be used as props during public-relations disasters such as this one.
Apologies do not change an ideology. The imams' apologies will not dissolve their open bias against Jews or anyone else. Extremist ideology will only change once we remove the imams and the mosque leadership who are complicit and who have unfettered access to a powerful platform. These are not people of faith; they are not spiritual leaders. They are dangerous propagandists and they need to be removed.
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