Sermons infused with anti-Semitic language delivered by imams in two California mosques on the same day have reignited tensions in Jewish-Muslim relations after leaders of the two religious groups around the state have worked aggressively to ease lingering conflicts.
The July 21 remarks by Imam Mahmoud Harmoush of the Islamic Center of Riverside and Imam Ammar Shahin of the Islamic Center of Davis drew strong condemnation from Muslim and Jewish leaders, fearful that such incendiary language could erode relations.
The effect was like picking at a scab on a slow-healing wound. Since the terror attacks of 9/11, American Jewish and Muslim groups have made a concerted effort to forge bonds of understanding and cooperation. Those have been nursed along despite the ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, not to mention the enduring friction between Israelis and Palestinians. More recently, efforts to stigmatize Muslims generally have encouraged Jews and Muslims to push for closer relations.
The angry sermons from the pulpits in Davis and Riverside tested the strength of those developing bonds.
“It is critical to understand the mosque, a sanctuary for worship and spiritual growth, has no place for divisiveness or hate. Paranoia as a result of political unrest does not justify making these allegations against an entire religious group,” the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), a national nonprofit dedicated to increasing understanding of Muslims, said in condemning the two sermons.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) and the American Jewish Committee, among others, expressed outrage over the sermons, with the ADL calling them “anti-Semitic and dangerous.” The Zionist Organization of America called for Shahin’s firing, and the Wiesenthal Center has urged the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to investigate the Davis Muslim leader.
In an Aug. 1 statement, Rep. Mark Takano (D-Riverside) said Harmoush’s sermon was “dangerous, offensive, and entirely inconsistent with the tolerant and respectful views routinely expressed by local Muslim leaders.” That same day, Rep. Brad Sherman, a Jewish Democrat who serves the San Fernando Valley, said Harmoush’s words were “nothing short of hate speech.”
Both sermons referred to last month’s conflict at the Temple Mount, where a shooting of two Druze Israeli police officers led the Israeli government to install metal detectors for entrance to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is part of the Temple Mount compound in the Old City of Jerusalem. After two weeks of internal and international outrage from Muslims, the metal detectors were removed.
In his sermon, Shahin said, “Oh Allah, liberate the Al-Aqsa Mosque from the filth of the Jews.”
Quoting a hadith, a saying of the Prophet Muhammad that is distinct from the text of the Quran, he said, “Oh Allah, count them one by one and annihilate them down to the very last.”
Harmoush used similar language when he said in his sermon, “Oh Allah, liberate the Al-Aqsa Mosque and all the Muslim lands from the unjust tyrants and occupiers. Oh Allah, destroy them, they are no match for you.”
Further, he condemned “the occupying forces of the Israeli army [that] have intervened and indeed took over the holy place and shut it down.”
“These statements are anti-Semitic and dangerous,” Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL, said referring to the two sermons. “We reject attempts to cast the conflict in Jerusalem as a religious war between Jews and Muslims. At this time of heightened tension, it is more important than ever for the Jewish and Muslim communities to come together to condemn the use of stereotypes and conspiracy theories, and to rebuild trust so that people of all faiths can coexist with mutual respect in the Holy Land and around the world.”
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the SWC, called on Muslim leaders to denounce the two sermons as a more effective way to blunt anti-Semitic speech than criticism from the outside.
“Whatever changes need to take place, they cannot be forced from Christian leaders or Jewish leaders,” he said. “That change has to come from within and it has to be brought about by leaders within the Muslim community.”
If the language of the Riverside and Davis imams stood out as particularly inflammatory, the sentiments were not unique.
While his July 28 sermon at the King Fahad Mosque in Culver City in English and Arabic did not explicitly promote violence, Sheikh Ahson Syed retained a distinct negative bias toward non-Muslims and repeatedly referred to Israeli soldiers, in English, as “Zionist terrorist soldiers.”
The sermon was recorded and posted to YouTube by the mosque, and the Journal commissioned a translation of the Arabic portion.
In Arabic, he said, “O God help our brothers in Palestine to get victory and get rid of the enemies who occupy their land. O God reinforce Islam and the Muslims, take down the shirk and the mushriks and kill enemies; enemies of Islam.”
In Islamic religious thought, a shirk is an idolator and mushrik refers to Christians and Jews, those who worship someone other than Allah.
Unlike leaders of some other religions, imams are appointed to lead prayers and are not required to have had formal seminary or theological training. Nor does Islam have any central authority that specifies what imams can say or not say in their sermons.
As a consequence, it is difficult to quantify how often fiery rhetoric is part of sermons delivered in mosques in California or elsewhere. Mahomed Akbar Khan, director of interfaith and outreach for King Fahad Mosque, said mosques entrust their imams and speakers to deliver sermons however they want.
“It’s generally free rein,” he said. “The questions we ask [when choosing speakers] is, ‘Is this person qualified and is this person respected in the community?’ If there are any inappropriate comments, we make it clear that it is not the stance of the mosque. But every mosque is different.”
Despite the language of the Riverside and Davis sermons and in mosques elsewhere, hate speeches in American mosques are “few and far between” and for the most part, haven’t been proven to lead to violence, said Kenneth Lasson, a law professor at the University of Baltimore, who wrote a 2005 paper on hate speech and incitements in mosques.
“It’s rare a congregation would go out to commit violence after hearing a sermon,” he said, adding that while he would prefer civility in places of worship, hate speech is protected as free speech if no violence happens as a result of it.
“That connection must be proven,” Lasson said. “In the cases in California, there appears that there have been no consequences other than hard feelings.”
Nonetheless, Aziza Hasan, executive director of NewGround, an organization that works to improve Muslim-Jewish relations, said the sermons reveal deep-seated differences between the communities.
“I think it blows the lid off that this is real,” Hasan told the Journal. “There are feelings between these two communities and this is how it has manifested.”
One member of NewGround, Jewish activist Tuli Skaist, reached out to Shahin to challenge his use of “such hateful rhetoric,” as he said in an op-ed posted at jewishjournal.com.
“In these turbulent times, with so much hate in the world, it seems to me that faith leaders ought to be in the firefighting business,” Skaist wrote. “We must fight the inflammatory flames of hate with the sweet waters of love. We must fight intolerance in the world by urging our people to be more kind and more tolerant.”
In his response to Skaist, Shahin accused the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), an organization that translates speeches in Arabic into English, bringing them to a wider audience, of taking his remarks out of context.
But he apologized for his sermon, writing, “Thank you for your comments and concerns, I will keep them in mind. As you know, when we speak with emotion, words might not be put in the right places or understood correctly.
“My apology to all your community for any harm that my misinterpreted words might have caused.”
In a subsequent press conference, Shahin appeared with Davis Mayor Robb Davis and Rabbi Seth Castleman, chairman of the Sacramento Area Council of Rabbis, and apologized, acknowledging that he allowed his emotions to get the better of him.
“I understand that speech like this can encourage others to do hateful and violent acts, for this I truly apologize,” Shahin said. “Words matter and have consequences.”
In his online op-ed for the Journal, Skaist wrote, “Let me be clear: The imam was wrong; his words were dangerous and inexcusable. Such words should not be tolerated by his community or any other. At the same time, here is a man that is not full of hate, but who simply got carried away with passion, used words that he shouldn’t have, and had them distributed to the world in a two-minute ‘got you’ sound bite.”
MEMRI denied that Shahin’s remarks were edited or mistranslated and called him “one of a group of extremist preachers who have been exposed by MEMRI to be delivering incitement to hatred and violence.” The organization said accusations of misrepresenting Shahin reflects an effort by the Islamic Center of Davis “to deflect responsibility from themselves by issuing all kinds of mendacious and libelous statements against the entity that exposed them.”
In addition to his position at the Davis mosque, Shahin is an instructor at the Zidni Islamic Institute in Brentwood. Egyptian-born, he graduated from the Institute for Preparation of Preachers with a bachelor’s degree in Islamic Studies and earned an associate degree from Al-Forqan Institute, according to the Zidni Institute.
Meanwhile, the Islamic Center of Riverside (ICR) said it conducted an internal inquiry, reviewing Harmoush’s remarks and finding that his critics had misinterpreted his words.
“Imam Harmoush was careful to focus his remarks on the actions of the Israeli government in and around Jerusalem,” the center said in a statement. “In fact, those parts of the sermon which have been cited as objectionable were routinely mistranslated and/or taken out of context. Nonetheless, Imam Harmoush unequivocally stated in the sermon that Islam does not call for aggression against any peaceful people.
“ICR believes that the Imam’s remarks were neither anti-Semitic nor discriminatory, but rather intended to address the unfortunate closure of the Mosque in Jerusalem to Muslim worshippers,” the statement said.
In a brief interview with the Journal, Harmoush did not disavow any part of his sermon but conceded that his words might have an unsettling effect on others.
“Oh, I learned that sometimes you have to not only have a sixth sense, but maybe a seventh sense,” he said. “Some people are very sensitive but maybe they cannot handle the truth or information, and unfortunately, we are living in a very sensitive society. Sensitive in a way we have to be careful, so we don’t need to hurt anybody’s feelings. Sometimes I talk to adults, children, male or female, and we have to be careful not to hurt anyone’s feelings.”
According to MEMRI, Harmoush was born in Syria and has been living in the United States since the 1980s.
According to the ICR statement, Harmoush regards himself as an interfaith leader, and on July 31, 10 days after delivering his sermon, he met with Rabbi Suzanne Singer of the Riverside congregation Temple Beth El to discuss the controversy over his sermon.
Having organized an interfaith event at her synagogue this spring in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order banning Muslims from certain countries from entering the United States, Singer said she was eager to talk to Harmoush, despite her discomfort over his sermon. Ibrahim Massoud, chairman of the mosque, also participated in the meeting.
In an interview, Singer said the meeting confirmed what she had suspected after watching Harmoush’s sermon online, that she and Harmoush have strongly different ideas about the founding of the State of Israel and Jewish intentions in the Middle East. Although they did not agree on many things, she said, they agreed to meet again to try to bridge this divide.
“I said it may be a good idea for us to talk about our different narratives around Israel,” Singer said.
As to what the future holds, Singer said she would not allow the two sermons to stop her from building interfaith relationships with willing Muslim partners.
“Obviously, I’m quite distressed about this,” Singer said. “I don’t think it represents the Muslim community [in Riverside].”
Reuven Firestone, a professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said the views expressed by Harmoush, Shahin and others are popular in the Muslim world, no matter how they are interpreted by others.
“These kinds of views have been encouraged by governments for decades in attempts to deflect criticism away from them,” Firestone said. “And there are plenty of harsh statements about Jews in Muslim religious sources that can be harvested when there is an interest in finding scapegoats.”
The challenge now for those who have worked hard to repair and improve relationships, said NewGround’s Hasan, is for religious leaders to hold one another accountable for hateful comments made by their communities but not to let them derail interfaith work.
“This is a huge opportunity for us to have those hard conversations and not sweep things under the rug,” she said.