Was it a Jew-hating one-off or a Jew-hating pattern?
That was the question on my mind when I heard the imam at the Davis Islamic Center, Ammar Shahin, apologize a week after his Jew-hating sermon in which he preached, “Oh Allah, count them [Jews] one by one and annihilate them down to the very last one.”
During a press conference held by religious leaders, a contrite Shahin said: “I understand that speech like this can encourage others to do hateful and violent acts. For this I truly apologize.”
What spurred his apology?
According to the Los Angeles Times, “In the days following his sermon, Shahin said he discussed his statements with a number of people within and outside the Muslim community. That’s when he realized ‘the level of harm it has caused.’”
In other words, until he talked to other people, it didn’t occur to him that calling for the annihilation of every Jew might cause “harm.”
So, was the Jew-hating sermon a one-off or a pattern?
It’s clear the Islamic Center would like us to believe it was an exception. After all, it’s a lot easier to excuse an exception than a habit.
But more than that, the Center wants to do what all smart lawyers tell you to do when your back is against the wall—change the target. Here, it is trying to do that by going after the messenger.
According to the Times, the Center’s initial reaction was that the imam’s comments had been taken out of context by “Islamophobic news organizations.” How many times have we heard that? This is a well-known reaction to criticism of Islam— attack the critic as “Islamophobic.”
The problem with that strategy, in this case, is that we’re dealing with hard facts. These are real words of hate spoken in real time by a real preacher.
The group that translated and disseminated the sermon, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), is a resource that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has described as “absolutely invaluable.” It’s hard to undermine a group whose sole focus is to translate.
But that doesn’t stop people from trying. Even a group that criticized Shahin’s sermon, such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), couldn’t resist trying to take down the messenger.
“Groups like MEMRI exacerbate political divisions on the Middle East conflict rather than aim to reconcile differences,” MPAC said in a statement.
According to a report in JTA, MPAC “expressed frustration with MEMRI, an organization that has drawn fire from Islamic groups for what they say is its tendency to cut and paste Muslim pronouncements to cast them in the worst possible light.”
How’s that for a contradiction: Yes, we admit the sermon was vile and we apologize but please don’t trust the messenger who translated the sermon.
“We hear this all the time,” MEMRI founder Yigal Carmon told me on the phone. “Whenever we expose another Muslim preacher, they accuse us of cutting and pasting, of taking things out of context. They never mention that we show the whole context, the full sermon, everything, and allow viewers to make up their mind.”
According to Carmon, it is the Islamic Center that is doing the cutting and pasting. He claims the Center took down another embarrassing sermon from its website dated July 14, because “they want us to believe the July 21 sermon was a one-time thing.”
In the July 14 sermon, according to a MEMRI translation, Shahin prayed to Allah to “liberate the Al-Aqsa Mosque from the filth of the Jews” and to “destroy them and do not spare their young and their elderly.”
Carmon also says the Center took down a sermon in which Shahin called the November 2016 forest fires near Haifa “good news from Palestine” and another in which he characterized democracy and the U.S. Constitution as a form of “idolatry.”
A few hours after Carmon and I spoke, he called to let me know that the Center had taken down its Youtube account as well as all sermons from its website. When I went to check, I randomly clicked on about twenty sermons over several years and, indeed, they all said “this video is unavailable.”
So, was the Jew-hating July 21 sermon a one-off or a pattern?
You tell me.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.