Sheikh Ammar Shahin, or the “Imam from Davis,” as he is now known, is a young Egyptian-born Imam who recently came under fire for delivering a sermon that included remarks that were anti-semitic. I came across this piece of news while scrolling through my Facebook feed. In a post, a friend of mine wrote, “This guy needs to STFU.” This caught my attention and I began to read the article posted, with the headline, “US Islamic preacher calls on Allah to annihilate the Jews.”
As I read the headline I thought, yes, this guy should keep quiet. Judging by the comments, so did many others. Yet something did not feel right and I could not help but wonder if the collective reaction to these hurtful words was unproductive. Yes, the Imam clearly used language that was wrong and inflammatory, yet was our reaction not adding fuel of confirmation bias to the Islamophobic fire that rages in parts of our community? What if instead of assuming the worst intentions, we engaged in dialogue? I sent him an email:
Subject: A Love letter from a Jew (Seriously)
Dear Sheikh Ammar,
Given the words that have been published about your recent sermon in the press, I’m going to guess that you’ve received some angry responses. The truth is that I feel angry myself. As a Jew who has found a lot of beauty in the teachings of Islam, it is difficult for me to believe that you’d choose such hateful rhetoric to share with your congregation in your khutbah (friday sermon). Perhaps it is not true?
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. 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. *
With Respect and Peace,
It did not take long for the Imam to respond:
Thank you for your respectful words as they are the first since the accusation of MEMRI, they have cut and pasted only 2 minutes of my 50 minute sermon to use against me and create hate with the Jewish community with whom I have very good relations.
The Imam continued by attaching the initial statement released by the mosque, and telling me they have an open door policy, and that I’d be most welcome any time. I thanked him for his response, but continued to challenge him on the way in which he chose to present his ideas, especially given the anti-Semitism that is all too prevalent in the Muslim world.
Again, his response did not take long:
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, the imam further apologized and acknowledged allowing his emotions to get the better of him.
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.
The truth is that if it weren’t for my experience with the NewGround Fellowship, I don’t know that I would have had the courage and awareness to react this way. At NewGround, Jews and Muslims are given the opportunity to engage with one another in an open and productive way. To learn from each other and tell our stories. To ask questions from a place of curiosity and not from a place of judgement.
I am not exaggerating when I say that the NewGround model of open dialogue can save the world. Imagine what the world would look like if we’d assume the best in each other instead of the absolute worst. Imagine if instead of yelling and screaming about “that anti-semite Imam” we emailed him and asked him what he meant. We may disagree with each other, but if we engage in respectful dialogue we will accomplish more and be a lot more productive in building bridges and bringing peace to the world.
I encourage you to try it. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.
Tuli Skaist is an activist and educator living in Los Angeles.