A Northern California mosque that was targeted in a vandalism hate crime found itself at the center of controversy this week after an imam delivered a sermon with inflammatory remarks about Jews.
“Oh Allah, liberate the Al Aqsa Mosque from the filth of the Jews,” Imam Ammar Shahin said in Arabic in his July 21 sermon at the Islamic Center of Davis.
“Oh Allah, count them one by one and annihilate them down to the very last one,” he said in the videotaped service.
The comments, which were translated and distributed to the media by the nonprofit Middle East Media Research Institute, or MEMRI, have been roundly criticized by local and national Jewish leaders. A few of them have written a complaint to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
“It’s deeply concerning to read hateful and violence-advocating words directed against any group, including ourselves as Jews,” said Steve Cohan, co-president of Congregation Bet Haverim in Davis, in a prepared statement.
Shahin apologized Friday, saying he let his emotions “cloud my better judgment.”
“I understand that speech like this can encourage others to do hateful and violent acts,” Shahin said during a news conference held by religious leaders and the city’s mayor. “For this I truly apologize.
“As a religious leader, this has humbled me.”
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.”
“Indeed, commitment to defending religious rights in Jerusalem should not cause division or fan the flame of anti-Semitism,” Shahin said.
The sermon centered on recent turmoil surrounding Al Aqsa Mosque, in one of Jerusalem’s holiest sites, revered by Muslims and Jews.
The recent killings of two Israeli police officers and several Muslim worshipers there prompted Israelis to close the hilltop compound for several days, cancel Friday prayers for the first time in decades and install metal detectors.
The new security measures were seen by many Muslims as an expansion of Israeli control and triggered some of the worst clashes East Jerusalem has seen in years.
Tensions eased greatly on Thursday, however, as Israeli authorities removed the metal detectors and other security restrictions.
In his July 21 sermon, spoken in Arabic and English, Shahin spoke of the history of Jerusalem and voiced outrage over events surrounding Al Aqsa Mosque. He encouraged fellow Muslims to rise up and speak out as well.
Islamic Center officials earlier this week said the imam’s comments had been taken out of context by “Islamophobic news organizations.”
A statement by Shahin and the Islamic Center board said the sermon has been misconstrued.
“We sincerely apologize to anyone offended,” the statement said.
“The ICD will always stand against anti-Semitism similarly to how the Jewish community has always stood against Islamophobia in our close-knit community.”
Nevertheless, local Jewish leaders such as Cohan said they were dismayed.
“We are disappointed that these words appear to have come from the Islamic Center of Davis, a place in our community that had to deal with an act of hatred earlier this year,” he said.
In January, a woman shattered half a dozen windows at the Islamic Center, destroyed two bicycles and draped strips of uncooked bacon on a door handle. Muslims are prohibited from eating pork products. The woman was sentenced to five years’ probation after pleading guilty to the vandalism and admitting to a hate crime allegation.
James Gelvin, a professor of history at UCLA and expert on Israeli-Palestinian relations, said Shahin’s statements came at a time of great anxiety in the Middle East.
“To them, Al Aqsa is front-page news,” Gelvin said. “Not Trump and whether or not he’s connected to Russia.”
He said tensions over the holy site are at an all-time high and many in the area fear another uprising.
“It is clear from the first sentence that this imam is talking about Israel’s recent actions and the need to safeguard Al Aqsa Mosque,” Gelvin said. “But to say he could have chosen his words better would be a gross understatement.”
Moving forward, Shahin said Friday that he intends to improve his relationships with leaders of other faiths.
“I hope to grow and develop as a more worthy leader in the community,” he said.
Rabbi Seth Castleman of Davis thanked Shahin for his words and asked him to follow through with actions. He said he and other Jewish and Muslim religious leaders spent four hours Thursday looking to hash things out, and they found that “we agree far more than we disagree.”
Looking at Shahin, Castleman said:
“Apologies are only as worthy as the actions that follow, so I call upon you. I implore you to follow those words with actions.”
7:25 p.m.: This article was updated to reflect comments from a Friday news conference, at which the imam apologized for his remarks.