Riverside imam stirs criticism after sermon calling Jews ‘unjust tyrants’ and praying to ‘destroy them’

Imam Mahmoud Harmoush is shown in 2011 after the Temecula City Council approved plans for a new mosque in the community after much heated debate.
(Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times)

Another California imam has drawn criticism after delivering a sermon laced with inflammatory remarks about Jews, calling them “unjust tyrants” and praying to Allah to “destroy them.”

Imam Mahmoud Harmoush’s comments came during a July 21 sermon delivered at the Islamic Center of Riverside, video of which was translated and published by the nonprofit Middle East Media Research Institute.

The Islamic Center of Riverside also posted a 31-minute video of the sermon on YouTube.


WATCH: YouTube video of Imam Mahmoud Harmoush’s sermon »

In his sermon, Harmoush accuses Jews of plotting to take over Palestinian territory, the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, and “most of the Middle East.” He also referenced the recent turmoil surrounding the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, one of the city’s holiest sites revered by both Muslims and Jews.

“Oh, Allah, liberate the Al Aqsa Mosque and all the Muslim lands from the unjust tyrants and the occupiers,” Harmoush said, according to the group’s translation. “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.”

In English, the imam also urged those gathered at the mosque: “Wake up, it is time to be a Muslim. Prayer is not the only thing.”

The comments came the same day as an imam in Davis delivered his own controversial sermon, praying for the Al Aqsa Mosque to be freed “from the filth of Jews.”

“Oh, Allah, count them one by one and annihilate them down to the very last one,” Imam Ammar Shahin said at the Davis Islamic Center.

The remarks from Shahin and Harmoush prompted a firestorm of criticism and were quickly condemned by Jewish organizations.

“These statements are anti-Semitic and dangerous,” Jonathan A. Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement. “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.”


Dan Schnur, executive director of the American Jewish Committee in the Los Angeles region, described Harmoush’s comments as “a hate crime, pure and simple.”

Shahin, the imam in Davis, apologized on Friday at a news conference held by the city’s mayor and religious leaders, saying he let his emotions “cloud my better judgment.”

When asked about his remarks Sunday, Harmoush issued a statement saying he would confer with leaders of local interfaith communities that he has long worked with.

“All life is sacred and every person has a sacred right to respect, safety and liberty. Members of all faiths, including my own, rest firmly on these principles and I believe in promoting them with justice and empathy,” Harmoush said. “Interfaith dialogue has demonstrated resounding successes in fostering positive change and communal insight while incorporating people of all faiths in a humane, genuine and sustainable path forward.”

Harmoush has many ties throughout Southern California’s Muslim community, teaching Arabic and Islamic culture classes at colleges and working with various Islamic centers.

According to an undated page on Claremont Lincoln University’s website, Harmoush is an interfaith instructor there and has taught at Cal State San Bernardino and Crafton Hills College. The same page states Harmoush has worked with Islamic centers in Yorba Linda and San Diego.


Harmoush previously led the Islamic Center of Temecula Valley during a turbulent chapter for the center, as its efforts to build a new mosque ignited months of debate that included vitriolic attacks on Islam.

Schnur called on Harmoush to “make it clear that his sermon does not reflect the teachings of the Koran or the beliefs of the Muslim faith.”

“Because our members devote so much time to working with leaders from the Muslim community, we know that the overwhelming majority of Muslims simply do not share these types of sentiments,” he said.

“We know that we can’t completely eliminate hate, unfortunately,” Schnur said. “But we can surround it, we can isolate it and we can make it perfectly clear that these types of vile sentiments have no place in decent society.”

Times staff writer Esmeralda Bermudez contributed to this report.




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9:30 p.m.: This story was updated with a statement made by Imam Mahmoud Harmoush.

This story was originally published at 5:40 p.m.