Sometimes, partnering with ostensibly moderate Muslim organizations in holding interfaith events can lead to a lot of trouble and controversy if proper homework isn't done in advance.
Just ask two Jewish groups in New Jersey.
The UJA Federation of Bergen County and North Hudson and the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of New Jersey had both signed on to co-sponsor an interfaith brunch scheduled for this Sunday, March 28th, which was organized by the various members of a longstanding interfaith coalition.
When a large number of members of the two Jewish groups complained, the interfaith coalition uninvited the American Muslim Union, which was one of two Muslim co-sponsors and jointly listed along with the Dar-ul-Islah Islamic Center as the event's only two hosts.
But appearances can be deceiving.
According to officials at both the mosque and AMU, AMU is very still very much a part of the interfaith brunch. Both organizations, in fact, maintain that their respective levels of participation remain exactly the same as before. And the featured speaker, who was selected by the two groups (and has her own set of problems relating to radicalism), has not changed either.
Given the histories of people involved with AMU and Dar-ul-Islah Islamic Center, it's not difficult to see why so many in the local Jewish community were concerned.
Though the American Muslim Union appears moderate in its official literature saying it is "dedicated to serving the American Muslim community and its unique needs" the organization has interlocking leadership with a group that has allegedly raised funds for Hamas and hosted as a guest speaker last year an alleged Hamas member.
Four current and former AMU directors and executives have held or currently hold leadership positions with the Islamic Center of Passaic County (ICPC), a mosque located in Paterson, New Jersey. ICPC was founded in 1989 by, among others, Mohamed el-Mezain, who was the Chairman of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLFRD), which the Treasury Department designated a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in December 2001.
According to a November 2001 FBI report that served as a basis for Treasury's decision to shut down HLFRD, a "reliable" FBI informant "reported that during a speech at the Islamic Center of Passaic County (ICPC) in November, 1994, Mohammad El-Mezain… admitted that some of the money collected by the ICPC and the HLFRD goes to HAMAS or HAMAS activities in Israel. El-Mezain also defended HAMAS and the activities carried out by HAMAS."
Just last February, ICPC hosted a speech by Abdelhaleem Ashqar (http://www.icpc.com/icpcv2/lectures/lectures.icpc?directory=Friday_Lectures), who is identified by several FBI informants cited in the memo as a prominent Hamas member. Ashqar was jailed for two months last fall for his refusal to testify before a federal grand jury probing Hamas.
Although the ties to Hamas are allegations El-Mezain nor anyone else affiliated with AMU or ICPC has been arrested AMU has co-sponsored several rallies that any genuinely moderate groups would not associate themselves with. Chief among these rallies is one held in Times Square in April 2002, which called for, among other things, an end to the Israeli "massacres" of Palestinians.
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Click HERE to contact the UJA Federation of Bergen County and North Hudson.
To judge for yourself, look at a flyer promoting the event by clicking here. The headline is "Stop Palestinian Genocide" and features an obviously forged photo of a baby lying in a pool of blood in a hospital bed. There may be many legitimate debates among reasonable, moderate people about Israel's treatment of Palestinians, but there are no widespread "massacres," nor is there any "genocide" of Palestinians. It is wildly false to claim either.
So when UJA issued a four-paragraph statement, which was read to this columnist over the phone by a UJA official, announcing that AMU was no longer a co-sponsor of the interfaith brunch, many members were relieved and considered the matter closed.
What Bergen County's interfaith coalition did, according to UJA's statement, was that it "determined that in the spirit of brotherhood, the faith communities rather than any organization will be the official sponsors of the Brunch." In other words, since AMU couldn't be called a co-sponsor, nobody else could either.
To put it another way: Nothing's changed, other than the elimination of the label "co-sponsor."
Although a UJA official angrily denied that AMU had ever been involved with the interfaith brunch this person declared that an invitation listing AMU was a "mistake" officials from both AMU and Dar-ul-Islah Islamic Center maintain that neither group's role in the event has changed.
On the dais, in fact, will be the chairman of AMU's Bergen County chapter, Waheed Khalid, who was the co-founder of Dar-ul-Islah and was, until recently, its president. A UJA official brusquely dismissed this as inconsequential, but it appears that Khalid will be the only Muslim on the dais and will be the one introducing the featured speaker, Dr. Ingrid Mattson, the vice-president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). Several people at the mosque labeled Khalid it seems correctly as the event's emcee.
UJA's four-paragraph statement noted that it "will not participate in any organization whose members advocate… anti-Semitism in any form" or express a "reluctance to condemn terrorism without qualification," yet Khalid himself has defended Hamas and has called a miniseries based on the virulently anti-Semitic "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" both "interesting" and "news."
When asked by the Bergen County Record in May 1998 about Hamas' terrorist attacks, Khalid responded, "They are trying to get the occupiers out of their home."
And in November 2002, Khalid made a startling comment to the New Jersey Jewish Standard about Egyptian television's 40-part miniseries based on the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a book first published by Russia in 1897 that purports to show a Jewish conspiracy for world domination. Apparently without a hint of irony, Khalid told the paper, "I think it is news and it is quite interesting to know what it says."
Several officials at UJA acknowledge that they know about Khalid's comments. Yet he remains the sole Muslim on the dais, making him the de facto representative of the Muslim community at the event.
But even if neither AMU nor Dar-ul-Islah were participants in the interfaith brunch, the event would still be problematic because of the featured speaker, who was selected by the two Muslim groups.
Though Dr. Ingrid Mattson appears moderate, she is insidious precisely because she maintains that façade while steadfastly refusing to criticize radical Islamists, claiming that there is no such thing as Wahhabism and that the term "Islamic terrorism" should not be used in the media. Most shocking of all, though, is how little concern she expressed about suicide bombings in an essay she wrote shortly after 9/11.
At a CNN-sponsored "town hall" forum in October 2001, Mattson with a straight face claimed that the radical, Saudi-sponsored form of Islam known as Wahhabism was akin to the Protestant movement in Christianity. Wahhabism "really was analogous to the European protestant reformation," she explained.
This wasn't an isolated use of the analogy. At a November 2003 roundtable sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies Conference, Mattson said the Wahhabist movement in Islam is "a very old struggle …between the more theologically austere Muslims who like Protestant Christianity believe that there should be no saints there should be no intervention between you and G-d."
Mattson takes a similar "see no evil" approach to the idea of Islamic terrorism. Mattson was one of several Muslim "scholars" quoted in a Washington Times article shortly after 9/11 who claimed that the media should not use the term "Islamic terrorism." Mattson took this stance despite the fact, as the Times paraphrased her, that "Islamic terrorists themselves use this term."
The reason Mattson is able to pass herself off as a moderate is probably because she clears the low bar set for most Muslims: the ability to explicitly condemn suicide bombings. But she hasn't done so for very long. In a remarkably revealing essay Mattson penned for Beliefnet.com in October 2001, she wrote that, until then, Palestinian suicide bombings "simply did not cross my mind as a priority among the many issues I felt needed to be addressed." She stated it as matter-of-factly and inconsequentially as someone who apologizes for forgetting to pick up the dry cleaning because it "simply did not cross my mind as a priority."
There seems little doubt that Mattson's statements would violate UJA's own standard of refusing to participate in an event with someone who expresses a "reluctance to condemn terrorism without qualification." But still she remains the featured speaker of this weekend's interfaith brunch.
It's true that no one connected with either the American Muslim Union or the Dar-ul-Islah Islamic Center has been arrested, let alone convicted. And in America, everyone is and should be free to hold any belief, no matter how repugnant.
But have we set the standard for "moderate" Islam so low that organizations like AMU and Dar-ul-Islah can gain much-needed legitimacy by hosting interfaith events endorsed by Jewish groups? Because whenever AMU or Dar-ul-Islah is attacked in the future for espousing unseemly propaganda and given their histories, it will happen they can point to events like this Sunday's interfaith brunch and say, "If Jewish groups are able to accepts us, why can't you?"
It's understandable that the two Jewish groups in Bergen County don't want to disrupt an interfaith coalition that's been around since the 1980's, but shouldn't they be more concerned about the cover they're providing to groups that clearly don't deserve it?