Commentary: Davis Islamic Community Must Condemn Anti-Semitic Sermon

I will always remember with a great deal of pride standing on the steps of the backside of the Bicycling Hall of Fame in Central Park that day in January, and the Davis Community came out in huge numbers, probably more than 1000 people, to condemn an act of hatred against the Islamic Center of Davis.

It was a testament to this community that among those who came to speak that day were two Rabbis, representing the Davis Jewish community, who stood with their Muslim brothers and sisters against hatred.

Davis was different.  In Davis we could overcome our differences and stand in united purpose.

And so, when the controversy erupted regarding the sermon from Imam Ammar Shahin, it seemed reasonable to reserve judgment.  After all, he and the Islamic Center of Davis put out a statement claiming that they had been taken out of context by MEMRI (the Middle East Media Research Institute), a group well known for being anti-Islamic.

My bellwether in all of this was Hamza El-Nakhal.  A longtime community member, Hamza is a man that many respect in this community, and when he said that he found the video disturbing when he watched it – we should all be alarmed.

Hamza was “disgusted” by the actions of the Israeli government for putting up metal detectors at the Mosque at the Temple Mount in Israel.  I agree with him on that.

However, he was also disgusted that the Imam failed to use his chance during unsettling times to be the voice of calm and reason.

He said, “Some people like Imam Ammar Shahin become angry for injustices. He spoke while angry. He should not have given this sermon while angry.”

I had a good conversation on Thursday with Hamza.  He recognizes that this incident has done damage to this community and to the bonds that were previously shared between the Jewish and Islamic communities, despite differences of opinion on world views and despite their places in the world.

Originally there was going to be a press conference with the Imam and the mayor at City Hall on Thursday.  Now that is tentatively scheduled for today.

Some of the delay, according to Hamza, was due to the language in an anticipated apology from the Imam.  There are talks with the Jewish community and they apparently and understandably want certain things included in that discussion.

Mayor Robb Davis has had to deal with more than a few of these kinds of situations during his one-year tenure as mayor thus far.  He was naturally troubled by this situation.  He told me he has received communications from around the world on this.

He put out a statement on Wednesday, “When I received the news about the sermon I immediately reached out to leaders of both the Islamic Center and the Jewish community to understand the intent of the sermon and the harms that it has caused. I continue to be in touch with these leaders and understand that there are conversations taking place to address concerns raised. I support this dialogue.”

Some criticized him for not commenting “on the theological interpretations contained in the sermon” but, given the uncertainty, that seemed a wise course of action.

He instead stated, “I will say that over the past 6-8 months I have seen a great deal of fear and angst in both the Jewish and Muslim communities here. Acts of hate around the US and in Davis have stoked that fear. In such an environment it behooves all of us to consider the impact of our words and actions and ask whether they lead to greater mutual understanding or greater fear and division.”

The bottom line, he said, “Whether they were meant to hurt or not (or taken out of context or not), I believe the Imam must recognize that his words have caused harms in this community. We must ask what can be done to make the harms right.”

That is really the task at hand for whenever a statement is issued.

We need a stronger statement that goes beyond an apology to those who were offended by the sermon.

And, frankly, the Islamic Center of Davis needs to explain why their first impulse was to defend the comment as taken out of context.

They 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. We have zero tolerance for anti-Semitism or any other form of bigotry.”

In point of fact, they didn’t have zero tolerance for anti-Semitism.  They were willing to tolerate it in their midst until they were forced from both within and outside their congregation to acknowledge it and the harm they have done in the community.

As Bob Dunning put in his column on Thursday: “When the Islamic Center of Davis was the object of hateful and criminal acts earlier this year, the reaction of the good people of this town was swift and certain. Davisites came together to express their outrage, and condemned the hate and vandalism in the strongest way possible.

“They also went out of their way to express their unqualified support for our town’s Muslim community in a variety of heartfelt ways, including a well-attended rally in Central Park, which I was proud to participate in with my family.”

Mr. Dunning went on to say, “People can complain about the seeming lack of outrage from the Muslim community and wonder why those in attendance last Friday didn’t immediately walk out in protest.

“You can make of that what you will, but ultimately there is one person and one person alone who is responsible for those words and that is the one who spoke them,” he said.  “The only person owing us an explanation is Imam Shahin himself, not his followers and not anyone else from our local Muslim community, many of whom I count as friends.”

But while he is correct that the Imam himself owes us an explanation, part of my reservation of judgment in this was out of respect for people in the Davis Muslim community, many of whom I consider friends, and the fact that they did not speak out sooner led me to reserve judgment in this matter.

Ultimately it was the words of Hamza that convinced me that the MEMRI interpretation of this was largely correct and that, not only does the Imam need to apologize, but the Muslim community needs to repudiate this comment.

Some have called for the Imam to resign in the wake of this.  Hamza told me that he has been here for a while and he was surprised by his comments.  He felt they were a mistake.  As he explained, the Imam spoke them in a moment of anger.

I am not so sure I can be as forgiving.  The Muslim community needs to understand that harm has been done in this and that harm may not be repaired through a single apology.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Keith O


    David, you and I just had this conversation right before the DIC Imam’s outburst became public on the topic of free speech::

    David Greenwald July 24, 2017 at 8:10 am

    No, they don’t care about “you” – they are worried about a very specific population

    Keith O July 24, 2017 at 8:16 am
    So David, as an example are you for shutting down Palestinian speakers on campus who denounce Israeli’s and their occupation?  I mean after all, it could lead to a vulnerable Jewish population being vulnerable to people acting out based on the Palestinian  speaker’s message.
    Log in to Reply ↓
    David Greenwald July 24, 2017 at 8:46 am
    I’m not advocating the position, I’m explaining theirs
    At the same time, the groups advocating would view the Palestinians to be the far more vulnerable population than the Jews. I’m not saying I agree with that conclusion, but that’s why I think they would come down
    Keith O July 24, 2017 at 8:48 am
    So you can see the slippery slope their position creates.
    Log in to Reply ↓
    Keith O July 24, 2017 at 9:59 am
    “the groups advocating would view the Palestinians to be the far more vulnerable population than the Jews.”
    I think it would be more a case that the groups advocating agree with the Palestinians and are willing to look the other way.

    I think that’s what happened here.  Many in our liberal town were willing to give the IMAM a pass while trying to look the other way through deflection and blaming the messenger being that Muslims are one of their protected classes.

    1. David Greenwald

      I don’t agree. I think it explained it pretty well in my piece why I withheld judgment, it had to do with my knowledge of people in the Muslim Community and the difficulty of translating what was said. At the same time, one of the consequences of this is that should this happen again, there will be a much quicker response from many in the community who withheld judgment initially this time.

    2. Alan Miller

      “the groups advocating would view the Palestinians to be [a] far more vulnerable population than the Jews.”

      While the groups advocating may, no one can deny (or yeah they probably can) that the Jews, of which I consider myself one, have gone through many periods of great vulnerability throughout history including not that long ago.

      Several months ago I went to a talk at the Jewish temple in town.  There had been a major anti-Semitic act of violence elsewhere in the country the day before.  I came in a few minutes late after having biked across town on a very hot day and plopped down sweaty and breathless in the front row with several bags I was carrying.  The woman next to me become quite fidgety and uncomfortable, then left and sat in the back of the room.

      Later I spoke during Q&A, and must have sounded quite reasonable.  She came up to me afterward and apologized.  She said she didn’t recognize me as having been to the congregation before, was concerned when I came in with lots of bags, and was on edge because of the violent incident the day before.

      I’m sure her concerns were completely unwarranted, as Jews have never been a vulnerable people #mass sarcasm#.

      I am not downplaying that Muslims in town also feel vulnerable.  My point is, no one should try to out-vulnerable their group versus another group.  There’s plenty of fear and concern to go around.  We’d do a lot better to recognize the vulnerability and concern of others than to buckle down on our own self-righteous victimhood.

  2. Paul Thober

    “the Davis Community came out in huge numbers, probably more than 1000 people, to condemn an act of hatred against the Islamic Center of Davis.”

    When is the demonstration by huge numbers of the Davis community to condemn an act of hatred against the jewish people scheduled?

    1. Jim Hoch


      There are certain groups that are not considered “worthy” by the Vanguard and the related political leadership. Chief among the unmentionables are Jews, Christians, the most despised, people with jobs.

        1. Jim Hoch

          David, I not responsible for how you feel.

          Do you believe my comments are untrue? John Hobbs has just done his best to validate them however I can support each one if you like.

          1. David Greenwald

            Yes present yourself in a flippant and at times insensitive manner, and yes, you are directly responsible. And yes, I believe your comments are untrue. And what came out of today’s event proves it.

          1. David Greenwald

            Thank you for proving my point. Fortunately the comments from the leaders in this community this morning leave me with hope that we can overcome.

        1. David Greenwald

          The press conference was in effect a community gathering – I just posted the article, take a look. It was very powerful and moving. And I think addresses what you were looking for. Had they let in 1000 people, 1000 people would have been there.

  3. Howard P

    Alan Miller had a great, but limited, point…

    The Jewish religion (scripture) calls for welcoming strangers (‘for once, you were strangers in a strange land’) [actually, a pre-Jewish, pre-Christian, pre-Muslim… Bedouin (Arabic?) custom?]… yet, the scriptures show that they (Jews)  at one point, insisted on circumcision to belong to the ‘community’, and they also stoned those who did not ‘toe the line’… Christians at several points insisted on similar hegemony… arguments over circumcision, crusades, Spanish Inquisition… Muslims have too… as have atheists, agnostics, ‘free-thinkers’…

    I want to see what transpires today… but, at the end of the day, we are all human (even if not always humane), and need to deal with our potentials and our limitations and flaws (and, ‘stupids’).  I hope we continue to evolve.  If we don’t survival odds for the species are low…


  4. Hider Noori

    Mr. Greenwald,
    I’m asking from ignorance here…is it logical that the girl who left bacon on DIC’s doors get jail time but a religious leader who called for the annihilation of an entire religious group get to say “sorry” and a photo op?

    Why one was charged with hate crime but not the other? Anyone?

    1. David Greenwald

      She ended up getting probation not jail time.  But if I understand the question…

      Your question is why is one a crime and the other not.  The answer is that in one case, vandalism is itself a crime and under the law the act of vandalism with hate motivations is enhanced as a hate crime.

      What the Imam did was offensive but it is covered under free speech and he committed no act that was illegal.

      Hope that makes sense.

      1. Hider Noori

        Thank you Mr. Greenwald. She did get probation, not jail, my apologies. But isn’t inciting violence against a group of people considered a hate crime and precisely NOT a practice of free speech? (which is what the imam had done).
        Also, who has the authority to sue him for hate speech in Davis/Sacramento? can any citizen do so?

        Sorry for all the questions 🙂

        1. David Greenwald

          Inciting violence is a hard charge to sustain here.  The closest is PC 404.6, which is inciting a riot. But the problem is, it’s only incitement to riot if a person acts where there is a “clear and present and immediate danger” of these acts of rioting, violence or burning actually happening.  So I think you end up having distasteful but protected speech.

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