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