Commentary: Islamic Center of Davis Dropped the Ball

Imam Ammar Shahin gives his apology in late July

At the end of July, following a tumultuous week, Imam Shahin had a chance to put this all behind him.  He issued what I still believe was a very heartfelt apology.  Maybe it wasn’t perfect and it could have gone further.

However, he had support from the leadership of the Jewish community, the progressive faith community, and he had Mayor Robb Davis, Councilmember Lucas Frerichs, Supervisor Don Saylor and others on his side.

At the same time, as I have pointed out, Robb Davis warned that an apology was not enough and Rabbi Seth Castleman, even as he accepted the apology, warned him that the apology was only as good as the actions that followed.

There are those critics who will argue that the Imam’s apology was not a repudiation of his comments and therefore not a sincere apology.  Most of them were not there at the press conference to see the man’s body language.

In my view, however, the big problem here is that the Imam’s public actions stopped there and he did not take the next step.  Neither did the Islamic Center of Davis.  Had the ICD, in the days or even weeks that followed, issued a statement declaring that the views expressed in the sermon do not reflect the views of the Islamic Center, and repudiating the words, we would probably not be where we are today.

Instead, I can say after watching the comments from Tuesday night and the perhaps two dozen people who spoke – there is a problem and it is a problem that has been allowed to fester due to lack of leadership.

After having a few conversations on Tuesday and Wednesday about this, I am concerned that there is a leadership void at the top of the Islamic Center of Davis and that void is contributing to this problem.

Critics following the public comment demonstration are correct to point out several things.  First, there is clearly a divide in the local Jewish community itself.  At the press conference you saw Rabbi Seth Castleman take the lead.  Rabbi Greg Wolfe from Bet Haverim is a strong supporter of the interfaith community – you did not see any one from that wing of the Jewish community come out on Tuesday night.

That is important to understand, because there is clearly a divide within the community itself.

Second, I have been criticized for pointing this out before, but, while there was a contingent of longtime local residents who attended and spoke, a large number of the speakers were actually from outside of the area (I’ll return to this point shortly).

Third, while there were clearly some legitimate concerns aired about the content of the speech, there was a complaint about Islamophobia.  Jonathan Zachariou made the argument that the Imam “knows the Quran.  He knows what he’s talking about.  So when he expresses the things he expressed, he’s talking about what the Quran is talking about.  He did not make a mistake in his message.  His message is true.”

Matthew Finklestein in his rant kept yelling about Jihadism and Wahhabism.

Last night was more of a mix of folks, but clearly there were more radical and militant pro-Israeli Jews and people representing that part of the spectrum.

On the other hand, you had a representative from the well-respected Simon Wiesenthal Center and Professor Emeritus Alex Groth.

Probably the most unfortunate moment was when Mayor Pro Tem Brett Lee, in his first meeting chairing the council, ended up cutting off the 85-year-old Holocaust survivor rather than giving him an extra minute or two.  I’m sure the mayor pro tem feels badly about that decision and he probably would reconsider if he could.  As a speaker later pointed, we don’t have a lot of people left who can personally attest to the Holocaust.  The day is coming when the last survivor will be no more.

The bottom line here is that it is easy for me to dismiss the rants of Matthew Finklestein, and David Kadosh from the Zionist Organization of America – I have a lot more trouble dismissing a Rabbi from the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Professor Groth.

While it is very clear that the Jewish community itself is divided and that Tuesday represented only one side of the room, that voice should not be dismissed.

There is legitimate blame here that must be owned by the Islamic community.  The comments made by the Imam were not merely offensive, they were, as one put it, dangerous and destructive.

I do believe that the Imam was sincere in his apology.  I do understand from several sources that he has continued to try to work behind the scenes to rectify things.  I am told that on Tuesday he met with the Board of Rabbis in Sacramento to do that very thing – however, what he has not done is make public statements following the apology.

If we go back to the press conference in July, we see that both Mayor Robb Davis and Rabbi Seth Castleman laid out what he needed to do.

“Today, we’re going to hear an apology,” Robb Davis said.  “But this is not about today, this about a long journey within our city to make today possible.  This about people telling truth to the Imam about the truth about his words.  Those people are from the Islamic community and those people are from the Jewish community.”

“The question has to be, ‘is it enough?’” he continued.  “The answer must surely be no, it is not enough.  The hurts are deep.  Words were spoken that are harmful and hurtful.  One statement cannot be enough.”

Seth Castleman stated at the time, “I deeply appreciate and accept your words of apology.”  But the Rabbi added, “As you know as well as I, apologies are only as worthy as the actions that follow. So I call upon you, I implore you to follow up those words with actions.”

Where I fault the Islamic Center and the Imam is that those words were not heeded.

The hurts are deep.  The words spoken were harmful and hurtful.  And one statement cannot be enough.

What the Imam needed to do was make follow-up statements to make it clear that he was not just sorry for hurting people, but rather that he did not mean what he said.  And the Islamic Center needed to make it clear that the words spoken do not reflect the values and views of the Islamic Center of Davis and do not reflect the values and views of the Davis Islamic community.

Davis Muslim Hands, a long-standing and separate group, said that.  They said “we strongly repudiate the hurtful and inexcusable anti-Semitic words that were delivered July 21 in the sermon at the Islamic Center of Davis.”

The leadership at the Islamic Center of Davis needed to do more and, by failing to do that, they have allowed this issue to continue to fester and if anything gain steam.

Is it too late now to fix this?  I don’t know.  But I don’t think it’s ever too late to do the right thing.

—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. Howard P

        You have accurately state “the problem”…

        You and others are telling a group of people “they HAVE to do something”… you did not say they “ought”, they “should”, they “might want to consider”.

        You say “they can’t continue to allow this…”   You are essentially telling a large # of people what they can or cannot do!

        What if a group of people feel that, if one of your family does a ‘stupid’, they have the right to tell you what you have to, or cannot do about it?  How would you react?  How about if some of them tell you ‘exactly’ what you have to do? Again, how would you react?

        Your words and apparent attitudes, and those of a number of speakers Tuesday give a group of men and women a set of choices… including digging in their heels, and defiantly telling you and others to butt the F out; cave in, and appear to be submissive to your opinions, and that of others, opening the door for repeat performances (like telling them that next time their house of worship is vandalized and ‘defiled’, the HAVE to suck it up, and they CANNOT press charges against the perpetrator); ignoring you and the others;

        If people keep escalating this, as you and many seem wont to do, you folk decrease the chances that the folk at the Islamic Center will be able to deal with what is essentially an internal matter, in accordance with their faith and with dignity.  That is your choice.  And that of others.

        Try to put yourself in their shoes… think about whether you’d welcome community input and adhere to it if one of your family messed up big time (short of crime, but very offensive to many).

        I do not need or expect a response… but you seem to demand it of them.  At least examine yourself and think about it… that is what I respectfully suggest you may want to consider.

        1. David Greenwald

          I would suggest you are taking a colloquial expression and using a literal meaning for it.  Clearly they can do whatever they want, but the heat is going to go up unless they change what they are doing.  Hence my comment that they can’t allow this to continue.  The same way a sports commentator might say to a team, the team is bad, something has to change.  And no, I’m not comparing this to sports, lest you again take my analogy as a literal one.

        2. Howard P

          So, in addition to you, all the speakers Tuesday were just using “colloquial expressions”?  Yeah, right…

          By speaking “to you” (a colloquial expression?), I was also speaking to those who spoke Tuesday, and anyone else who “demands” action of others… I’d say more, but won’t, as it may be taken too literally…

        3. Eric Gelber

          Try to put yourself in their shoes… think about whether you’d welcome community input and adhere to it if one of your family messed up big time …

          The comparison is not apt. This was not some congregant who made hateful, anti-Semitic comments. This was a local influential leader of a major faith community. With great power comes great responsibility. The Imam should be held to a higher standard and the local community has the right to be concerned with the lack of an adequate response–from the Imam, from the congregation, and from the mosque’s leadership.

        4. Mike Hart

          In Montreal in 2016, Jordanian Sheikh Muhammad bin Musa Al-Nasr was served with an arrest warrant for willfully promoting the murder of Jews. The Canadian authorities deemed Al-Nasr’s threats “imminent” enough to warrant immediate action…  I think that very mild rebuke that he has received from the Davis community is only the start of an examination of the organization that is way overdue.

        5. Howard P

          Eric… your 9:53 post…

          “Concerned”, yes, no question about it… asking for an examination of conscience?  Sure… I believe those are needful… support those fully…

          But that is not where M Hart and others are coming from… they are demanding specific (sort of) actions… they want “payback”, capitulation, unconditional surrender.  And won’t be satisfied until they get their pounds of flesh.

          Reminds me of a lynch mob mentality… the iman behaved inappropriately, and he may have some terribly sick views… but violated no laws… wonder if Davis will be the new Nuremberg… doing a show trial on the VG or in front of the CC… fortunately neither are in a position to ‘execute’ the accused…

          I am not defending the imam, or his unfortunate, hateful words… yet, those words are being used to brand the local Mosque, Islam, and anyone in Davis who do not support their ‘views’ as “hate organizations”… disproportional, at the least…

  1. Jim Hoch

    David, Good article though I have a couple of thoughts.

    1: Brett Lee did the right thing, we are all equal and get the same time. Implying that certain people get more time than other people is not a good precedent.

    2: The comments at hand were not specific to something happening in Davis and are part of a much wider conflict, therefore I will double down on my comments yesterday that the CC should stay away unless they feel that both sides are looking for mediation. Weighing in on this will result in being dragged into something that we cannot solve.

    1. David Greenwald

      1. Generally speaking allowing for equal time is important, but flexibility is also important, imo.

      2. I agree. I saw the focus Tuesday less about needed council action and more about the use of the community chambers as a platform to get the message out to the community.

        1. Keith O

          I agree, if you have rules they must apply to all.  If you cut one person off just to let another go past their time you’re basically telling that person that their opinion isn’t as important as another’s.

      1. Keith O

        So you guys don’t think the city council should speak out and condemn hate speech through whatever means necessary when it comes from a house of worship in our town?

    2. Howard P

      A good rule has been to let someone have more time, if speaking for a group who would otherwise speak individually.

      Another option would to have asked for an agenda item, where more time would be allotted… but the ‘public comment’ mechanism was chosen…


  2. Mike Hart

    “Imam Shahin had a chance to put this all behind him.”

    No, he didn’t.  You can’t apologize your way out of proposing genocide and to say that it was possible trivializes his hateful statements.

    The almost daily terrorist attacks by Muslims across the globe are met by frantic denials by liberals that they do not represent the religion of “peace and love”… But does it? I mean for the average westerner we have no idea what is normal. We don’t attend their services, we don’t speak their language and we have no real idea what they believe. We see the news and wonder, but we are told by the press that they are peaceful and to put away such thoughts. Here in peaceful Davis, a town that has had the community embrace the DIC in recent months to show our support for them, you would expect to find the most mild form of this religion of “peace and love”… And yet you tip over a rock and look what scuttles out from underneath.

    What if this isn’t some kind of aberrant coment from a guy off his meds?

    The KKK and Nazis make hateful comments on the other side of the country and Davis goes bannanas here to say that there is no place in our society for that kind of thing. Why, when even more hateful words are spoken in our own town is our town leadership (and the editor of this publication) so frantic to put it behind us with a heartfelt apology and a few acts of visible contrition? This isn’t trivial and perhaps it isn’t an aberration. The Jewish community here did nothing to deserve this threat and comments that this insight into what goes on at the DIC can simply be “put behind them” is simply misguided.

    1. David Greenwald

      “What if this isn’t some kind of aberrant coment from a guy off his meds?”

      This guy has been working with the interfaith community for awhile and continues to do so, including as I noted meeting this week with the council of Rabbis.

      1. Mike Hart

        Then his comment was what?  Well thought out? Part of his normal sermon (as has been indicated by former members of DIC)? How would you characterize it?

        The best hope for DIC to be a part of the Davis community is to toss him under a bus and say he was nuts, recruit some new guy and make it clear that his thoughts are toxic waste.


        1. Howard P

          David… you ‘honor’ M Hart’s questions… do you also agree with the following paragraph of statements?  Looks like M Hart is looking towards a ‘final solution’…

          But I guess “throwing him under the bus” is just a colloquialism… or, is it?

  3. Tia Will

    the heat is going to go up unless they change what they are doing. “

    This makes it sound as though it is a force of nature that the ICD is facing. That is not true. The criticism and demands for particular actions are coming from people who also have a wide variety of ways they could face this challenge to unity of spirit in Davis. One could liken the Imam’s speech to the Charlottesville hate march. But to do that would ignore the difference in the two settings. Speaking in private to a group of willing participants is not the same as marching through the streets chanting hate slogans nor murdering a protestor with your car.

    There is a fine balance here. As loathsome as I find the Imam’s words, do we really want outsiders of another religion, or political group or social group coming to our private spaces and telling us what we can and cannot say ?  I find his words as despicable as those of the Westboro Baptist Church, and yet I have argued on many occasions for their right to verbally espouse their point of view no matter how heinous I find it to be. We have those precious 1st amendment rights for a reason. We should not be over ruling them simply because this time it was “our group” that was targeted.

    1. Mike Hart

      I certainly agree that as Americans they have the same rights of free speech as the KKK, Nazis and WBC… great company.

      But that isn’t the issue.  The issue is learning that perhaps we should have our city leaders stop apologizing for them and simply recognize this for what it is- the local chapter of a hate organization.

        1. Robin W.

          I hadn’t thought to label the ICD a hate organization until you asked that question, Howard.  But what do you call an entity that hires, retains, and comes to listen to a leader who gives weekly speeches calling for members of the entity to kill all the members of a minority group?

        2. Howard P

          Weekly, or once/twice?   You seem to have info I don’t…

          So have to assume you believe that Islam is a hate organization, as you did not call them (local Mosque) out as being dissonant from the religion…

          Seems like you agree with M Hart….

        3. Mike Hart

          Good question and one we should be asking. This is the first real insight I have ever had to what appears to be said inside a mosque. Do you have more experience than this example? All I see is what happens in the press and it looks quite grim. This insight is troubling and certainly gives the impression that the DIC is just another outlet in a franchise of hate.  Is that a realistic view?  Is it fair? I don’t know, but it certainly shouldn’t be brushed under the rug with an apology and a unity breakfast.

        4. Alan Miller

          Weekly, or once/twice?

          Is that relevant?

          If you get angry and scream at your wife, two weeks in a row, that she is “filth” and you are going to kill her by throwing her off Mrak Hall, and then prayed to God for her extermination, I guess she should forgive you, because it wasn’t every week. . . and it was probably just a mistranslated metaphor that didn’t really mean “kill”.

          (generic “you”, no idea anyone’s marital status, most especially the anonymous)

        5. Howard P

          OK Alan… you hear, but do not listen.  Like those who will take one passage out of their “documents”…

          Someone said it was weekly… I challenged… you criticize me for the challenge, and imply that I’m OK with what was said by the imam, fully ignoring that I have repeatedly said that the imam was out-of-line, his words reprehensible…

          I defer to your judgement… I also am ‘reprehensible’… satisfied?

          Will cease on this thread, as all zealots have fixed their positions… you are either 100% for, or 100% against.  Reminds me of a Tom Lehrer song lyric…

        6. Alan Miller

          Someone said it was weekly… I challenged…

          OK, I “hear” you, and technically correct.  Challenging someone for using hyperbole in the Vanguard when discussing such a dead serious topic doesn’t seem very fruitful.

        7. Howard P

          Alan (2:01 comment)…

          Point noted… damn good point… it works in multiple ways, multiple views, multiple threads… hope all will keep that in mind… I’ll do my best…

          I judge your comment as helpful, and “spot on”…

          Still, hard to let ‘hyperbole’ pass… on any subject…

      1. Mike Hart

        Howard (I assume this is your real name as you hide behind an alias) you continue to play the apologist for hate and try to play word games…

        I am a long-time member of the community who is troubled by a group that threatens violence agains a blameless group that is also in our community. You continue to apologize for and try to misdirect legitimate questions about this group.

        Who are you? Why do you feel justified in trying shield hate speech and threats of violence agains Jews? Why not just come out and agree that threats of violence against ANY group is wrong and that people who encourage it need to be rooted out of civil society?

        Which of those statements do you disagree with?

        Who are you hiding, or is it you?


        1. Howard P

          Howard is a real name of mine, as is an initial P…

          I am a long-time member of the community 

          Yeah, and I’m a “newbie”… only came here in 1972… your point?

          a group that threatens violence

          Must have missed that, thought we were talking about an individual… what GROUP has threatened violence?

          Why do you feel justified in trying shield hate speech and threats of violence agains Jews?

          I did no such thing… what I see is you want retribution, not justice, not rationality… have repeatedly said the imam’s words were reprehensible, once it was confirmed what he actually said… to turn it back on you, should all those of the Islamic faith be deported, or do you have a ‘final solution’ in mind?

          The “agains (sic) Jews” thing… the person whose teachings I try to follow was a Jew, and never departed from Judaism in his teachings, except to point out corruptions in how it was interpreted in his time.  For a long period of time, Jews were blamed for arranging for the death of this ‘apostate’… no more.

          To get to the nub… you asked,

          Which of those statements do you disagree with?

          You gave only a few statements, the rest were baited, angry, and perhaps hate-filled questions… so… to the statements.

          you continue to play the apologist for hate and try to play word games…

          I categorically deny that… the rest is your judgement and so cannot refute that…

          You continue to apologize for and try to misdirect legitimate questions about this group.

          I deny that as well given you have not defined “this group”, and I do not apologize for anyone…

          Listen to yourself… you write like the imam spoke.  Am sure you’d like to see me face “death” as to my views… guess you and he have much in common, except as to ‘targets’…

        2. Mike Hart

          Howard “P”-

          Your comment that your spiritual leader is a former Jew isn’t terribly enlightening as both Jesus (and it is frequently stated that Muhammad) are former Jews…

          You insist that this is just an “individual” who is of concern, yet he is the leader of a group. I assume then that President Trump gives you no concern as he is simply an individual? While the group is free to have anyone they wish lead them, we as outsiders are reasonable in seeing that leaving him in charge gives the appearance of acceptance.

          I am troubled by your comments throughout this thread about “pounds of flesh” “retribution” “deportation” “final solution” and  “for you to face death for your views”… you take yourself far too seriously. I am unaware of anyone in this conversation raising any of these issues but you. In fact, you seem obsessed with the issue of further violence while everyone else seems focused on trying to prevent it. You and the Imam seem to be the only ones talking about more violent acts.

          I continue to see you as dancing around the primary topic hoping to distract- as long as this Imam leads this group in Davis, they are all painted by the same brush and appear to be at least supporting the notion of violence to the Jews. Concrete steps need to be taken to show that this group (DIC) is willing to distance themselves from this Imam, and any kind of violence against a minority group.

          This issue isn’t going to go away no matter how hard you tap-dance.


        3. Howard P


          M Hart… (5:47 post)

          I now realize that none of your posts re:  me, are worthy of a reply (except to note that)…  my bad for responding to the first.   Believe what you will, no matter how incorrect… that is your right…

  4. Susan George

    I came from nearby Vallejo to speak out at this Davis City Council meeting. It’s interesting that you are somehow attempting to discredit people who came from out of town to comment and express their honest concern. It’s important that you understand that this is not just about “Davis”. What the imam said was heard and felt way beyond the borders of your town and it should be treated in that way. I say with confidence that this issue and the concern of many is far from over.

    I would like to share this with you from a Davis resident who read my article on this (posted at the end) and she had this to say:

    “I live in Davis. I have been struggling with this situation beyond words since it occurred. I have been told that by not simply accepting his apology and moving on, I am being divisive. I have been told that I do not believe in restorative justice. I have been told that I didn’t understand the imam’s intent. I have been told more excuses by progressives in the community than I care to count. I think the Davis community places such a high premium on interfaith connection, that the community/religious leaders were terrified of “making waves” (thus the ridiculous apology video about feelings with a nice photo op at the end). Thank you for what you said. Your letter is fantastic. I hope they listen.”

    No one should be treated this way after something so horrible takes place in your own community.

    Here is my article:


    1. David Greenwald

      “It’s interesting that you are somehow attempting to discredit people who came from out of town to comment and express their honest concern.”

      I mentioned that there were people from out of town, but I don’t see where you can reasonably say I attempted to discredit people who came from out of town.  Please help understand this point?

        1. Matthew Finkelstein

          I don’t know if you do your own proof reading David, but if so then you’re equally tone deaf in your writing and reading if you think that last bit was not meant to discredit.

  5. Susan George

    You made a mention of the out of towners in this article and also when you spoke on the floor that evening. If your intention was not to cast us at all as outsiders, then so be it.

    I thought the comments by the Davis resident that I posted were noteworthy. What did you think of what she had to say?


  6. Matthew Finkelstein

    It doesn’t surprise me to hear David Greenwald is readily dismissing out of hand the idea that this is Wahabism. What brand of Jew killing Islam did you think this was? When Imam Shahin did not make a full repudiation for his statement, when he failed to apologize for uttering the words, and instead apologized only for the feelings that they inspired, what possible motivation could be in play? What brand of Islam, from the Sunni tradition, can’t or won’t apologize for the expression of Jew killing?
    What comfort would you like Jews to take from the idea that this man now stands shoulder to shoulder in a group of  religious leaders that sanitize him in the name of restorative justice.
    This may suit your fancy for what constitutes social justice but at the end of the day there is a high price for your generosity of forgiveness and it can often be measured in human lives.
    It’s clear that you don’t hold the Imam Shahin to the same standard of decency that you might any other clergyman or woman in a similar community position. I’m confident that if this had been a Catholic Priest in a mainstream church the condemnations would be numerous and unequivocal and only a full repudiation and resignation would be called for. The same would be a true for any rabbi or preacher of a mainstream synagogue or church. Careful guys. Your bigotry is showing. Your rush to apologize for the actions of Imam Shahin serves as a validation for the Islamaphobic idea that Muslims lack the necessary humanity and cannot be held to the same high standard that only moral and enlightened Westerners can endure. This is the height of Western condescension and pitch perfect Orientalism.  Shame on you for confusing this soft bigotry of low expectations for social justice.

  7. David Greenwald

    I am told the following: “Last Thursday, Imam Ammar Shahin spent an hour and half with the Sacramento Area Council of Rabbis discussing the impact that his words had on the Jewish community.  Every rabbi was in attendance…

    “The imam clearly stated that he understands the deep harm and hurt that his words caused.  He unequivocally rejected violence against Jews or anyone as acceptable…”

    “He is working on a further statement to be shared with all members of the Jewish community in Davis and Sacramento, that would come from him and the Islamic Center of Davis.”

    1. Matthew Finkelstein

      Wonderful. Now he can do the right thing and resign. I would mouth whatever apologies are necessary in his place to continue in the esteemed position at UC Davis and ICD. Let me see him spend time working on a book specializing in cross cultural understandings with Jews and Muslims. Let me see him work with the American Quilliam foundation about to open with Maajid Nawaaz. Let’s see real contrition and reform and then I’d welcome and believe this Imam.

      We shouldn’t kid ourselves. Those who privately call for genocide don’t experience a miraculous overnight turn around in sentiment just because they’re exposed for it publicly. I’m not saying it’s impossible, I’m just saying that at this point he has to put the work in to be taken seriously.

    2. Alan Miller

      “He is working on a further statement to be shared with all members of the Jewish community in Davis and Sacramento, that would come from him and the Islamic Center of Davis.”

      “Well.  Isn’t that special.” — SNL’s Church Lady


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