Sound bites are funny things. Just ask a politician who’s uttered something stupid in front of a Smartphone, and lived to regret it. But here’s a sound bite that grabs your attention: “Oh, Allah, liberate the Al-Aqsa mosque from the filth of the Jews.... Oh, Allah, count them one by one and annihilate them down to the very last one.”
Those words, separated by two sentences, were spoken this month by Ammar Shahin, the imam of the Islamic Center at Davis, California. It represented about two minutes of his 52-minute khutbah, or sermon.
When it went up on the mosque’s YouTube page, there was, understandably, vehement denunciation from people who accused him of calling for genocide.
The Al-Aqsa mosque is a holy site for both Jews and Muslims in East Jerusalem.
Hate speech is hate speech. It shouldn’t be camouflaged by calls to God to do what, clearly, God wouldn’t want us to do.
Earlier this month, after two Israeli soldiers were shot to death near the mosque, Israel installed electronic scanners that visitors were required to pass through. Muslim leaders deemed this an insult to their faith and organized protests. This week, Israel removed the scanners.
Shahin told the Washington Post he was calling for the annihilation only of the Jews who were at Al-Aqsa.
So what? If that isn’t hate speech, what is? Would a call to eliminate only Muslims who hate America be acceptable under those rules?
That’s when funny things started to happen. Arab scholars claimed that Shahin’s words were mistranslated by MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute, a not-for-profit group that tracks hate speech in the Middle East and posts videos on its website.
Bellwether asked an Arabic speaker to listen to Shahin’s remarks. The verdict: he called for the death of “the Jews.”
Other apologists said the words had to be put in context. Only two minutes of the khutbah called for people to be annihilated. They also noted that the imam was angry.
Then the capper: as a result of the public outcry about the sermon, Muslims in Davis were afraid they might be targeted for violence.
On Friday, Shahin, sounding like a naughty schoolboy in the principal’s office, told a news conference in Davis, “I am deeply sorry for the pain I have caused.”
“Islam gets away with everything,” says Nonie Darwish, who was born Muslim but converted to Christianity after 9/11. Along with her apostasy, her book, "Wholly Different: Why I chose biblical values over Islamic values," won her death threats from Muslims.
She adds: “The preachers who make these statements about Jews try to cover up their meaning by saying they’re just using the words of the Prophet Muhammed, and no one can criticize what Muhammed said. And to quote Muhammed is pure Islam. They know that and use it.”
Steven Stalinsky, MEMRI’s executive director, says this kind of shell-game hate speech goes on all the time.
“He spoke in English and then he goes into Arabic,” Stalinsky told me about Shahin.
“Then people say, ‘It was in reaction to something Israel did, so that justifies it.’ But in the sermon he didn’t mention exterminating Israelis. He said Jews.”
Stalinsky also notes that Shahin had delivered a similar sermon a week earlier, also posted on YouTube.
Hate speech is hate speech. It shouldn’t be camouflaged by calls to God to do what, clearly, God wouldn’t want us to do. And it shouldn’t be tolerated by any faith.