On July 21, 2017, Imam Ammar Shahin, in a sermon at Davis Mosque in California, called for the annihilation of all Jewish people. He used a hadith (record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) that quoted the prophet Mohammed:
"The last hour won't come before the Muslims would fight the Jews and the Muslims will kill them so Jews would hide behind rocks and trees. Then the rocks and trees would call: Oh Muslim, oh servant of God! There is a Jew behind me, come and kill him, except the "gharqad" tree, it is of Jews' trees."
The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) translated what he said, and then some media outlets (mostly conservative) spoke about it. Shireen Qudosi, a Muslim reformer started a petition, which I signed, urging the mosque to fire him.
This was not the first time Shahin was caught on camera saying things like that. On July 14, 2017, he called Jews "the wicked Jews" and asked God to destroy them. He said:
"Oh Allah, destroy them and do not spare their young or their elderly... Oh Allah, turn Jerusalem and Palestine into a graveyard for the Jews."
In November 2016, Shahin made fun of the American Constitution by comparing it to "Idols that the infidels used to worship, which were made from dates." He said that, unlike the Quran, democracy is man-made and could be changed: "You are taking democracy, the Constitution, and all these matters that they fool you with... as a sacred religion now?"
To defend himself, Shahin said the translation was not accurate and that he was misquoted. As a native Arabic speaker, I saw the translation and found it 100% accurate. After the "victim of misquoting" card failed, Shahin came out and offered an apology in a press conference. Interestingly, questions were not allowed in the conference, probably to avoid simple questions such as, "why did you call for this in the first place?" Or, "do you mean by apologizing that this hadith is not correct?"
Some would argue that Shahin made a mistake, said things he did not mean, and then apologized; end of the story, right? No. Like Imam Shahin, I was born and raised in Egypt. Let me assure you that this is not an isolated incident. What the imam said is what everyone would hear at the congregational prayers that Muslims hold every Friday. On Friday afternoon, everyone could hear the sermons, because each mosque has big outdoor loudspeakers to ensure that all the neighbors hear the prayers and the sermons, whether they want to or not. I cannot tell you how many times I heard the imams asking God to destroy the Jews and Christians and take revenge on them.
In addition, this hadith was printed and put on stickers all over Egypt: in buses, subways, schools, universities ... everywhere. In the upper middle-class neighborhood where I lived, some Islamists put one in the elevator of our building, so that all the people in the building would have to read it each time they used the elevator.
A poster of the hadith calling on Muslims to fight the Jews and kill them. The fine print at bottom encourages people to print and distribute it.
Ibrahim Essa, an Egyptian Muslim TV anchor, writer and thinker who used to call for Islamic reform, addressed this widespread anti-Semitism in one of his shows. He was commenting on the imam of the Grand Mosque of Mecca (The holiest site in Islam), who said:
"Oh God give victory to the Mujahideen in Al-Yemen, the Levant, and Al-Iraq. Oh God destroy the atheist rafidah (Shia), the Jews the traitors, the Christians the malevolent and the lurking hypocrites".
Essa's comment was: After all of this, do you still wonder where terrorism and ISIS comes from? This is what brings terrorism.
On a talk show on Al-Arabiya, the Saudi poet Abdulrahman Al-Shemri echoed Essa. He said that Muslims often pray to God to destroy Jews and Christians, and to make their wives widows, and to make their sons orphans, and that this is wrong.
A prominent sheikh, Mohammed Al Arifi, explained the hadith in the same way as Imam Shahin. He said Muslims would fight and kill all Jews. Then he claimed that in Israel people are planting many gharqad trees, to protect themselves whenever Muslims attack them. Al-Arifi is a very well-respected figure in Saudi Arabia and among the Salafist Muslims. His Facebook page has more than 24 million fans.
Some might say this is because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and what happened recently around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Even if Shahin had called to kill only Israelis -- which was not what happened: he said Jews, not Israelis or Zionists -- that exhortation would have remained unacceptable. In fact, many prominent Islamic scholars argue that even if the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not exist, hating Jews would remain an Islamic duty. Sheikh Mohamed Hussein Yacoub explained this view; he said that if the Jews left Palestine to Muslims, we would continue to hate them because they are infidels and the descendants of monkeys and pigs.
Some could argue that only Salafists and Wahhabis are anti-Semitic; unfortunately not.
The "moderate" Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the world's center of Sunni learning (where Shahin earned a BA in Islamic studies), awarded a PhD with honors in 1971 to the blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Abdel-Rahman's PhD thesis title was "The Quran's position from its adversaries as envisaged by Surat Al-Tawbah (repentance)". He wrote about the Jews and Christians as enemies of Islam. According to his thesis, their crimes were that they do not believe in Islam; therefore they should be fought.
Another leading figure of Al-Azhar University, Dr. Soad Salah, the former dean of the Islamic Studies department for women, talked on television about the concept of sex slaves ("malek al-yameen"). In 2014, on her show, The Woman's Fiqh, she said that Muslims have the right to enjoy sex slaves when Muslims conquer non-Muslims. She informed her viewers that, "If we [Egyptians] fought Israel and won, we have the right to enslave and enjoy sexually the Israeli women that we would capture in the war." She chose Israel as an easy target for hatred, to convince her audience that malek al-yameen -- that is, rape -- is a legitimate practice.
In short, what the Egyptian-American Imam Ammar Shahin repeated is simply what he learned at Al-Azhar. The US should look more in depth at what Al-Azhar teaches, before it allows more Azhar graduates to spread their radical ideology.
If we want to be honest, we need to acknowledge that what recently happened in California was just a glimpse of the anti-Semitism that is widespread in many parts of the Muslim world. Young Muslims who become radicalized by an idea do not care if it comes from California, Cairo or Mecca, so long as a credible Islamic scholar says it. Therefore, the only solution to counter the growing threat of radical Islamism is to expose these imams and support the reformers.
Maher Gabra is an Arab Egyptian specializing in the Middle East and the ideology of political Islam.