An Open Letter to the Elmhurst College Community
My name is Dexter Van Zile.
I write to you from the offices of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) where I work as an analyst. For information about CAMERA, please see our website, https://www.camera.org/. I write to you about a talk scheduled to take place at Elmhurst College on Friday April 15, 2016.
The talk will be given by Mustafa Abu Sway, a Muslim scholar who serves as dean of the College of Islamic Studies at Al Quds University in Jerusalem. He also serves as an Imam at Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and is a member of the Islamic Waqf that manages the Haram Al Sharif or the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
Abu Sway is a prominent figure in the dialogue between Palestinian Muslims and Christians in Europe and North America. He was educated at Bethlehem University, a Catholic-run school in the West Bank and Boston College, a Jesuit institution located in Massachusetts. Abu Sway is a fluent dialogue partner with Christians in the West. He is knowledgeable about Islam and knows how to tell his story to English speakers from North America and Europe.
The title of Abu Sway’s talk is “Spirituality in an Age of Violence: Al-Ghazali’s Relevance Today.” Al-Ghazali, a Sufi mystic who wrote in the 11th century, is one of the most prominent figures in Islamic thought. Abu Sway’s talk promises to be very fruitful and interesting for those who attend.
Nevertheless, as a fellow Christian and a former member of the United Church of Christ, (the denomination to which Elmhurst College is affiliated), I challenge both students and faculty to prepare themselves for Abu Sway’s appearance so as to protect themselves and their colleagues from being misinformed.
To put it as diplomatically as possible, the man who will be speaking on your campus next month has misinformed Western listeners about the status of non-Muslims in Muslim-majority environments and has egregiously downplayed the hateful rhetoric emanating from Al Aqsa Mosque, which he helps oversee. He has also obscured the hostility exhibited toward Jews in the Koran.
This should not disqualify Abu Sway from speaking at Elmhurst College, but it should prompt students and faculty members at the school to prepare themselves for his presentation. There are certain things people should know before he arrives and there are certain questions they should be prepared to ask him after his talk.
Abu Sway should be listened to with all the courtesy due an invited guest and he should be questioned with kindness, but he should be listened to closely and he should be questioned directly.
Here are a few examples of Abu Sway’s tendency to misinform his audiences about the crucial issues facing Muslims today.
In a video shown to attendees at the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference held earlier this month, Abu Sway asserted that “We never, we never, I can tell you we never taught our kids to hate.” (I cannot provide you an online link to this video, but was in attendance and I watched the video. That’s what he said.)
Abu Sway was responding to a question from CATC conference director Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac from the Bethlehem Bible College. Isaac had asked Abu Sway about the problem of hateful Friday sermons and anti-Israel incitment in Palestinian society, which sadly enough, has been a persistent problem for decades. (This video interview between Abu Sway and Isaac was shown at the CATC conference on the morning of March 8, 2016).
By asserting that Palestinians “never” taught their children to hate, Abu Sway was asking his audience to ignore the mountains of evidence collected by the organizations such as Palestinian Media Watch (PMW) and the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) that expose hostility toward Jews and Israel on Palestinian (and Arab) television shows throughout the region.
It is common knowledge that children’s television shows broadcast on both Hamas– and Palestinian Authority-controlled stations have promoted hostility and hatred toward Jews and Israel. In some instances, these shows encourage young Palestinians to engage in acts of violence against Jews. To make matters worse, PA President Mahmoud Abbas himself has used ugly anti-Jewish rhetoric to unite his people and maintain power.
Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac should have challenged Abu Sway in a more direct manner about this issue. On April 15, 2016, students and faculty at Elmhurst College have an opportunity to do what Rev. Dr. Isaac did not: confront him about the problem of anti-Israel incitement in Palestinian television. He simply cannot be given a pass on this issue.
Mustafa Abu Sway has also been less than forthcoming about the issue of incitement at Al Aqsa Mosque, which has been promoting hostility toward Israel and Jews for quite some time. As a member of the Islamic Waqf Council in Jerusalem, Abu Sway should be quite familiar with the problem.
Nevertheless, in an interview at Duke University posted on Youtube in February 2015, Abu Sway stated “When we talk with youngsters, violence is not part of the picture and I say that our own lo
cal mosque, the Grand Mosque, the Al Aqsa Mosque, the narrative that comes from the pulpit is a decent, moderate narrative.”
Abu Sway has given himself some wiggle room when he limits his discussion to what comes from the “pulpit” at Al Aqsa Mosque, but the reality is that the mosque, which Abu Sway helps manage, has been used to incite hostility toward Jews and Israel for a long time. And sometimes, this hostility comes from the pulpit itself.
Contrary to what Mustafa Abu Sway reports, Al Aqsa Mosque is, in the words of Steve Stalinsky from MEMRI, an “extremist megaphone” that proffers a “steady stream of calls for jihad and martyrdom, venomous attacks on Jews, Christians and other non-Muslims, and praise for al Qaeda, Islamic State, or ISIS, and other jihadist groups.” Stalinsky adds that “Calls for the destruction of the U.S. and the West, including promises that Islam will take over the world, are other common themes [preached at the mosque].”
There are a number of well-documented statements that justify this assessment. In 2010, for example, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Ahmed Hussein, gave a sermon in the mosque itself in which he declared that the Jews are the “enemies of Allah.” (Palestinian Media Watch has an entire page devoted to Hussein’s incitement. I ask you to read it.)
The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem is not the only source of anti-Israel incitement at the Al Aqsa Mosque. In May 2014 there was a rally in support of Hizb Al-Tahrir, (a pan-Islamist organization) on the Temple Mount during which speakers (who were standing on a balcony of the mosque itself) addressed a huge crowd calling on them to liberate Al Aqsa Mosque from Israel and “the filth of the Jews.”
A few months later, in October 2014, Sheik Omar Abu Sara gave an impromptu speech in Al Asqsa Mosque lamenting that his fellow Muslims “could not even agree on liberating Jerusalem from the defilement of the Jews.”
And in a speech given in Al Aqsa in November, the same sheik described the Jews as “the masters of all vile traits” and that these traits were “registered in the Koran.” He continued: “I say to the Jews loud and clear: The time for your slaughter has come.” He also prayed that Allah “hasten the day for the slaughter of the Jews.” Readers who watch the video to the end will discover that he had an audience of several dozen people who said “amen” when he called for the destruction of the Jews.
Later that month, another speaker at the mosque, Ali Abu Ahmad, asked Allah to establish a caliphate that will liberate Jerusalem from the Jews and to annihilate the United States.
And on January 16, 2015, the same sheik defended the attacks in Paris that took place earlier that month.
These statements indicate that Al Aqsa Mosque is not the source of a “decent, moderate” narrative as Abu Sway reports. It is a font of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish hate.
Sheik Khaled al-Mughrabi
These sermons and statements were all made before Abu Sway’s interview at Duke University was posted online in February 2015.
Since then, there have been some very ugly sermons given in the mosque. For example, in June 2015, Sheik Khaled al-Mughrabi gave a lesson (broadcast on Al Aqsa’s Youtube channel) in which he invoked the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to prove that the Jews plan on conquering the world, beginning with the Al Aqsa Mosque. This same sheik has also accused Jews of making matzah bread with the blood of children, of practicing human sacrifice and of worshipping the devil. Al-Mughrabi has been arrested twice for incitement and has recently been sentenced to 11 months in jail for fomenting religious hatred toward Jews.
The upshot is this: By portraying Al Aqsa Mosque — where antisemitic and anti-Israel invective has been broadcast for years — as a place where “a decent, moderate narrative” is heard from the pulpit, Mustafa Abu Sway downplayed a huge obstacle to peace between Israelis and Palestinians. If you were an Israeli Jew, how would you respond to the use of Al Aqsa Mosque as a font for this hostility? And how would you respond to Abu Sway’s efforts to downplay the problem?
Mustafa Abu Sway has also downplayed the difficult issue of relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, which is one of the crucial obstacles to the pursuit of peace and human rights in the Middle East. He did this in an “article about Hamas” published in 2015 by Al-Zaytouna Center for Studies and Consultations” headquartered in Lebanon. In this article, Sway deceptively portrays Hamas’ well-documented hostility toward Jews as a deviation from normative Muslim theology and scripture.
To this end, Sway writes that the Koran affirms the oneness of humanity and that “almost everything else is a ‘social’ construct, including colonial anthropological racial categories.” The Koran, Sway reports, declares different skin colors “as positive signs from Allah” and “invites people to celebrate these differences. No one is superior because of her genome.”
The problem is that Hamas does not root its hostility toward Jews and Israel in any racial concept, but in theology and scripture. Hamas does not hate Jews because of the color of their skin, but because of their religious identity. And sadly enough, the Koran (and other sources within Islam, most notably the hadiths and the biography of Mohammed), provide substantial warrant for this hostility and a belief in Muslim supremacism.
Islamic supremacism over Jews is rooted in the Muslim doctrine that Allah cursed the Jews for their unbelief, disobedience and for distorting scripture handed to them from heaven. (They are also cursed for asserting that they killed Jesus.) The Koran is filled with anti-Jewish invective and curses.
For example, Sura 2:88 states that Allah has cursed the Jews because of their unbelief. And sura 5:64 of the Koran states “The Jews say: Allah’s hand is fettered. Their hands are fettered and they are cursed for saying so.” And the well-known sura of 9:29 calls upon Muslims to fight against “those who have been given the scripture” but “who believe not in Allah nor the last day” until they pay tribute or thejizyah.
This Koranic call to force Jews
(and Christians) to submit to Islamic supremacism has historically manifested itself in the well-documented oppression of Jews in Muslim-majority environments.
“People of the Book”
Shariah, or Islamic law, Sway reports in the study, “treats Jews as People of the Book, who have their own rules and precepts, including citizenship, protection andfull civil rights.” (Emphasis added.)
In another article, Abu Sway reports that “Islam softens the otherness of Jews and Christians qua ‘People of the Book, and entrenches their rights in the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet. Respecting the right of the Jew and Christian to freedom of religion is an Islamic imperative (Qur’an, 2:256).”
The reality is vastly different from what Abu Sway reports. First off, Sura 2:256(which says that there is no compulsion in religion)came early on in Mohammad’s career, was abrogated by other passages in the Koran which came later in Mohammad’s life.
These passages, too numerous to recount, assert Islam’s supremacy over other religions, most notably Christianity and Judaism. Theyare much more hostile than Sura 2:256.
On the larger point of minority rights under Islam, no one with the slightest knowledge about the status of Jews (and Christians) in Muslim-majority environments can honestly ignore the mistreatment they endured as a result of their religious identity.
Under Islamic law (orShariah) extolled by Sway, Jews and Christians (who are referred to as “dhimmis”) are not allowed to build their homes or houses of worship higher than those of their Muslim neighbors.
In many instances Jews were forced to wear insignias denoting their status as non-Muslims and were forced to wear bells in public baths. They were forbidden to ride horses or camels because these animals were considered noble and therefore reserved only for Muslims.
Muslims who murdered Jews were given a less severe punishment than if they had murdered a fellow Muslim. And when Jews walked in the street in Muslim-ruled territories, they were expected to give way to Muslims. They could not testify against Muslims in court. By accepting these rules, Christians and Jews, obtained “protected status.”
In order to maintain this status, Jews and Christians were also historically required to pay a poll tax (jizyah) for the privilege of practicing their faith.
Scholar Mark Durie reports that collection of this tax took place in a ceremony during which the Muslim ruler would ritually strike the people paying the tax on the neck or head with a sword to remind them that they were paying for the privilege of keeping their head on their shoulders. The goal was to humiliate and debase the people who refused to convert to Islam.
As part of the “treaty of protection” (ordhimma, from which the word “dhimmi” is derived) between Muslim rulers and subject populations, non-Muslims promised not to agitate for freedom and equality in the countries they lived in.
Dhimmis who agitated for equality and freedom lost the protection afforded to them by this treaty and became legitimate targets of violence, or jihad. When Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrian Christians agitated for their rights in the Ottoman Empire in the late 1800s, they were massacred in huge numbers. Muslim anger over the improved status of Christians in the Anatolian Peninsula was also a factor in the Armenian Genocide that cost 1.5 million people their lives between 1915 and 1922.
The upshot is that whatever rights Jews (and Christians) had under this “treaty of protection” did not inhere in their status as human beings, but were accorded to them by Muslim rulers and as such, could be withdrawn at their whim. This placed Jews and Christians in a precarious situation in Muslim countries where they were the low-cost, no-cost targets of discrimination, abuse, violence and murder. This reality can be seen throughout the Middle East.
Abu Sway’s assertion that Jews enjoy “full civil rights” under Shariah is simply false. Clearly, Mustafa Abu Sway needs to be challenged on the issue of relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.
This is not to say that responsibility for the problems I described above needs to be singularly placed on Mustafa Abu Sway’s shoulders. He is just one man, and compared to other Muslim leaders who have inveighed against the Jews in Al Aqsa Mosque, Abu Sway is a “moderate.” Nevertheless, he does need to be challenged on his tendency to downplay the challenges facing Islam today if for no other reason than to live up to Elmhurst’s obligations as an institution of higher learning.
Elmhurst College describes its mission as preparing its students for meaningful and ethical work in a “multicultural, global society.” It declares that its core values include “intellectual excellence,” “community,” “social responsibility,” and “faith, meaning and values.” It also declares that it is committed to “honest and open communication, and fairness and integrity in all that we do.”
If the Elmhurst community remains true to these commitments, it will be well equipped to challenge Mustafa Abu Sway about his previous statements to Western audiences in an irenic, kind, and courageous manner.
Clearly, honest and open communication is desperately needed. As I prepare to broadcast this letter to the Elmhurst community, numerous outlets report that that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has declared that ISIS is committing genocide against Christians, Yazidis and Shia Muslims.
Hopefully, this will result in the pursuit of political, diplomatic and military policies that will prevent the ongoing destruction and oppression of these (and other) people groups in the Middle East. The struggle to prevent the physical destruction of people groups in the Middle East will likely be a primary topic of discussion for the next several years, decades even.
As this struggle takes place, there will hopefully be a sea change in how Islam is taught and practiced in the Middle East (and the rest of the world). Such a change needs to happen if there is to be peace.
Islam is not unique in facing these challenges. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Christian theologians struggled to re-interpret their scriptures and traditional understanding of the Jewish people. They came to grips with the anti-Judaic polemics in the New Testament and the history of Christian antisemitism. They did not evade the issue, but confronted it head-on. The struggle continues today.
While Christians are largely outsiders to the struggle taking place within Islam about its relation to the non-Muslim world, this does not mean they can be bystanders to this struggle. The Koran says some very specific things about how Jews and Christians are to be treated in Muslim-majority environments, as do other sources of authority within the Muslim faith.
The people who attend Mustafa Abu Sway’s presentation at
Elmhurst College have a unique opportunity to confront the scholar about his previous statements. As intellectuals, they have an obligation to do so in light of current history.
May it be so.