A Davis imam is under fire after giving a sermon last week that combined end-of-days prophecy with the current religious conflict over a Jerusalem holy site, causing critics to condemn him as anti-Semitic.
Imam Ammar Shahin on Friday gave a nearly hour-long sermon to worshippers at the Islamic Center of Davis calling for congregants to oppose restrictions placed by Israel on the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and citing Islamic texts about an end-times battle predicted by the prophet Muhammad.
The sermon included a prayer to Allah to “destroy those who closed the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” according to the translation from the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which first posted an edited clip of the sermon.
Shahin’s prayer continued, “count them one by one and annihilate them down to the very last one.”
The Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City is one of the holiest sites in Islam and part of the Temple Mount complex, significant to all three Abrahamic religions.
The silver-domed mosque, for decades a controversial site, became a political flashpoint on July 14 when two Israeli police officers were killed by Arab gunmen there. All three Palestinian gunmen were also killed.
In response, Israel put metal detectors and increased security at the mosque, setting off massive protests and violence. Some Muslims view the Israeli measures as a violation of the pact governing the site.
The metal detectors were removed Monday, but violent clashes continue.
The clip of Shanin’s sermon was publicized on right-wing Breitbart news Monday and also was featured on The Jerusalem Post website.
Officials at the Islamic Center of Davis responded to the controversy over the sermon with a series of statements defending Shahin, who has been its imam for four years.
On Tuesday, mosque leadership said the mosque “will always stand against anti-Semitism, similarly to how the Jewish community has always stood against Islamophobia in our close-knit community.”
The mosque’s statement said Shanin’s comments were misquoted, edited and mistranslated by MEMRI, which it described as “an extremist agenda-driven organization that supports Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.”
Steven Stalinsky, executive director of MEMRI, disputed that his organization was partisan or that the translation was flawed.
“There is nothing wrong with the translation,” said Stalinsky. “Unfortunately what we translated is not pretty. It’s very anti-Semitic.”
Asked to review the MEMRI translation, University of California, Berkeley, Near East professor Hatem Bazian said it missed nuanced distinctions.
Bazian said a part of the speech translated as “liberate the Al-Aqsa mosque from the filth of the Jews” was more correctly translated as “the defilement of the Jews,” which Bazian said changed its meaning to reflect on the “sacred” nature of the site as opposed to a remark on the Jewish people themselves.
Bazian also cited other instances where he disputed the exact translation. Nonetheless, he said he thought the sermon was “problematic” because it combined apocalyptic religious passages with the violence currently happening in Jerusalem.
“It’s not helpful to try to describe contemporary issues, difficult as they may be, with that language,” said Bazian. “Bringing theology into politics, it requires what you call a very sophisticated approach.”
The Davis mosque leadership agreed with that view but said Shanin’s sermon was being taken out of context.
“Prophetic traditions addressing the end of times are not meant to address modern conflicts, the Imam was using the tradition to address unity and coming back to faith,” its statement read. “During these emotional times, it’s important for all parties to use restrained language and maintain respect.”
The Davis mosque has itself been the target of at least two recent hate crimes. In June, Davis resident Lauren Kirk-Coehlo was sentenced to five years of probation for vandalizing the mosque by wrapping bacon around its door handles, breaking windows and slashing bicycle seats. In a separate incident in June, ripped pages of a Quran were thrown from a moving car in front of the mosque.
Elsewhere in the region, a container filled with lard and a defiled copy of the Quran, Islam’s holy book, were mailed earlier this month to the Sacramento Valley chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations. Last month, a burned Quran laced with bacon was handcuffed to a chain link fence outside of Sacramento’s largest mosque, the Masjid Annur Islamic Center.