September 1, 2017 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 133

American Muslims Should Expose And Challenge Hate Preaching And Radical Imams

September 1, 2017 | By Mansour Al-Hadj*
Saudi Arabia | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 133

Imam Ammar Shahin

In a YouTube video[1]dated August 2013, a young-looking man using the nickname Abu Hafs passionately recited an Arabic jihadi poem in a deep and determined voice, shouting the following lines: "My brother in Allah tell me, when will you be enraged? Lend us your cannons for a day, not your tears. Lend them to us and stay in your places." When I looked closely, I recognized that person. He was Ammar Shahin, the California-based imam who said recently that he has "spent his entire time in religious service helping Muslims, especially young Muslims, have a healthy understanding of their faith, a healthy understanding of Islam that is free of extremism and hate." To me, this was alarming.

More alarming though, besides Shahin's recent antisemitic remarks[2] and calls for the annihilation of all the Jews,[3] is his ongoing preaching of radicalism and intolerance in his lectures and study groups, teaching books such as "The Three Principles"[4] and "The Book of Monotheism"[5] authored by Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab,[6] whose works are the ideological source of modern-day jihadi movements and Islamic terrorism. These are the same books the Islamic State (ISIS) has used in its schools to radicalize children, recruit fighters, and justify the killing of non-Muslims as well as the killing of Muslims deemed apostates, including Sufis, Shi'ites, Ahmadis, and others. These are the same books by the lethal and hateful ideology of which I was indoctrinated and turned into a radical at a young age in Saudi Arabia where I was born and brought up. It is quite disturbing that this imam is the person the members of the Muslim community in Davis, California, have chosen and trusted to be their religious leader and the role model for their children.

Going over dozens of videos of Imam Shahin's sermons, lectures, and speeches on YouTube, it is clear that he is too radical to be the one "helping Muslims have a healthy understanding of Islam that is free of extremism and hate." In fact, Shahin's views and understanding of Islam have more in common with the views of extremist groups whose members hate non-Muslims, including Christians and Jews, and who consider the followers of other sects to be apostates. The Muslim community in California should expose Imam Shahin, challenge his radical views and replace him with a moderate whose vision is compatible with American values and principles.

Though it is commendable that Shahin offered his apology[7] for the hateful prayers that he lead, it is very difficult to believe that it was his emotions, as he stated, that were responsible for his antisemitic sentiment. It was clear that Shahin did not apologize for the content of his prayer, which is often recited by imams around the world including in the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. He may have never condemned these hateful prayers that he grew up hearing and approving.

In his apology statement, Shahin said: "To the Jewish community here in Davis and beyond, I say this deeply, I am deeply sorry for the pain I have caused... I do understand now how words were hurtful and I am sorry. I understand that speech like this can encourage others to do hateful and violent acts. For this I truly apologize." Going over his videos, I was not shocked when I found that Shahin had expressed similar sentiments against Jews in the past that make it reasonable to question his explanation. In a YouTube video posted on June 2013, he expressed his desire "to get rid of the Jews with no war of jihad."[8] 

What type of help was Shahin providing when he passionately asked Muslims to be enraged and borrow cannons in a jihadi poem that mocks peaceful protesters who shed tears and express moral support, and asked them, in later lines, if they are afraid of being called terrorists?

There is an enormous difference between hurting people's feelings in a sudden outburst of rage and believing in and teaching religious concepts that degrade, discriminate against, and demonize the same people. The blame should not be directed toward his emotions but rather toward the actual verses of the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad that are filled with hate for the Jews and the Christians and which promote and justify the use of violence against them.

It would be a more meaningful apology if Shahin could deliver a Friday sermon exclusively addressing controversial verses from the Quran and passages from the hadith and explain to Muslims that they are irrelevant in our time. It would be even better to condemn historical atrocities committed by the prophet and his companions against the Jews that are usually used by jihadi groups to justify terror attacks against groups and individuals deemed infidels, apostates, and polytheists.

I also doubt that teaching them the most radical form of Islam will help young Muslims have "a healthy understanding of their faith." In the same video mentioned above, Shahin taught his audience the conditions for deeming a Muslim an infidel as described in Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab's "Book of Monotheism." Recently,[9] at the Islamic center of Davis, Shahin finished teaching another book promoting radical Islam written by Abd Al-Wahhab titled "The Book Of The Three Principles." On August 31, 2017, ISIS's Al-Himma Library distributed electronic versions of the same book in many languages. In the book, Abd Al-Wahhab stressed that Muslims are required to make hijra (migration) from the land of polytheism, a term used widely by jihadis to describe all non-Muslim countries, to the land of Islam. This ruling, according to Abd Al-Wahhab, is relevant until Judgement Day. This specific ruling has been used repeatedly by ISIS to recruit foreign fighters from all over the world. Lately, when ISIS started losing on the ground, it stopped calling on Muslims to come to Syria and Iraq and instead encouraged them to carry out terrorist attacks in their homelands. The infamous statement by slain ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani that the group uses in almost all of its videos celebrating lone-wolf style attacks in the West goes: "If the tyrants shut the doors for immigration (hijra) in your faces, open the door of jihad in their faces and let them regret their action." In addition, the book also states that those who do not believe in resurrection are considered kuffar (infidels) and that the duty of performing physical jihad is no different than worshiping Allah by praying and fasting.

On August 31, 2017, ISIS's Al-Himma Library distributed electronic versions of Abd Al-Wahhab's book in many languages.

Instead of teaching peace, tolerance, and understanding, Shahin encourages disintegration and promotes intolerance. Addressing a group of young Muslims in a mosque in January 2013,[10] Imam Shahin stressed the "us-vs-them" narrative by saying: "The problem is that we are trying so much to look like or resemble the non-Muslims in many things. In the way we dress, in the way we talk, in the way we walk, in the way the hair style, everything, that it will come to a level where there is no difference between us and them, there is no difference between you and non-Muslims, why?" In the same lecture, Shahin went on to tell the audience that having a girlfriend is haram (forbidden). To those who would feel embarrassed to cite religious reasons for not having girlfriends, he said: "You have to be very clear and say 'Because my Deen [religion] says no. Because Allah and his prophet said no.' You are different because of your deen [religion]. Nothing else. Or else we could be from the same country but we are not the same. We could be neighbors but we are not the same. I could be me and another brother who came from way in the East or the West and we love each other for the sake of Allah because what gathered us together is Allah is La Ilaha Illa Allah [There is no God but Allah]." In the same video, Shahin went on to criticize Sufi Muslims and accused them of being mentally ill and heroin addicts.

Imam Shahin not only teaches American Muslims a radical version of Islam, he also promotes an unscientific understanding of female biology. In a February 2014 video posted by Davis Masjid titled "Islamic Brotherhood/Sisterhood,"[11] Shahin said: "When women get excited or scared they go through their period."

Examining Shahin's views about democracy, the U.S. Constitution, and the decision-making process, it is clear that he has no respect for any of them. In fact, he thinks that the hate-filled, ill-organized, and contradicting books called Sahih Al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, which are the two main hadith compilations, should be more sacred and respected than the U.S. Constitution, which promotes and respects basic human rights for all people. His November 2016 Friday sermon[12] clearly shows that the man lacks basic knowledge about the relationship between the Constitution and legislation. He said: "They are talking about people getting deported, if they want to do that, they will do it. Who cares if it is against the Constitution?" I would understand if this statement came from a brainwashed imam from the Middle East who is not aware that the Constitution matters and that President Trump's recent travel ban on six Muslim nations was blocked by federal judges on the grounds of it being unconstitutional. In the same sermon, Shahin went on to compare democracy and the Constitution to "idols that the infidels used to worship, which were made from dates." He then mocked those who believe in democracy, which he apparently rejects because it is a man-made system of government. This is the same justification that jihadi groups use to target countries that do not apply shari'a laws.

Understanding that in the U.S. people have freedom of expression, association, and speech, I do not advocate silencing Shahin. Instead, I am calling for American Muslims to expose imams like Shahin and publicly challenge their radical views and understanding of Islam. To me, while many of Shahin's statements were surprising, it was equally shocking that no one had called Shahin out while he was freely leading hateful prayers against Jews and expressing intolerance and lies against Sufis, ignorance about our democratic process and sexism about female biology. More shocking was that rather than condemnation, Muslim community leaders, scholars, and academics gave excuses about Shahin's remarks to the media. According to The Washington Post, Hamza El-Nakhal, who was described as "a longtime member of the Muslim community in Davis and a former president of the Islamic Center’s executive board," Imam Shahin "spoke while angry. He should not have given this sermon while angry." The Washington Post also cited Basim Elkarra, the executive director of the Sacramento chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, saying about Shahin's hateful sermon that "it was essential for 'people to realize words matter, words have consequences.'" Moreover, Nazir Harb Michel, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding in Arab and Islamic Studies, criticized MEMRI for highlighting Shahin's hate-filled sermons, saying that "the imam appears to have been very emotional in certain parts and probably did cross a line between talking about politics and talking about religion that would be offensive to many."[13]

American Muslims should understand that, unlike nations that live under authoritarian regimes that punish and imprison people for expressing their views and disapprove of some religious practices, they can express their disagreement with clerics and imam and the authorities will protect them against anyone who intends to harm them. American Muslims should be promoting the American version of Islam to Muslims around the world, not importing a radical version of Islam from Saudi Arabia.

Critics of individuals and institutions promoting moderate and peaceful interpretations of Islam often claim that the West intends to change the religion of Islam into something different than what it actually is. They believe that the West's condemnation of jihad, rejection of the Islamic concept of al-walaa wal-baraa (loyalty to the Muslims and rejection of non-Muslims), and disapproval of shari'a law are all manifestations of Islamophobia. These allegations have been repeated across the board by conservative, radical, and jihadi Muslims including leaders and operatives of ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Conservative Muslim organizations in the West frequently condemn critics of shari'a and accuse these critics of being Islamophobic, despite the fact that shari'a includes unjust laws and brutal punishments such as flogging, beheading, stoning, and throwing homosexuals off of high buildings, all of which go against basic human rights. Radical imams around the world have accused moderate scholars who promote a peaceful and tolerant version of Islam of being agents and puppets of the West. Speaking in a similar tone, in a recent video,[14] Khaled Batarfi, the senior commander of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) said: "the enemies of Allah have disfigured Islam into an Islam tailored and designed by America, into an Islam with no monotheism to Allah, without [the concept of] loyalty to the believers and enmity to the unbelief and the infidels, Islam with no jihad and martyrdom." Clearly, these conservative, radical, and jihadi Muslims are either in denial about or unaware of the horrors committed in the name of jihad, the violations of human rights associated with shari'a laws and punishments, and the danger of indoctrinating children to only be loyal to their coreligionists and to hate, distrust and antagonize the rest of the world. Or, worse than being in denial, they are in favor of all of these things.

Examining the situation of Muslims around the world today, in places where hatred and sectarianism have divided communities, where people are being killed for being Shi'ites, Sunnis, Sufis, or Ahmadis, and where traditional Islam has failed to unite people, it is obvious that they are in dire need of a new, peaceful, and tolerant version of Islam. Regardless of the persons, entities, or countries promoting this version, Muslims should support it and send their children to moderate Islamic schools and community centers. They should equally expose and challenge those imams who promote hate and violence. Any imam who encourages Muslims to be enraged, who urges them to carry cannons, who teaches from hateful books, and who calls for the annihilation of Jews is the last one American Muslims need to hire as a religious scholar. It is in the best interests of American Muslims, of their children, and of their children's future that they expose hateful and intolerant imams and challenge their radical understanding of Islam.

*Mansour Al-Hadj is the Director of the Reform in the Arab and Muslim World Project at MEMRI.


[1], August 30, 2017

[4], August 30, 2017.

[5], August 30, 2017.

[6] Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab (d. 1792), after whom Wahhabism is named, headed the 18th century fundamentalist and militant revival movement in what is today Saudi Arabia, drawing many principles from the doctrine of 13th century cleric Ibn Taymiyya.

[7], August 30, 2017.

[8], August 30, 2017.

[9], August 30, 2017.

[10], August 30, 2017.

[11], August 30, 2017.

[12], August 30, 2017.

[13], August 29, 2017

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