The Islamic Center of Raleigh held an open house last month, shortly after former University of North Carolina student Mohammed Taheri-azar slammed his SUV into students in revenge for, in his stated motive, the mistreatment of Muslims by America.
Although the Islamic center’s spokesman denied it, the open house was undoubtedly an attempt to improve the image of Islam in the aftermath of the campus violence. Thus in a television interview, the center’s spokesman, Hani Chohan, complained of Taheri-azar's attack that “[t]here was a lot of negativity around it. . . .We wanted to turn that into a positive and create a forum where people could come in and ask questions.”
To reinforce the point, the same television report highlighted a Christian couple who came to the open house for “understanding and dialogue,” saying that they did not know enough about Islam and wanted to be educated. And the center’s Imam, Mohamed Baianonie, expressed his wish that the message of Islam be portrayed as “the right message, peaceful message for all mankind.”
But the center’s youth director, Hisham Sarsour, has a different message. A former president of the Muslim Student Association (MSA) who was born in Jerusalem and educated at Columbia University, University of Wisconsin and the University of Southern California, Sarsour has a long record of making religiously divisive and anti-American statements.
According to a recording made available by the Investigative Project on Terrorism, Sarsour stated at the 7th-annual MSA West Conference in January 2005: “The failure in Iraq that we see is good for the world and good for the American people and good for the Muslims.” In fact, Sarsour expressed this theme twice, another version being, “From my perspective, the death of this government in Iraq is good for Muslim ummah, is good for the American people, is good for the world” (Ummah is a global family or body of Muslims.)
At the same conference, Sarsour argued that American efforts to support freedom in Iraq are “dumb.” Sarsour also stated that when the U.S. engages in surveillance and when Muslims are taken into custody, “[a] Christian public is very accepting of this,” so much so that persecution of Muslims is the “new religion of America.”
Far more charitable is Sarsour's view of terrorism -- particularly when it is directed against Israel and the United States. For example, Sarsour disapproves of the term “terrorist” for Palestinian suicide bombers. Instead, as Sarsour sees it, those Palestinians who fight against Israel are fighting “terrorists." As for the terrorists in Iraq, Sarsour seems to regard them as brave patriots guilty of nothing more than defending their homeland. He asks rhetorically, “What is a terrorist? How can we fight terrorism? If Iraq is defending its own country, its own people, its own being, its own heart, is this a terrorist?”
Currently, Sarsour serves as a consultant in his field of nuclear engineering, attending other kinds of conferences, such as a nuclear power reactor simulation symposium in Ontario, Canada in 2002.
Another individual who has worshipped at the Islamic Center of Raleigh is Magdy Mahmoud Mustafa el-Nashar, a suspect in the July 2005 London subway bombings. He was a chemical engineering graduate student at the University of North Carolina in the spring of 2000. (He returned to London after a semester.) Triacetone triperoxide (TATP), the chemical found in Richard Reid’s shoes, was found in his Leeds apartment in England.
After the London bombings, el-Nashar was arrested in Cairo. He was released last August for what Egyptian officials called “lack of evidence.” Sarsour confirmed el-Nashar’s attendance at the Islamic Center of Raleigh in 2000, but claimed that he had no close interactions with him, saying el-Nashar didn’t stand out and spoke mainly to other Egyptians.
Even so, the fact that both Sarsour and el-Nashar have called the Islamic Center of Raleigh home hardly supports the claim that its version of Islam is really the “peaceful message for all mankind." On the contrary, the center seems to welcome exactly the kind of hatred that drove Taheri-azar to his brutal attack. It will take a lot more than a few empty platitudes and an open house to dispel this image.
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