Hudson County’s interfaith leaders and heads of the Islamic Center of Jersey City (ICJC) have taken strong steps to reprimand an Egyptian-born imam who made repeated anti-Semitic comments from his pulpit, including referring to Jews as “apes and pigs.”
Sheikh Aymen Elkasaby apologized for his hateful rhetoric on Dec. 14 in a meeting with interfaith leaders, but only after he was suspended from clerical duties for a month without pay and ordered to undergo training “with imams with more interreligious experience,” according to a statement by Ahmed Shedeed, president of the ICJC.
The Hudson County Brotherhood/Sisterhood Association issued a statement on Dec. 25 declaring Elkasaby’s language to be “inflammatory” because it “demonized a group of people.” The association disavowed “unconditionally any and all statements that denigrate people or that advocate violence against any person.”
According to the statement, ICJC leaders, which included its president, Ahmed Shedeed, met with Elkasaby, Jewish, and Christian clergy at Temple Beth-El in Jersey City on Dec. 14, and again at the Islamic Center with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders on Dec. 21. At both meetings, Elkasaby apologized and “unequivocally denounced violence,” according to the statement.
The statement also said ICJC, the Brotherhood/Sisterhood Association, and other faith leaders are implementing “an educational program to address issues of engaging and promoting religious diversity and pluralism.”
There are two reported instances of Elkasaby’s hateful rhetoric from the pulpit. On Dec. 8, Elkasaby told worshippers that he prayed for Allah to “wreak vengeance” on the “Jewish oppressors” of the Temple Mount, and “kill them down to the very last one.” In a prior speech, on Nov. 24, the imam accused “the enemies of Islam — the Jews and their subordinates from among the Muslim rule” of murdering 300 people in an attack on a Sufi mosque in the Sinai Peninsula; although no group has claimed responsibility for the rampage, most reports have attributed it to the Islamic State.
Mohammad Ali Chaudry, president of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge and one of the most influential of the state’s Muslim leaders, told NJJN he was “absolutely shocked and in disbelief that even in this day and age these kinds of statements can be made.
“No matter where it comes from and no matter who it is directed at, hateful speech and bigotry are not things we Muslims will keep silent about.”
Chaudry’s words were echoed by Shedeed in a Dec. 18 letter posted on the ICJC website.
“A true Muslim who believes in the scriptures would never call for the genocide of any people let alone the children of Israel, or denigrate people whose sacred history is the Muslim’s sacred history,” Shedeed wrote.
He promised that mosque leaders would investigate other incidents of Elkasaby’s inflammatory rhetoric and added, “I acknowledge, as does Imam Elkasaby, that there are people who commit violence in the name of Islam as there are people who commit violence in the name of other religions. We stand in opposition to the use of religious texts to justify violence against any people.”
Rabbi Robert Scheinberg of the United Synagogue of Hoboken said that Elkasaby was contrite at the Dec. 14 meeting at Beth-El and displayed “a willingness to learn and build bridges.”
“What the imam said in his sermons was terrible,” Scheinberg told NJJN. “It is heartening that he has expressed regret and apologized and that the Islamic Center has also agreed that what he said was dangerous and inappropriate.”
The Conservative rabbi noted that the imam comes from “a different cultural context,” and he needs to “understand interfaith relations and be able to share the commitments to interfaith cooperation that have been the hallmark of the Islamic Center of Jersey City.”
In a letter emailed to his congregants, Scheinberg praised Shedeed for being “alarmed by the content of the sermon and responsive to our concerns,” and wrote that the interfaith community is “striving to turn this crisis into an opportunity to fight extremism and to promote interreligious tolerance.”
Rabbi Naomi Kalish of Hoboken has been involved in interfaith community work since the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Although she was not present at the meetings, she told NJJN she was “cautiously optimistic” with the ICJC’s plans for the imam’s re-education.
She said she was “pleased they are taking the situation so seriously and that they really wanted to get at the heart of issue of how we communicate and how we disagree and how we can be good partners and don’t speak in ways that are inflammatory.”
Meetings of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian leaders are expected to continue on a regular basis to promote dialogue, as well as to monitor Elkasaby’s rehabilitation. A statewide interfaith conference will be held with the imam and other religious leaders on March 11.
Scheinberg called the Muslim community’s actions “a beginning, not an ending.”
“There is more work to be done,” he said. “Whatever the ultimate result, I am confident that the presence of interfaith relationships in our community will make for a stronger, healthier, and safer outcome.”