WASHINGTON — The Anti-Defamation League last week issued an unusual retraction and apology for suggesting that Islam’s declaration of faith, the Shahada, is an “expression of hate” that is “closely identified” with terrorism.
The ADL did not apologize, however, for suggesting that Muslim students at the University of California, Irvine, who wore stoles carrying their declaration of faith at a graduation ceremony last week, did so to express support for terrorists.
Other Jewish groups that issued condemnations for Irvine’s Muslim students declined to retract the condemnations, although staffers at these organizations acknowledged privately that the denunciations were based on wrong information and on a misunderstanding of a basic tenet of Islam.
The dispute, which followed a year of strained relations between Jewish and Muslim students on campus, erupted after Jewish students learned that UCI Muslim students were planning on wearing green stoles with the Shahada in the graduation processional. The Jewish students apparently thought that their Muslim colleagues were planning on wearing sashes that glorify suicide bombers. Alarmed, they asked the university’s administration to intervene.
UCI’s administration, after an investigation, was satisfied that the stoles carried no message of hate. A dozen out of some 4,000 graduates wore the stoles to the graduation ceremony.
The controversial stoles — similar to ones worn by hundreds of Muslim students in graduation ceremonies in American universities in recent years — in fact bore no text or symbol that glorifies terrorists. They had, on one side, a decorative, star-shaped Arabic calligraphy saying: “God, increase my knowledge.” On the other side, they had the text of the Muslim Shahada, the “testimony,” which is known as the first tenet of Islam, and says: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is Allah’s prophet.” Every Muslim is obligated to repeat that testimony many times a day in order to express and strengthen his or her belief.
Jewish activists, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Jewish groups overreacted because of a linguistic mistake originally made by pro-Israel students on campus. The Jewish students heard that the stoles had the word “shahada” on them. That word, in Arabic, has two meanings. It denotes the testimony of faith, but it also denotes the action of becoming a “martyr” while fighting for Islam. In Palestinian society, the word shahada often is used to describe the fate of Palestinians who die in attacks on Israelis or in confrontations with Israelis.
The Jewish students notified the local offices of the ADL and the American Jewish Congress that the Muslim student union was calling on its members to wear arm bands and head bands, similar to the ones that Palestinian Islamist terrorists often wear, which carry a text glorifying suicide bombers. A local Orange County newspaper also wrongly described the stoles as bearing the word “shahada.” The ADL and AJCongress, as well as the Zionist Organization of America, launched a campaign blasting the Muslim students and criticizing the UCI administration for not taking a position against the wearing of the stoles. At the encouragement of activists with Jewish groups, Fox News’s nationally televised show “The O’Reilly Factor” devoted segments to the controversy on two consecutive nights.
Following complaints from Muslim organizations regarding the ADL’s reference to the Shahada as being an expression of hate, the ADL issued a “clarification” saying that the organization “is respectful of the Shahada, the Muslim Declaration of Faith, which is expressed by millions of Muslims around the world.” The statement also said: “It was never our intent to offend anyone, and we apologize to those who took offense.” But the ADL, in its revised statement, still insists that the Shahada “has been closely identified with Palestinian terrorists” and therefore its public display by the students makes the ADL “deeply troubled.”
AJCongress, which did not change its statement after it was made clear that the Muslim students were not displaying hate-filled messages, wrongly referred to the controversial word as “shahida” and wrongly translated it as “suicide bomber.” The erroneous statement, prominently posted on the AJCongress Web site, still had not been changed at presstime.
Myrna Scheinbaum, a spokeswoman for the ADL, said the apology was issued “after we looked at our first statement and we realized it wasn’t crafted as well as it could have been.” She acknowledged that the inaccurate statement initially published by the ADL’s Orange County office owed to the local staff’s misunderstanding of what the Shahada was. She insisted, however, that the Muslim students should not have worn the stoles, because in the eyes of many, particularly the Jews, these stoles too closely resemble the green banners that radical Islamists, including Hamas terrorists, often wear.
A spokesman for AJCongress declined to return calls regarding the group’s statement.
The national president of the Zionist Organization of America, Morton Klein, whose organization sent letters to the UCI’s administration and to local elected officials demanding that they “prohibit this outrageous and immoral conduct,” said that the ZOA sees no need to retract or apologize. He explained that UCI’s students should have shown more sensitivity to what many find as offensive.
Jewish groups pointed out that the incident of the stoles came at the end of a very tense school year on Irvine’s campus between Jews and Muslims. Jewish students opposed a number of speakers invited to UCI by the Muslim student council, who the Jewish students said expressed support for anti-Israeli terrorism. Muslim students were outraged when someone recently torched a model of Israel’s West Bank security wall that the Muslim students displayed as an expression of protest.
The Jewish groups’ reaction to the stoles incident was denunciated by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. A spokesman for CAIR, Ibrahim Hooper, said that because of “ignorance and haste,” Jewish groups “found themselves with egg on their face.”
Juan Cole, a University of Michigan expert on Islam who sharply condemned the Jewish groups on his Internet “blog,” said in an interview that the incident is yet another case showing that many American Jews “are reading Islam through the prism of Israeli-Gaza relations in the last 20 years,” rather than as a religion of hundreds of millions of people worldwide “that existed for 1,400 years.” It is regrettable, he said, that Jewish groups that fought for the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion in America, have so hastily taken action to deny such freedoms from the Muslim students at UCI.