Washington Jewish Week / July 22, 2009
By Larry Luxner
A prominent Muslim group hoping to educate Americans about Islam claims it views anti-Semitism as "totally unacceptable." Yet series of advertisements it has placed on the sides of 50 municipal buses in the Washington, D.C., area directs the public to websites that vilify Jews and call for Israel's destruction.
WhyIslam, launched in 2008 by the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), lists a toll-free number and a website for people to obtain information about Islam. While the whyislam.org site itself is not offensive — in fact, it specifically calls for religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue — it links to the sites at least 20 organizations, including some like "Jews for Allah" that promote extreme anti-semitism and anti-Israel invective.
"The WhyIslam campaign is ostensibly an effort to clear up misperceptions and to educate the general public about Islam," said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), in a July 15 statement. "This endeavor would on its face appear to be the right thing to do."
Unfortunately, said Foxman, that positive effort is "tainted by the links to conspiratorial anti-Semitic material as resources."
Naeem Baig, a spokesman for ICNA, defended his organization and instead placed the blame on ADL for stirring up controversy unnecessarily.
"Everybody has a right to their opinions, and I believe ADL has its own agenda," the Pakistani-born activist said in a phone interview from ICNA's New York headquarters.
"We were really surprised when ADL came out with this press release," he told WJW. "I wish they had contacted us directly instead of coming up with this statement all of a sudden. That would have been more professional."
WhyIslam refers users to websites like IslamOnline, which according to the ADL is linked to a radical Qatar-based group that refers to Zionism as a "cancer." That group has repeatedly claimed that the close ties between the United States and Israel demonstrate their mutual desire to oppress Muslims.
In January 2008, according to ADL, IslamOnline published a poem in its Arts and Culture section that gave graphic instructions on how to behead someone.
WhyIslam also links to a site promoting Harun Yahya, an anti-Semitic Turkish writer whose articles demonize Jews who support Israel as godless and blames them for committing atrocities. One article penned by Yahya quotes French Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy and another cites Yahya’s own book titled "The Holocaust Deception."
Baig says he's personally never visited the Jews for Allah website or IslamOnline but declined to say why he hadn't — even out of curiosity.
"Our websites are maintained by volunteers. We do not necessarily agree with all the material available on these external websites," he said. "If there is something on our site which could be taken as hateful against any ethnicity, people should let us know because that's totally unacceptable from an Islamic perspective. We condemn both anti-semitism and Islamophobia."
Oren Segal isn't buying that.
As director of Islamic affairs and left-wing research at the ADL's Center on Extremism, Segal says Baig's comments "seems to suggest these links are a mere oversight" on the part of ICNA, which has chapters in 22 cities and recently attracted 12,000 Muslims to its annual convention in Hartford, Conn.
"This is a very public campaign, and they should expect public scrutiny," he told WJW. "This group is responsible for the content it posts on its website. Nowhere on the site is there a request to contact them if you take issue with it."
WhyIslam, launched six years ago in the wake of anti-Muslim hostility following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, has sponsored billboards and radio spots in 19 cities across the United States. Its latest campaign includes the use of advertisements in New York subways, and similar campaigns in Chicago, Seattle and Kansas City.
"We would like our fellow Americans to get first-hand information about Islam. If people want to know more, we are happy to send them copies of the Koran," Baig said, insisting that ICNA gets "absolutely no funding" from overseas. He added that ICNA can also arrange visits to local mosques for inquisitive non-Muslims.
Yet Segal says the WhyIslam campaign has concerned ADL for awhile now.
"They are directing visitors to website links, many of which are very blatant in their hostility towards Israel and Jews. We don't expect WhyIslam to decide what content is on these other sites, but we do expect them not to link to these sites if they're so concerned about anti-Semitism."
Baig said he hasn't spoken directly to anyone at ADL — but apparently the message may be getting through after all.
"I have already asked our team to look into these websites," he said. "I want to make sure that whatever ADL is saying is correct. Then we will discuss it and make a decision in a couple of weeks."