x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

US Muslim group in internet row

A leading Muslim group in the United States denies its website for a national campaign to educate the public about Islam endorses links to anti-Semitic materials.

NEW YORK // A leading Muslim group in the United States has denied that its website for a national campaign to educate the public about Islam endorses links to anti-Semitic materials. The Anti-Defamation League, a US group that fights anti-Semitism and racism, questioned why the campaign's website had "links to sites that would be considered extreme by any measure in their expression of hatred for Jews and Israel".

The Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), a non-profit outreach and social services organisation, said it would investigate the matter and stressed it was against anti-Semitism and bigotry against any group of people. ICNA has run a series of poster campaigns in cities across the United States during the last year called "Why Islam?" People are urged to consult a website, which answers questions about the religion and includes links to other sites.

"At times, the website is run 99 per cent by volunteers who sometimes ask for these links. We will discuss the matter among ourselves and make a decision. We are against anti-Semitism and hatred towards any ethnicity. We don't like it or support it and stay away from it," Naeem Baig, an ICNA spokesman, said. "My gut feeling about all this is that there are some people who don't like our group and whatever positive thing we do, they find something negative," he added.

Mr Baig said no one from ICNA had been contacted by the Anti-Defamation League before it released its statement. A spokesman for the league said he did not know if someone from his group had asked for the web links to be removed before issuing the statement. The league said the WhyIslam.org website had a link to Jews for Allah, a group that aims to convert Jews to Islam and whose website accused a "Jewish influenced media" of "trying to destroy Islam". Another link was to IslamOnline, a web-based publication connected to Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi in Qatar, which has referred to Zionism as a "cancer". There was also a link to Harun Yahya, a Turkish writer who has written a book called The Holocaust Deception.

"The 'Why Islam?' campaign is ostensibly an effort to clear up misperceptions and to educate the general public about Islam," said Abraham Foxman, the league's national director, in a statment. "This endeavour would on its face appear to be the right thing to do. Unfortunately, when one follows through to learn more, the website provides links to conspiratorial, anti-Semitic material as resources."

This has not been the first time the "Why Islam?" campaign has come under attack. When advertisements ran on the New York subway last September, during Ramadan but also on the seventh anniversary of the September 11 attacks, critics accused some ICNA supporters of having links to terrorism. The New York Post tabloid ran headlines saying "Jihad Train" and "Train-ing day for jihadists". Peter King, a New York Republican Congressman, noted that Siraj Wahhaj, one of the campaign's backers, was a character witness for Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was convicted for the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing that killed six people and injured more than 1,000. Mr Wahhaj has said he was a character witness based only on "what we knew about him before the incident".

Tariq Amanullah, one of ICNA's founders, was killed in the World Trade Centre on September 11. The advertisements, which feature key words such as "Head Scarf?" or "Prophet Mohammed?" with "You deserve to know", have drawn a positive response, and volunteers in New Jersey for ICNA's hotline have dealt with an average of 1,000 calls a month. "We've had a very good reaction, very positive although there is the odd person who doesn't like to see us and thinks we're foreign Muslims," said Mr Baig.

"But we're very open to debate and discussion and that's what we do." sdevi@thenational.ae