'We Must Not Escalate Violence': U.S. Imams Call for Peace in Wake of Temple Mount Crisis

Islamic leaders stress need for open communication and redoubled efforts to build trust and understanding to stem killings and violence on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides

Palestinian protesters burn tires during a demonstration at the Hawara checkpoint, south of Nablus in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on July 21, 2017 against the Israeli security measures implemented at Al-Aqsa mosque compound.

NEW YORK — When Imam Mahomed Akbar Khan was in Jerusalem last week, he went to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Kneeling in the place holy to Jews and Muslims, where the inner sanctuaries of the great Temples once stood and where Islamic tradition says Mohammed arrived on his steed from Mecca – Khan prayed for the peace of Jerusalem.

Khan is director of interfaith and outreach activities at King Fahad Mosque in Los Angeles, one of the City of Angels’ largest houses of worship for Muslims, with some 2,000 of them routinely attending Friday prayers.

The Al-Aqsa compound on the Temple Mount has been the focal point of arcing tensions and violent protests since July 14, when three Arab Israeli men murdered two Israeli Druze Border Police officers with weapons they had smuggled in. Police sealed off the area and, with government approval, installed metal detectors at the site as a security measure. Angry Muslim worshippers refused to pass through the detectors, and held prayers and violent demonstrations at the Old City's Lions Gate.

The July 14 incident was also the pretext behind the murder by a young Palestinian last Friday night of three members of a Jewish family in a West Bank settlement as they enjoyed Shabbat dinner.

While visiting last week, Khan told Haaretz in an interview, the atmosphere was restive at Al-Aqsa and in Jerusalem in general.

Imam Mahomed Khan, director of interfaith and outreach activities at King Fahad Mosque in Los Angeles, visiting the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City, July 2017.
Courtesy Mahomed Khan

“The [Palestinian] community there feels like it’s controlled, and emotionally anything that feels like more control is not going to sit well,” Khan said of the metal detectors, which were finally removed Monday night.

“Reacting with violence doesn’t help the situation, it only makes the situation more tense. In Islam the Koran always emphasizes to control the emotions,” said Khan, who was born in South Africa to Pakistani parents and has lived in the United States since he was a young boy.

On the other hand, Sheikh Ammar Shahin of the Islamic Center of Davis in Northern California, delivered a sermon in which he said that God would “liberate the Al-Aqsa Mosque from the filth of the Jews” and to “annihilate them down to the very last one. Do not spare any of them.”   

What’s more, Mahmoud Harmoush, the imam at the Islamic Center of Riverside near the University of California, Riverside, sermonized about a Jewish plot between the World Wars to steal the land of Palestine from Muslims through “killing, crime and massacres.” Harmoush suggested that Jews are now trying to extend that conflict beyond Palestine to “most of the Middle East, and even, as I said, Mecca and Medina.” He ended his prayer with a call for Allah to “destroy them disperse them and rend them asunder. Turn them into booty in the hands of the Muslims.”

Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt condemned the imams’ statements as “anti-Semitic and dangerous.”

About 70 percent of those who attend King Fahad Mosque are of South Asian heritage, from Pakistan and Bangladesh, he said. Another 20 percent of worshippers are Arab, including Palestinian, with the balance being African and African-American Muslims.

“God is now challenging all of us not to create a wider division, but to minimize the tension in this situation,” he said. “That’s a test from God. If we follow God and go there to pray to God, then God is testing us to be patient, to have forbearance and always to find ways to communicate without violence.” 

Khan has urged Muslim and Jewish religious leaders alike to “focus on waking up the moral consciousness of righteousness in everyone, rather than taking advantage of the situation and speaking to the emotions and inciting people. That’s not what God wants.”

“We don’t want these incidents to produce more hatred and more violence,” he said, because that “doesn’t help the next generation.”

Imam Mahomed Khan, director of interfaith and outreach activities at King Fahad Mosque in Los Angeles, meets  Simcha and Leah Goldin, parents of deceased IDF Lt. Hadar Goldin, in Jerusalem, July 2017.
Imam Mahomed Khan

Several American imams who are originally from the Middle East, including Egypt, declined requests to be interviewed about the tumultuous events in Jerusalem, and did not respond to phone messages and emails from Haaretz. However, Shamsi Ali, another American imam of South Asian origins — he is Indonesian — wanted to speak out, and urged people who care about Jerusalem: “Do not throw fire into existing flames. We need to extinguish the fire, not further escalate it.”

'Tremendous distrust'

Imam Ali is spiritual leader of the Jamaica Muslim Center in Queens, which, with more than 10,000 members, is one of the largest mosques in New York. Most congregants are of South Asian origin, but there are also Arab, African and Hispanic Muslims among them, he said. Some 1,500 people usually attend the weekly prayers on Friday.

In Jerusalem, “there is tremendous mistrust between the Jews and the Muslims, and both sides must take responsibility. I hope that political leaders on both sides work closely together to end this conflict,” Ali told Haaretz.

"What is going on in Jerusalem at the moment," he continued, "is very unfortunate and it just gives us another sense that we have the biggest responsibility at this time and in the days to come” to work toward a peaceful resolution of the situation. “We must take it as another challenge to do more.”

Both Ali and Khan agreed that a resolution of the current crisis over Al-Aqsa/the Temple Mount is imperative, in order to prevent more deaths.

“I don’t think that violence in any form will solve the problem in the Middle East,” said Ali, of the Muslim center in Queens. “We must continue building trust and understanding while reminding political leaders of their own responsibility to engage politically. We as religious community leaders have to build understanding and trust between the two communities. This is the real peace. I don’t think an agreement between [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas will work unless people on the ground have trust."

Ali added that he has spoken with Muslim leaders in Indonesia in recent days, “asking them to remind their communities that it’s not in the interest of Muslims to escalate the conflict.”

“We remind our Palestinian and Israeli friends this is the only choice, a peaceful solution,” he said. “It’s time to end this. It’s too much.”

While Imam Khan visited Jerusalem last week, he also met with the parents of Israel Defense Forces Lt. Hadar Goldin, who was killed on August 1, 2014 by Hamas after a cease-fire was to have begun during Operation Defensive Edge in the Gaza Strip. His body, and that of Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul, are still being held by the militant Islamist group. This wasn’t the first time they had met: Khan hosted Leah and Shaul Goldin at his mosque in L.A. earlier this year.

In a video about that visit, Khan says, in a voice-over, “It is tragic what happened to their son. Our prayers are with the family and our prayer is that the remains of their son be returned back home to them so that they can send him home back to God in a dignified way.”