Controversial Islamic conference in Toronto draws concerns

A recent Islamic conference in Toronto has drawn criticism from B’nai Brith over some of its guest speakers.

In a Dec. 19 press release, B’nai Brith Canada highlighted three speakers who have made anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist comments in the past: Yasir Qadhi, Siraj Wahhaj and Omar Suleiman.

“It is troubling that a major Canadian Muslim conference continues to invite extremist preachers to Canada,” Michael Mostyn, the CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, said in the statement. “Surely there are enough qualified moderate Muslim leaders, without a history of extremist messaging, who can be chosen to speak at events such as these.”

The annual Islamic conference, called Reviving the Islamic Spirit, ran from Dec. 20-22, 2019. Started in 2001, it has grown to become one of the largest in North America, with more than 20,000 attendees each year. The conference organizers did not return The CJN’s request for comment.

Omar Suleiman, a Palestinian imam who works extensively in the humanitarian sector and with interfaith groups, has a history of making anti-Zionist social media posts, including writing on Facebook that “Zionists are the enemies of God,” and comparing Israel to Nazi Germany.

“My parents were displaced Palestinians due to the occupation and ended up meeting in Houston,” Suleiman wrote in an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News in May 2019, after a public backlash over his comments. “They were activists, and my late mother wrote poetry about the Palestinian catastrophe. But I was taught early on to not let championing the Palestinian cause descend into anti-Semitism in private or in public.”

Yasir Qadhi, a professor and author who was called “one of the most influential conservative clerics in American Islam” by The New York Times Magazine, is a vocal critic of Islamic extremism and was targeted with death threats by Islamic State propaganda in 2016. He was also part of a delegation of eight American imams and rabbis who visited Auschwitz in 2010 and signed a statement denouncing Holocaust denial as contrary to the ethics of Islam.

However, he has also made troubling comments about Jews. In the early 2000s, he repeated misinformation he read about Jews on a website he didn’t realize was anti-Semitic; he wrote a public apology in 2008 acknowledging and explaining his mistake. Earlier this year, he gave a talk about a hadith (a passage by the prophet Muhammad), that’s widely seen as anti-Semitic, since it calls for a battle at “the end of days,” in which Muslims will kill the Jews.

“The hadiths do mention killing (Jews). Let’s be honest here,” he says in the talk. “They do mention it. Let us realize, these hadiths are predictions, not prescriptions. Big difference.… These are not anti-Semitic hadiths whatsoever. It is merely describing a battle towards the end of times (between) the forces of good and the forces of evil.”

The third imam who concerned B’nai Brith is Siraj Wahhaj. He’s arguably the most controversial of the three. In 1993, Wahhaj was a character witness in the trial of the mastermind of the World Trade Center bombing, Omar Abdel-Rahman, in which he was loosely alleged to be, but unindicted as, a co-conspirator. Since then, he has frequently been the subject of far-right fake news stories, including one that falsely claimed he gave a keynote address at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

In truth, he is a vocal believer in capital punishment and has prophesized that Western democracy will one day give way to Shariah law. Despite numerous controversial comments, he spends more time denouncing the American government and Western civilization than Jews.