On Thursday, Imam Omar Suleiman was invited by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, to give the invocation on the floor of the U.S. House. The prayer prompted criticism of Suleiman. The criticism centered on the accusation that he has made anti-Semitic remarks on Twitter. The 2014 tweets dealt with Suleiman’s support for Palestinians during the Gaza war. Johnson and the interfaith group Faith Forward Dallas both expressed support for Suleiman. Below is a statement from Suleiman responding to the criticism, originally published in The Dallas Morning News.
“Let us not be deterred by the hatred that has claimed the lives of innocent worshippers across the world, but emboldened by the love that gathered them together to remember you, and gathered us together to remember them.”
When I said this prayer on the U.S. House floor on Thursday, I held in my heart the Jews in Pittsburgh and San Diego, the Christians in Sri Lanka, and the Muslims in Christchurch I had the opportunity of burying and praying upon.
I thought of their bodies that I put in the ground, and the tears in the eyes of their family members. I thought of the tears in the eyes of Jewish brethren when we took cards over to the Jewish Community Center from my family and community. I thought of my Christian brethren in Dallas on Easter and how their usual smiles were flipped due to the devastation of Sri Lanka.
But in the wake of these horrific terrible attacks, I’ve seen communities come together like never before. I’ve held and been held, hugged and been hugged, cried on shoulders and given my shoulder to others to cry on. The hate that took the lives of Christians in Sri Lanka was inspired by ISIS. They called for my assassination a few years ago for my work with Christian communities.
After giving the invocation in Congress last week, I have been attacked online and threatened with violence. This hate is similar to the hate that led to the other massacres above. It’s a hate that seeks to fracture the communities it targets. It’s a hate that takes the most vulnerable communities in the country and intimidates them into silence so that the only thing they can do is brace for the next attack.
Never did I expect my prayer on the House floor would be so threatening. I was invited to deliver the invocation on stage with Presidents Barack Obama and George Bush in the wake of the murder of five police officers after a protest against police brutality that I helped lead. I was invited to share a stage with President Jimmy Carter on human rights just a few months ago. I regularly deliver the invocation at inaugurations, conventions, banquets, and state and city functions. But more than that, I work with people of all faiths and backgrounds daily to put that prayer into action.
I have never attacked the Jewish community or peddled conspiracies about it. So imagine my surprise to be accused of anti-Semitism on Fox Business by Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffress, of all people, and Fox host Lou Dobbs, and online by Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Republican from New York who doesn’t know me.
I have spent my life fighting bigotry whether targeted at my Jewish brethren or at my own community, or at anyone else. Not once have I been involved in a controversy in my home town of New Orleans or Dallas involving the Jewish community or any other community that felt targeted by anything I’ve said or done. I’ve built relationships with Jewish communities since I started ministering to Muslims, especially in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Does that mean that I haven’t said anything regretful in the past? Absolutely not. Almost every faith leader I know has said or done things in the course of their ministries they wish they could take back. I have learned a lot about myself over the last 13 years of my own ministerial journey and I’ve grown in many ways, always reevaluating my words and positions. All along the way, that growth has come through engagement with my own community and others about how I best serve them.
But one thing I’ve never been is anti-Semitic. My parents were displaced Palestinians due to the occupation and ended up meeting in Houston. 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.
I have said many times that anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are the two most linked forms of bigotry. Hence our communities need to be closer linked together than ever.
When a politician who knows nothing about me leads the charge in trying to mischaracterize me, of course throwing in the islamophobic trope “supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood” to make me seem particularly scary,” it’s important to ask why I’m suddenly the target of these smears and not before in other similar appearances. Would a faith leader from any other community withstand the same scrutiny of all of their old tweets and sermons? Is it fair to ignore the testimony of the plethora of elected officials, faith leaders, and communities that know me personally because some websites posting false characterizations in order to ensure I’m never afforded such a platform again? What message does this send to the American Muslim community? Who stands to benefit from the wedge being driven between American Muslims and Jews?
This hate seeks to silence, intimidate and bully American Muslim leaders. It also seeks to fracture the crucial alliances that have been formed to challenge it.