May 19, 2003 | Op-ed

Trouble on Long Island

By Stephen Schwartz

On Saturday, May 10, I was welcomed to a memorial in Queens, honoring Shi'a clerics killed by the fascist Saddam regime. Hundreds of Shi'a imams were brutally murdered by the dictator's forces. In many cases their remains have yet to be recovered. I spoke to the crowd about similar instances of martyrdom I investigated in the former Yugoslavia, where Shi'a spiritual leaders were slain by Milosevic's mercenaries.

At the memorial, I was heartened to see that, while Shi'a Muslims are widely viewed with suspicion and fear in our media and government, as the most extreme Muslims, these believers, who come from Iran and Lebanon as well as Iraq, were open-hearted and open-minded about the future.

American Shi'a Muslims are thrilled by the removal of Saddam. Naturally, there remain anxieties on both sides of the divide between “us” and “them.” I had to answer some tough questions about whether America would long remain in Iraq and what kind of regime we would leave there. But I was impressed by the absence of angry rhetoric among the Shi'as. Even in discussion of the ever-prickly question of the Israel-Palestinian “road map” I heard, rather than the old, militant slogans, a hope that peace could actually come about.

On Sunday, I had a very different experience. I had been invited to give a short talk at the Islamic Center of Long Island, in Westbury. The occasion was a celebration of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. I prepared a brief speech, avoiding controversy and stressing the common commitment to learning that, historically, united Muslims with “the People of the Book,” i.e. Jews and Christians.

But not long after I arrived at the Westbury Mosque, I was handed a pamphlet headed with the ominous words “CONFRONT MUSLIM-BASHER.” The target of this propaganda was me. The tone was one of violent incitement.

The anonymous author of this screed had assembled a series of hysterical charges against me, focusing on my criticism of the Saudis and Wahhabis. The pamphlet ended with scurrilous quotes from Dennis “Justin” Raimondo, West Coast Jew-baiter, best known for spreading the false claim that Israel was involved in September 11, and from Kevin Keating, another West Coast fringe type. Keating was the leftist radical photographed in San Francisco during the Iraq conflict, toting a banner reading “We Support Our Troops WHEN THEY SHOOT THEIR OFFICERS.”

The pamphlet also promoted Jama'at al-Fuqra, a violent criminal organization linked to al-Qaida. The Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was investigating al-Fuqra when he was kidnapped in Pakistan. Here in the U.S. Jama'at al-Fuqra has been involved in some 17 bombings and 12 murders.

The long arm of the Saudi/Wahhabi conspiracy, supported by American neofascists and leftists, had reached me in Long Island. Rather than bring about the confrontation these fanatics desired, I left the mosque without speaking. Many small children were present, and I would not have risked an uproar. Later I found out that as soon as I was gone, a large crowd of scowling men in Taliban-style beards also departed the scene – after one of them had delivered a harangue denouncing me as a Communist, of all things. They obviously had not come to hear the children sing praises of the Prophet.

After further investigation of this incident, I concluded that it was a deliberate setup. If the Wahhabi thugs objected to my presence, they had many weeks, since it was announced, to bring it up with the mosque leadership. They did not do so. Rather, it is clear they hoped for the worst.

Wahhabi extremists in America have learned little since September 11. They will find out the hard way that Americans have no need to prove to the Wahhabis our capacity for tolerance; rather these Muslims need to prove their capacity to respect their neighbors and critics. I have obtained the names of the provocateurs in this affair, and will inform the FBI of the trouble in Westbury. But I will not stop speaking out, or building bridges to Muslims that I know really believe in “a religion of peace.”