What would happen if you promoted a debate on Islamophobia and only one side showed up? A capacity crowd at Congregation L’Dor Vador, a Reform synagogue in Boynton Beach, Florida, learned that the hard way when Islamist activists bailed on July 20.
The organizers of the event titled, “Panel on Islamophobia and Israel Hosted by Rabbi Barry Silver,” promised a lively debate between two Jewish defenders of Israel, Silver and David Shimon, and two prominent Muslim leaders, Nezar Hamze, the Regional Operations Director for the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and engineering professor Bassem Al-Halabi from Florida Atlantic University (FAU), who also co-founded the Islamic Center of Boca Raton, Florida.
Let’s take a look at the backgrounds of the Islamists. Hamze spent five years as Executive Director of CAIR-Florida, but he backed off from his full-time position with CAIR to a part-time position when he began working as a deputy sheriff in Broward County, Florida. Hamze’s boss, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, has taken his share of heat for allowing Hamze to double as deputy and CAIR activist.
Hamze has been caught on tape refusing to denounce Hamas and has made excuses for a cousin who committed murder and attempted to flee to Lebanon. Needless to say, Deputy Hamze isn’t your typical officer of the peace.
Al-Halabi generated headlines back in May for remarks he made at a panel discussion at FAU in which he expressed support for chopping off the hands of thieves, a notorious aspect of Sharia law:
It sounds very severe — it sounds very barbaric I know, but if it takes one or two people to have their hands cut off and then there’s no more stealing in the whole nation that’s a much better resolution than having hundreds of people die every day.
He has expressed his own support for Hamas and faced accusations of attempting to ship imaging technology to Syria, yet FAU continues to keep him on the payroll.
The day before the event, Hamze emailed Silver and stated that he would not attend “due to unforeseen circumstances” and because he is “not able to foresee when duty calls.” Just hours before the event, Al-Halabi sent Silver an email bowing out too, citing several excuses ranging from his workload to his broken air conditioner.
(Initially the panel was also to include Wilfredo Ruiz, CAIR-Florida’s civil rights attorney. Ruiz asked to reschedule early on in the planning of the event, and in an email dated July 7, he expressed his regrets that family commitments would keep him away.)
Did Hamze and Al-Halabi really succumb to a vague sense of duty and waiting for an air conditioning repairman, or were there other motivations – that prompted the Islamist apologists to withdraw?
Here are three other behind-the-scenes factors that may have played a role too.
First, the Islamist activists may have realized belatedly from Silver’s background that he was likely to challenge their claims. Silver spoke at the event about the problematic nature of the term “Islamophobia,” stating that the fear of Islamic terror is rational and therefore not a phobia at all. He made a controversial statement equating the violence of the Torah with the belligerence of the Koran – not an unexpected view for a more liberal rabbi – and used that assertion to call for a greater understanding between Judaism and Islam.
Second, the rabbi introduced Tom Trento and Mark Campbell of activist group The United West to the crowd at the event, and noted that the Islamist representatives said that they would not attend if Trento were included on the panel. Silver compromised, and instead invited Trento and Campbell to ask questions from the audience. He surmised that CAIR declined to attend because of Trento’s presence there, while the audience chuckled in approval.
It’s understandable that Trento appearing at a debate would give the Islamists second thoughts, particularly in the case of Al-Halabi. It was United West who filmed and publicized the video of the professor’s amputation apologetics.
Third, Hamze may have had a professional reason to stay away from L’Dor Vador. The Sheriff’s Department has faced an onslaught of very unwelcome press lately thanks to a dramatic courthouse jailbreak by a murder suspect, who was re-arrested after six days on the loose. Sheriff Scott Israel may have instructed Hamze to bow out of the event and lie low in order to avoid generating more controversy around the Broward Sheriff’s Office. With Sheriff Israel facing a campaign for re-election in the coming weeks it stands to reason that he would seek to avoid further embarrassment.
Did the Islamists shy away from the debate out of the fear of facing passionate, well-reasoned opposition? Was CAIR afraid of the arguments the other side had to offer against their propaganda? The world may never know, unless the three activists agree to reschedule the debate before Silver’s congregation for another time.
Chris Queen is the author of Football, Faith, & Flannery O’Connor: A Love Letter to the South. He is Director of Communications at Eastridge Community Church in his hometown of Covington, GA, and he has written for PJ Media, NewsReal Blog, and Celebrations Magazine. This article was sponsored by Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.