A mysterious invitation to a controversial Saudi sheikh, a B'nai Brith press release, a load of Mideast mistrust and suddenly a bad wind's blowing between local Jews and Muslims. The story starts some weeks back, when B'nai Brith alerted the media to the May 22 conference of the Islamic Society of North America (Canada) (ISNA), entitled Islam In The West: From Vision To Reality.
The Jewish org had two problems with the gathering. For one thing, it complained that ISNA's American supposed "counterpart" was currently under investigation by the U.S. Senate for possible links to terror financing. The release then went on to point out that ISNA had, earlier in its conference planning, invited Wahabi cleric Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Sudais to participate in the meet to be held at the Conference Centre in Etobicoke.
To many Muslims, al-Sudais is a respected religious authority, the imam of Islam's holiest shrine, the Grand Mosque of Mecca. But the Jewish community has reason to see him quite differently.
According to a much-quoted Associated Press dispatch, al-Sudais is reported to have called Jews "the scum of the human race, the rats of the world, the killers of prophets and the grandsons of monkeys and pigs."
As Frank Dimant, vice-prez of B'nai Brith Canada, said in a letter to Immigration Minister Judy Sgro, asking her to deny al-Sudais entry to the country, if he "were to say the sort of things in Canada that he says during sermons in his mosque, we believe he would have been subject to criminal persecution."
But ISNA (Canada) - a powerful organization that runs an Islamic elementary school, a lending institution, a cooperative housing project, a travel agency and more - denies ever having invited the fiery cleric. It appears the rumour of his pending visit originated in U.S. publication the National Review. The mag's scoop, in turn, came from a report in the Arab News, a Saudi English-language paper.
And its source? This is where things get murky. Syed Imtiaz Ahmed, ISNA (Canada)'s vice-president, says one of their members, Ibrahim Hussein Malabari, acted on his own and extended al-Sudais the invite.
"He had no authority from ISNA to do what he did," Ahmed says. Malabari, he says, was once an imam at the group's Jami Mosque on Boustead but is no longer, "since we assigned him to a cemetery project."
Ahmed believes Malabari sought out Wahabi clerics in Saudi Arabia who fund worldwide Islamic activities. "He perhaps thought he could get closer to the people who control these sorts of projects in Saudi Arabia by inviting al-Sudais," speculates Ahmed. Malabari, for his part, is unrepentant about the invitation.
"Muslims should have the right to invite whoever they feel is beneficial to their community," he says. "If Jews are too involved monitoring who we invite to speak to us Muslims in Canada, we might also do the same and start monitoring their leaders. But who wins in this tit-for-tat? Nobody."
As well, Malabari doesn't believe he has been relieved of his responsibilities as an imam at the mosque. "Ahmed is wrong. I am the imam of Jami Mosque. Don't forget to put that in your article. No one fired me or demoted me."
As to charges that ISNA (USA) is under investigation, Beth Pellett, assistant to Charles Grassley, chair of the Senate's finance committee, tells NOW the probe of the organization is ongoing.
It's difficult to know if ISNA (Canada) is under scrutiny, because, as Rodney Moore, spokesperson for Foreign Affairs, says, Canadian security agencies don't publicize the names of groups under investigation. "The only thing I can say is that people (in Canada's security agencies) would not discuss anything of a security nature," says Moore
Ahmed says the U.S. probe has little to do with his organization, because ISNA (Canada) has no relationship to the American group. "We used to have connections, but our operations here are now independent," he says.
Are these kinds of issues destined to be forever played out through the media? David Ben'ami of B'nai Brith says his organization wasn't happy about having to contact the press but felt it was necessary because of the stories in the U.S. "Our preference was not to be public." ISNA people, he says, are "welcome to pick up the phone and call me any time to talk about some of this stuff."
Says Ahmed, "I am always happy to help smooth out all sorts of unpleasantness that arises between our two groups, but I and other Muslim leaders can only do this if the other side is willing to work with us out of the public's eye."