Rehabilitation in Jersey City

What does a free, democratic society do with a religious leader who advocates killing Jews?

This is the question that currently confronts the United States in the case of Sheikh Aymen Elkasaby, imam of the Islamic Center of Jersey City. In a diatribe of hate — which, for some reason, is accorded the appellation “sermon” in the news media — delivered earlier this month, he called Jews “apes and pigs” and urged his followers to “Count them one by one, and kill them down to the very last one. Do not leave a single one on the face of the Earth.”

That Elkasaby was not arrested is a tribute to the esteem in which freedom of speech and of religion is held in America. Supreme Court rulings have set a high bar before incitement of this kind forfeits First Amendment protection. If the speech or rant or sermon creates no “imminent lawless action,” it is not prosecutable.

“Imminent” is an ambiguous term, and evidently the imam did not cross the line of ambiguity. That is, he did not beseech his flock to go out and murder Jews that instant. So technically, he may have committed no crime punishable by current laws.

But that does not mean society has no means with which to punish or restrain someone who talks that way.

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker (D) demanded that Ahmed Shedeed, the president of the Islamic Center of Jersey City, where the incident occurred, “publicly and unconditionally denounce Imam Elkasaby’s hateful rhetoric.”

That sounds like the least that could be done. Senator Booker did not call for the imam’s dismissal, though various public figures have been forced to resign in shame for less egregious effusions, less explicit incitement against Jews and other minorities.

When Shedeed was asked in an interview if he would fire Elkasaby, he said no. Instead, he said that the misbehaving imam would be meeting with “interfaith scholars” who would “consult with and retrain him.”

“This is like sending someone to rehab. The scholars will help him to learn to deal with these issues,” Shedeed explained.

It was not clear whether the novelty of the response was quite appreciated. The times in which we live, when similarly inflammatory speeches by Islamic preachers around the world have indeed led to violence against Jews and a variety of other free-fire categories, Shedeed’s response was, to say the least, remarkably mild — though, of course, there are those who would commend it as humane and enlightened. You could probably find such people at the Islamic Center.

Furthermore, it is an innovation to suggest that rehabilitation could be applicable in such a case. The question of whether rehabilitation works in general has been debated for a long time.

But whichever side of the issue one takes, that debate concerns ordinary criminals. The rehabilitation of bigots and various ideological grudge-bearers has not usually been part of the discussion.

Although the imam was not arrested for his inciteful speech, theoretically a legal test case could be made of it. But if incarceration is not possible, then dismissal from his position certainly is, and that option remains.

Society will have to wait and see if Elkasaby emerges from the retraining with a new outlook on the Jewish people and what Islam’s true attitude is toward them. It is rather unlikely that the process will yield more than some perfunctory admission that he might have erred slightly in his interpretation of the sources.

Shedeed has already offered the excuse that Elkasaby had spoken “in the heat of the moment,” after President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital.

At the same time, it must also be stressed that this case is an exception. Elkasaby’s sermon does not represent normative rhetoric in the mosques of America. Even Shedeed, though he did not go far enough in disciplining the imam, did condemn the offending sermon.

Shedeed has also been active in interfaith work, and was Senator Booker’s honored guest at President Barack Obama’s 2016 State of the Union address. Like most Muslim leaders, he reflects the desire of his congregation to live in peace with people of other faiths; and it is to be hoped that whatever the fate of Elkasaby, that will continue to be the norm.

Jewish and Muslim communities in the United States have historically maintained very good relations. There has been mutual respect and cooperation in many areas of shared interest. One unfortunate incident, though deplorable, must not be allowed to change this relationship.