Several hundred people demonstrated outside the Yorba Linda Community Center in Orange County on Feb. 12, where two controversial Muslim activists addressed a fundraiser held by the Queens, N.Y.-based Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA).
Waving American flags and signs that read “No Islamic terrorists” and “Don’t tread on me,” demonstrators lined Imperial Highway and filled the grassy areas outside the public building to protest what they called the group’s agenda to impose Sharia (Islamic law) on American society. They were particularly upset with the event’s keynote speakers, New York cleric Imam Siraj Wahhaj and Amir Abdel Malik Ali, whom they said hold anti-American, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic views.
Ali is a frequent guest of Muslim student organizations on U.S. campuses, including the University of California, Irvine (UCI), where he has spoken several times at the Muslim Student Union’s Israeli Apartheid Week, an annual program of Israel-bashing and anti-Zionist sentiment that often wades into anti-Semitism. In May 2010, the Oakland cleric told a UCI audience that he supports Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad as well as jihad on the UCI campus, and accused Jews of causing the world’s financial troubles. UCI Chancellor Michael Drake condemned Ali’s endorsement of terrorism, without mentioning the cleric by name, as a breach of the university’s commitment to values and civility.
Wahhaj, who leads the Brooklyn al-Taqwa Mosque, became the first Muslim to give an invocation at Congress in 1991. He was named as a co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. He was never charged and has denied involvement.
ICNA spokesperson Syed Waqas said the $25-a-plate event was meant to raise funds for the organization’s ICNA Relief program, money that will be used for local social services, such as women’s housing, disaster response, and burial and funeral assistance. He said Ali and Wahhaj were chosen to speak because they were available on the day of the event and because of their strong backgrounds in social services. Ali was said to be speaking about the Islamic perspective of relief efforts in Southern California, according to ICNA’s Web site.
Waqas denied that his group was anti-Israel or anti-Semitic, adding that ICNA may or may not endorse everything Ali and Wahhaj, who are not ICNA members, stand for.
“We don’t know for sure where the money will go, but when you bring a guest speaker who supports Hamas, and when you bring a co-conspirator of 9/11, you must ask who these people are and what they support,” said Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie of the North County Chabad Center. Eliezrie worked with local community leaders to coordinate the protest.
Opposition to the fundraiser coalesced into a major grass-roots demonstration in the weeks leading up to the event after several community groups learned about it and alerted others through Facebook and e-mails, Eliezrie said. Participants included a diverse mix of Jewish and Christian groups from as far away as the Inland Empire and the San Fernando Valley with representation from the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, local chapters of Act! for America and Bikers for Christ and other organizations.
Yorba Linda Mayor Nancy Rikel said she received about 75 e-mails demanding that the city not allow the event to take place, according to a report in the Orange County Register. Rikel said ICNA representatives declined her request to bring in alternative speakers. City attorneys have said that the city cannot block ICNA from using the building.
Speaking at the demonstration, Rikel said the day would live in infamy in Yorba Linda and warned that the country was under threat by those who seek to take away our freedoms.
“This is not about hate,” said Karen Lugo, Chapman University adjunct professor of law, who led the crowd several times in chanting “No Shariah, not here, not now, not ever.”
“We are not hatemongers,” she said. “The world Islamophobia is an effort to chill us. The Constitution was never meant to allow a tyranny of a minority.”
Other speakers included Eliezrie, Rabbi Dov Fischer of Young Israel of Orange County, Irvine Jewish activist Dee Sterling and U.S. Congressmen Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Gary Miller (R-Calif.).
Royce, who chairs the international terrorism subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was impressed and inspired by the demonstration but that more awareness of the threat of radical Islam was needed.
“Many people in the community feel strongly about the rights of individuals and are here to express their free speech rights as well as to point out to others the history of the adoption of this brutal, primitive and barbaric interpretation of Islam.”
Royce said he welcomed plans by Homeland Security Chair Peter King to launch hearings on radical Islam in the United States, which he said will begin soon.
“We must remain vigilant against those who would take away our liberties,” he said.
“We need to make a stand against this hatred,” said Yorba Linda resident Ron Shamas, who said at least 50 members of his synagogue came out to support the demonstration. “We see what has happened in Europe, and nobody did anything, and now they have so much trouble.”