The Cultural Appropriation That Linda Sarsour Doesn’t Care About
Omar Suleiman is an immensely popular Palestinian-American imam — and he counts Linda Sarsour among his many ardent admirers.
But as I have recently documented, Suleiman has expressed views that indicate antisemitism and support for violence against Israel. Shortly after The Algemeiner published my previous article, Suleiman put up a Facebook post that might have been meant as a response.
On the one hand, he seemed to regret some of his statements, because they reflected “anger” and “immaturity;” on the other hand, he claimed that some of the views he had expressed were “intentionally decontextualized.”
While I certainly did not “intentionally decontextualize” anything that I documented, Suleiman has many platforms available to clarify his views. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that beyond the examples I documented, there is more material that suggests Suleiman holds deep-seated anti-Jewish resentment.
Since Linda Sarsour has repeatedly expressed her admiration for Suleiman, it would be interesting to know if she also fully endorses his theological anti-Judaism.
One example that reveals Suleiman’s problematic views regarding Jews and Judaism is a lecture he gave in January 2016 on the following topic: “Masjid Al-Aqsa: The occupied sanctuary.” The advertisement for the event noted that Suleiman’s “passion for this topic comes naturally” because he is “the son of Palestinian parents.”
In a promotional clip, Suleiman himself emphasized that it was important to “bring the religious element back to the discussion of the occupied sanctuary;” he denounced the “brutal occupation” of Al-Aqsa, claiming that “religious rights” of Muslims were being “taken away.” He illustrated this alleged denial of Muslim “religious rights” by noting dismissively that the site was “being called ‘Temple Mount’ all of a sudden.”
It’s hard to imagine a more Orwellian approach: while claiming that the “religious rights” of Muslims were being “taken away,” Suleiman brazenly denied the Jewish connection to Judaism’s holiest site. Suleiman surely knows full well that Jerusalem’s Muslim conquerors built Islamic shrines over the ruined Jewish Temple, and then began to refer to the site as “Al-Aqsa.”
The full video of Suleiman’s lecture starts on a relatively promising note — when Suleiman emphasizes that no mosque is holier than a human life. He repeats the same message more than an hour later, at the end of his long lecture; perhaps this could be understood as a retraction of his previous calls for another “Al-Aqsa Intifada.” Yet, Suleiman’s lecture can hardly be described as “moderate” — because he was single-mindedly focused on claiming the Temple Mount for Islam, while implicitly denying any legitimate Jewish attachment to the site.
Right at the beginning of his remarks, Suleiman tells his audience that he wants to talk about “the history” of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It is noteworthy that he says “history” and not “myth” or “legend,” or even “religious tradition” — because what follows is simply mind-boggling. Unfortunately, the narrative he presents clearly reflects some mainstream Muslim beliefs — and these beliefs are without a doubt a major factor in some of the widespread Muslim hatred for Israel.
Suleiman notes early on in his lecture that people “might think that Al-Aqsa was built maybe by a prophet of Bani Israel, maybe it’s something that arose from the time of Solomon […] or Jacob.” Then he turns to Muslim tradition and the question of, “What mosque was constructed on the face of the earth first?” According to Suleiman, the answer is that the first mosque was built in Mecca, and that 40 years later, the Al-Aqsa Mosque was built.
According to Suleiman, since it was supposedly Adam who built the Kaaba in Mecca, Muslim scholars conclude that it was therefore also Adam, or maybe his son Seth, who built the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Later on, Suleiman claimed, Abraham and his son Isaac “raised the pillars” of the Kaaba in Mecca, and they “did the same” at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa, which had both been “constructed” and “made a sanctuary” by Adam. Suleiman then emphasized again that Abraham and his son built “two of the holiest masjids [mosques] in the world;” he also added: “We know Ibrahim [Abraham] settled in Palestine.”
While these are apparently mainstream Muslim teachings, they include truly bizarre claims for any non-Muslim listener. The obvious implication would be either that Adam — the Bible’s first human being — was a Muslim, and that Abraham and his son were also Muslims; or that “two of the holiest masjids [mosques] in the world” were actually built by non-Muslims. But why would anyone claim that there were mosques hundreds — or even many thousands — of years before there was Islam? And what prevents Jews or Christians from claiming that whatever places of worship Adam and Abraham are said to have built were actually synagogues or churches?
Quite obviously, the purpose of asserting that the mosque in Mecca and the Al-Aqsa Mosque go back to the time of Adam, and were then built up by Abraham and his son, is to claim these sites (and their builders) for Islam from the beginning of time, conveniently ignoring the fact that Islam arose only long after Judaism, and centuries after Christianity.
In the case of Jerusalem, the claim that the Al-Aqsa Mosque was founded by the biblical Adam and built up by Abraham obviously serves to delegitimize all Jewish claims to the Temple Mount — which is exactly what Suleiman is trying to do.
While Suleiman acknowledges in his lecture that “Jerusalem … is the place that was settled by the original tribes of Bani Israel,” he also emphasizes: “What’s the story of Bani Israel, constantly? They take it [Jerusalem], they become wicked, they lose it. You find this cycle over and over and over again.” And quite obviously, Suleiman thinks that today’s Bani Israel are wicked enough to deserve losing Jerusalem again very soon.
Suleiman goes on to explain (from 18:00 of the speech) that “Solomon is the most important king in the history of Jerusalem. Why? You always hear of the Temple of Solomon. […] He built about 40 masjids [mosques].” Then Suleiman tells his audience:
And as he [Solomon] builds Masjid Al-Aqsa — and I want you guys to realize, so I’m just going to clear that from now, Masjid Al-Aqsa is that entire rectangle, that entire sanctuary, it is humongous, that is actually all Masjid Al-Aqsa; the Dome of the Rock is at the center of it, so that entire compound is Masjid Al-Aqsa. So Solomon builds that all out, the original Temple of Solomon, what’s known as the Temple of Solomon, right, the first time that Masjid Al-Aqsa would be built in that caliber, right, he built it throughout. The Old Testament has a lot of detail about how lavish and how elaborate the masjid was when Suleiman [sic] built it, but we don’t know if it’s actually true or not.
So according to Suleiman, Solomon didn’t really build a Jewish Temple, but he built “Masjid Al-Aqsa.” This is a particularly pernicious form of Temple denial: following the bizarre “logic” of Suleiman’s narrative — which reflects some mainstream Muslim beliefs — there couldn’t be a legitimate Jewish Temple at the site that had been “Masjid Al-Aqsa” since the time of Adam.
Islamic supersessionism, i.e the notion that Islam replaces and invalidates every other religion, is apparently something that is thought to operate even retroactively, transforming Solomon’s Temple into just another part of “Masjid Al-Aqsa,” and thus erasing or Islamicizing Jewish history.
It is also important to realize that the myth that even at the time of Muhammad, there was already a mosque on the Temple Mount, is fairly central to Muslim belief due to the tall tale about Muhammad’s supposed nightly visit there. Suleiman emphasizes in his lecture (at 29:30) that this story should not be understood as an allegory: “It’s not just a spiritual journey […] it was a physical journey.” Indeed, as others have noted, insisting that Muhammad’s visit was a physical journey was extremely useful for bolstering the legitimacy of the early Muslim empire, and as Suleiman demonstrates, it remains useful to this day if you want to exploit religious passions for political purposes.
Suleiman also mentions a story about Muhammad meeting all the previous prophets in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and leading them in prayer. The fact that Muhammad is not presented as praying alongside the Jewish and Christian prophets, but as leading the prayer, makes this just another story meant to establish the supremacy of Islam. As one Muslim site puts it plainly: “This is an indication the Prophet is higher in status than all the rest of the prophets and messengers.” Suleiman puts it a bit more diplomatically, but ultimately means the same when he asserts that this and similar stories are “a sign that he [Muhammad] is the messenger of all of mankind.”
In the speech, Suleiman emphasized over and over again that the connection with the Al-Aqsa Mosque is central to Islam and that it is something that every Muslim has to nurture and maintain. According to Suleiman (49.40), Muhammad supposedly said that if a Muslim can’t go and pray in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, he should “at least send some oil to light up its lamps.” And the same holds true for “Palestine,” according to Suleiman. He then declares (51.10):
To me that’s an injunction for BDS, for boycotting as well; […] if it’s part of the Sunnah [i.e. traditional Muslim practice] to send some oil to be put in its [Al-Aqsa’s] lamps, then it’s also part of the Sunnah to withhold from the oppressor, to withhold from the occupier, the one who is oppressing the people of that land, or occupying that land. It’s a part of connecting ourselves to the place.
This is a good illustration that Suleiman doesn’t mind creative interpretations of Muslim tradition in principle — he just doesn’t like to use such interpretations to find ways to minimize Islamic supersessionism and the implicit delegitimization of Jewish history.
That Suleiman is actually perfectly aware that there was no Al-Aqsa Mosque before the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem — and that the city’s Muslim conquerors were eager to erase Jewish history — becomes clear when he tells a story about the victorious Caliph Umar.
After the Christian Patriarch Sophronius had surrendered Jerusalem in April 637, Umar went to clean up “masjid Al-Aqsa” — i.e. the Temple Mount, which had become a dumping ground. Suleiman reminds his audience (1:05) that “[in] the middle of masjid Al-Aqsa, there is this rock, this rocky area, right; and it’s right in the center, and that’s believed where Suleiman [Arabic blessing] established the Temple.”
When the area was cleaned, Umar and his companions supposedly asked a former Jewish rabbi who had converted to Islam where to pray and where the mosque should be built — which obviously shows that there was no trace of any mosque beforehand. The convert responded, “we should pray behind the rock.” As Suleiman explained to his audience: “Umar sensed from that that he felt a reverence towards this rock. So Umar [Arabic blessing] said that must be your Jewish influence speaking. He says we’re gonna pray in front of the rock, haha, we’re not gonna honor this rock, we’re gonna pray in front of it, there’s nothing special about this rock.”
Suleiman also managed to demonstrate his complete insensitivity once more when he asserted shortly afterwards:
It’s proven that other religions only flourished in Jerusalem under Muslim rule. It never happens any other way. […] This is a reputation right away that the Muslims want to turn Jerusalem into some sort of blood bath. No, we recognize the sanctity of that place, we love that masjid, we love that land, we know what that land is. No one wants to do anything with that land except restore it to the way that it was.
Needless to say, Suleiman wants to “restore” Jerusalem “to the way that it was” under Muslim rule, when a Jewish convert to Islam would be mercilessly mocked for betraying even a trace of reverence for the holiest site of the religion that he had abandoned.
Suleiman ended his long lecture by quoting a text from the Quran: “how unjust are those who prevent the name of Allah from being mentioned in his mosques and strive towards their destruction.” According to Suleiman, this refers particularly to the Al-Aqsa Mosque; and he then launched into a vile rant:
How cruel of a person would you have to be, how sick do people have to be to stop the name of Allah from being mentioned in this place, to stop people from praying in this place; and you might be told over and over again, as we’re told in the news over and over again that there’s nothing that’s happening over there, that Israel is maintaining the status quo, that you know Muslims are being allowed to pray and so on and so forth. But slowly, slowly, slowly it keeps getting taken away. […] restrictions keep being added, people keep on being prevented, you have to be a certain age to go, you have to have this card, you have to have that card, legislation, racist legislation, is constantly being passed to stop people from being able to pray there, right; attacks, videos come out in the age of social media of people going and throwing pigs on people while they’re praying, throwing rocks at them and hitting them while they’re praying. We’re not the one inciting, we’re longing for this place to be a place of peace, because that’s what Muslims are about.
Suleiman’s claim that all Muslims only want peace would sound a lot more convincing if he wasn’t such an ardent proponent of Islamic supersessionism. Then he could perhaps realize that it is Muslims such as him who are so “cruel” and “sick” that they stop Jews from praying at the holiest site of their faith, claiming instead that this site has been the “Al-Aqsa Mosque” since the beginning of time.
Sarsour has declared that Imam Omar Suleiman makes her “more proud to be a Muslim and a Palestinian.” In a tweet that has been pinned on top of her Twitter timeline since last November, she also declares: “We can disagree & still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression & denial of my humanity and right to exist.” Insisting that the Temple Mount has really been the Al-Aqsa Mosque since the beginning of time, and claiming that Solomon was actually one of the builders of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, surely qualifies as a preposterous denial of a central part of Jewish history and identity.
At the very least, one would expect “progressives” like Sarsour to condemn this as a particularly disgusting example of cultural appropriation. And quite obviously, continuing to deny the historic Jewish attachment to the site where Muslim conquerors built Islamic shrines in order to prevent a rebuilding of the destroyed Jewish Temple — and to demonstrate the splendor of their imperial power — should be completely unacceptable for anti-imperialist progressives who otherwise champion the rights of indigenous people.