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Imam Omar Suleiman targeted in US smear campaign led by Republican congressman

After delivering opening prayer in House of Representatives, right-wing attacks begin
Imam Omar Suleiman (MEE/Azad Essa)
By in
New York City

On Thursday, Imam Omar Suleiman from the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, based in Irving, Texas, delivered a sensitive and rousing prayer at the opening of a session at US House of representatives.

Within hours, Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin of New York City denounced both Suleiman and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's decision to invite him to offer the opening prayers.

"Totally unacceptable that Nancy Pelosi had Omar Suleiman give the opening prayer yesterday in the House. He compares Israel to the Nazis & calls them terrorists, supports Muslim Brotherhood, incites violence calling for a Palestinian intifada & the end of Zionism, etc. Bad call," he wrote in a tweet.

The congressman's comments were followed by a volley of articles from the Jereusalem Post, right-wing website Breitbart and a number of more obscure news sites, including the Ohio Star, which called Suleiman "militantly anti-Semitic". 

Suleiman told Middle East Eye that the articles springing up in quick succession over the past day and a half demonstrated that this was a coordinated smear campaign attempting to malign his work and force Pelosi to denounce him.

"It is clearly part of an attempt to erase Muslim leaders from public life and also to keep deflecting from the real anti-Semitism of the right".

Suleiman, a respected American Muslim scholar and civil rights activist, is also a professor of Islamic Studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. 

We denounce these bigoted attacks, we call on House leadership to reject them, and we encourage interfaith leaders who have worked with Imam Omar to stand in solidarity with him

Ekram Haque

Commenting on the attacks, Todd Green, an associate professor of religion at Luther College said that a key Republican strategy this election season "is to cast all Muslims as anti-Semitic in an effort to instrumentalize Islamophobia for votes and political leverage. It’s an insidious, racist strategy that we should resist at all costs."

Response from interfaith groups and members of the Muslim American activist community was swift.

The Dallas chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-DFW) released a statement on Saturday calling on "people of conscience, including members of Congress, to stand in solidarity with Imam Omar Suleiman".

“Instead of amplifying Imam Omar Suleiman’s message of peace and unity, anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian groups have launched a smear campaign against yet another person of color and American Muslim leader in the hope of maligning and marginalizing our communities,” CAIR-DFW's Acting Executive Director Ekram Haque said.

“For years, Imam Omar has worked with Texans of all faiths and backgrounds to advance peace and interfaith understanding. We denounce these bigoted attacks, we call on House leadership to reject them, and we encourage interfaith leaders who have worked with Imam Omar to stand in solidarity with him."

Making Dallas a better place

The SMU human rights program at Dedman College in Texas also offered support, saying that Suleiman had made the city of Dallas a better place. 

In an Twitter thread, academic and social commentator Hind Makki alluded to Suleiman's well-known intersectional approach to human rights, be it walking in support of the Movement for Black Lives, or in defence of immigrants and asylum seekers held at the US-Mexico border, or for women's rights.

Linda Sasour, the Palestinian-American activist, also fired off a series of tweets in support Suleiman, describing the attacks as "another right-wing smear campaign to label a Palestinian American Muslim leader an anti-semite".

She said that Suleiman had a track record of social justice work and had also established deep relationships with Jewish communities.

Suleiman delivered the opening prayer at the invitation of Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas. Johnson said she asked Suleiman to participate because he "has stood hand-in-hand with leaders of both parties in denouncing hate, bigotry and violence".

In his prayer, Suleiman said, in part: "We pray for peace, not war, love not hate, benevolence not greed, unity not division." 

"Let us be for truth, no matter who is for or against it. And justice, no matter who is for or against. And hope, no matter what obstacles lie ahead."

Describing the prayer, Colin Allred, a Democratic congressman from Texas, said: "Suleiman's message of peace, unity, and support for our fellow Americans is needed now, more than ever. I thank him dearly for stopping by my office and always representing the best of North Texas.”