A scholar of Islam who works to bridge the divide between Chicago's Muslims and Jews has backed out of testifying in the criminal case of a Muslim cleric because the scholar's pretrial statement has sparked controversy among some local Jewish leaders.
Scott Alexander, the Harvard-educated director of Catholic-Islamic studies at Catholic Theological Union, submitted statements last month in the case of Fawaz Damra, a Cleveland imam charged with lying to immigration officials about ties to militant Islamic groups.
In one of the statements submitted to the court, Alexander provided an explanation for some incendiary language used by Damra.
At a 1991 Chicago rally, the imam called for "directing all the rifles at the first and last enemy of the Islamic nation and that is the sons of monkeys and pigs, the Jews."
Alexander, 42, serving as an expert witness for the defense, stated that Damra's remarks were part of the religious and political rhetoric used by Palestinians opposed to the Israeli occupation to draw supporters to their cause.
"As unquestionably hate-filled and thus morally reprehensible as such language is, when Palestinians refer to Jews as `descended from apes and swine,' or encourage support for those who `kill Jews,' they do so with the reasonably justifiable self-image of victim and persecuted, not of victimizer and persecutor," Alexander wrote in the summary of his proposed testimony.
Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, said Friday that Alexander's statements were "appalling."
Alexander "didn't use the initial language, but he's justifying it, apologizing for it, whitewashing it," Kotzin said. "I'm surprised to see this expressed by a person in his position."
Some other Jewish leaders who know Alexander through their interfaith work in Chicago were less critical, saying they think he was not offering his opinion but an explanation for Damra's language and that of many Palestinians.
"I know Scott well and he is not an anti-Semite," said Rabbi Ira Youdovin, executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis. "However, he made statements that at best were ill-conceived. But we have resolved our conflict and this could strengthen interfaith dialogue. We have different perceptions and we are willing to discuss them."
Kotzin, Youdovin and Emily Soloff, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, sent a letter Friday to Rev. Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union, expressing "profound distress" and seeking a meeting on the matter. They declined to provide a copy of the letter.
Alexander said he was not endorsing Damra's language, but was trying to provide a deeper understanding, based on the Koran and the ideas of Islamic theologians, of why a Palestinian opposed to the Israeli occupation would use violent language.
"I tried to emphasize the vile nature of the language," Alexander said. "I was asked to testify whether there were any Palestinian contexts in which this hateful and violent language would not be construed as persecution."
Alexander said he found in the teachings of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian ideologue and inspiration behind the current radical Islamic movement, that these curses are used to name oppressors.
"This is evidence that there might be people who use hateful and violent language in their minds to name those they perceive to be the oppressor," he said.
"This is not me talking, this is Qutb," he added.
John Esposito, a professor at Georgetown University and a leading Islamic scholar, said Alexander's explanation was "very accurate."
"Alexander is not espousing or agreeing with this language but simply saying how the holy texts in Islam are used and abused," Esposito said.
Alexander said he was "deeply sorry" for what he says is a misunderstanding. He said he planned to send a letter of apology to some Chicago activists and religious leaders, including those in the Jewish community.
He also said he will not testify in Damra's trial, scheduled to start Tuesday, because the complexity of the subject could again cause his statements to be misunderstood.
"I am not testifying because I realize this threatens the relationship with our Jewish friends," he said.
"I did not anticipate the hurt this is causing the Jewish community."
Since joining the Catholic Theological Union about three years ago, Alexander has helped organize public interfaith discussions called "Chicago Conversations in Faith."
Senior said the institution stands behind Alexander but regrets if his remarks have hurt Jews.
"Concerning the question being raised, `Is Scott a hater of the Jews?' I want to say that on behalf of CTU we would never tolerate it if there was any hint of someone being anti-Jewish or anti-Muslim," Senior said. "I am convinced that there is nothing like that in Scott's attitudes."
Senior said Alexander will continue to represent the school in interfaith work in Chicago.
"We not only regret the harm that Scott's statements have caused, but we will work hard to repair this and be in discussion with our Jewish friends to resolve the issue," he said.
Damra was arrested this year and charged with hiding ties to the militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has taken responsibility for suicide bombings in Israel, and other groups when he applied for U.S. citizenship in 1993. He also was charged with falsely stating that he had never incited persecution based on religion.
Damra, the Palestinian-born prayer leader of the Islamic Center of Greater Cleveland, the largest mosque in Ohio, has pleaded not guilty.
In the trial, the government is expected to contend that Damra's language at the 1991 rally and other conferences incited persecution of Jews. The defense is expected to argue that the speeches reflected his views as an oppressed Palestinian.
In court papers, the judge in the case said Alexander's testimony would have supported that argument.
Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, a videotape of Damra's speech at the Chicago rally was aired on Cleveland television stations. The tape had been released by immigration agents in a deportation case in Florida involving another man.
Damra apologized for the remarks after a public outcry. The president of his mosque also denounced Damra's words, calling them "a serious compromise of our faith," according to a report in October 2001 in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.