Fawaz Damra, the Palestinian-born leader of Ohio's largest mosque, was convicted yesterday of lying about his connections to terrorist organizations when he applied for U.S. citizenship. As a result he may be sentenced to up to five years imprisonment, fined $5,000, and face deportation.
The high profile court case turned on videotapes showing Damra calling Jews "the sons of monkeys and pigs" and saying that the Muslim nation will not regain its glory until their "removal."
Faced with the daunting task of explaining away these and other statements, the defense team called upon two academic specialists on Islam and the Middle East to place them in context and neutralize them. Not an easy task, to be sure, but very much the sort of things Middle East studies profs, trained in post-modern theory and all that, are well-equipped to do.
The duo were Scott Alexander, director of Catholic-Muslim studies at Chicago's Catholic Theological Union, and Michael Dahan, a professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. They were ready to do their part. Alexander explained in pre-trial testimony:
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.
For his part, Dahan contended in testimony that "The statements Fawaz Damra made on the tapes were examples of political rhetoric frequently used by Palestinians during that time period."
Moreover, he grandly announced that he "reached this conclusion based on the use of discourse analysis methodology." Discourse Analysis is an obscure and highly complex theory that is usually applied to indigenous peoples in conversational dialogue analysis. Dahan uses it to insist that one cannot take any hate-filled, violent statement at face value. In other words, Damra did not really mean what he said.
With such a powerhouse team of witnesses lined up, with their creative arguments, how could the defense lose?
But then something unexpected happened.
Both of the scholars fell by the wayside.
On the eve of the trial, Alexander made a stunning about-turn. He told the court he would not provide expert testimony for Damra. And then, rather than slink quietly away, he took the surprising step of writing a letter to the press in which he openly condemned the very statements by Damra that he previously had so vigorously defended. His letter stated: "Mr. Damra did indeed promote violence and hatred. I unreservedly condemn the speeches and actions of Mr. Damra in the early 1990s when he was advocating and helping to raise money for movements that perpetrate violent attacks on Israeli citizens."
No less astonishing, during research for the case, Ms. Blumenfeld discovered that Dahan's sworn testimony was plagiarized from two sources, one taken completely out of context concerning Finnish perceptions of the media and the other a definition of Discourse Analysis in a textbook. Dahan had quoted verbatim substantial portions of the original text in his testimony. More incriminating yet, his bibliography exposed him, for Dahan inadvertently copied from his source a reference to a book that he did not cite.
Understandably, the defense did not utilize the written testimonies of these scholars. And one can only imagine how, on the stand, a remorseful Alexander or an exposed Dahan would have damaged Damra's case. Thus did the imam find himself bereft of the testimonies of these great stars in his firmament.
Not having the benefit of these brilliant and dedicated minds, the jury was unable to be persuaded how Damra's fulminations were perfectly acceptable. So it did what it had to do and, after a short deliberation, found Damra guilty of lying.
Perhaps there is a lesson for lawyers to be learned in the self-destruction of the Damra defense: choose your Middle East specialist wisely, as the wrong one might undermine your carefully constructed case.
Daniel Pipes (www.DanielPipes.org) is director of the Middle East Forum. Teri Blumenfeld is a writer in Silicon Valley, California.