By now, everyone knows the story of the young Canadian Muslim prayer leader from the mosque, Masjid Toronto, in downtown Toronto, Ayman Elkasrawy.
Elkasrawy had been “caught” on a YouTube video reciting a supplication during Ramadan last year that allegedly was anti-Semitic. It was translated originally by a former Israeli who served in the IDF who claims to be fluent in Arabic and at one time ran a right-wing website. The interpretation came under question in a lengthy Toronto Star article that documented a series of cultural awareness workshops I held for Elkasrawy when approached by him and his mosque to do so.
I came to know Elkasrawy very well over a three-month period and, having had more than 30 years experience identifying and countering anti-Semitism, I came to the clear conclusion that he was simply not an anti-Semite.
Did Elkasrawy recite a supplication that could be seen as hateful? Indeed. Even he admits as much and has apologized countless times for the pain it has wrought.
It’s complicated. Language can be tricky and religious liturgy even more so. In Elkasrawy’s mind, he was undoubtedly referencing Israeli soldiers violating what he sees as the sacred space of the Al Aqsa Mosque, the same space that Jews see as the equally sacred Temple Mount. However, he insists he never called for the killing of Jews or referred in any way to “Jewish filth,” as was referenced in the original translation that was posted on the right-wing website.
In fact, this was borne out by Star journalist Jennifer Yang, who consulted a number of world-renowned academics from institutions including the University of Texas, the University of Edinburgh, Georgetown University, the University of Toronto and the Understanding Islam Academy. All independently agreed that the translation was at best misguided and at worst manipulated to present the worst possible meaning.
For example, Elkasrawy never said that Jews should be killed “one by one” nor, say the experts, did he ever use the term “Jewish filth” in describing the presence of IDF soldiers at the mosque site. The entire episode is explained with great balance and an eye to fairness in the Star story “When words fail.” I urge you all to read it.
In the end, Elkasrawy came out of the cultural awareness sessions with a greater understanding of the power of words and the pain such words can cause when directed at another faith group. He swallowed the bitter pill of his error and was consumed with sorrow, so much so that he apologized on three separate occasions.
And even though as he once said to me, “Yes, I said this, but I didn’t say that,” referencing the original translation, he stands solidly by his apology, stating:
“I could only think about my Jewish peers and friends and how hurt they must feel. The combined effect of the mistranslated video and my wrong choice of words magnified the pain of the Jewish community.”
Elkasrawy also came out much wiser and more comprehending of our diverse country and the importance of interfaith dialogue. His words this time around were clear and uncompromising: “We need to create space for us to be able to talk to each other, to seek to understand one another, rather than rushing to judgment. In fact, we must stand together if we are going to combat Islamophobia and anti-Semitism – two threats that remind us that there is more that unites us than divides.” I regret that our leaders have closed their eyes and shut the door to Ayman Elkasrawy.
In the end, what is our obligation to this man, a man who clearly engaged in bitter, unnecessary speech that hurt many; a man who has accepted his guilt, apologized with sincerity and grace; a man who undertook to learn and to change; a man who has done tshuvah?
Surely we should do exactly as our sages tell us to do: accept his apology with the same grace and sincerity.