Will devotion to dialogue stop us from understanding another synagogue attack?

The Texas hostage-taker wanted to release an anti-Semitic terrorist whose freedom is sought by Muslim groups. Is it Islamophobic to discuss who might have inspired the incident?

A reportedly armed assailant took Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, a married father of two who has served the synagogue since 2006, and three others hostage during Shabbat-morning services in a reported attempt to free a Pakistani woman who has ties with Al-Qaeda, Jan. 15, 2022. Source: Twitter.
A reportedly armed assailant took Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, a married father of two who has served the synagogue since 2006, and three others hostage during Shabbat-morning services in a reported attempt to free a Pakistani woman who has ties with Al-Qaeda, Jan. 15, 2022. Source: Twitter.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The first and most important reaction to the latest attack upon an American synagogue must be prayers of thanksgiving for the fact that neither Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker nor any members of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, was harmed after being taken hostage. The 11-hour ordeal ended when Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old British national, was shot dead by an FBI SWAT team that entered the synagogue in a suburb of Fort Worth.

But once we express our gratitude at this outcome, is it permissible to discuss what or who might have helped inspire the terrorist assault on a house of worship?

Perhaps not.

Since the attacker was a Muslim seeking to free a notorious Islamist terrorist who is widely considered either a heroine or victim of Islamophobic persecution by some in the Muslim community, the instincts of many Americans, including Jews, is to downplay the specifics. Instead, there will be a great deal of talk about the need for greater security at synagogues and other Jewish institutions, which is both constructive and to the point. More than that, there will be a desire on the part of many Jews to emphasize above all the need to avoid any finger-pointing, dot-connecting or comments about the incident that might impinge on our desire for good relations and continued dialogue with American Muslims or the groups that purport to represent them. And if that means simply moving on from the incident as quickly as possible, then all the better.

To the extent that this indicates that no one should blame innocent Muslims who have nothing to do with this, then that is entirely correct. However, as we have seen over the past two decades since 9/11, every time an Islamist is behind an act of terrorism, the desire to avoid fueling a backlash against Muslims is often so great that it helps create a counter-narrative in which the main takeaway is always to speak of the main danger being condoning more Islamophobia, rather than Islamist terrorism or those who support or rationalize it.

That, of course, was very different from the reaction to past synagogue attacks, where those responsible were identified as right-wing extremists. Under those circumstances, many in the Jewish community were quick to jump to conclusions about what might have somehow inspired the incidents, no matter how tenuous the connection.

The anti-Semitic murderer who attacked a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 condemned former President Donald Trump in his online ravings for being a friend of Israel and the Jews. Yet many in the organized Jewish world were ready to connect Trump to the atrocity because they considered the tone of his rhetoric or his attacks on political foes or opposition to illegal immigration to be responsible for motivating the killer, who, among other reasons, hated liberal Jews for supporting immigrants. Many even protested Trump’s entirely appropriate decision to visit the synagogue and show solidarity with a Jewish community to which he has ties of both blood and a shared love of the Jewish state. Indeed, it is an article of faith among many political liberals that Trump is an anti-Semite or an enabler of anti-Semites, and they see incidents like the deadly attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif., as providing, among other things, proof of the justification for their accusation.

That immediate and enthusiastic search for a villain in those incidents other than the actual perpetrator was wrong, and it should not be repeated after the Colleyville attack. We don’t know a lot about the man who attacked the Texas synagogue, and it may be that he was mentally ill—something that may be true of others who have committed acts of violence. Still, it is not inappropriate to speak of those who actually do support anti-Semitism and who have popularized a cause that was apparently the motivation for the attack in Colleyville.

Akram entered the synagogue during services that were being live-streamed via Zoom on Facebook. According to reports, he demanded the release of his “sister,” Aafia Siddiqui. The object of his failed effort is a Pakistani-born terrorist holding degrees from both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brandeis University, and who is currently serving an 86-year sentence in a federal facility in Fort Worth for attempting to murder U.S. servicemen in Afghanistan and conspiring to attack sites in New York with a “dirty bomb.” Siddiqui is notorious not just for her crimes but for engaging in a series of anti-Semitic outbursts during her trial in 2010, and for expressing various conspiracy theories about Jews and Israel.

Despite this, she is considered a victim and an object of sympathy by those, like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), that believes her to be a victim of the Islamophobia unleashed across America by the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, CAIR, which condemned the incident at the synagogue, has been outspoken in advocating for Siddiqui’s freedom, having organized various events promoting her cause as recently as this past November, including one featuring political activist and speaker Linda Sarsour, another notorious anti-Semite.

Indeed, Siddiqui’s lawyer, Marwa Elbially, is president of the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of CAIR.

The group has recently been in the news for its effort to shut down funding of those organizations that monitor extremism, hatred and anti-Semitism in the Arab and Muslim world because they supposedly incite Islamophobia. But as I’ve noted, a group that was founded as a political front for fundraisers for Hamas terrorists who continue to spread and condone anti-Semitism to this day are in no position to be considered an authority on fighting bigotry.

That’s why those who take CAIR’s protestations about opposition to anti-Semitism or their horror at attacks on synagogues at face value are making a serious mistake. The same is true for their attempt to separate their claims that Siddiqui is an innocent who was framed by the government in the course of an Islamophobic war on terrorism from what happened at the synagogue.

To state this is not to condone any rhetoric that seeks to blame Muslims in general for the act of an individual. Whatever drove Akram to seek his own death and that of others in order to free a Jew-hating terrorist, it is not inappropriate to note that the rising tide of anti-Semitism around the globe is largely fueled by those, like CAIR, who seek to demonize Israel and Jews.

When that leads to violence—whether in the Middle East, Europe, on the streets of American cities or at a synagogue where people are gathered for Sabbath worship—it is far from out of bounds to call out those who have rationalized or promoted ideological attacks on Jews. That includes conspiracy theories like the ones that are at the heart of the movement to transform a Jew-hating would-be killer like Siddiqui into an innocent victim of the Zionists and their American allies.

Instead of focusing on that, all too many are attempting to claim, including even the FBI in its initial statement after the conclusion of the incident, that what happened has nothing to do with the Jews and, by implication, anti-Semitism.

We are grateful that as traumatic as it must have been for the hostages and the local community, the outcome in Colleyville was not the tragedy that the attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway turned out to be. But neither the survival of the intended victims nor the wish to avoid conflict with those who claim to represent Muslims should cause us to avert our eyes from the truth about groups that seek to mainstream anti-Semitism even while pretending to oppose it.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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