Questions arise about Muslim scholar
Posted: May 18, 2006Milwaukee Journal Sentinel http://www.jsonline.com/story/index.aspx?id=425069
Zulfiqar Ali Shah has emerged as one of the leading voices of the city's Islamic community.
Early this year, Shah, a national Muslim leader, was named the religious director of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, and just this month he played a central role in meeting and greeting the public during an open house at the Islamic Center.
Which raises the question: Who is Shah?
In the months after Sept. 11, 2001, Shah, then the head of the Islamic Circle of North America, was quoted in the media as a voice of reason, arguing that the Muslim faith doesn't condone the terrorist acts of the suicide bombers, who he said were on the fringes of the community.
"Whatever has happened in Washington and New York has got nothing to do with Islam," Shah said in a speech in Florida two weeks after the attacks.
But before long, questions were being raised about the company Shah keeps.
"Mr. Shah appears to have formed alliances with people who have records of anti-Semitism," said Adam Schupack of the Anti-Defamation League's Chicago office. "Mr. Shah's record raises troubling questions that need to be clarified."
In 2003, Shah was the driving force behind the Universal Heritage Foundation, a group trying to open an interfaith theme park near Disney World in Florida. The initiative went down in flames not long after Shah invited several anti-Western extremists to speak at a conference to raise support for the venture.
Among Shah's guests was Shaikh Abdur-Rahman Al-Sudais, the senior imam at the Grand Mosque in Mecca who had been quoted by several newspapers in 2002 as calling Jews "the scum of humanity, the rats of the world, the killers of prophets and the grandsons of monkeys and pigs."
At the time, the Orlando Sentinel reported that more than two dozen of the speakers, in addition to Al-Sudais, had links to hate groups. The gathering was condemned by the Anti-Defamation League in Florida.
"The message may not be of tolerance and respect," said then-ADL spokesman Mark Medin. "It may be a message of intolerance and anti-Semitism."
Just last fall, Shah was hired as the Southeast Asia director for KindHearts, an Ohio-based Muslim charity with branches in Lebanon, Pakistan and the Gaza Strip. The assets of KindHearts were frozen by the U.S. Department of the Treasury in February while it probes allegations that the group was funneling money to the militant Muslim group Hamas.
Hamas recently won control of the Palestinian Authority but is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S.
KindHearts' leaders have denied wrongdoing.
Some of Shah's own words have also raised eyebrows.
Speaking in Chicago as head of the Islamic Circle, Shah said of Israel:
"If we are unable to stop the Jews now, their next stop is Yathrib (the Saudi Arabian city of Medina) where the Jews used to live until their expulsion by Prophet Muhammad. That's the pinnacle of their motives."
Asked Thursday about the baggage he brought with him to Milwaukee, the charismatic and glib Shah defended his past associations - often in spirited fashion.
He acknowledged making the comment about Medina but said it was a joke in response to a question about Israel.
As for bringing Al-Sudais to Florida, he said he was clueless that the imam had been quoted spewing anti-Semitic rhetoric. When the stories about Al-Sudais' past remarks hit the Florida media, Shah said, Al-Sudais told him he never made the comment.
Shah told us that because of the uproar - and because he did not agree with statements attributed to Al-Sudais - he regretted inviting him and ultimately apologized for doing so.
"If my invitation has basically hurt somebody, I apologize," he said Thursday.
When he took the job with KindHearts, he said, he was unaware of the group's alleged ties to terrorist groups. During his two-month stint there, he said, his attention was focused on helping earthquake victims in his native Pakistan.
Shah's boss, Othman Atta, president of the Islamic Society, said the villain in the KindHearts' episode is the U.S. government.
"The government is saying, 'Based on suspicions, we are going to close them down until we're able to determine if these accusations are true,' " Atta said. "They have the right to close them down, not based on actual fact, which is proven, but based on suspicion."
Before hiring Shah, Atta said, he reviewed some of the past criticisms leveled at the Muslim scholar, who holds a doctorate in comparative religion. Atta concluded the criticisms were unfounded allegations from fundamentalist Christians and extremist Jews.
"The only reason this stuff has come out is that there are individuals engaging in character assassination or trying to defame every Muslim scholar," Atta said.
But others suggest that whom Shah hangs with says a lot about who he is.
"I would not say he's a terrorist. It shouldn't be like, 'Oh, my God, this guy is living next door to me,' " said Tamar Tesler, a senior research analyst at the privately funded Investigative Project on Terrorism. "What he's not telling you is what he and the organizations he's been affiliated with are here to do - basically to propagate the religion, a very specific version of the religion, a more conservative brand of Islam."