In communicating with Hassan Shibly, it’s hard to see why this frequent guest speaker at schools in New York would be embroiled in a controversy. He’s easy to converse with and kind. He passionately condemns terrorism (including the 9/11 attacks) and sings the praises of America. But shortly after January 10, when he gave nine presentations during his fourth visit to Clarence High School, he became part of a controversy when a mother of a student that listened to Shibly reported that he blamed the 9/11 attacks on U.S. foreign policy, specifically support for Israel. The mother later found out that he doesn’t consider Hezbollah to be a terrorist group. School officials defended Shibly in emails to the mother and he defends his position by saying it is backed by top political scientists.
Shibly says he has spoken to over 40 high school classes in New York. He claims that he only focuses on the basics of Islam and avoids discussion of political issues unless asked during the Q&A session. Shibly engaged in a back-and-forth with Nonie Darwish over what he was alleged to have said (it can be read here). He attributes the criticism of him by the mother and Darwish to an anti-Islam agenda. The mother says her 14-year old son lacks the political awareness to make up the statements he said Shibly made, and indeed, background research on Shibly does show that he has controversial beliefs that parents should be aware of.
Shibly is not shy about stating that “Hezbollah is absolutely not a terrorist organization.” Rather, he says the group is a “resistance movement” and “any war against them is illegitimate.” On his Facebook page, he posted an interview where Norman Finkelstein praises the group. In his extensive communication with me, he has refused to condemn Hamas as a whole or refer to them as a “terrorist” group, saying such labels are too simplistic and would write off the group as a peace partner that could be negotiated with. He instead condemned violence against innocent civilians by both Israel and Hamas, and said that he would not describe Israel as a “terrorist state” for the same reasons.
He compliments the late Syrian Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro, the former grand mufti of Syria, for “speak[ing] out for the oppressed.” He links to Kuftaro’s website, and Shibly’s father has organized trips to the sheikh’s center in Syria. Although Shibly did not have a personal relationship with Kuftaro, that isn’t the case with his father. In 2002, Kuftaro had neo-Nazi William Baker as a speaker at his mosque, as well as Louis Farrakhan. In 2004, Kuftaro called on the world’s Muslims to “use all means possible to thwart the aggression, including martyr operations against the belligerent American, British and Zionist invaders,” and specifically mentioned Iraq as a place where Muslims should fight. He also held a meeting with Hamas leaders where he said all Muslims were required “to do jihad upon the Zionists.”
Shibly also praises Sheikh Rajab Deeb, a top disciple of Kuftaro’s. Deeb has called on Syria to obtain nuclear weapons and rails against the Jewish lobby in the U.S. Deeb holds a position in the Syrian regime, which is listed by the U.S. as a state sponsor of terrorism. In May 2005, Deeb gave a sermon where he accused Jews of trying to “eradicate every race except their race.” Shibly said he was unaware of these statements and does not support them.
Shibly has received some attention for his lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, which has been dismissed. In 2004, he and others were detained at the Canadian border as they tried to re-enter the country from the Reviving the Islamic Spirit Conference in Toronto. He felt their detainment was based on the sole fact that they are Muslims, but the government said it “had credible intelligence that conferences similar to the one from which these individuals were leaving were being used by terrorist organizations to fundraise and to hide the travel of terrorists themselves.”
The mother of the student accuses Shibly of saying that the perpetrators of 9/11 were not Muslims, but he says this was taken out of context. He meant they were not acting as true Muslims and were motivated by politics, not religion or ideology. When questioned by me about who carried out the attacks, he said that al-Qaeda was “probably” behind them but he was unsure.
He cited three stories about how the U.S. supposedly lied to get involved in Vietnam, British operatives disguised as terrorists were arrested in Iraq after a clash with police, and Israeli agents were allegedly videotaping the attacks on the World Trade Center and cheering and were subsequently deported. Shibly also appears to court the idea that the U.S. is behind terrorism in Iraq to justify its presence. On July 16, 2009, he wrote on his Facebook page that “America does not (at least publicly) support Iraqi Suiccide [sic] Bombers.” He wrote in a December 9, 2007, note that “there is evidence that U.S. and UK are involved in instigating sectarian violence.”