He was denounced as anti-Muslim by protesters outside, but controversial author Steven Emerson drew applause inside Tucson's Jewish Community Center on Monday night when he called on Muslim leaders to "unambiguously condemn" Islamist terrorist groups.
He also drew applause when he criticized Western newspapers for succumbing to intimidation and "appeasing Muslim demands" by not running controversial Muslim cartoons that made headlines this year.
Hard-core jihadists are a minority of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims, he said. But he added that minority is disproportionately influential and said genuinely moderate Muslims would do well to better empower themselves by vocally condemning groups he connects with terrorism — Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Qaida.
The author of the 2002 bestseller "American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us," Emerson spoke as part of the University of Arizona's Shaol Pozez Memorial Lectureship Series, sponsored by the UA's Center for Judaic Studies. The title of his speech was "The Grand Deception: Militant Islam, the Media and the West."
Typically the lecture series attracts about 250 people, Judaic Studies Director J. Edward Wright said. Emerson's talk attracted at least 500 people.
Organizers had to open a sliding wall in the packed auditorium to accommodate the overflow. Many in the audience gave him a standing ovation when his talk was complete.
Critics cast Emerson as a disingenuous "fear-monger" and accuse him of carelessly interchanging the words "Muslim" and "terrorist." About 25 protesters stood outside the center holding a banner with writing that said "Scapegoating hurts us all." Another banner read "We refuse to be enemies."
"We're concerned about the culture of scapegoating Muslims in this country," said Tucsonan Jessica Weinberg, a 35-year-old UA graduate student who is Jewish and was one of those protesting. "Historically, Jews know what it's like to be scapegoated. We should recognize when that happens to others."
Weinberg did not listen to Emerson's talk because she thought it would be too upsetting.
Though he wasn't surprised about the protest, Emerson suggested the protesters' energies would be better spent rallying against terrorism and Islamic jihad. "They have misplaced priorities," he said.
Emerson said claims from many Muslims that the West is engaged in a war on Islam fuels Muslim communities' paranoia that Muslims are being selectively targeted for racist reasons or because Western foreign policy is anti-Muslim. He said that tactic is likewise used by terrorists.
The vitriol Emerson attracts is largely based on his contention that groups representing themselves as mainstream Muslims often have terrorist ties.
"The real aim of these groups is to neutralize the government's war on terrorism and to change its conduct in foreign affairs," he said. "The first reaction to the London and Toronto arrests was not to applaud the government's actions but to warn of an anti-Islamic backlash."
One group he spoke about Monday was the Council on American-Islamic Relations — CAIR — a nonprofit organization that says it is America's largest Islamic civil liberties group. Emerson says legitimizing CAIR is counterproductive to the war on terrorism.
"Publicly these groups insist righteously that they are against terrorism — their assertions are dutifully reported by the media," Emerson said. "But in fact, the media ignores compelling evidence of their origins and patent defense and/or veneration of radical Islamist leaders such as Hasan al Turabi of the Sudan and even the Taliban pre-9/11."
CAIR denies the accusations.
"Unfortunately, Mr. Emerson has a long history of seeking to marginalize and disenfranchise the American Muslim community and its institutions through the use of guilt by association, smears and distortions," said CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper, who is based in Washington, D.C., and was not at the talk.
Similarly, Tucsonan Mohyeddin Abdulaziz, a 59-year-old Muslim, said he believes Emerson preaches hate. Abdulaziz participated in the protest.