The last time the public got a good look at Esam Omeish, he was resigning from a Virginia immigration panel, claiming that the posting of videos showing him praising Palestinians who chose "the jihad way" to liberate their land was part of a smear campaign against him.
Now Omeish is diving into the deep end of smear campaigns, offering himself as a candidate for a partisan legislative seat in Northern Virginia. Omeish is among four Democrats vying to win their party's nomination in District 35 in the Virginia House of Delegates.
According to his campaign website, Omeish would focus on health care, traffic congestion and education if sent to Richmond. The site emphasizes his Northern Virginia roots and his medical career. It borrows themes from Barack Obama's presidential campaign, including a logo emphasizing the letter "O" from his last name. Like Obama, Omeish also calls himself "a community organizer," who "has served on the board of a number of non-profit organizations."
Omeish actually ran a national religious organization, yet there's not one reference to the Muslim American Society (MAS) or his role as president anywhere on the campaign site. Neither is there any mention of Omeish's 2007 appointment by Gov. Tim Kaine to the Virginia Commission on Immigration.
Omeish no longer is listed as president on the MAS website, although it is not clear when his term may have ended or who succeeded him. MAS was founded by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an 80-year-old Egyptian religious/political movement that seeks to make Islamic law, or Shariah, the controlling basis for society.
As a college student, Omeish was president of the Muslim Students Association at Georgetown University. Like MAS, the student association was founded by Muslim Brotherhood members in the United States. Omeish insists any Brotherhood connections are a thing of the past. But an examination of his speeches and sermons obtained by the Investigative Project on Terrorism shows Omeish repeatedly praising Hamas leaders and speaking of using his religion to transform American society. Among the examples:
- In an April 2004 speech at a MAS conference in Overland Park, Kan., Omeish was asked about conditions in the Middle East and referred to Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin, who was killed in an Israeli attack a month earlier as "our beloved Sheikh Ahmed Yassin:"
"Bullets and bombs are going off upon our brothers in Philistine [Palestine] and we are sitting here and saying (Arabic phrase – there is no power and no strength save in God), instead of feeling that this is our tax money and it is our dollars that killed our beloved Sheikh Ahmed Yassin (Arabic – may God have mercy on him). If we don't take that responsibility we will never make the necessary changes that will prevent this administration or any administration that will come beyond it from doing the same thing to our beloved Muslims all over the world."
In that same appearance, he urged the audience to integrate, rather than assimilate, arguing it was better to have Islam serve as a transformational force in America. It was time, he said, to take the bull by the horns in "making sure that I will not accept the evils of this society because they are putting down this society and I must do everything in my capacity to correct those ills. It goes towards perfecting the society so it can carry the light of Allah so it can establish a presence of what a perfect society under the guidance of Allah is."
Islam will either "become the dominant religion of the next century," he said, or "we may be forcibly rejected from the West because of forces of intolerance, racism and bigotry are present and grow larger."
- In March 2007, Omeish spoke at a dinner for Abdelhaleem Ashqar and Mohammed Salah. Prosecutors say the men "were active members in Hamas who engaged in the provision of logistical, financial, strategic and administrative support to further the objective of Hamas." While they were acquitted of conspiracy charges, Salah was convicted of obstruction for lying about his support for Hamas. Ashqar was sentenced to 11 years in prison after being convicted of contempt for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury investigating Hamas support in the United States. Omeish did not refer to those convictions in his remarks:
"My dear respected brothers and sisters, I would like for us to start by praying for Allah's (UI few words) by congratulating my dear, beloved brother Abdelhaleem Ashqar, and my dear brother Mohammed Salah, who's not with us, but our prayers and thoughts are for him."
Ashqar helped organize a secret 1993 gathering of Hamas members and supporters in America to discuss ways to derail the recently signed Oslo Peace Accord. Hamas opposed the peace deal because it moved toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and because members feared being marginalized if the secular Fatah movement controlled the first Palestinian Authority.
Omeish also wrote a letter of support for Ashqar, urging the judge to give Ashqar a light sentence:
"I have known Dr. Ashqar on a personal and community levels for a long time. He has been a folk legend for his resistance to testifying against anybody in what he perceives as a witch hunt for any supporters of the Palestinian rights."
- In a January 2009 sermon at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque, Omeish lamented U.S. support for Israel during the recent fighting in Gaza. The U.S. ambassador stood in the way of a United Nations resolution condemning Israeli bombings, he said. The planes dropping those bombs were paid by U.S. tax dollars:
"We need to understand our faith, understand its inherent message, understand the example of the prophet sallallahu alaihi wa sallam and take forward the transformation, a real change within our community that embraces their identity as an American, but understand their mission in life is the values and the principles of Islam, which are compatible with their identity, and must understand that we cannot remain complacent. We cannot allow the status quo to continue. We need an American Islamic movement that transforms our status, that impacts our society, and that brings forth the change that we want to see."
When it comes to the Muslim American Society, Omeish admits its founders were Brotherhood members. But any connections, he told reporters after resigning from the immigration board, have long since passed:
"Today, MAS has no ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood does not exist as far as we know in the United States. We are staunchly American. We're legal, transparent. Our transactions are to the full extent of the law. And we have no way or interest, really, to speak on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood overseas. We still view them as a good ally that our government engages in different capacities in the Middle East - in Iraq in the form of the Islamic Party, in Egypt in avenues of social reform, in different parts. And we think that they do hold a lot of stake in the shaping of the minds and hearts of Muslims in the Middle East. So it behooves as an American policy makers to engage those parties to be able to forge a more stable relationship with the Muslim countries."
Finally, there are the speeches that prompted his resignation from the immigration board. In October 2000, Omeish congratulated Palestinians for "giving up their lives for the sake Allah." Two months later, he praised those who learned "the jihad way is the way to liberate your land." He added, "We are telling them that we are with you and we are supporting you and we will do everything that we can, Insh'Allah, to help your cause."
After his resignation, Omeish denied his words condoned violence:
"I speak out of the pulpit, and we do talk about jihad as a concept that is accepted Islamically, a concept that is in the broader sense is truly an honorable term that we can apply in our daily life. It means emotional, intellectual as well as physical struggle. And I think it's important for us, if we want to engage the Muslim community, it's not to allow ourselves to define them but to allow them to define themselves for who they are. Jihad does not mean holy war. Jihad does not mean Crusades. In fact, even if you look historically, the way where these terms were developed, they never had that connotation in Islam."
Campaign finance reports and district demographics indicate Omeish may be facing an uphill climb in his first bid for public office. He may be helped by MAS' well organized voter registration and get-out-the-vote machine, driven by everything from its Freedom Foundation to Boy and Girl Scout troops.
But two of his opponents are better financed, and one seeks to make a little history of his own. Mark Keam, a former chief counsel for Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin on the Senate Judiciary Committee, leads the pack in fundraising and seems to have deeper political connections as a result of his experience. Keam, who was born in Korea, is trying to become the first Asian-American elected to Virginia's legislature. He raised $123,000 in the first quarter and had more than $100,000 in the bank when April began.
Omeish, a surgeon, collected about $16,000 and loaned his campaign $45,000. A delegate is paid $17,640 per year. The primary is June 9.