Mayor Bloomberg's decision to suspend instead of firing the city jail system's top chaplain was criticized yesterday by some as a watered down punishment that relied more on technicality than substance.
Surrounded by a group of clergy members, the mayor announced that Imam Umar Abdul-Jalil would be suspended for two weeks without pay after saying, among other things, that "the greatest terrorists in the world occupy the White House."
The mayor made it clear that the punishment was not doled out for what the imam said but for failing to qualify his comments, which were part of two speeches delivered last year, by saying that he was talking as a private citizen, not a city employee.
In a fervent freedom of speech argument, Mr. Bloomberg said the imam had every right to state his mind, even if what he said offended people.
"Just because somebody criticizes the government or makes comments that are construed as offensive does not mean that that person is an agent of violence or an enemy of the United States," Mr. Bloomberg said.
The announcement comes nearly a week after Mr. Bloomberg launched an investigation into the imam's comments, which also included a line about not allowing "the Zionists of the media to dictate what Islam is to us." Mr. Bloomberg said there is no indication that Abdul-Jalil, who is paid $76,602 a year and oversees 40 other chaplains, has used his position to encourage inmates to act out with violence.
Council Member Simcha Felder said he was "confused" by the decision. He said that while he had not seen the speeches and did not have an opinion about whether the statements were appropriate, the city has the right to judge non-civil service members such as Abdul-Jalil, who serve at the behest of their bosses.
Mr. Felder said he has heard positive things about Abdul-Jalil from rabbis, but does not buy the rationale that those in the imam's position can say whatever they want. The head of the Investigative Project, Steven Emerson, who released the imam's speech last week, said the case should have raised questions about militant Islamic recruitment in the prison system.
"The issue is not about freedom of speech," he said during a telephone interview. "I don't think anyone disagrees that Jalil has the right to make these comments. The question is does he have the right to make them in his capacity as the head correctional chaplain?"
The imam's lawyer, Norman Siegel, a civil rights attorney, said the city went too far with its punishment and that it was clear Abdul-Jalil was speaking on his own behalf. He also did not rule out the possibility that he would challenge the punishment and said the imam was sorry that his statements were "taken out of context."
The mayor's actions did have some supporters. The executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, Joseph Potasnik, said he was troubled by comments in the speech, but was behind the decision not to fire him. He was on hand yesterday for the mayor's City Hall announcement.
Other said they thought mayor recognized that he did not have the legal footing to fire the imam.
The head of the New York region of the Anti-Defamation League, Joel Levy, said he supported the mayor.
He said it seemed like the mayor struggled with the decision, but that he probably determined he could not legally dismiss the imam. He also said he would hold out hope for an apology from the imam.