Esam S. Omeish, the Muslim leader from Fairfax County who resigned from the state immigration commission after controversial remarks made on video surfaced, defended his remarks today and said he was the victim of a smear campaign.
"The smear campaign brings forward comments and speech excerpts which were taken out of context . . . and used to undermine a whole community of faith in a relentless campaign of Islamophobia intimidation," Omeish said in an 11 a.m. news conference,
Omeish submitted his resignation to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) yesterday after video surfaced of one speech in which he referred to the "Israeli war machine" and another 38-second excerpt from a speech he made at a December 2000 rally in support of the "Jihad way."
"All these allegations revolve around obsolete historical associations, out of context statements wrapped in hateful, misleading insinuations by individuals who are bent on alienating and intimidating Muslim leaders and activists," Omeish said.
Omeish, who is also president of the Muslim American Society, defended the organization's record of moderation and nonviolence, saying their efforts help new Muslim immigrants assimilate, and reduce extremism.
He was joined at the news conference by several supporters, including Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society. Bray drew parallels to this controversy and the one that surrounded Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a Muslim who faced questions about his loyalty to the United States during his election campaign.
"I am truly disappointed that this type of thing continues to occur, over and over and over again," Bray said.
Last month, Kaine appointed Omeish, chief of the division of general surgery at Inova Alexandria Hospital, to a 20-member panel that is spending six months examining whether Virginia needs to do more to curtail illegal immigration.
After reviewing the videos, which were brought to Kaine's attention by a caller to his live monthly radio program, Kaine asked for Omeish's resignation from the Virginia Commission on Immigration.
"Dr. Omeish is a respected physician and community leader, yet I have been made aware of certain statements he has made which concern me," Kaine said in a statement. "Dr. Omeish indicated he did not want this controversy to distract from the important work of the commission."
The resignation could be embarrassing for Kaine as he tries to respond to calls to do more about illegal immigration. Republicans are using the overall issue to try to win votes in this fall's campaign for control of the General Assembly.
Kaine has taken a measured approach, placing blame on the federal government's failure to secure the borders and enact immigration reform. He has said he wanted the 20-member immigration commission, which the General Assembly created this year, to develop recommendations. House and Senate leaders appointed 10 members of the committee; Kaine appointed the other 10.
Omeish is also on the board of directors of the Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church. He graduated from Georgetown University.
In one of the videos, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lajn3zOoWt4, Omeish is shown speaking in August last year at a rally on the Mall in opposition to Israel's invasion of Lebanon that summer. Omeish demands that Israel release Lebanese political prisoners and condemns President Bush's use of the phrase "Islamic fascism."
"The invasion of Lebanon, the destruction of its infrastructure and the deliberate targeting of civilians during the barbaric and disproportionate Israeli war machine is indeed criminal and must end now," Omeish says on the video.
In another video, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E6t5QkFtks4, Omeish is speaking at a "Jerusalem day" rally in Lafayette Square. In the clip, dated Dec. 22, 2000, he urges the crowd to stand with Muslims fighting in the Middle East.
"We, Muslims of the Washington metropolitan area, are here today in subfreezing temperatures to tell our brothers and sisters that you have learned the way, that you have known the jihad way is the way to liberate your land," Omeish says. "And we, by standing here today despite the weather, we are telling them we are with you. We are supporting you." The clip shows 38 seconds of Omeish's speech, so the context of his remarks about jihad are unclear.
The Washington-based Investigative Project on Terrorism, which tracks what it thinks are radical Muslim groups, posted both videos on YouTube.
Omeish told the Associated Press late Thursday that his comments in the videos were taken out of context and that his reference to "the jihad way" was not a call for violent attacks.
"In Islam, jihad is a broad word that means constant struggle -- struggling spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, physically -- in all respects. So my words were in support of people who are resisting occupation and people who are trying to . . . remove oppression from their land," Omeish said.
Kaine appointed Omeish to the immigration panel because the governor wanted the group to be diverse and include a Muslim representative, administration officials said. The legislation establishing the panel also required that at least one member be a medical professional. Kaine said he will replace Omeish with another Muslim.
Omeish is on the board of directors of the Dar Al Hijrah center, one of the Washington area's oldest and largest mosques. It was scrutinized after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. At Inova Alexandria, Omeish was the surgeon on call after the Pentagon attack.
The FBI and the federal 9/11 commission concluded that two of the Sept. 11 hijackers briefly worshiped at the mosque after one of them befriended its imam in San Diego. FBI officials have said they found no evidence that the imam, who has since resigned and left the country, had prior knowledge of the attacks.
In 2005, Omeish joined a group of moderate Muslim clerics in the United States in denouncing Islamic terrorism overseas.
The Islamic center is closely affiliated with the Muslim American Society. Several of the group's founders had been active in the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that started in Egypt in the 1920s and advocates a purer, more restrictive form of Islam in the Middle East.
Before the videos surfaced, Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) had written a letter to Kaine on Tuesday expressing concern about Omeish's links to the Muslim American Society.
"There are many of our fellow Muslim citizens who value our democratic institutions and constitutional guarantees," Gilbert wrote. "The origins, affiliations and goals of the Muslim American Society, however, should be a matter of grave concern to all Virginians."
Before he saw the videos, Kevin Hall, Kaine's spokesman, dismissed Gilbert's letter as xenophobic. After Omeish resigned, Gilbert praised Kaine for acting swiftly to remove him.
"I would hope that the governor's staff was vetting candidates for state commissions a little better, but I am certainly pleased the governor himself has taken action," Gilbert said.
Hall said the governor's office carefully scrutinizes appointees to state commissions. "But I think it is fair to say that YouTube was not part of the vetting process in this case," Hall said. "It certainly will be from here on out."
Staff writers Pamela Constable, Dan Eggen and Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.