By Amy Gardner and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 29, 2007
Esam S. Omeish, a Fairfax County surgeon and Muslim leader who resigned from a Virginia immigration commission after videotapes of him making controversial remarks surfaced on the Internet, said yesterday that he has never promoted violence and accused his critics of perpetrating a "smear campaign" against him.
Surrounded by Christian and Muslim leaders as well as a prominent antiwar activist, Omeish said at a news conference that his remarks were taken out of context. Although he is a fierce critic of Israeli military force against Palestinian civilians in Lebanon and the occupied territories, Omeish said he has consistently pushed for a peaceful solution to conflict in the Middle East.
In particular, Omeish's exhortation at an Islamic political rally in 2000 to support "the jihad way" -- posted on YouTube this week -- caused consternation among some elected officials who interpreted the remark as a call to arms and a tacit endorsement of terrorism. But jihad is a broad term meaning "struggle," Omeish said.
"It was related to giving support to people who are under occupation and who are under severe conditions of repression," Omeish said at a hotel near Baileys Crossroads.
He said: "It was not a call for violence. It was never any condoning of terrorism or any violent acts."
A chorus of supporters echoed Omeish's defense, including several Christian leaders from Washington and Northern Virginia. Brian Becker, national coordinator of the antiwar ANSWER Coalition, also spoke on Omeish's behalf.
"At almost every one of the big peace marches that have happened in the Washington, D.C., area, including the very last march of tens of thousand of people, led by Iraq war veterans and Gold Star mothers whose children have perished in Iraq, Dr. Omeish was there as one of the foremost leaders," Becker said. "And so we were stunned and shocked that a small group of right-wing anti-Muslim bigots would launch a campaign" against him.
Omeish is president of the Virginia-based Muslim American Society, the largest grass-roots Islamic organization in the United States and a frequent target of accusations that it is linked to terrorists. The group was founded by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative worldwide Islamist organization.
Omeish, 39, is also active at the Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center, a Falls Church mosque that was investigated after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Two of the Sept. 11 hijackers briefly attended the center after one of them befriended its imam, who has since left the country. The FBI cleared the imam, saying he did not have prior knowledge of the attacks.
Omeish is also by many accounts a dedicated surgeon and civic-minded member of his community who treated victims of the attack on the Pentagon. Omeish is chief of general surgery at Inova Alexandria Hospital. A native of Libya, he graduated from J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church and earned his undergraduate and medical degrees from Georgetown University. He lives with his wife and four children in Fairfax County.
The controversy over Omeish's appointment to the Virginia Commission on Immigration began this week when a Republican state delegate, C. Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah County, wrote a letter to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) saying that the Muslim American Society is of "questionable origins" with similar goals to Islamic terror organizations.
A Kaine spokesman initially characterized Gilbert's letter as xenophobic. But when video of Omeish speaking at political rallies surfaced Thursday on YouTube, the governor and Omeish agreed that he should step down. Kaine said Omeish's remarks caused him "concern" and might distract the immigration commission from its work analyzing the impact of immigration on Virginia in such areas as education and employment.
"The new commission on immigration will be tackling potentially contentious issues surrounding immigration," said Kaine spokesman Kevin Hall. "The governor was pleased that Dr. Omeish agreed that the controversy surrounding the doctor's political statements could seriously divert and distract from the important work of the commission."
Gilbert said yesterday that the governor's vetting of candidates for appointments should be improved.
"I don't know how a problem of this magnitude could have slipped through the Governor's screening process," Gilbert said in a statement distributed by the office of House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford). "Even a cursory internet search about the appointee in question would have also easily identified him as a leader of a potentially radical northern Virginia mosque."
Secretary of the Commonwealth Katherine K. Hanley, who is in charge of recommending appointments to Kaine, said her office will start conducting searches of LexisNexis and YouTube and other similar video Web sites as part of the vetting process in the future.
The state's vetting process includes criminal background, credit and professional license checks and a Google search, which sometimes produces videos -- but did not in this case.
"We really do research," Hanley said.
Others questioned Omeish's critics, insisting that the whole episode is more evidence of anti-Muslim intolerance and a desire to keep Muslims out of the public discourse.
"It trashes the reputation of a well-respected Muslim leader based on hype and hysteria," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations. "It unfolded just the way I thought it would. Bloggers use any opportunity they can to marginalize American Muslims and their leaders. It's political theater."