Sanders Rally Features Imam Who Claimed 'Connection' Between Israel and ISIS

Imam Al-Hasan Qazwini from the Islamic Institute of America, speaks during a campaign rally for Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders
Imam Al-Hasan Qazwini from the Islamic Institute of America, speaks during a campaign rally for Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders / Getty Images
March 10, 2020

An imam who claimed there was a connection between ISIS and Israel spoke at a Saturday rally for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

Hassan al-Qazwini, head of the Islamic Institute of America, spoke alongside other Muslim leaders at Sanders's rally in Dearborn, Mich., ahead of the state's Tuesday primary. In 2015, al-Qazwini said there was a "connection between ISIS and Israel" in a sermon posted by the institute to YouTube.

Al-Qazwini told the Az-Zahra Islamic Center in Detroit that while ISIS attacked Muslims all over the Middle East, "The only place that has been completely safe and has never been threatened by ISIS, nor [has it] been targeted, is Israel."

"This speaks volumes, that ISIS somehow is connected to Israel and ISIS is playing the role of the arm of the Zionist in the Muslim world, to kill more Muslims and non-Muslims so it can define the name of Islam—so people can blame Islam for its atrocities," he said. "Islam is benefiting? No. The number one beneficiary of all these atrocities, I tell you, is the Zionists and it is the Zionist regime."

Al-Qazwini's comments are in line with a conspiracy theory that the Anti-Defamation League warned was "rife" in the Muslim world at the time. "These false rumors are promoted by government and religious officials. Senior Egyptian and Iranian officials and prominent Sunni and Shia religious leaders have publicly claimed that Jews and Zionists are secretly using ISIS as a vehicle to kill Muslims and destabilize the region," the ADL reported.

The Sanders campaign did not respond to a request for comment on al-Qazwini's past statements and his participation in Saturday's event.

Al-Qazwini, formerly the head of the Islamic Center of America (ICA), the largest mosque in the United States, has a history of controversial statements involving anti-Semitic tropes. In a 2016 sermon, he said that President Barack Obama was "bowing to the pro-Israeli lobby" and that Israel was using the United States as a "cash cow." In the same speech, he praised Sanders as "an honorable man, even though he is a Jew," adding that the Vermont senator was "made to pay the price" for not "sell[ing] America for the interest of Israel" during the 2016 campaign.

Under his leadership, the ICA held a memorial for Lebanese cleric Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah. Often called the unofficial spiritual leader of the terrorist group Hezbollah, Fadlallah preached that suicide bombings against Israeli citizens were justified and praised the 2008 massacre of eight Israeli students as "heroic." Al-Qazwini told Dubai-based news network Al Arabiya that Fadlallah "considered me his son."

"He was a very good friend of my father," al-Qazwini said. "I also used to see him whenever I went to Lebanon."

Al-Qazwini also spoke at a pro-Bashar al-Assad rally held in 2013 to protest the Obama administration's decision to arm Syrian rebels. In 2013, al-Qazwini attended a dinner with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, alongside notorious anti-Semite and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

"The message he brought was a promising one," al-Qazwini said afterward of Rouhani. "He talked about his desire to improve the relationship, not only with the American government but also between the Iranian people and the American people."

Al-Qazwini is a controversial figure even within his community—the imam and ICA parted ways in 2015 after board members accused him of financial improprieties.