The Roman Catholic Diocese of Worcester rescinded an invitation Wednesday to Robert Spencer, a Catholic whose work depicts Islam as an inherently violent religion, to speak at its annual Catholic Men’s Conference in March.
The invitation was withdrawn after Muslims in Massachusetts expressed concerns to the diocese about the appearance of Spencer, scheduled to be a featured speaker at the DCU Center on March 16.
Spencer is director of the blog Jihad Watch and a leader of the American Freedom Defense Initiative and Stop Islamization of America, both of which are seen as anti-Muslim groups by some organizations that monitor extremism.
His books include “Stealth Jihad: How Radical Islam is Subverting America without Guns or Bombs,” “The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion,” and “Inside Islam: A Guide for Catholics.” On his blog, he has argued that jihad is a central tenet of the faith.
After the Globe sought comment on his scheduled appearance from the diocese and from Muslim organizations Wednesday, the Islamic Council of New England sent an e-mail urging Catholic leaders to cancel Spencer’s appearance. The diocese agreed to do so shortly after receiving the e-mail.
“Although the intention of the conference organizers was to have a presenter on Islam from a Catholic’s perspective, we are asking Robert Spencer to not come to the Worcester Catholic Men’s Conference, given that his presence is being seen as harmful to Catholic–
Islamic relations both locally and nationally,” Raymond Delisle, a spokesman for the diocese, said in a statement issued to the Globe.
The conference is a religious and social gathering for Catholic men, as well as their male friends and relatives, that typically includes talks from prominent Catholic men, a Mass said by the bishop, and the opportunity to attend confession.
Dr. Abdul Cader Asmal, cochairman of communications for the Islamic Council of New England, called the cancellation of Spencer’s speech “very reassuring” and said it was consistent with longstanding good relations between the Muslim and Catholic communities in Massachusetts.
“Somebody may have been blindsided by Robert Spencer, not knowing exactly what kind of hatemonger he was,” he said.
Spencer, in an e-mail late Wednesday afternoon, said the diocese had not notified him of the cancellation.
“If it does turn out to be true,” he said in another e-mail, “it is new evidence of the cowardice of Roman Catholic officials in confronting the reality of Muslim persecution of Christians and their inability to grasp the importance [of] basing genuine dialogue between religions on truth, however unpleasant, rather than on wishful thinking and comforting fictions.”
In an earlier e-mail, he defended his work.
“There is nothing hateful or bigoted about what I say,” he said. “My work is in defense of the freedom of speech, the freedom of conscience, and the equality of rights of all people before the law.”
In September, the American Freedom Defense Initiative posted ads in the New York subway system that referred to Islamists who opposed the state of Israel as “savages.” The group is now running a second series of ads featuring photographs of the burning World Trade Center alongside a quotation attributed to the Koran: “Soon we shall cast terror into the hearts of unbelievers.”
Spencer was a leading opponent of the Park51 project to build a mosque and Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan, which he has referred to on his blog as the “Islamist supremacist mega-mosque at Ground Zero.”
He has also raised alarms about multiculturalism and what he believes to be the threat of Sharia, Islamic religious law, undermining American courts and civil rights across the world.
Oren Segal, codirector of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, called Spencer “the godfather of the anti-Muslim movement in this country.”
Segal said there are legitimate concerns about people motivated by radical interpretations of Islam, which he said his organization has spoken out about forcefully. But Spencer, he said, is part of “a cottage industry . . . that under the guise of fighting radical Islam is actually demonizing an entire religion.”
Spencer, in another e-mail, said that the Anti-Defamation League “has unwisely ventured into leftist advocacy politics, spending more time combating friends of Israel on the right rather than enemies of Israel on the left. Its record in this is nothing short of shameful.”
Spencer says on his blog, Jihad Watch, where he posts many times a day, that he does not believe all Muslims espouse violence or that Islam is a monolithic faith.
But he calls violent jihad a “central element of Islamic theology,” citing a Koranic verse that says, in part, “Slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them [captive] and besiege them and prepare for them each ambush.”
Omid Safi, an Islamic studies scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that there are indeed references like that to holy war in the Koran and that some Muslims in different periods of history have used them to justify their actions.
That does not mean, he said, that most modern Muslims accept them literally.
“If we go flipping through each other’s scriptures to persuade ourselves that other people’s scriptures contain violent elements, then that’s a losing game for all of us,” Safi said. “The question is: How do we make sense of them, and which ones do we call upon to live our lives today?”
In the Gospel of Matthew, he notes, Jesus says, “I come not to bring peace, but the sword.”
Safi also said that Spencer has no formal training in Islamic studies or Arabic.
Asked about his credentials, Spencer replied that his critics’ real problem is not his training.
“What I say about Islam is not unusual or eccentric,” he said. “Numerous scholars who have the credentials that those you have spoken with require, and many ex-Muslims, have made the same observations about Islamic doctrine that I have.”
Amjad Bahnassi, a member and occasional spokesman for the Worcester Islamic Center, said the Muslim community in the city generally has an excellent relationship with the Catholic Church.
Bahnassi said he counts a number of priests as friends and regularly speaks at Catholic churches about Islam. Next month he is scheduled to speak at Anna Maria College and Assumption College.
“I would have liked for them if they wanted to know about Islam’s view of Christianity to ask a Muslim,” he said of the organizers of the Catholic Men’s Conference.Lisa Wangsness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.