Some dislike speaker’s message at Independence prayer breakfast

Attendance ticked up slightly at the annual Independence Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast on Thursday.

About 550 people usually attend, said Mayor Don Reimal. But about 600 showed up this year.

He attributed the increase to the open-mindedness of Independence area residents regarding the speaker, Kamal Saleem, who describes himself as a former Islamic terrorist who converted to Christianity after experiencing the love of faith-filled caregivers following a 1985 car accident.

Some had objected to Saleem’s selection as speaker, believing his message to be divisive.

“People were here to learn and hear what the man had to say,” Reimal said. “If they liked it, fine; if they didn’t, we were not shoving it down their throats.”

No one challenged Saleem during his remarks, with audience members sometimes responding with the occasional “Amen” or “Hallelujah.” But some later expressed disappointment with what they heard.

For approximately 40 minutes at the Community of Christ Auditorium, Saleem summarized his life story, describing a poor upbringing in Lebanon and his indoctrination into terror units at age 7.

“Yasser Arafat was my first boss,” he said, referring to the late Palestine Liberation Organization chairman.

Islam, Saleem added, “is the only religion that allows slavery,” and he described his mission, upon his later arrival in the United States, to undermine and destroy American culture.

“While America slept, we worked,” he said.

All that changed, he said, after he received post-accident care from his Christian care-givers. “I was trained to fight the best of the best; I was not trained to fight love,” he said, adding, “I fell in love with the people I hated.”

Saleem also exhibited a brief video that showcased statements attributed to various founding fathers, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and presented them as evidence that the founders conceived the United States within the context of religion in general and Christianity in particular.

“Our constitution is based on the word of God,” Saleem said.

The Rev. Bob Spradling, pastor of Maywood Baptist Church in Independence, who delivered the breakfast’s invocation, described the controversy accompanying Saleem’s appearance as “overblown,” adding that: “At the heart of this man’s message is God’s love.”

But not everyone was pleased.

Shaheen Ahmed, a Leawood physician, said she resented how Saleem maintained that, within Islam, women often are considered subservient to men.

“His statement that husbands treat their wives as servants was very insulting to me,” said Ahmed, who during the 1990s helped establish the Crescent Peace Society in the Kansas City area to promote interfaith awareness.

“He spoke so many things that were so wrong and so hateful,” she said, adding that at one point she felt compelled to leave. “Then I decided that I should stick it out, because it is better for me to know what the people of Independence are thinking. But in my 30 years of living in America, I was never as humiliated as I was this morning.”

Saima Khawaja, a Kansas City area physician, said she was disappointed in how Saleem was allowed to speak without any context offered by others.

“My response to ignorance is not to shout back,” said Khawaja. “Hopefully he will be open to more education at some point in his life.”

Another audience member said the presentation saddened and sickened him.

“Mr. Saleem went out of his way to paint all Muslims, very unfairly, as terrorists and wife-beaters,” said the Rev. Josef Walker, an Independence resident who serves as pastor of Ridgeview Christian Church in Kansas City, and past president of the Independence Ministerial Alliance. “He was even worse than I expected.”

In recent weeks, some Independence residents had asked Reimal to reconsider the prayer breakfast committee’s decision to invite Saleem. Still others recently had seconded that sentiment.

Faizan Syed, executive director of the St. Louis chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, on Monday distributed an open letter to Reimal, expressing the chapter’s “deep concern” about the choice of Saleem. Syed referred to Saleem as a “well-known hate preacher, an Islamophobe who takes every opportunity to demonize Islam and Muslims, and…a known fraud.”

Reimal nevertheless said after the breakfast that he was pleased.

“Judging from the reaction of the people here today, they appreciated his story,” Reimal said. “I think it went well.”

So did Saleem, who met with well-wishers, signing copies of his books and other materials following his presentation.

“I think it was well received by the people,” Saleem said.

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816 234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.