When talk-show host Dennis Prager wrote a column in November decrying a congressman-elect's decision to take his oath of office on the Koran rather than the Bible, he argued that it would "embolden Islamic extremists and make new ones."
In a column for Townhall.com, Prager wrote that Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim elected to Congress, "should not be allowed" to swear on the Koran because "the act undermines American civilization."
Soon, the Los Angeles radio host was at the center of the biggest controversy he has faced during decades in public life. Op-ed pages around the country rushed to pillory him. The Anti-Defamation League condemned his remarks. Former New York Mayor Ed Koch characterized him as a bigot and called for his ouster as a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.
Now, the tumult is extending to Prager's scheduled appearance at the North County Chabad Center in Yorba Linda, where he will speak tonight on "Islam, Iran, the West and Israel."
The Southern California office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations is calling him an "Islamophobic speaker," while the director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California has said he "seeks the marginalization of American Muslims."
Those groups, along with the Muslim Public Affairs Council, has called for the Chabad Center to invite a "Muslim representative" to balance Prager's views.
Rabbi David Eliezrie, who heads the Yorba Linda congregation, said the criticism of Prager in a press release issued Monday by the Islamic relations group was "outrageous" and "akin to a blood libel."
"I think CAIR in this case has smeared a wonderful Jewish leader, somebody respected by Jews all over the country, in a despicable fashion," Eliezrie said.
Eliezrie said he disagreed with Prager's position on whether the Minnesota congressman should swear his oath on the Koran but added it was possible to do so civilly. Prager, he said, had championed interfaith dialogue for years as host of "Religion on the Line" on KABC-AM (790).
He said he first learned of the group's concerns after it issued its press release.
"If they were interested in dialogue with the Jewish community, they would have sent me a gentle letter" or placed a phone call, Eliezrie said. He added the group was trying to bully into silence those who disagreed with its positions.
"I have great skepticism of CAIR," Eliezrie said. "I haven't seen them condemn specific groups who are involved in terror in the Middle East, and that to me is very scary."
The council describes itself as a mainstream civil-rights organization. In an interview with The Times, the group's Southern California spokeswoman Munira Syeda generically condemned "terrorist actions" but declined to condemn Hamas or Hezbollah as terrorist organizations. "I don't understand what the relevance is," Syeda said.
She said that Prager, in his column, had "undermined all the values of pluralism, diversity and respect for different minorities' religious freedom."
"He is using the anti-Muslim sentiment that is prevalent in the country right now to spread hate against Muslims," she said.
Prager said in an interview that he wrote the column about Ellison "in the heat of passion about losing the Judeo-Christian basis of American society."
"It was a rare example of my passion getting the better of my reason," said Prager, who regrets any implication that Ellison should not have the legal right to swear on the Koran. Prager said he did not believe a "religious test" should be a requirement to hold office.
Still, Prager, who is a practicing Jew, said he wished Ellison would have taken the Bible along with the Koran to his swearing-in, to honor tradition. Although the Constitution is the basis of American law, Prager said, he pointed to the Bible as "the source of America's values," including the notion that liberty is an inalienable right because it derives from God.
Prager, who hosts a morning radio show on KRLA-AM (870), dismissed the group's use of the term "Islamophobe" as "a McCarthyite tactic" intended to intimidate opposition. He described the group as "a radical Islamist organization" and said he was proud to be attacked by it.
"They are marginalizing the American Muslim," Prager said. "Most Americans know CAIR is radical, and the average American Muslim is not a radical."
Prager pointed to a column he once wrote expressing sympathy for the plight of immigrants, even illegal ones, a sentiment seldom heard among conservative talk radio hosts. And he said Muslim groups in the past had honored him for hosting "the most pro-Muslim radio show on mainstream radio."
"I have fought bigotry and intolerance my whole life, including against Muslims," Prager said. "I'd like them to produce a single bigoted word in my books or 25 years of broadcasting."
Syeda, the group's spokeswoman, said no protest was planned at tonight's speech.