The New York Fire Department begins looking for a new Muslim chaplain today after sacking its newest spiritual adviser for saying that he did not believe that hijackers from al-Qaeda or any other group brought down the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001.
By espousing the conspiracy version of 9/11, Imam Intikab Habib, 30, shocked firefighters who lost 343 colleagues in the attacks and embarrassed the firefighting chiefs who were to have sworn him in as their second Muslim chaplain on Saturday.
Mr Habib, a New York resident since 2000, said: “I, as an individual, do not know who did the attacks. I do not believe it was 19 hijackers who did those attacks. Experts say that it takes two or three weeks to demolish a building like that, but it was pulled down in a couple of hours. Was it 19 hijackers who brought it down or was it a conspiracy?”
The Daily News voiced New Yorkers’ incredulity. “Talk about preaching to the wrong choir. Goodbye to Imam Intikab Habib,” the newspaper said.
The imam, originally from Guyana, was forced to resign within hours and Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor, ordered an investigation into how he had been chosen six weeks earlier without any questions on the 2001 catastrophe. “I am glad that he has resigned,” Mr Bloomberg said. “This is not a person who should be representing a department that was devastated on 9/11 and answering their spiritual needs.”
Mr Habib, who was trained in Saudi Arabia, said that he regretted causing offence when he told Newsday newspaper that he tended to believe theories that the September 11 attacks were a conspiracy designed to further US interests. He said he had never dealt with the media before but stood by his view that the cause of the towers’ collapse was uncertain.
The conspiracy theory, which is widespread in the Middle East, France and elsewhere, holds that the airliner attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon either did not take place or were part of a plot by the Americans and Israelis to foment conflict with the Arab world.
Thierry Meyssan, a French writer, scored a bestseller two years ago with The Big Lie (L’Effroyable Imposture), a book which argued that no aircraft hit the Pentagon and that the New York attacks were of American origin. A conspiracy of US military officers was behind the attacks, he said.
Imam Omar Abu-Namous, of the Islamic Cultural Centre of New York in Manhattan, said that Mr Habib was unwise to make the remarks without justification or documentation of his doubts. The Daily News said that it was frightening that a resident of New York could believe the “dead certainty that 9/11 was personally orchestrated by President Bush, or by the (Israeli) Mossad, or by Frosty the Snowman . . .”
Nicholas Scoppetta, the city’s fire chief, said that Mr Habib had been nominated by the department’s Islamic Society and had passed a background check. “There has been no prior indication that he held those views,” he said.
Officials acknowledged that Mr Habib had not been asked about the terrorist attacks on the city. The New York Fire Department has a rabbi and seven Christian chaplains.
Father Mychal Judge, one of its Catholic chaplains, was killed ministering to the wounded at the World Trade Centre.
Joan Molinaro, 60, whose fireman son Carl died in the north tower, said of Mr Habib: “He made a stupid remark and he is taking responsibility for it; but for him to say that he doesn’t believe that they did this or there’s no proof is ridiculous.”