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A candidate for mayor of San Ramon is taking criticism for declining to take part in an election forum sponsored by a Muslim civil rights and advocacy group over what he called “anti-Semitic positions” taken by the national group.

A statement last week from the Council on American-Islamic Relations San Francisco Bay Area Office condemned Sanat Sethy for what its leaders said was Sethy’s “Islamophobia and fear-mongering rhetoric” in justifying not participating in a Sept. 30 San Ramon mayoral candidates forum carried out on Zoom.

“Sanat Sethy made his intent to divide voters based on bigotry very clear and in doing so missed out an opportunity to pitch his platform and positions,” Aliza Kazmi, San Francisco CAIR’s advocacy manager, said in a statement.

She noted that San Ramon is home to one of the region’s larger Muslim populations and said that Sethy’s reasoning for skipping the forum wasn’t justified.

“(Sethy) accused us of being anti-Semitic; this is a baseless allegation and one that seeks to further divide communities,” she said.

Values not aligned

In a release, Sethy said he opted out of attending the CAIR forum because of some of CAIR’s previous positions — some of which he views as anti-Semetic — “do not align with (my) personal values or the values of San Ramon residents.”

Sethy, a mechanical engineer and businessman, expanded on those statements this past Wednesday. He said he takes exception to a number of statements over the past several years by CAIR leaders, notably by San Francisco CAIR Executive Director Zahra Billoo. One tweet from Billoo in 2015 read, “Israel commits war crimes and terrorism as a hobby.” Another, from 2018, reads, “Israel is an apartheid, racist state, which engages in terrorism against Palestinians.”

“Community leaders need to support all of their constituents. It is quite disappointing to see a mayoral candidate ignore the needs of a minority group in his community.”

Imad Abboushi, San Ramon Valley Islamic Center

These tweets, Sethy said, “are just the tip of the iceberg” for Billoo.

“As a person of color and immigrant, I passionately condemn racism, discrimination, and prejudiced beliefs against all persons,” Sethy said Wednesday. “Spreading false and baseless accusations of Islamophobia takes attention away from authentic issues that need media coverage. Muslim-Americans face enough real instances of prejudice — there’s no need for fictitious ones.”

Billoo acknowledged the tweets Wednesday. “I stand by those stated critiques of the apartheid and violence perpetrated by Israel, and funded by U.S. tax dollars,” said Billoo, adding that Sethy is conflating a critique of Israel and anti-Semitism.

Sethy said he also passed on the Sept. 30 CAIR forum because CAIR is a national organization, and that “attending a debate centered around a national organization is unnecessary and counterproductive.”

Crowded campaign

Sethy is one of six candidates in the Nov. 3 general election seeking to succeed Bill Clarkson, who is being termed out as mayor after three four-year terms. Current City Council members Dave Hudson and Sabina Zafar are among the six mayoral hopefuls.

Three candidates — Hudson, Zafar and Aparna Madireddi — took part in the Sept. 30 San Ramon mayoral forum sponsored by CAIR. The 50-minute forum covered several local issues, including COVID-19 response and reopening local businesses, homelessness, traffic safety, racial justice and economic development.

Kazmi said Tuesday that the other two candidates who did not take part in the Sept. 30 forum — Susmita Nayak and Dinesh Govindarao — told CAIR that schedule conflicts prohibited them from participating.

Imad Abboushi, president of the San Ramon Valley Islamic Center, said in a statement he wishes Sethy had taken part in the Sept. 30 Zoom forum.

“Community leaders need to support all of their constituents,” Abboushi said. “It is quite disappointing to see a mayoral candidate ignore the needs of a minority group in his community.”

The Bay Area chapter of the Jewish Voice for Peace also sided with CAIR. “We stand with CAIR in condemning Sethy’s actions. CAIR-SFBA has been an invaluable partner in the Muslim community in supporting Jews against rising antisemitism,” said a general statment from the group.

On Wednesday, Sethy said, “The truth is, this whole situation has come as a little bit of a shock to me, and I feel hurt by the nature of the allegations.” The fact several entities issued news releases criticizing him at nearly the same time, Sethy said, “was simply a PR stunt from CAIR.”