Muslim Leadership Initiative: Finding the Way Forward

[column size=one_third position=first ]Table of Content
The Love/Hate Narrative
Who is having Hummus with the Hasbara
A Request to Critics
An Appeal to MLI cohorts and Imam Abdullah Antepli
Shalom Hartman has Power and Influence
A Window into Hartman
Loyalties of American Muslims
Engagement with Zionists
American Muslim Religious Scholars Respond
Palestinians and their call to Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions
BDS is a Global Structure and a Global Picket Line
American Jewish Voices
Multi-Pronged Strategy or Sidelining
What do You Think? Engagement with the Oppressed
Who is Using Whom?
Political Relevance of American Muslims-Political Suicide is Haram[/column]

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[dropcap size=big]A[/dropcap] photo of Al Aqsa in my Facebook feed — a happening group of American Muslims traveling to the Holy Land. Snapshots of serene prayer spaces, punctuated with Friends-like group shots. I, frankly, felt like a wallflower looking at the homecoming court. I even halal-envied them. Who wouldn’t want to visit the third holiest site in Islam?

What I didn’t know at that time was that this sojourn to Israel was part of a year-long educational initiative and was arranged and sponsored by an ‘aggressively Zionist organization’ – Shalom Hartman Institute (SHI). The participants have cited various reasons for going on the trip – mainly, they say, to develop a deeper understanding of Judaism, the Jewish people, and Israel based on Jewish-Muslim texts. This initiative, called the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), is now affecting how American Muslims are being seen in Palestine and alienating and offending Palestinian Americans – this is deeply troubling.

The Love/Hate Narrative

MuslimMatters has kept out of this controversy because of the level of rancorous discourse hurled and the media blackout, followed by silence of the participants, as most did not speak until challenged. The findings of Sana Saeed’s article was very worrisome, yet, we could not believe that men and women who we have seen doing good work in their own circles of influence would choose be part of this cohort, sponsored by oppressors, who are bankrolled by bigots (note: MLI participants do not get paid, only lodging and travel was compensated). We have yet to see if Hartman Inst.’s affiliated organizations have stopped or reduced the funding of Islamophobes since the inception of MLI.

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The ‘either you are in love with or hate the MLI camp’ narrative is false and makes American Muslims sound oafish. There are many who do not fall into this binary, who aren’t cheerleading for the participants but are very disturbed at the ramifications of this program and the controversy surrounding it on the American Muslim community and for the people of Palestine.

The reaction that I have heard from local Muslims on the street is that this initiative is a way to brainwash Muslims by targeting Muslims who will bring its message back into their communities. But as activists, many of us know the work of the participants – they are not some naive impressionable group of men and women. So what is going on? The rhetoric of them selling out for their own personal gain also seems shallow. Who would put their street credibility and activism on stake for the sake of a free trip funded by anti-Muslim bigots who also fund Islamophobes such as Steve Emerson?

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There was more to this story. So, I reached out to a few participants, mainly Haroon Moghul and Mohammed Hameeduddin (many MLI participants’ names have not been released), and many Palestinian critics, mainly Deanna Othman, Dr Hatem Bazian, Abbass Hamideh and Shaykh Omar Suleiman.

Who is having Hummus with the Hasbara?

After the backlash from the first cohort I thought (rather naively) that is the last we would hear of this initiative, but the news of a second cohort in Jerusalem and video of controversy* in the streets filled most of the social media feeds of those who follow news of the Palestinian occupation.

Until a few weeks ago, most local Imams and leaders I asked had never heard of the initiative, or thought it was some fringe ultra-progressive, non-mainstream group that was going.

But neither the participants nor their critics are fringe: the late Tayyibah Taylor of Azizah Magazine, Rabia Chaudry, advocating for the release of Adnan Syed and President of the Safe Nation Collaborative, Wajahat Ali of Domestic Crusaders fame and a primary author of ‘Fear, Inc. The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America’, Haroon Moghul from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding one of the only American Muslim think tanks, as well as chaplains at prestigious American Muslim universities; if someone was going to be talking to Zionists, there are few better people up for the task.

Imam Abdullah Antepli, the program director, Chief Representative of Muslim Affairs, Duke University/Adjunct Faculty of Islamic Studies, and the mind behind MLI says in an interview to Mann News, that it is not an interfaith dialogue project. “I was adamant that in order to truly learn and understand these realities, in order for this educational project to work, one must go there,” says Imam Antepli. Here is Imam Antepli addressing the Jewish Community Center-San Francisco – talking about Israel, the role Zionism and Israel play in interfaith relations, and why rising bigotry is not unique to one faith community nor one-way.

Recommendations for Reconciliation for both Sides of the Debate

Request to Critics

We need to have concrete steps that bring organizers and leading critics into the same room.

After following the discussion and speaking to several key critics and participants, I do not think that there is any sense or long-term strategy in excommunicating bright Muslim talent (this is not what religious teachers and leaders are asking either)(for those who are not familiar with BDS- it has always been about boycotting institutions, not individuals- read the BDS section for clarity), folks who have track records of serving the Muslim community, without offering them a place for reconciliation. And frankly, for many of us, it is not even practical— we live, work, and serve with them.
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A call for accountability is valid and needed. We must recognize that those of us who live in the United States, whose taxes are used to fund the American military assistance to Israel, have a dual responsibility.

We also have to self-examine and hold ourselves to the same standards we are asking others to uphold.

If MLI’s intention was to split the community, then Mazel Tov; if it wasn’t, then we have to use this opportunity to create traction and unity. The world is not black and white. We have to have follow-up with discussions about how academic engagement hurts the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS). We have to leave room in our opposition for differences in opinion – that is what we ask of others and that is what we should give to them.

An Appeal to the MLI cohorts and Imam Abdullah Antepli

We ask that past, present and future cohorts go public – no secret hidden identities. The Muslim community deserves the respect of knowing who their ‘leaders’ are; we deserve to know if you chose to go on this program, and then we can choose whether we want to engage with you or have you lead us. It is disingenuous to keep this a secret. Let American Muslims on the street decide if they want to be led by Muslims who are part of this initiative.

Imam Abdullah and Dr. Homayra Ziad, we would like to request that you reach out to the critics, as there is a valid sense in the opposition that their concerns are not being acknowledged. Beyond angry voices online, we call on the organizers of Muslim Leadership Initiative to reach out to the opposition and have a group discussion with prominent opposition. The MLI program can be reorganized so it doesn’t disrespect the struggle of the Palestinians. Currently, the perception is that MLI program leaders and some public participants are dismissive of valid concerns.

Our institutionally nascent community needs our grassroots activists and our policymakers, our Imams and our chaplains, our elected officials who are Muslim and those who call justice to power. We cannot be split apart, we will not split apart. We urge the organizers of this initiative to give critics the same space, dialogue and respect that they have accorded their SHI counterparts.

Background

Shalom Hartman has Power and Influence

MLI uses the same curriculum that SHI teaches to Jews in America and Israel. This is an important point. Formed almost 40 years ago, SHI has a spectrum of faculty from every walk of Israeli intellectual, political, religious and academic life. Board members for 2014-2015 include Chair for SHI-North America, Angelica Berrie of the Russell Berrie Foundation based out of Teaneck, NJ (this foundation has also funded the work of many anti-Muslim bigots).

The agenda of MLI is not something any participant can speak conclusively about; they say they speak for themselves. Moghul says that his views haven’t changed after going on the trip. He was pro-BDS before he went, and still believes in the one state solution to the Palestinian crisis.

Moghul states that he went with a goal of understanding the Israeli mindset, as in 2013 when he was a part of policy-making conversations on the American government’s relationship with Iran and Turkey. He heard voices of concern from those who favor a strong American Israeli relationship, so rather than being dismissive, he thought this the best way to understand the mindset, and to advance an American foreign policy that takes into account Palestinian grievances, but also acknowledges that many Americans are pro-Israel.

Another one of the participants I spoke to is the former mayor of Teaneck, NJ, ‘an American Politician, who happens to be Muslim’, Mohammed Hameeduddin. Teaneck is a swing city in a swing county for the swing state of New Jersey. He has been invited to visit Israel many times as a politician but chose to go on this initiative, impressed by the thought process of the first cohort. “These are not irrational people,” he says. He led a diverse constituency in Teaneck. A practicing Muslim, troubled by the use of his tax dollars in Israel, he says he consulted with shuyukh before leaving. “Just because I am Muslim it shouldn’t keep me from weighing in on this subject,” he speaks with an American optimism for the experiment that is MLI. When asked about the efficacy of the program, he says he doesn’t know— it is too early. He plans on taking more American Muslims on his own to the region.

When participant Rabia Chaudry wrote in Time Magazine, “Zionism means something very different for Jews. The Jewish people’s longing of thousands of years for a homeland, a return from exile, a sanctuary from being a hated minority in the diaspora, an opportunity to establish Jewish values and honor God, a Biblical promise, a chance for redemption,” many Palestinians and other supporters read this, with dismay, as the results of the education that she had received in Israel. Palestinians see Zionism as how it is practiced by the Israeli government, what it is on the ground for the world to see – the violent settler mentality. Others saw her statement as an acknowledgment of a fundamental truth that many Jews do, or have come to, believe.

Why would someone like Wajahat Ali go on this trip? Since he was the writer of the report ‘Fear Inc.’ that we all love to quote, does it not make sense that he would be the right person to speak to Israelis about Islamophobia. We ask the bigots to look at context but often times we also refuse to view the same context.

Moghul says that he has a, “Much better understanding of how Israeli Zionism has reimagined the history of Judaism in order to justify Israeli policies. “Show me any evidence that one member of the [MLI] cohorts has been co-opted,” he challenges.

He feels many Americans do not know about Islamophobia or anti-Muslim bigotry, and we have to look at the world from the average American’s lens, not the lens through which we see each other. “Israel is a reality. If you walk into a room as a Muslim and you want to talk to a diverse crowd of people about Israel and Palestine, the fact is that we are not looked on as credible and impartial interlocutors. It is assumed, many times, that we are critical because we are anti-Semitic and we need to know what we are talking about in order to influence people. I travel all around the country asking people to change their views on Islam, as a lecturer on Islamophobia.”

A Window into Hartman

In this video, President of SHI, Donniel Hartman, speaks on the Israel-Palestinian conflict at the Rabbi Leadership Initiative (RLI). Rabbi Hartman says, “You just need 200-300 change agents to bring the Muslim and Jewish community together, to rethink their narrative about Israel.”

In his RLI training, Hartman shares with other rabbis how MLI went to the West Bank, organized by Palestinians and says how the program shared the ‘raw realities’ of Israel. Watching this video gave me a look into what may have gone on behind the doors of the SHI.

Hartman lectures to American rabbis that Jewish people have something moral to learn from MLI – as if learning from a Muslim is something exceptional. This shows how Muslims are looked upon by many active American Jews. He is concerned about the disillusionment of Judaism in America. Muslims as moral critics— “We need people who aren’t kissing our feet” — is how he refers to MLI participants. When asked by his audience if the program was successful he says, “We will know in ten years more time.” They are doubling the program and plan 20 cohorts over the next ten years.

I know the cohorts last year were horrified by the siege on Gaza – what was discussed behind the closed doors of the Initiative that changed the narrative for SHI?

Hartman answers a rabbi on what he learnt from Muslims, he says that he learnt that occupation is a problem, “Simply saying that [the Israelis] want peace but not doing anything about it, is not enough. The excuses that we make to forgive ourselves for things are not strong enough and we could do better.”

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Loyalties of American Muslims

Dr. Hatem Bazian, a professor at the University of California – Berkeley, and Chairman of American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), first heard of SHI when colleagues attended an interfaith conference hosted by SHI a few years ago. Many of his colleagues came away dismayed with the coverage of Quran at a conference on religious texts. He says that he first heard about Muslim Leadership Initiative in its early stages (pre-MLI), not in reference to Israel and Palestine but rather in reference to engagement on Islamic and Jewish texts. He knows several of the participants and has taught some as well.

He sees SHI’s agenda as multifaceted and multi-layered in approach. “Its agenda is not monolithic, we have to see it piece by piece. In regards to American Muslims, SHI, as a strategic goal, is engaging the scholarly community – academic engagement in Islamic Studies. And now MLI is dealing with activists, up and coming professional Muslims. Locating Israel Jewishness and Zionism collapsed in one and providing spaces to engage young and upcoming Muslim leadership… Post 2008-9 Gaza attack, Israel faced serious damage to its public relations campaign as Israel as a brand is beyond rescuing due to the violence.”

Dr. Bazian thinks that the acceptance of the MLI project by Hartman, even if Imam Abdullah Antepli was the one who proposed the initiative, is indicative of this approach. This is mirroring their strategy with the Christian Leadership Initiative and how well it has played out with Christians in America, especially the far right. These are the same leaders who have been trained by SHI, who opposed the Presbyterian Church’s divestment, and who lobby to push Episcopalians away from divestment.

Engagement with Zionists

One of the criticisms of the program is the framing of engagement with Zionists. Critics do not have an issue with learning about Zionism. They say that there are many American Zionists who could teach about Zionism in the United States, even liberal Zionists. They say MLI can be reconstructed to engage with Zionists here on American soil and a visit to Palestine through programs such as Dream Defenders, who show the effects of Zionism on the people being oppressed by it.

Given the widespread opposition to BDS among American Jews and the pervasive nature of Zionism, I asked Dr. Bazian how he suggests Muslims engage with Jews (in America or Israel), “Why do we accept that Israel, a settler colonial state, is the only location where understanding Judaism (which is not the same as Zionism) can take place?” Dr. Bazian answered.

MLI accepts this framing, even at a time where there is a Palestine Civil Society saying to the global community that this framing and how things have been conducted in the past is no longer acceptable for the occupied people. “Palestinians understand Zionism,” he emphasized. It is incongruous to accept this and support the Palestinian struggle.

“Why not hold the engagement on neutral ground and make it BDS compliant?” asked Shaykh Omar Suleiman, a Palestinian American, Resident Scholar at Valley Ranch Masjid in Irving, Texas, and an avid critic of the program. Sh. Suleiman says that American Muslims can continue to engage with American Jews here, even if they are anti-BDS. He refers to the work he has done in New Orleans, LA with Rabbi Uri Topolosky, to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. They worked together – an Islamic scholar and a Zionist, Shalom Hartman Institute Senior Rabbinic Fellow – and engaged in passionate dialogue on the occupation —no white elephants in the interfaith room, “We can effectively work together for the common good on a fully neutral platform without compromising our values.”

Sh. Suleiman is in touch with some of the participants of MLI and speaks of their disillusionment and dissatisfaction with the program. Some in the first cohort say that they were not informed about the funding but do not want to publicly disagree with their mentors.

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American Muslim Religious Scholars Respond

The narrative that it is a fringe that is opposed to the MLI was debunked with the signing of this declaration* by religious leaders. Disregarding these voices, many of whom are elders in the community and very involved with the Palestinian cause, is disrespectful to American Muslim scholarship.

Shaykh Joe Bradford, an American Muslim scholar, a graduate of University of Madinah, who has also spoken against Al Qaida, writes why he helped draft the petition, “Opposition is not to interfaith work or visiting Israel. There are more fundamental issues at play here.” The main criticism from 150 religious teachers and 45 organizations is that, “Supporting oppression is antithetical to the Quranic concepts of justice and peace. Another core issue mentioned in it is the politicization of interfaith work.”

Sh. Bradford writes that he, “Signed the ‘American Muslim Religious Leaders Say No to MLI’ petition along with others to say that I will not allow my faith to be used to deny oppressed people the right to self-determination, and I will not allow my faith to be used for political end games.”

“If [ISIS] invited American Jews and Christians to study Islam and their political ideology, on their dime, to dialogue, and participants came back saying we don’t think the same way about them as we did before, would there not be an outrage?” Sh. Suleiman inquired.

“We [Linda Sarsour, Dr Bazian, as well as others] are all committed to dialogue, especially interfaith dialogue and we are being demeaned here as ‘political takfiris’ for our criticism of MLI,” Sh. Omar Suleiman.

Shaykh Yasir Qadhi is the Resident Scholar of the Memphis Islamic Center and an instructor and Dean of Academic Affairs at Al Maghrib. He has a Bachelors in Hadith and a Masters in Theology from Islamic University of Madinah, and a PhD in Islamic Studies from Yale University. He says, “The problem with SHI is that they clearly have an agenda that is antithetical to Islam. The participants could be interpreted to be tacitly supporting this agenda, even though some of them are not. Given the dynamics, I would not go nor would I encourage people to go. Having said that, if someone, for their personal journey, believes that the positives outweigh the negatives, at the end of the day that is their personal choice. While I do not agree, I can’t fault someone for their personal choice, provided that they are not critical of the BDS movement. How can I criticize personal ijtihad?”

Sh. Qadhi hasn’t signed the petition. He reiterates that, from an Islamic perspective, when a specific undertaking is not specified to be haram, for example, working with a certain person or a certain organization, this comes under maslaha – weighing the pro and cons. Judging maslaha is not independent of Islamic law, but there are gray areas.

Sh. Qadhi says that here should be healthy diversity of opinion as it is good for the Ummah, “When it comes to Muslims, we should be open minded and concentrate on the good for the larger community. When an organization or person has more evil than good, then we should minimize cooperation.”

Imam Dawud Walid, Executive Director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MI), an Imam, and an anti-racism activist, reminds Muslim leaders of the moral courage of Al-Hurr ibn Yazid At-Tamimi raḥimahullāh (may Allāh have mercy upon him). Al-Hurr was a commander in the army of Ubaydullah bin Ziyad and Umar bin Sa’ad when they surrounded Al-Husayn bin Ali raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him), the men, women and children of Bani Hashim and his companions. Al-Hurr realized that he was in error in participating in a campaign that was about to murder Al-Husayn, a man who the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) called one of the two leaders of the youth in Jannah; Al-Hurr abandoned the army and joined Bani Hashim’s camp.

Dr. Ingrid Mattson, the London and Windsor Community Chair in Islamic Studies at Huron University College at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada and formerly of Hartford Seminary, tweeted that she is not ready to boycott people over political disagreements.

The opposition to MLI has also organized a cease and desist letter signed by over 100 Muslim leaders and 55 organizations, which prompted one major Muslim advocacy organization leader to go as far as to term this ‘political takfiring’.

Do I envy them now? No, I would never want to be in that position. Would I ever go? No. This also made me a little introspective. Sometimes we envy the place or position someone else is in, and that place may be the source of a really hard test from Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). Would I ever want to be in their shoes? No.

Understand the Global Picket Line

Palestinians and their Call to Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions

On January 26, 2015 the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), the largest coalition in Palestinian civil society, called for a boycott of the Muslim Leadership Initiative, signaling that this initiative was not in solidarity with the Palestinian people. They called the MLI, “A BDS bashing project that seeks Palestinian fig leaves to hide its dishonest agenda. The BNC strongly condemns the MLI and calls all people of conscience to boycott it.”

The BDS movement as outlined by Lisa Taraki, a sociologist at Birzeit University near Ramallah on the West Bank, and co-founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel is, “What Palestinians are beginning to realize now with the failure of the political process and dialog, is a new logic of BDS; not a logic of persuasion but of pressure. . . . There is a great deal the academic community can do to express solidarity and effectively work for change. . . In the U.S., no one would have dreamed there would be a campaign like this; now they have 500 endorsements from American academics. . . . It’s not a boycott of individual Israelis, but of institutions, and the major cultural institutions are complicit in the domination of oppression. . . . The problem is the Israeli state and what upholds its power . . . virtually all Israeli institutions are complicit.”

BDS is a Global Structure and a Global Picket Line

The timing of the initiative also troubles Dr. Bazian. The launch of the MLI program at a time where BDS is gaining momentum around the globe, Europe, Latin America and South Africa (that did most of the research for Palestinians with an 800+ page policy paper) is also a very concerning aspect.

BDS supporters of other faiths are looking at the community and wondering what is going on. Instead of leadership coming from Muslims on Israeli apartheid, we have American Muslim leaders crossing the global picket line, knowing Hartman’s stance on BDS.

American Jewish Voices

Just a few facts for readers: Not all Jews are Zionists, you don’t have to be Jewish to be a Zionist and you do not have to be a Zionist to be a Jew. Zionists are not a monolith.

Hasidic Jews have long supported the Palestinian cause, here one Jewish man wonders, “If so many Americans are proud to support the Jewish State, by this token participating in the wounding of the Palestinians, for better or worse, justly or unjustly, how could they fail to even show up at a conference like this, missing this opportunity to learn about the consequences of their own convictions?” Jewish Voices of Peace rejected the use of interfaith dialogue as a way to justify Israeli occupation, instead inviting MLI participants “to meet with us instead of going on a one-sided trip abroad.”

Richard Silverstein, a progressive (critical) Zionist, critiques passages in the SHI curriculum: “they posit a Judaism in which Israel has replaced religious belief or ritual as the centerpiece of Jewish identity.  Israel becomes a religious creed.”

The narrative amongst many young American Jews is changing and also in the mainstream media, however Moghul says that the narrative is not changing on the level of political power. “Those in political power don’t take us seriously,” he maintains. He believes that Palestinians and American Muslims have different contexts and live in two different realities and interests. “We all pay taxes and our money goes to directly harm a lot of people across the world. Should we call a BDS of the United States?” he asks.

Multi-Pronged Strategy or Sidelining  

Moghul doesn’t understand an all-encompassing endorsement of a certain definition of BDS. He believes in economic sanctions. He also says that it is false to claim that the apartheid came down solely by sanctions, or that there was no ongoing engagement with the apartheid regime. And he doesn’t want to to preach to the choir.

Dr. Bazian has worked on Anti-Apartheid, Anti-Globalization Movement, and Central American Solidarity struggles. Comparing MLI to efforts such as Constructive Engagement during the anti-Apartheid movement, he agrees that there was dialogue, but Bazian says that grassroots activists were approached to take part in this dialogue, “We checked with the African National Congress chapter in New York, the people primarily affected by the struggle.”

Desmond Tutu said about Constructive Engagement in his statement in 1984 in the American Capitol, “In my view, the Reagan administration’s support and collaboration with it is equally immoral, evil, and totally un-Christian.”

In fact, there was a time when the Dutch-Reformed Church had fashioned the apartheid theology that had legitimized the regime. Furthermore, cultural and sporting boycotts were important tools in the anti-apartheid activist’s toolbox.

Dr. Bazian says those who use the term multiple strategies have to understand that historically there were multiple strategies in all struggles – sanctuary cities, social responsibility campaigns of mega businesses, investment in companies that helped the oppressed – but the core of multiple strategy is principled stance with the oppressed, based on social justice – MLI is not a multiple strategy.

But does that mean that it cannot be shaped into one?

What Do You think? Engagement with the Oppressed

“Verily I was eaten the day the white bull was eaten!”

Deanna Othman, a Palestinian American journalist and part of the American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) says that there is widespread hurt in the Palestinian community – they feel abandoned.

Moghul responds, “We [MLI participants] can say the reverse – if you read my work then maybe what you think I am doing (selling out, being a traitor to the Ummah etc.) won’t be what you think I am doing.”

In Othman’s experience she has never encountered a Palestinian who doesn’t agree by the guidelines outlined by BDS. To those who say that not all American Muslims are pro-BDS (esp. academic and cultural) Othman says that is not the right question. The Palestinians have said that is what they want and anyone standing in solidarity must respect that.

Moghul agrees that other participants from the program haven’t been as responsive as critics want, but emphasizes that he did not go as a Palestinian and never thought that MLI would find a resolution to the conflict.

Dr. Bazian poses the question to the participants, especially those who have been his students, “Someone asks you to go to Palestine, you have a professor that you have studied with, whose hand you shook at ISNA, and [you] do not inform him that [you] are about to go there? If you are going to someone’s occupied house, would you not actually call the person whose house is occupied, ‘can you loan me the key to go there?’” Imam Antepli didn’t do this, Haroon didn’t do this, Wajahat Ali did not do this.”

According to Dr. Bazian, the onus of the communication should be on those who have taken this strategy, not the response to it. “People are dismayed by your actions, because there is something wrong with your actions,” he says of the breaking of the collectively upheld principles of resistance to colonial oppression and apartheid.

“Participating in this is akin to silencing the Palestinians, speaking for them instead of letting them speak for themselves,” says Dr. Bazian.

Who is Using Whom?

The biggest blunder MLI participants, and especially the program directors, have made is that they did not share their plans or initiative with the people who have the most to lose from this ‘experiment’- the Palestinians. The cohorts have quoted that they met with Palestinians who supported their work. Kamal Abu Shamsieh was a part of the second cohort and the first Palestinian American who is a MLI participant.

B7XeclHCcAA1sE1Christian Palestinian leader, Dr. Mazin Qumsiyah, said that while he and many others welcomed American Muslims to Palestine (even MLI participants) they did not agree with the MLI’s current strategy; he has since signed the boycott letter.

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Sure there may be detractors, even amongst the Palestinians, but as a whole the Palestinian Civil Society had collectively decided in 2005 to launch the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement. Abbas Hamideh of Al Awda, a Palestinian right to return coalition, a founding signatory to the call to BDS, calls the MLI strategy a disastrous mistake. His organization represents the hundreds and thousands of Palestinian refugees. He says about the MLI visits to Israel,

“It is like someone has taken over your friend’s house and he has asked you not to visit, but you decide you know better.”

He agrees that some criticism was vitriolic. He says that Palestinians, who have the most to lose, have been sidelined by this initiative. As a Palestinian, he has found it disrespectful. He had not heard about the first cohort but has been actively following the news after the second cohort visited Jerusalem.

“This being called ‘Muslim Leadership’ —it is hurtful— you are supposed to be with the BDS movement,” says Hamideh.

At first people gave them the benefit of doubt that they were naive and didn’t know, but a year long silence and ‘the secrecy’ behind the second cohort that went to Israel this year with MLI and Shalom Hartman sparked heightened emotions, especially online.

What aggravates aid workers like Palestinian American Hani Almadhoun is that, “If the Palestinians were to hold these trips to Palestine, they will not be allowed. [Mahmoud] Abbas needs a permits to leave his residence.” Dream defender and other social movements have gone to Palestine – they did not violate BDS and aligned themselves with Palestinians.

“The fact that most Palestinian activists in the USA have come out strongly against this program may have made getting a participant doubly hard, but that in itself should have been enough of a red, flashing light for the mostly South Asian participants to think twice, thrice, a million times before considering such a trip,” says a critic.

“You might not get the privilege of accessing historical and religious sites that Palestinians are barred from entering daily like you would with Hartman, but maybe you’d get a better grasp of the real face of Zionism,” Hadiya Abdul Rehman writes very passionately here.

Sh. Omar Suleiman wonders about the participants’ investment in the Palestinian issue, as many are not associated with Palestinian activism. A relative of his was raped by an Israeli soldier and the young boy, Faris Odeh, in the iconic photo throwing a stone at an IDF vehicle (later shot dead) was also his relative – so the issue is really close to his heart.

Political Relevance of American Muslims – Political Suicide is Haram

“We live in a country where American Sniper is a best-selling movie, that is where we stand right now,” says Haroon Moghul who wrote this oped in the Huffington Post (a platform many critics are not granted), a year after his visit. He says that he is willing to speak to anyone who wants to talk to him and learn about why he participated in the program. He says that the American Muslim community has acted in a self-defeating manner and enabled rhetoric that he finds deeply disturbing. He expected more of the critics and they have caused damage to the American Muslim community. “They are unconscious of the damage they are doing to the American Muslim community in an American context,” says Moghul, who is a journalist. He has been contacted by reporters from ‘prominent media outlets who have been watching the comments flying back and forth’ enforcing the image that Muslims are ‘anti-Semitic, deluded and politically impotent.’ He says that many of the critics have done more harm to the ability of American Muslims to advocate for the Palestinians than [MLI participants] have.

To the lumping of all critics into one, Sh. Omar Suleiman says that just as MLI participants are asking critics to take ownership of all the virulent rhetoric online, are they, especially those who are silent, willing to take the ownership for everything a MLI participant says and writes?

Moghul says American Muslims are politically irrelevant and thinks that the MLI controversy has highlighted the irrelevance. He is concerned that most American Muslims don’t have any idea how Americans view them, Israel or Palestine. He disagrees with the strategy of total boycott and says that American Muslims are disorganized.

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He says many of the critics who are attacking him share the same assumptions about the conflict and the same desire of outcome, but no one should put their eggs in one basket. He has traveled to Palestine on his own before and has been detained and harassed, giving him a glimpse into the life of daily Palestinians.

“We are uniquely positioned to make change, we have resources, we have money, we are not as organized as we could be or should be, but we could potentially be a very influential community in terms of Muslim communities around the world,” and to him it is more valuable that American Muslims are engaged in the political process than potentially be boycotted ourselves. “You don’t have to agree with what is happening in the political process or on the ground in Palestine, but you have to be cognizant that that is what it is right now.”

Dr. Bazian says he accepts the narrative that, “[American Muslims] are powerless and [we] feel they are powerful and [we] want to be a part of the movement, but to frame it as solidarity is a completely distorted notion.”

“I respect the argument that I am, as a Muslim, weak and I have no capacity to do anything, and the only way is to get married to what I perceive is the Zionist power base in this country and maybe I can make a difference in the long run,” says Dr Bazian, “That is an honest statement. I disagree with you but at least I respect where you are coming from.”

The double talk of solidarity and interfaith understanding and this positioning frustrates Palestinians who say, ‘don’t knock on our doors, we are not interested.’ Abdullah Al-Arian and Hafsa Kanjwal have done an excellent analysis here.

Call to Power vs Calling out the Powerful – Where are the Red Lines?

There are two narratives: academia or activism produces intellectuals in bed with power, and or those that challenge power, or speak truth to power. Can you have academia or activists that challenge power while in bed with power? Can the American Muslim community thrive without both? Can peace be achieved without both?

Many Imams and the Association of American Muslim Chaplains have signed this boycott, however many of the participants are university chaplains. The boycott letter would mean that Muslims students on those campuses are going to boycott their own chaplains? To this Dr. Bazian says that unfortunately yes; there are several other Imams, chaplains and professors who have been approached for years and have not crossed the picket line. MLI participants made the unethical choice to go, and if people do not want them to speak on the American Muslim stage (note: invitations to speak on MLI)  then so be it, he comments.

I asked Moghul if he would go again. He says he would even speak at AIPAC if it means that they will listen to what he has to say: which is a one state solution for the people of the area and an end to the occupation.

Does the American Muslim community want to be led by folks who put American Muslim interests over the interests of the people of Palestine. This feels like an abandonment of the Palestinian cause to many activists. Are we at the crossroads where we, as a community, are willing to normalize the occupation? “Hartman’s interfaith projects, and #‎MLI is part of it, are directed at normalizing Zionism, Israel and settler colonialism,” tweets Dr. Bazian. To this Moghul says that an overwhelming majority of the American Jewish community is Zionist and we have to understand what it means to them. Understanding American Jews means understanding Zionism on the ground.

Is our seat at the table so important that we wear blinders? Mayor Hameeduddin says that he feels like the doctor who is cutting off a septic leg in order to save a life. The patient doesn’t understand the bitter pill but it will heal in the long term. Moghul says that American Palestinian or American Muslim organizations had zero impact during the siege on Gaza. “Name one American Muslim organization that got into the room at the White House or at the Congressional level [in June],” he asks. Their activism is important (referring to AMP) but ‘we are nowhere close to where we should be.’

A critical question for us to ponder: Is the Palestinian occupation by the Israelis, a human cause, a Muslim cause, a Palestinian cause, or an American cause?brave-falasteeni-boy

Many of us who are not Palestinian have privilege: we have a place to call home. Many immigrants who lives in the diaspora can return, we can go back to India, go to Egypt or Indonesia to study, however Palestinians do not have this privilege. They cannot go to study Islam there, they often cannot visit families, if they were ever deported from the United States they cannot return to their homeland, as in the case of Dr. Abdulhaleem Ashqar.

I agree with this statement by MuslimARC. We can advocate, but we cannot usurp Palestinian voices or agency. Some rhetoric that comes from the MLI attendees sounds like when white feminists speak for Muslim women and insist that Muslim women wear niqab because they ‘have no other choice’.

American Muslims need to be mindful of Palestinians and their voices before we decide what is beneficial to their struggle, and even when we are deciding what is good for our community, if we claim solidarity with their cause.

The cloak of leadership comes with a huge responsibility.


*Alleged Assault in Jerusalem

There is a video of a ‘MLI participant assaulting’ a well known Palestinian blogger, Zalameh, in Jerusalem. So we spoke to the person in the video. Mohammed Hameeduddin, the former mayor of Teaneck, NJ. He categorically denies hitting the brother and says that he was grabbing the camera of a stranger, as the women in the MLI group did not want to be filmed. He says that the atmosphere at Al-Aqsa was tense because of rubber bullets flying; they tried to reach out to Zalameh while in Jerusalem after that night but were unable to. I do hope these two brothers in faith reconcile.

*updated

6 / View Comments

6 responses to “Muslim Leadership Initiative: Finding the Way Forward”

  1. Amad S says:

    This is a very comprehensive article– really appreciate your tackling of all the nuances.

    I really hope that the organizers will take upon themselves to do the right thing.

  2. Waleed Ahmed says:

    Nice to finally see a nuanced, non-binary treatment of this debate. Great work with the research Hena!

    p.s. loving the long form, add-free format of this page.

  3. […] Leadership contenders included former leaders Lawrence Springborg and John-Paul Langbroek, outgoing Speaker Fiona Simpson, Transport Minister Scott Emerson and the would-be leadership team of former NRL referee Tim Mander and Darling Downs MP John McVeigh. […]

  4. Tariq Ali says:

    Fantastic Article, great depth.

    Let’s also not forget to use the Quran’s Guidance in this situation. This has happened before, during the time of the Prophet (PBUH).

    Surah Mumtahina (http://quran.com/60) and the story of Haatib.

    Here’s what Allah says in the Quran about how to treat our clear enemies, this is what the participants in the MLI initiative should reflect on, apologize, and seek forgiveness:

    Chapter 60

    Allah clearly commands in the Quran that we do not take enemies as allies, enemies such as the Israelis who have driven out the Muslims from their lands simply because we believe in Allah. Allah warns us that if they gain dominance over us, they would do evil to us and they want us to disbelieve. This is so clearly what the Israeli Zionists are doing, what is being done by them.

    Verse 1:
    “O you who have believed, do not take My enemies and your enemies as allies, extending to them affection while they have disbelieved in what came to you of the truth, having driven out the Prophet and yourselves [only] because you believe in Allah , your Lord. If you have come out for jihad in My cause and seeking means to My approval, [take them not as friends]. You confide to them affection, but I am most knowing of what you have concealed and what you have declared. And whoever does it among you has certainly strayed from the soundness of the way.”

    Verse 2:
    “If they gain dominance over you, they would be to you as enemies and extend against you their hands and their tongues with evil, and they wish you would disbelieve.”

    Allah does not forbid us from being friends of non-muslims, those that don’t fight us, we should be righteous and just toward them. Allah only forbids us from those that fight us and expel us from our homes, CLEARLY this is exactly what the Israeli Zionists are doing, Allah clearly forbids us from becoming friends with them, and Allah tells us that those that do make friends with them are wrongdoers.

    Verse 8:
    Allah does not forbid you from those who do not fight you because of religion and do not expel you from your homes – from being righteous toward them and acting justly toward them. Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly.

    Verse 9:
    Allah only forbids you from those who fight you because of religion and expel you from your homes and aid in your expulsion – [forbids] that you make allies of them. And whoever makes allies of them, then it is those who are the wrongdoers.

    Story of Haatib

    This surah was revealed when the Prophet was in Medina and the peace treaty between Medina and the enemies in Makkah was broken, the Prophet was assembling an army of over 10,000 to conquer Makkah.

    There was a muslim man in Medina named Haatib who decided to warn the Makkan’s about the Muslim army. He still had family left in Makkah and he feared that the Makkan’s would take revenge on them as the Muslim Army advanced. He believed that if he warned the Makkan’s then out of gratitude they would protect his family, and maybe they would let his family leave before the war broke out.

    He also believed that Allah would grant the Prophet and the believers victory regardless, so he didn’t feel as if he was betraying anyone, he believed the believers would win regardless.

    There was a female musician visiting from Makkah named Sarah, he decided to send a letter through her.

    Allah revealed Haatib’s plan to the Prophet and the letter was retrieved before it reached Makkah.

    Haatib immediately begged the Prophet for forgiveness, and explained his sincerity to protect his family. Haatib was forgiven.

    Conclusion

    The participants in the MLI initiative were probably sincere, and believed there was some good to come out of participating in this initiative setup by an Israeli organization. The participants, just like Haatib were sincere, but were wrong, and should follow the example of Haatib, admit their wrong, apologize and ask for forgiveness. And we should forgive those that are seeking forgiveness and move on.

  5. […] Further reading Muslim Leadership Initiative: Finding a Way Forward […]

  6. Moshe says:

    I tried to finish this, but it was too long. Oy! I really want to believe that Muslims and Jews can find common ground, but I simply can’t stomach that even an article like this that tries to strike a moderate and rational tone can quote people comparing Israel to ISIS! It’s revolting! My 2 cents. I wonder why Israel gets all the attention when Jordan oppresses Palestinians way more….

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