By Homayra Ziad
I was a member of the first cohort of the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI) at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. MLI was billed as an immersive experience for Muslim participants to engage Jewish scholars and educators about their religious lives and relationship to Israel.
Let me unequivocally state that it was a serious mistake and an egregious arrogance on my part to have played any kind of role in this program. MLI was, and continues to be, a divisive and harmful project for American Muslim communities. Projects like MLI embody values that privilege state-centered narratives of power and structurally exclude the voices of those who are most harmed by these narratives. MLI excludes the voices of Palestinians (save the most carefully curated ones) and tokenizes communities of color and feminist and activist communities in Israel. Those of us who once lent our support to this initiative must contend with the moral wound that we inflicted on the communities we work within. The imperative to dialogue cannot justify forsaking an analysis of power, because it is precisely these analyses that give us greater moral clarity about our commitment to meaningful projects of justice. To seek a seat at the table of power at the expense of those who are disenfranchised by that exercise of power is a morally bankrupt choice.
I am a scholar of Islam and a leader in interfaith engagement. I was raised with a deep respect, even love, for religious traditions not my own. I participate in and co-create interreligious encounters that are transformative. I have been a part of interfaith learning that is deeply intentional, that embraces parity and strong structures of co-accountability, humility and collective liberation. Nevertheless, much of what is billed as interfaith dialogue today continues to function as a neo-colonial project. At its best, it becomes cultural tourism, at its worst, a “civilizing mission” that seeks to control, co-opt and coerce communities that challenge master narratives of democracy, freedom, citizenship, and security. Working in an interfaith organization that struggles with its own history of racial and economic inequality, I have become acutely conscious of the ways in which interfaith engagement can be used to assert power through the avoidance of structural analyses. Without a structural analysis of power and privilege, “engaging difference” (a catch-phrase in the world of interfaith dialogue) becomes a voyeuristic exercise, where all conversation is reduced to the interpersonal realm. The individualistic emphasis on sharing our stories “across difference” (another catch-phrase) obscures the question of whether we are actually meeting at the table as equal partners. Who is invited to the table, who sets the rules of engagement at the table, who owns the table, and who is paying for the meal? And why?
I participated in MLI to immerse myself in narratives with which I fundamentally disagreed. One of the most intractable conversations in Muslim-Jewish dialogue is the conflict in Israel and Palestine, a threshold issue that affects the decision of many Jews and Muslims to collaborate with one another as civic partners. While American Muslims do not understand this political conflict as a religious war, a commitment to Palestinian liberation is an integral part of the religious discourse around justice. Among many American Jewish communities who embrace the narrative of the security of Israel at all costs, there is suspicion of Muslims, and often tacit or overt support of Islamophobia.
MLI was intended to provide Muslims engaged in religious or civic dialogue with a sophisticated understanding of Jews, Judaism, and Israel. How do we establish trust with Jews for whom Israel holds a strong symbolic place in their spiritual lives, but find troubling the narrative of the muscular state of Israel as a bastion of civilization among barbarians? How do we understand Jews who are adamantly opposed to the Israeli Occupation, but do not support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement? Also, how do we understand the support of Islamophobia in certain Jewish communities?
I hoped that a deeper understanding of the complexity of the Jewish relationship to Israel and peoplehood would result in more fruitful and humane collaboration between our communities. As religious minorities in America, the interests of Muslims and Jews run parallel. What is good for American Jews in the realm of civil rights is often good for American Muslims as well. There is much that American Muslims can learn from American Jews in the realm of community and institution building, civil rights advocacy and from the Jewish minority experience in the United States. But this relationship cannot be opportunistic; we have to earn the trust of Jewish communities by engaging the narratives with which we fundamentally disagree.
The Dynamics of The Tablescape
These were and remain good intentions, and indeed continue to shape my engagement with Jewish communities. However, MLI was an ethically flawed project from the start.
With its structure of non-parity at every level, and a lack of political and pastoral accountability to Muslim communities, MLI was an exercise of power at the expense of equity and justice. As Muslim participants, we exercised our privilege to “engage difference” at the expense of our own moral health, communal well-being, and the will of Palestinian civil society. We either failed to recognize, or ignored, the power dynamics at play: who is invited to the table, who sets the rules of engagement at the table, who owns the table, and who is paying for the meal?
From the get-go, the structure of the program raised multiple red flags. There was no outreach to grassroots Muslim communities in the forefront of activism, and a fear of acknowledging the consensus of Palestinian civil society in the form of the non-violent BDS movement, which seeks targeted economic, cultural and educational boycotts of companies, organizations, and institutions complicit in the violation of Palestinian human rights. I was brought onto the leadership team after the program had been pitched to Hartman, and my first requests were concerned with accountability. I asked that the engagement be moved to the Hartman Institute in New York (where we could have the same conversations, arguably more relevant to our location as American Muslims, and avoid violating BDS), that we refrain from anointing ourselves “Muslim Leaders,” and that the learning be explicitly dialogical in nature. These requests were denied by MLI leadership.
Examining our Choices
As later evidenced by the ways in which this program was marketed to funders, MLI was never intended to be a relationship of equity. Sure, we had some rich, even challenging, conversations about Zionism and the Israeli state. Some good relationships and friendships were formed; alliances that may even have done some good in the world. But these were all incidental. Like any neo-colonial project, MLI anointed a group of Good Muslims who could be publicly and privately pitted against the Bad Muslims (supporters of BDS), and who by their very existence would drive a wedge through Muslim solidarity movements.
Several MLI participants came in with a shaky understanding of BDS and the gains of BDS, and in some cases, a lack of experience with activism as a strategy. Some came in as burned-out activists looking for another way to engage. All of the participants in the first cohort were Americans and not one of us came from a Palestinian background. All of us were seduced by the idea of doing something “different” around Israel/Palestine, and disregarded the fact that we had no right to make that choice in a vacuum. The discourse of solidarity was carelessly thrown about, without admitting that the very act of being there was an insult to solidarity movements. MLI was the opposite of a grassroots initiative: a program hosted and fully funded by an organization deeply embedded in the State, whose leadership, till today, continues to normalize the Occupation and conflate Islam and terror. An organization that chose to ship over (largely South Asian) Muslims from the United States rather than engage with Muslim communities living a few miles away, behind the wall. We stayed in luxurious surroundings, ate lavish meals, and spent our days in highbrow conversations about religion and politics (with mostly white male instructors), and with the privilege of stepping in and out of the conversation whenever we wished.
And yet, while several of us felt very uncomfortable during those first two weeks in Jerusalem, over a century of intellectual and cultural colonization is hard to shake off. Most of the MLI participants hail from South Asian immigrant families. We are products of white colonialism, having learned from the violent colonial histories of our motherlands that material success comes from keeping your head down and working dutifully within the system. Many Muslims (among them, my South Asian brothers and sisters) who immigrate to this country as white-collar professionals have internalized the idea that alliance with white or white-allied privilege at all costs is the only way to “get ahead.” Even those of us who believe that alliance with power at the expense of justice is immoral, still believe in working within the system, that real change can only emerge from within the halls of power. It’s what we continue to perform when we pass around the CVE hat, kowtow to Saudi princes, or take part in initiatives like MLI.
As soon as I understood that we were effectively assenting to our own cooptation, I should have bowed out. Yet, even after that first sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, I stayed connected to the program for a full year and a half. While I never went back to Jerusalem after the first two-week stint, I continued to justify remaining involved in the conversation, each explanation ringing more hollow than the last. I thought of myself as one of the voices of accountability that would redeem and reshape a dialogue that I still thought was worth pursuing. I felt accountable to the participants, in particular friends who I had invited to join the program. But mostly, I stayed because of the misguided and arrogant presumption that we could dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools, and step out unscathed.
Eventually, as I became more aware about the personal political agendas of the organizers (on both sides), and the troubling sources of funding that were beginning to emerge (MLI was being partly funded by organizations and individuals that were simultaneously bankrolling the most virulent campaigns of Islamophobia in the United States), I worked behind the scenes to try and reshape or freeze the program. I eventually removed myself from leadership. I was not the only one; several MLI participants deeply regretted their involvement in this program.
The desire for power at the expense of justice can infect even those of us who believe that we have a strong equity analysis. As a child, I grew up in the world of international development and I was well aware of the neo-imperialism that governs these spaces: the structural inequity of lending, the bunkered, pampered lives of ex-pats, and the deep racism that supports the entire enterprise. And yet, I materially benefited from that same system, growing up highly privileged, highly educated and well travelled. How often do wealthy American Muslims from immigrant communities turn the lens on our own privilege? When we have the privilege to make alliances with powerful individuals and institutions, are we allying with power at the expense of justice? What are we giving up morally to be in this partnership? And should we not use our privilege to stand in solidarity with, rather than further marginalize, the vulnerable among us? These are questions that should accompany a life-long self-examination of privilege.
MLI in The Atlantic
It is not surprising that Wajahat Ali invokes his MLI experience in his recent controversial Atlantic piece, “A Muslim Among Israeli Settlers” (The Atlantic, June 2018). Indeed, Ali’s article dovetails with the ethos of MLI, which obscures relationships of power and privilege in the service of a titillating engagement with “the Other.” In this piece, too, storytelling “across difference” becomes an obfuscating device. Vivid snapshots of life in the Occupied Territories distract readers from the fact that this piece is just a more sophisticated version of the moral equivalence narrative that dominates the media landscape on Israel/Palestine. It is indeed possible to offer different and conflicting narratives, including the acknowledgment of suffering on both sides, without falling into moral equivocation. And yet, while Ali clearly acknowledges the reality of an occupation, the reader is treated throughout to false equivalencies between the occupier and occupied. Ali also continues to recycle the categories of ‘Jew’ and ‘Muslim,’ which allow the conflict to be hijacked into a theological conversation, rather than the more appropriate categories of Israeli and Palestinian. Unfortunately, these narratives become far more dangerous when served up by a native informant: Ali’s self-identification as a Muslim lends credence to racist mainstream narratives on Palestine.
Akin to the ill-conceived profiles of white supremacists that cropped up in mainstream media after the election of Trump, the settlers are larger than life, lovable, complicated. Even their racist diatribes are handled in such a way as to render them “complex.” While they are described as fundamentalists, it is their voice that determines the narrative. Ali’s article does not offer facts that would allow the reader to complicate the settlers’ binary view of the conflict, which frankly, mirrors the way in which much of the American public reads and understands the conflict to begin with. The problem with the public understanding of the conflict is not a lack of empathy with settlers. It is the consistent marginalization and outright erasure of Palestinian narratives. Ali’s piece, ostensibly part of a project to work out “how Palestinians could emerge from under the often-brutal Israeli occupation,” continues to engage in the same project of erasure.
Next to the carefully rendered, almost noble, portraits of Israeli settlers, the Palestinians in this article are caricatures. A “woke” settler tells Ali that he used to see all Palestinians as “background noise—the gray, drab scenery that passes in the distance in a movie.” He could easily be describing the treatment of Palestinians in the piece itself. Ali approaches and treats them as bystanders, unable to offer a sensitive analysis of the expressions of anger and pain that he encounters. Without any serious discussion of the regimes of systemic, institutional, and legalized discrimination faced by the communities that he comes across, his descriptions serve only to confirm the mainstream narrative of the angry Palestinian hell-bent on destroying Israel at all costs. There is little analysis of the policies of Occupation, which include forced migration, second class citizenship, arbitrary access to land and travel permits, lack of access to clean water, severe restrictions on movement, lack of access to labor markets, systematic destruction of crops and infrastructure, and systematic threats to life, liberty and personal security. The flippant humor – Jerusalem is “sunny with a slight chance of apocalypse” – is jarring in the face of human suffering.
We are served up evocatively rendered snapshots of pain (the Palestinian boy holding a basketball) without a critical analysis of why the pain exists. Without that analysis, we are mere spectators, consumers of suffering, left shaking our heads about the inherent “madness” of the Middle East. Before Ali travels to Hebron, Abdullah Antepli (co-founder of MLI) warns him, “You’ll need to detox with a lot of strong sheesha.” What about those who do not have the luxury to detox? At another point, Ali wonders about a Palestinian woman in Hebron who would not sell her ancestral land for 4 million to the settlers that live around her. “Just take the $4 million, I thought to myself, shaking my head, observing this absurd existence…” Statements like these are voyeuristic and elitist, and betray a lack of empathy with the complexity of protest and resistance.
We are not going to critically engage structural racism in the United States by humanizing white supremacists. Similarly, Ali’s empathetic portrayal of settlers against cardboard cutouts of angry Palestinians only serves to entrench the mainstream discourse on Israel and Palestine. But that is the ethos that MLI cultivates – we can congratulate ourselves on “engaging difference” without a structural analysis of power and privilege. We can pretend that we are bravely moving the conversation forward, when instead we are merely lending our voices to a brutal exercise of power. Throughout my life, I have prided myself on being able to step into the shoes of others. I have embraced the practice of deep listening, of allowing conflicting narratives to sit side by side. That practice has been integral to my work in education and in interfaith dialogue. But at certain critical moments, that stance becomes a copout. Ali’s storytelling obscures an issue that demands moral clarity.
In a recent article on MLI, Antepli claims, “Jews and Muslims in America only talk to each other in two ways – either about hummus, halal and kashrut or they debate and throw their own facts and UN resolutions at each other.” Building on similar experiences, many buy into the myth that initiatives like MLI are the only way forward. But thankfully, I have experienced interfaith dialogue that is founded on liberation and accountability for all, that honors the diversity within each of our communities, and where we are raising our religious voices not to consolidate power but to advocate for justice. It is the equitable, accountable, and healthy engagement with difference that allows us to stand together against Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Black racism, and bigotry in all its forms. This is the dialogue that I choose to empower.
Dr. Homayra Ziad is a scholar-activist, educator and writer with fifteen years of experience in religious and interreligious education and programming. After receiving a doctorate in Islamic Studies from Yale University, she was Assistant Professor of Religion at Trinity College in Hartford and currently spearheads education on Islam and engagement with Muslim communities at the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies in Baltimore. Homayra co-chairs the American Academy of Religion’s Interreligious and Interfaith Studies Group, and is co-editor of Words to Live By: Sacred Sources for Interreligious Engagement (Orbis Press, 2018).