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Why I Left The Muslim Leadership Initiative

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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).

 

 

 

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Hamid

    June 7, 2018 at 12:49 AM

    Appreciate the deep analysis and the imbalanced juxtaposition of Palestine and Israel through MLI, and for acknowledging your mistakes of association with MLI.
    I pray and hope that you will now work thrice as hard to counter MLI and similar misguided initiatives.
    Ramadan Mubarak.

  2. Avatar

    Umm Qais

    June 7, 2018 at 8:45 AM

    Thank You for your public acknowledge of a grave mistake. We as a community lookup to you and several other leaders like you to lead and protect this ummah from whatever harm others are trying to inflict.

    It is sad to see that even well educated and thoughtful individuals can easily be seduced by those who consistently plan and execute harm to the muslim community. You and others played directly in their hands.

    May Allah forgive you all and elevate the wisdom of our scholars, leaders, and muslims in general to identify and protect ourselves from any harm that comes our way. Ameen.

  3. Avatar

    Haithem

    June 8, 2018 at 2:00 AM

    Excellent and well thought out article. Thank you for owning up. I do wonder however how will you cultivate justice without power. Sometimes you have to make the unjust behave by force. I think to ignore this is all submitting to the will of existing structures.

  4. Avatar

    Ashfaq Mehdi

    June 8, 2018 at 9:48 PM

    Do you have anything to say Wajahat Ali as to why you are still active in MLI.

  5. Avatar

    John Tindall

    June 19, 2018 at 3:28 PM

    Can you rephrase this into more plainspoken “street English”:

    “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.”

  6. Avatar

    nawaz

    July 5, 2018 at 3:51 AM

    Great article.Thank you for sharing.

    From : http://bit.ly/2K52w3R

  7. Avatar

    Alkalaam

    July 9, 2018 at 4:36 AM

    May Allah bless you with steadfastness on his deen.
    The Ummah needs many more humble leaders like you.

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#Current Affairs

Muslims Leaders Who Are Also Foreign Agents

When American Muslim leaders are also foreign agents, you need to consider FARA, the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Ahmed Shaikh explores how this law may apply to American Muslim leaders who fall into “Team UAE” and “Team Turkey”

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Foreign Agents in the Muslim Community
Which deeds are most beloved to Allah?

Alhamdulillah, by the blessings of Allah (swt) and readers like yourself, MuslimMatters has been an independent platform for our best thought leaders to educate us in our faith and catalyze change through powerful, necessary conversations. Since our humble beginnings as a basic wordpress blog in 2007, our content has remained free.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support us with a monthly donation of $10 per month, or even as little as $1. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Foreign Agents in the US have a meaningful effect on Americans in the United States.  Should Muslims in the United States adopt the foreign policy narrative of the United Arab Emirates?  Should we be against calling the mass killing of Armenians during World War I “genocide?” Can American Muslim leaders and nonprofits be the voice of governments, give them public relations advice and do their bidding?

These questions are largely irrelevant as the American Muslim community already has some activists and Islamic Scholars who are foreign agents.

I am not claiming being a foreign agent is inherently wrong, unethical or somehow prohibited in Islam. In many instances, being a foreign agent is fine, or at least you can find examples where the activity is harmless and maybe even beneficial. Non-Muslims serve as foreign agents, peddling influence and giving advice. Why can’t ordinary Muslims, even Muslim leaders, activists, and Islamic scholars do the same? What we need though is transparency about these relationships, similar to how we keep tabs on people who carry hazardous waste. It’s often a useful and beneficial service, but also, well, hazardous. 

As we have seen from recent cases Imaad Zuberi, Mike Flynn, and Paul Manafort , it is reasonable to expect more prosecutions of unregistered foreign agents in the coming months and years.

American Team Turkey vs. American Team UAE

My purpose here is not to re-litigate events during the first world war or the UAE’s murderous worldwide batil-slinging foreign policy. It is also not to offer a further critique of American Muslim leaders and scholars who blow smoke for one foreign interest or another. For that, you can read my recent article. Instead, it is to help American Muslims involved with foreign entities to be aware of the law so they can prepare accordingly. 

The “Team Turkey” vs. “Team UAE” saga playing out among the Muslim community’s leadership, including nonprofits and religious leaders, is dangerous, and there is potential legal jeopardy to members of both “teams.” The law in an individual case is often complex, and I am not claiming anyone referenced in this article is a criminal. However, anyone who thinks aspects of this article applies to them should seek legal counsel post haste.

Pariah status may rub off

In the eyes of the US government, the UAE may be up one day, and Turkey may be down. Pakistan is pretty much always “down” no matter who is in power in the United States, so Muslims working with that government and various political parties and institutions in that country should be especially sensitive about being a law enforcement target, even if they believe they are working for a worthy cause. Keep in mind how the Muslim community has been treated historically by the Justice Department. For this or any future US Administration, American Muslim leadership may be low hanging fruit for prosecutors. 

Right now, the UAE, in particular, aggressively buys loyalty, buys people in positions to peddle influence on its behalf. It uses straw donors and funnels its money around the United States through various entities to get what it wants. These tactics work for them now, but it may not work forever. Any Muslim majority country can get “pariah” status and the social and political environment in the United States may turn against that country and its agents.

If the political winds in the United States change against the UAE, their leadership will probably not be affected. Things may be different for their agents in the United States, however. The same may well be true for agents of Turkey. We can learn from their best known non-Muslim foreign agent, former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn

The United States has a long history, going back to its founding, of being suspicious of foreign influence in government and public opinion. Various clauses of the constitution and several laws exist to address this historic concern, though many are quite weak.  The one that Muslim leaders with ties to foreign governments should be most concerned with is the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) 

Anyone who closely followed the Mueller investigation into the 2016 Presidential election is likely somewhat familiar with FARA.  However, of more interest should be the prosecution and guilty plea last year of Dr. Nisar Ahmed Chaudhry, who was prosecuted for activities that are remarkably common for Muslim leaders, especially immigrants.

It’s not a crime to be an agent of a foreign government. The crime, as those paying close attention to current events, will understand,  is in not registering with the Justice Department. In short, it’s a federal crime for agents of foreign entities or people engaged in political or other activities in the statute, with some exceptions, to not register under this law. US Law defines the term ” foreign agent”- it is not necessarily pejorative. It does not mean being a spy.

Indeed, foreign influence-peddling is an entire industry. Often, people who engage in “influence peddling” are not especially sophisticated and may not be paid at all. They may simply be immigrant activists who love their homeland.

In the case of Chaudhry, he pleaded guilty to not registering an unincorporated group he created in his home, the “Pakistan American League,” and his work as a “foreign agent.” His crime? He spoke to officials in the Pakistani government, and worked in Pakistan’s interests in D.C. area government and “think tank” circles by organizing “roundtable discussions.” He was not paid for his work as an “agent” by Pakistan.  All of this is legal, except that he failed to register.

A Law About Transparency

Foreign Agents need to report on their activities or risk fine and imprisonment. Every six months, the US Attorney General issues a report on foreign agents who register under this law to Congress. You can find the most recent report here. These reports offer a helpful description of registered foreign agents operating in the United States, but anyone can take a deeper dive into the reporting if they want to. FARA is about transparency.

FARA does not prohibit speech or activities by anyone. The purpose is to inform the public and government about the source of information used to attempt to influence them. FARA is an old law that US Muslims need in our communities right about now. 

Enforcement of this law had been mostly dormant for years, and the Mueller investigation is said to have given it new life. Registrations under the law are up.

FARA is broader than you might think

FARA is not just for agents of foreign governments. Being an agent of a foundation, royal family, oligarch, or any other entity or person can trigger the same requirements and cause criminal liability for those who fail to register. Many registrations under FARA involve agents of entities and people that are not governments. 

As we have seen from Chaudhry’s case, Muslim leaders, activists, and scholars don’t need to be paid to be “foreign agents” under the law. Congress understood foreign agents could work for nonmonetary benefits. A foreign agent does not need to agree with everything the foreign principal does and says. A Muslim leader who gives certain kinds of advice to a foreign entity may need to register to avoid criminal liability. It does not matter if the foreign principal ignores the advice. FARA is not just a law about foreign lobbying, indeed lobbyists have a separate registration system and law.  Virtually any work to influence public opinion or give advice will fall under the law. There are many opportunities for Muslim leaders to get themselves into serious trouble

Religion or university affiliation may not save foreign agents 

There are exceptions to FARA reporting requirements. For example, diplomats, many journalists, and bona fide trade and commercial enterprises do not need to report.  Say Muhammad is the agent of a Turkish exporter of Turkish delight, selling delicious packaged desserts to grocery stores around the Midwest. Muhammad does not need to register under FARA. 

Similarly, those involved in bona fide religious, academic, or fine arts pursuits are exempt. So if Saad, a US Citizen, is hired by the Saudi government to teach Quran recitation to children of employees of the local Saudi consulate, Saad would not need to register. 

 If, however, the Turkish Delight company asked Muhammad to write op-eds and hold meetings to prevent tariffs on Turkey, well, that’s different. If Saad starts to give public relations advice to his Saudi employers, he should call a lawyer. It’s worth noting that FARA is not the only registration and disclosure statute. A lawyer with expertise in this area can help them sort it out. 

Learn from others

Carrying water for a foreign entity’s political agenda, a regular occurrence by some American Muslim leaders is not bona fide religious or academic activity. Such conduct falls squarely into a danger zone under the law. The US Justice Department has confirmed the religious and academic exception’s narrow scope. The Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation, for example, wanted an opinion they are exempt from registration.   They were working on developing a museum, which is an academic institution. However, the Justice Department advised the foundation must register under FARA. The reasons, among other non-nefarious sounding things, were exhibits on bilateral relations between South Korea and the United States.

In 2017, TV station RT America and news outlet, Sputnik, “both Russian-funded but with production companies in the US, registered as ‘foreign agents’ under pressure from the Justice Department.”

Muslim leaders with ties to foreign entities should also look to the example of the American section of the World Zionist Organization. The WZO has appropriately registered itself as a foreign agent. Its work seems reasonably standard for a Zionist organization, though. WZO “participated in workshops, seminars, and conferences and distributed materials to increase support for the foreign principal’s educational, cultural, and religious goals.” The foreign principal was the World Zionist Organization in Israel, not the government of Israel itself. Still, it needed to register. 

Even if someone falls into an exception to FARA, another related statute may well cause liability. So anyone who has to look around for exceptions should check with an attorney. 

Sunshine in the Muslim community

Much of the work against CVE involved learning what Muslim leaders working with governments were up to. Because of the federal “Freedom of Information Act” and state Public Records Acts, we have a better idea of what Muslim leaders have been collaborating with the war on terrorism against our community. The availability of public records has also kept some Muslims away from unsavory funding opportunities. There is always a risk they will be found out. Who needs that drama? As the late US Supreme Court Justice Luis Brandies famously said, “sunshine is the best disinfectant.” 

Some in the Countering Violent Extremism space have looked to foreign governments and organizations, particularly in the UAE. Working against the US Muslim community, which includes naming groups such as CAIR and MAS “terrorist organizations,” and investing in anti-Muslim surveillance is fundamental to UAE foreign policy. Foreign entities are not subject to the Federal Freedom of Information Act or state Public Records Acts.

Covertness can be beneficial when prosecuting the war on terrorism in our communities on behalf of a foreign master. However, security-state contractors working with foreign entities are engaged in an inherently political enterprise and should register. Unfortunately, nobody from the Muslim community in the CVE sector has. They should either start or quit foreign-sponsored CVE altogether. 

FARA is your friend

We have a strong need for transparency among Muslim leaders and organizations. Foreign interests have been looking to influence the US Muslim civil society for several years. It may well be that agents of foreign nation-states or entities in them have valuable things to say. The purpose of FARA is not to deny your ability to hear them and learn from them. However, knowing someone is a foreign agent will help us place the information provided by a Muslim leader, activist or scholar in a better context. 

Muslim leaders and organizations should strongly encourage each other to look at FARA when any foreign entity is involved. If for no other reason, to avoid potential criminal liability.

If you are a Muslim leader, activist or scholar working with a foreign principal, retain legal counsel. You need to know if registration is required. If it is necessary, and it often will be, provide a fulsome disclosure and keep updating it. You can be sure there will be at least a few Muslims reading it. 

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#Current Affairs

A Closer Look At The Congressional Hearing on Human Rights in South Asia

Hena Zuberi

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Kashmir hearing in Congress
Which deeds are most beloved to Allah?

Alhamdulillah, by the blessings of Allah (swt) and readers like yourself, MuslimMatters has been an independent platform for our best thought leaders to educate us in our faith and catalyze change through powerful, necessary conversations. Since our humble beginnings as a basic wordpress blog in 2007, our content has remained free.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support us with a monthly donation of $10 per month, or even as little as $1. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Expectations on Capitol Hill were pretty low going into the House Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and Nonproliferation’s historic hearing on “Human Rights in South Asia”. Previously, hearings on India have not been critical and the Kashmiri Muslim point of view has not been discussed.

Chairman of the sub-committee Brad Sherman (D-CA) wasted no time setting the stage for where he wanted to go with this hearing, stating, ”the entire world is focused today on what is happening in Kashmir.” He also pointed to the state of the 2 million-minority population in Assam. Missing from his opening statements were remarks on the state of the rest of the minorities in India, esp. Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, and Muslims. Ranking member Ted Yoho (R-FL) was soft on the gross realities of the occupation, highlighting one case of a Kashmiri constituent, and referred to the abrogation of Article 370 as an internal matter of India. He also brought up the Indian talking point of economic progress in the region but this concept was thoroughly dismissed by later testimony and Q&A.

The State department veteran Alice Wells, Acting Secretary on South and Central Asian Affairs seemed woefully ill-prepared for the critical nature of the hearing. Both Wells and Assistant Secretary for Human Rights Destro could not or did not present solid facts and figures about detention and tried to explain away the oppression as “inconveniences”. They were unable to comment or provide clarity on the situation on the ground in Kashmir, with Destro saying, “we are in the same information blackout as you are.” Some of Sec. Wells’s comments were of direct Indian government persuasion.

Several of Justice For All’s talking points were raised during the hearing.

There was commentary on the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar asked about the anti-Muslim program. She questioned the panel on the public statements by Indian officials that only Muslims have to prove their birth records. Rejecting the notion that a democratic ally cannot be policed, she said that the United States does that in many situations and “this should not be an exception.”The human rights abuse doesn’t cease to exist even if it is the law. Is it consistent with international human rights?” asked Chairman Sherman, along the same lines.

Destro observed that the appeals process “may disadvantage poor and illiterate populations who lack documentation”. “We are closely following this situation and urge the Government of India to take these issues into consideration,” he added.

”The human rights abuse doesn’t cease to exist even if it is the law. Is it consistent with international human rights?” asked Chairman ShermanClick To Tweet

Wells testified that “violence and discrimination against minorities in India, including cow vigilante attacks against members of the Dalit and Muslim communities, and the existence of anti-conversion laws in nine states” are not in keeping with India’s legal protections for minorities.

Congresswoman Alice Spanberger, (D-VA) a former CIA intelligence officer, asked whether India has shared examples of terror attacks and incidents that have been thwarted due to the communications blockade. When Wells stated that she could not comment, Spanberger asked for a classified hearing so that US officials could give their assessment on the validity of the national security argument of the Indian government. Chair Sherman associated himself with her questioning and vowed to take her suggestion seriously.

Chairman Brad Sherman, as well as several other Congresspeople both on and off the House Foreign Relations Committee, asked several pertinent and critical questions.

Questioning the Indian Government narrative Chairman Sherman asked if the United is “supposed to trust these government of India officials when the government of India doesn’t allow our diplomats to visit?” Representative Sheila Jackson asked if reputable Indian diplomats or journalists had ever been denied entry into any state in the United States?

Indian American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) referred to a report about the detention of dozens of children in Kashmir and said detention without charges is unacceptable. She expressed her concerns about religious freedom in India and said that she proposes to bring a bipartisan resolution in Congress.

Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and David Cicilline of Rhode Island both had a heavy human rights approach to the questioning. Congresswoman Lee asked Assistant Secretary Destro if he would describe the situation as a “humanitarian crisis,” Mr Destro said, “Yes, it is.” She then went on to call the United States government to stop a potential genocide.

Washington has not changed its stance on the designation of the Line of Control. Chairman Sherman brought up the issue of disputed territory to the State Department.“We consider the Line of Control (LoC) a de facto line separating two parts of Kashmir,” answered Wells. “We recognize de facto administrations on both sides of LoC.”

The subcommittee focused on personal testimonies as well as human rights organization Amnesty’s testimony during the second half of the hearing.

Though no Kashmiri Muslims testified, the panel presented electrifying testimonies from Dr. Nitasha Kaul, a Kashmiri and Dr. Angana Chatterji, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Bearing witness to the rising fascism and Hindu nationalism’s grip on India, both witnesses brought up beef lynchings, with Chatterji raising the concern of the genocidal inclinations of the Modi government. 

“Hindu majoritarianism – the cultural nationalism and political assertion of the Hindu majority – sanctifies India as intrinsically Hindu and marks the non-Hindu as its adversary. Race and nation are made synonymous, and Hindus –the formerly colonized, now governing, elite – are depicted as the national race,” said Dr. Chatterji.

Kashmiri witness Dr. Nitisha Kaul stated in her testimony that “human rights defenders, who were already under severe pressure, since August 5 are unable to function in Kashmir. For instance, every year on 30 August, the UN Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearance, Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons led by Ms Parveena Ahangar, organises a vigil protest involving hundreds of elderly women and men whose sons had become victims of for instance, in the most recent parliamentary elections, the voters’ turnout was very low and in many booths, not a single vote was cast.”

Kaul emphasized the extension of the oppression, by highlighting that this year the peaceful gathering of elderly parents mourning and waiting for their disappeared sons was not allowed. She shared Ahanga’s quote: “This year we have been strangled, and there was no coming there was no coming together because, through its siege, India has denied us even the right to mourn.”

Ilhan Omar challenged Indian journalist Aarti Tikoo Singh’s take that the siege was in place to save Muslim women from “terrorists.” This is a trope that is often used to wage war and is especially used in the so-called “war on terror.” “It is a very colonial move on the part of the nation-states around it as if they are “liberating Kashmiri women,” said Dr. Kaul.

Chatterji bore witness to the woes of Kashmiri women who bear the brunt of the Indian occupational forces’ sexual brutality. “The woman’s body becomes the battlefield,” she said replying to a question by Congresswoman Houlahan from Pennsylvania. Dr. Kaul stated that the 1944 new Kashmir manifesto contained an entire section on gender rights. She spoke on the equity and equality in Kashmir: “They go to protests. Women become heads of households because of dead husbands.”

She also reminded the committee that BJP’s Amit Shah, also part of the government in 2002 and responsible for the program on Muslim community stated that Western human rights cannot be blindly applied here in India.

Representative Wild from Pennsylvania asked why the Indian government would not allow transparency. When human rights organizations and journalists can work in active war zones, she rejected the anti-terrorism narrative pushed by Ravi Batra, a last-minute BJP addition to the panel. “When there isn’t transparency something is being hidden and this is what really concerns me terribly,” said Wild.

A Sindhi-American witness spoke on minority rights in Pakistan, especially the forced conversion of Hindus. This is a concern that needs to be tackled by Muslims as there is no compulsion in Islam and is antithetical to the religion.

During the hearing, Amnesty International reported thousands in detention under the Public Safety Act while the State Department numbered it at hundreds. Dr. Asif Mahmoud, a key organizer, presented the health situation in Kashmir.

The overall situation of the Rohingya was covered and links were made to the start of the genocide in Burma and the parallels in India. The members of the House referred to it as genocide with the State Department still calling it ethnic cleansing.

Although the hearing focused on the current state of Jammu and Kashmir and not much was brought up about self-determination or the plebiscite, Kashmiri-Americans and their supporters left the hearing room satisfied that their voices were heard for the first time in the halls of the US Congress.

What was most concerning point of the entire hearing was that Kashmir was not brought up categorically as disputed territory and the issue was referred to as an integral matter of India. This needs deep, consistent and long-term work by advocates of Kashmir. With the continuous rise of RSS, Indian minority issues need a much sharper focus, and a regular pounding of the pavements of Congress to educate the Foreign Relations committees.

Some action items for American Muslims post-hearing.

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What We Should Know About The Slaying Of An Imam 10 Years Ago In Dearborn

Dawud Walid, Guest Contributor

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informant jibril imam Luqman
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October 28, 2019 marks 10 years since the tragic homicide of Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah who was shot 20 times in Dearborn, Michigan by a special FBI tactical squad. The homicide of Imam Abdullah was the culmination of the FBI spending over a million dollars in a so-called counterterrorism investigation which included rental of a commercial warehouse and freight trucks, the purchase of expensive electronic items and payment to at least 3 confidential informants. The raid on that fateful day in which Abdullah was killed and some of his congregants were arrested had nothing to do with terrorism-related charges, yet the imam and by extension the Detroit Muslim community was smeared in the process.

The FBI and the Department of Justice (DOJ) claimed that agents were compelled to kill Abdullah because he purportedly shot a law enforcement canine during the arrest raid. CAIR-Michigan filed a lawsuit against the FBI for wrongful death and fraud in this matter because there was no forensic evidence that corroborated that Abdullah had a firearm much less shot an FBI dog, which the bureau considered a law enforcement officer. There were no proofs provided that any gunpowder was on Abdullah’s hand or fingertips which would have existed if he had fired a gun, and none of his DNA nor fingerprints were found on the alleged gun. In fact, there was not even a picture of a gun at the scene nor did the Dearborn Police see any gun. The FBI blocked the Dearborn Police from entering the scene of the homicide for over an hour after the shooting which allowed the FBI special tactical team to leave with the purported firearm. In other words, the shooters of Abdullah, who headed back to DC without even being questioned by the Dearborn Police, are the only source that he had a gun. We believe that the FBI used what is known as a throwaway gun in a coverup when they killed the imam.

To add insult to injury that tragic day when Abdullah was shot 20 times including in the back and groin, law enforcement used their helicopter to fly the injured FBI dog, which was most likely shot by friendly fire, to a veterinarian hospital instead of using it to fly the imam to a close-by hospital. When the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI in Michigan and the Acting US Attorney held a press conference about the incident, it was followed up later with special recognition for “Freddy” the FBI dog while the imam was painted as a type of extremist who wanted to establish sharia in the Westside of Detroit.

To add insult to injury that tragic day when Abdullah was shot 20 times including in the back and groin, law enforcement used their helicopter to fly the injured FBI dog, which was most likely shot by friendly fire, to a veterinarian hospital instead of using it to fly the imam to a close-by hospital.Click To Tweet

The lawsuit which we filed against the FBI was dismissed not because of the merits of our arguments but due to the federal government during the Obama administration suppressing information. The FBI would not release the names of their shooting squad which forced us to name them as John Does. The DOJ countered that we did not have standing on behalf of the family because we did not name actual persons. When we refiled using the names of the Special Agent in Charge and the head of the tactical team, neither who were actual shooters, the DOJ argued that the statute of limitations ran out in our complaint. We submitted an appeal to the US Supreme Court regarding the coordinated suppression of evidence; however, our appeal was denied. We still hold to this day that the FBI wrongfully killed the imam which was followed up by a systematic coverup.

Since the homicide of Abdullah, we now know that government surveillance against the Muslim community and the suspected terrorist watchlists grew tremendously during the Obama years in comparison to the Bush era. Also, the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) which further targeted the community began under the Obama administration. Government spying and the broad usage of confidential informants, some who act as agent provocateurs, in our community are still concerns of ours. Where Americans pray or who we associate with that may have unpopular political views should not be predicates for FBI surveillance. In many cases, this has led to young American Muslims being criminalized. For Imam Abdullah, it led to his demise.

During the 10th anniversary of this tragedy, I ask us all to recommit ourselves to standing for the civil liberties of all Americans to not be mass surveilled and for none of us to aid and abet any governmental programs that facilitate of the violation of our 1st Amendment rights falsely in the name of public safety and national security. Click To Tweet

As my mentor, the late Ron Scott with the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality said when he stood with us in this case, “We are not anti-police; we are anti-law enforcement misconduct.” It is not our position that law enforcement be completely abolished. We are, however, against the unethical usage of informants which is part and parcel of the prolific history of the FBI in targeting prominent Americans such as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, whose religious and political views were viewed as threatening by the status quo. During the 10th anniversary of this tragedy, I ask us all to recommit ourselves to standing for the civil liberties of all Americans to not be mass surveilled and for none of us to aid and abet any governmental programs that facilitate of the violation of our 1st Amendment rights falsely in the name of public safety and national security. We never want to see another homicide such as what took place to Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah due to overzealous actions predicated upon misguided FBI policy.

Photo: Luqman Abdullah, second from left. FBI informant “Jibril,” third from left. Credit: Intercept

21 Shots and the Pursuit of Justice: An Imam (Luqman Ameen Abdullah) Dies in Michigan

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