In July 2014, I wrote about the quasi-clandestine program called the ‘Muslim Leadership Initiative’, run by the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute (which now also has an office in New York). In the piece — and subsequent pieces that followed, written by myself and others — ample evidence and connections were shown to make it more than apparent that the purpose of the program was to deputize Muslim American “leaders” in various fields to undermine the growing tide and strength of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. MLI wasn’t a lone endeavor on this front, but it seemed to be the one to stick and show some success. The program targeted people in close proximity to students: writers, (aspiring) media personalities, Muslim chaplains; professors.
I genuinely didn’t see the 2014 expose having the impact that it did. I had hoped that the piece would spark a productive communal conversation on the sort of politic we needed to unify around. I had hoped it would be a corrective, reconciliatory moment. Instead, a deep-rooted fissure was not only revealed but has since deepened and widened, illustrating a blueprint of what the future of Muslims in the United States can and likely will look like.
And a lot of this hinges on Palestine.
For the first time, Palestine has become a negotiable issue in the American Muslim public community. When our communities disagreed on everything else, we could agree on Palestine. There were always individual exceptions, but generally, at the level we were able to have public conversations as a community, Palestine was long integral to and front and center of the American Muslim politic. The freedom of Palestine was Sacred — and convincing people to not work with those whose ideology explicitly relies on the violent erasure of Palestinians wasn’t controversial ..or in need of mass debate.
Not so much anymore.
In recent years, the centrality of Palestine to the American Muslim politic has been chiseled away — through both design and inevitability.
You don’t need to go full Netanyahu, but undermining the single most powerful and effective protest tool supported by Palestinians under direct occupation and in the diaspora — BDS — seems to be pretty okay.
And it’s especially okay if you’re doing it in the name of building relationships, inter-communal strategies and fighting Islamophobia — the same Islamophobia that is largely upheld by narratives about Muslims as pathologically and inherently violent, savage; incapable of self-governance and thus in need of control.
The same narratives that are used to justify the continued occupation, ethnic cleansing and apartheid against Palestinians. The same narratives that are used to justify a foreign policy that is the greatest expression of systemic anti-Muslim violence this country has to offer.
And we’ve come to a point where if you disagree with strategies, groups and individuals who undermine an international political protest of ethnic cleansing and apartheid, you stand accused, by many in our community, of sowing discord, fitna — of dividing our power. Maybe even of voter suppression and enabling President Donald J. Trump’s fascism.
This is a strange (and not new) point that doesn’t see how powerful, money-injected institutions and individuals claiming to work for Muslims, under the opportune guise of a ‘Muslim American’ identity, betray the very principles and safety of the affected communities. Our institutions, that claim to represent us and gladly will take our money, are held to a far lower standard than those they claim to be working on behalf of. And our spiritual leaders, who we have long trusted as guiding lights, have embraced regimes that spill our kin’s blood and shake hands with oppressors.
How did we get here?
We Shall Return by Imad Abu Shtayyah
At some point, our conviction to principles causes us to hit a glass ceiling in pursuit of not just community power but personal career growth. How far can a Muslim working in the American empire, sustained on myths about itself in opposition to ‘the Others’, get by holding onto the very principles and beliefs that make her/him the ‘Other’?
And how far can any Muslim organization go, in achieving its stated goals and pushing back against rampant anti-Muslim hate, without having to make some concessions along the way in order to ‘play the game’?
In the last six years, it has become apparent that there are four major political categories in the American Muslim public: Professionals, Expedients, Principlists and Determinants.
And here’s what I mean by those terms:
The Professionals are those for whom the identity of ‘Muslim’ and the community that buttresses this identity serve as a means to an end. Religion, in and of itself, is irrelevant as is the material betterment of the community. The Professional Muslim class has zero interest in the creation and empowerment of a Muslim politic, instead its interest is only in exploiting superficial representational politics which allow them space in white institutions, space they use to stomp around on ‘their own’. This in turn functions as a sort of native informancy, signaled through how they speak to their communities of origin and happily echo the accusations of those who suppress those communities. Steven Salaita, who has come to embody what cost Palestinian Americans in particular have had to incur for their commitment to their existence, comments a bit on a related phenomenon quite well here.
The Expedients are those who seize opportunity for political expediency. In their view, in order to have political power in a country such as the United States, as a community or as an individual, it is necessary to participate in some (maybe all) systems of power and politics: including those which may be antithetical to one’s personal or communal interests and principles. The stated goal, usually, is that to build power we need to build relationships with those who are “on our side”, even if we have some disagreements. For this group, political expediency and opportunity trump principles for sake of political representation and power. Political power is best (but not only) exercised within established systems of power: media and party-centric politics. Think your typical ‘seat at the table’ politic.
The Principlists are those for whom principles are non-negotiable. Political power for this group isn’t built on short-term opportunities but long-term strategic building. The greatest political power, in this group’s mind, is one that is built through community and that remains unwavering on principle and demands concessions from the Establishment (media, party-centric politics). In other words: people power over establishment power, resistance over representation. Any representation that comes at the cost of principles that are seen to define the power and moral anatomy of the community — principles for the betterment of the Ummah, for example, versus just simply the US-centric community — is not representation worth having. Think your standard ‘turn the table over, we’re on the menu’ politic.
Finally, The Determinants. Generally speaking, this group is interested in Muslim American civic, creative and grassroots engagement at every level but isn’t committed to access to power at any cost and also isn’t committed entirely to making all principles non-negotiable. The organizations that fall under this group will have a mix of individuals who fall into either the Expedient or Principlist camps. Those of which are more rooted in Islamic practice and ethos, explicitly so, tend to fall in the Principlist camp on many, but not all, critical issues. I think this group, which admittedly isn’t yet as well defined as the others, makes up a large cross-section of the American Muslim community. There is a process of learning happening that has been accelerated in the last four years, and it finds itself torn between expediency and principlism. The benefits of expediency are palpable, but it’s hard to argue why some principles can be negotiable and others can’t be. This group, in my opinion, are critical in determining the route the American Muslim politic will take and look like over the next few years. Think a ‘we can’t turn down all the invites but the food on the table does look kinda poisonous. Risk it?’ type of politic.
Think of these labels as classifying emerging, sometimes porous, trends versus solely (and strictly) certain individuals and organizations. I want these to be open to debate, discussion and evolution because we need to, collectively, start critically engaging with what the public face and politic of our community is.
Because, everything is at risk right now.
When we make the one non-negotiable position negotiable — what else is up for the taking, the bending, the “we can talk about this later”? Where is the line? And I want to be clear: we’re not talking about a political position- we’re talking about a moral, ethical, spiritual position that speaks to our role in defending human life, sacred ground and resisting colonization.
Here I want to take a moment to dispel not a myth but an ahistorical, anti-decolonial perspective that has emerged in recent years. The myopic view laments that the preponderance of Palestine as an issue for Muslims is in large part due to ‘Arab supremacy’ both in American Muslim communities and the Ummah. This perspective ignores the following:
Jerusalem is the third holiest site for Muslims, in Islam. It was the site of the first direction of prayer and destination for pilgrimage. Would we argue that the importance of Mecca/Medina in Islam is also …Arab Supremacy?
The centrality of Palestine in anti/de-colonial resistance. Palestine is one of the last colonial fronts of the 20th century — while countries across the world, including what’s referred to as the Middle East, were gaining ‘independence’ from European colonial reign, Palestine‘s colonization, also a violent European erasure, was just beginning. Anti-colonial figures and groups have long not only shown solidarity with Palestinian liberation but recognized it as central to international decolonizing efforts — especially today.
‘Islamophobia’ (a term we need to revisit) in the United States is largely rooted and sustained by efforts by pro-Israel groups and is sustained through pro-Israel narratives that dehumanize ‘The Arab’ and ‘The Muslim’. Even the vocabulary and discourse surrounding “Muslim terrorism”, that pathologizes violence by Muslims as especially noteworthy, dangerous and apart from other forms, is rooted in the same industry that exists to build the case for Israel’s violent dominance over Palestinians. This, however, benefits the United States more so than Israel because…
Israel is of geo-strategic importance to the United States and thus to American taxpayers and citizens. Its central location in the so-called Middle East makes it integral to the American project in the direct region and the neighbouring regions. There’s this (anti-Semitic) misnomer that Israel controls the United States. This line of thinking makes the world’s most powerful, cunning and violent country and military somehow suddenly meek and naive to the whims of..uhhh…‘The Jews’? Israel — like KSA, UAE, Bahrain, etc — is a client state of the United States. The survival and legitimacy of Israel is sacrosanct for American dominance in the region — why else does ‘normalization of relations’ between Arabs states and Israel matter?s
This needs to be said here: none of what I’ve said above is to undermine or ignore how our communities inflict and deal in anti-Blackness at a mass scale — because Black issues are Muslim issues and it’s taken too long for us, here, to move away from respectability politics and towards solidarity with our brothers and sisters, who make up one-fifth of our population in the US. Instead, for decades, we have been separated and there is a problem when all “our” issues are only abroad in solidarity with Muslims and never where we’ve settled and grown at the systemic expense of a population of people, many of whom comprise of our community. This is ironic given how Black/African movements for liberation have stood in solidarity with Palestine and Palestinians for decades, and still today.
That was long, but I wanted to list these out to really underscore that the presence of Palestine as a political priority in our communities can’t just be chalked up to ‘Arab supremacy’ — it is a systemic priority that stems from a long history and the heavy residue of geopolitical realities for many in our communities “back home”.
This frustration — that I’ve heard a lot in recent years — has also been used to undermine BDS.
That because of the centrality of ‘Arab politics’, we can’t create strategic relationships with certain temples or organizations that lean slightly or entirely Zionist; that strict and rigid adherence to Palestine is getting in the way of building an American Muslim politic.
But what good is any power and politic built at the expense of people in our community? What good is any power and politic that is built by standing on the wrong side of justice? One of the most basic ethical premises in our faith, for day to day and greater political conduct, is to enjoin the good and forbid the evil — so why are we negotiating with the boundaries of evil?
Because this is an issue of faith.
And here I want to dispel another ahistorical talking point: that Palestine is not a “Muslim issue”. Yes, being Muslim does not make you the authority on Palestine, to decide what is best for millions of people. Being Muslim isn’t a card for you to use to barter Palestine and Palestinian humanity for the sake of your career.
But given the sacredness of Jerusalem in Islam, given that members of our communities are directly impacted by a multi-state supported occupation and system of apartheid and given how decolonization and anti-imperialism are (/should be) paramount to Muslim societies and their histories, Palestine and its liberation are a ‘Muslim issue’. And it is that connection that creates one major form of solidarity — across sect, ethnicity and region — with Palestine (though, forget our criminal governments). And that solidarity, when utilized and empowered, can wield influence.
So, do American Muslims still care about Palestine?
I think everyday people, those who are disconnected from the spheres of influence and power, do.
But this is not a battle we can or will win in our institutions, in our organizations; perhaps even in our representations. Because the fight for liberation must be absolute, otherwise it isn’t liberation — it’s politics.
And for the future of this community’s survival, for the growth of its power — however fickle such a hope maybe whilst living in an Empire built to tear it away from you — I hope we can see what is at stake.
You must come to understand things as they should be understood. I know that one day you’ll realize these things and that you’ll realize that the greatest crime any human being can commit, whoever he [sic] may be, is to believe for one moment that the weakness and mistakes of others give him [sic] the right to exist at their expense and justify his [sic] own mistakes and crimes.” — Ghassan Kanafani, Returning to Haifa.