I’m not a Palestinian. I can’t tell you about Palestine.
I am not a Jew. I cannot tell you about Israel.
But there is something that I can tell you about. I am an American. I am a Muslim. I can tell you about those two things and my personal experiences as an American and as a Muslim. I can also tell you about are my areas of expertise. Islamic Law, thought and financial ethics, among other things.
Why bring all this up? Well because of this.
I was recently signatory to this letter which Imams, khatibs, shayks, and teachers signed on to. For full disclosure you should also know that I helped draft it. At the end of the letter, the MLI Muslim Leadership Initiative of the Shalom Hartman Foundation is called out by name for supporting things that we the undersigned felt were antithetical to justice and peace. You can read more about them here. One of the reasons it was drafted for was due to the dismissive tone that some MLI participants were taking with those that questioned their participation. Opposition to MLI was labeled as a “fringe group of activists” among other diminutive phrases. So since it’s the “Muslim Leadership” Initiative, whom better to address whether those actions are deemed acceptable other than their peers? And since this was a faith-based program, organized by an Imam, I spoke with colleagues working in religious leadership positions and we worked to draft the letter, to test the hypothesis. 150+ people working as religious teachers and leaders and 45 organizations in the Muslim community agreed. The actions of the MLI were unacceptable. The opposition is not to interfaith work or visiting Israel. There are more fundamental issues at play here.
The focus of this letter was a reiteration by Muslim leaders of the other letters and petitions that preceded it, to state that supporting oppression is antithetical to the Quranic concepts of justice and peace. While the other letters addressed issues like BDS and political determination, we thought that the religious angle should be dealt with. Another core issue mentioned in it is the politicization of interfaith work. Personally, I’ve been involved in interfaith work for several years. Working with partners in Jewish and Christian communities, we’ve held dialogues, congregation exchanges, youth group visits, elderly group visits, and joint public service events. This was all great work that I would not have been able to do without Rabbis, Pastors, Priests, and other concerned members of various faith communities whom I count as friends.
At one time, while I was particularly active in the Muslim community, my intentions for doing interfaith work were called into question. Some people in the community did not like it. They felt it was pandering. They wanted to know why I didn’t speak about the Palestinian issue. They wanted to know why I didn’t denounce Israel. I told them as I told you at this beginning of this diatribe: I’m not a Palestinian. I can’t tell you about Palestine. And I am not a Jew. I cannot tell you about Israel. I am an American. I am a Muslim. I can only tell you about my own experiences and refer you to others for their authentic and personal experiences. I have no right, just for virtue of being a Muslim, to speak on behalf of Palestinians. I left that job to a Palestinian American colleague (who happened to also be a priest).
What I can speak on as a Muslim and a subject matter expert in Islam, is that God himself forbade oppression upon himself, and he has made it forbidden for us as his servants. I would ask friends in interfaith work: Is not the use of advanced weaponry against women and children oppressive? Is not the embargo of whole populations, denying them even the basics of human subsistence oppression? Isn’t being Goliath but claiming to be David oppression? I would stress to them that I believe that we have the opportunity here in the US to set the model for what ecumenical, principle based interfaith work looks like. We can differ, but we cannot be expected to compromise core tenets of faith. One core tenet of my faith is as mentioned above: opposition to oppression, injustice, and evil. As an American, I cannot stand by while my tax dollars are used to oppress others around the world. As a Muslim, I cannot stand by while my faith is used to oppress others around the world. This is why I spoke out about al-Qaida (to the ire of some of my co-religionists). Oddly enough, I found my picture plastered after that on extremist websites (one a right-wing Christian site in the US, the other a European Muslim one).
This is why I speak out now.
I signed on to the “American Muslim Religious Leaders Say No to MLI” 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.
Some people who did not like the message of the letter tried to spin it as an encouragement to sever relationships because of disagreements. This could not be farther from the truth. Some people took the message personally. Honestly I do not know any of the MLI participants personally and quite frankly I don’t know who most of them even are due to the secretive nature of who attends. Regardless, this is not a personal vendetta or a hostage situation staged by “two-bit takfiri wannabes.” I’m sure those that made such insinuations did not mean by them to target me or any of the other signatories, but because one of the messages of the letter was to “remain civil and respectful in advising those involved and refrain from personal and demeaning attacks” I’d like to take a moment to say that such language is unacceptable, as are vilifications of being a sell-out or a traitor, regardless of who says them.
Another spin on the message was done by questioning the breadth of the language used. Reading this line “And to refuse any and all assistance to those seeking to break the Muslim Community’s solidarity with the oppressed” and overlooking the context in which it comes in, such as the encouragement to remain civil with those you see as mistaken, one cannot assume that bright lines are being drawn to decide “who’s in and who’s out.” If you recall the fifth chapter second verse of the Quran, “And mutually assist each other to good and God mindfulness, and do not mutually assist each other in sin and oppression” and the Prophet’s statement “Assist your brother when he is wronged and when he wrongs others…by stopping him from doing wrong” the meaning of that line should be clear.
I denounce the actions of MLI because of the narrative that it seeks to usurp. Several of the participants and their supporters have characterized the difference between MLI participants and those that oppose them as a difference in “political tactics.” This is part of the narrative that is being usurped. Touted as a faith-based program, when challenged, participation in MLI now is presented as a “political tactic.” Is it politics? Or is it interfaith? This politicization of interfaith work undermines the efforts of people that work for religious understanding among faiths. I count myself from them. It also undermines the efforts of those that work for political action on the Palestinian issue. By painting the issue with a religious brush, agency is taken away from Palestinians and all those that work for an equitable solution to the issue. By painting this program as religious while it has a purely political agenda, it points to one things: the use of culture and religion to break the effectiveness of non-violent political action. A result of this is the use of its participants as the stone that kills two birds: political action for the Palestinian cause and religious voices that speak truth to power. Now we have “American Muslim Leaders” whose rhetoric is consolatory to those that engage in oppression. Why engage with Palestinian political activists? We have American Muslim Leaders who we are working with. Why listen to religious leaders who want to tell you that your actions are morally reprehensible? We have American Muslim Leaders who are with us.
This has even further ramifications for the American Muslim community that effectively neuters them from speaking on social justice issues. Ferguson? Police brutality? Hold on. Don’t you see your “American Muslim Leaders” here that are working with us on Palestine, not against us? Hold us accountable? What do you mean? The Muslim Leader Initiative is funded by the same people that work to make you and your children the objects of suspicion and incitement in the USA. Those that participate in it are not merely engaged in a variant “political tactic” to solve the Palestinian issue. The institution they are working with, learning from, and relaying the messaging for is committed in the foreground to the demise of BDS and the perpetuation of injustice, and in the background committed to making your life and the lives of your children a living hell here in the United States.
So not only is the most effective political tool for remedying political injustices being put to sleep, so is the voice of Americans Muslims who need independent leaders that can speak to injustices and oppression here at home as effectively as they can to those overseas.