A growing community seeking to define the face of Islam in America is quietly emerging. During a time when Muslims in the West are feeling vulnerable to the malignancy of Islamophobes and religious extremists alike, a small class of individuals are priming themselves to be the alleged thought-leaders representing the will of their fellow coreligionists.
In the United Kingdom, these individuals have existed for some time, as exemplified by the Quilliam Foundation’s Maajid Nawaz who presents himself as a Muslim reformist in the face of growing extremist trends. Nawaz is held in contempt by many members of the British Muslim community for political choices that do not sit well with their interests. In the United States, Haroon Moghul is one among a select few who have gradually made a name for themselves as a bridge between American Muslims and various socio-political and religious communities. Yet, much like Nawaz, Moghul also faces varying degrees of contempt from his fellow Muslims due to controversial ideals and choices he has made, which many feel have harmed the community.
It is perfectly understandable for Muslims to make their voices heard and push back against the narratives ISIS and similar groups espouse. But in this effort, so-called thought-leaders like Moghul and Nawaz illustrate a homogenous, uni-directional “Muslim Voice” that rigidly defines what the ideal Muslim ought to be. If you don’t fit the bill, then your voice is irrelevant.
This dangerous trend allows those of a certain stature to propagate socio-political directives on behalf of an entire community without properly engaging or consulting its members. In other words, these thought-leaders fail to meaningfully involve the very people they purport to speak for, and as a result, undermine certain Muslim narratives for the sake of others. Worse yet, when the wider Muslim community is indeed consulted, voices of opposition are typically treated as either extremist, trifling, or both.
Take one of Moghul’s recent pieces for the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz as an example. In it, he spells out the need for greater cohesion between Muslims and Jews against the bigoted sentiments of political figures like Donald Trump. In principle, the proposal seems to have merit, except for the fact that it has almost nothing to do with actually countering bigotry and more to do with the author’s own experiences with the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI)—an initiative dedicated to bolstering relations between American Muslims and Israeli Zionists. The crux of Moghul’s argument is that his involvement with MLI in Israel showcases a level of bravery he wants Muslim and Jewish communities in America to achieve, and that those unwilling to venture down this path are misguided.
MLI operates in coordination with the Shalom Hartman Institute (SHI), which in the profoundest of ironies is a group regularly funded by ardently Islamophobic organizations like the Russell Berrie Foundation. Members of MLI, including Moghul himself, have traveled with SHI to Israel-Palestine against repeated pleas from countless individuals, including those who argue the initiative undermines the Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions movement that has been generating steam and that aims to end Israel’s military occupations and discriminatory policies against Palestinians.
Importantly, it is not just this call Moghul and his ilk overlook, but also the virtually unanimous consensus of Muslim scholars and leaders—American or otherwise—who believe activities of this sort further normalize the Israeli occupation. One can only wonder if they too fall into what Moghul refers to in his Haaretz article as the potentially anti-Semitic, “angry loud minority” who are attempting, as he suggests, to co-opt Islam just as Trump has co-opted the GOP. Brazen language that excludes certain Muslims from the conversation is bad enough, but it is even worse when you consider how it has divided the American Muslim community on the issue of Israel-Palestine.
By insinuating that Muslims who oppose MLI are peripheral, Moghul attempts to spell out the acceptable parameters of American Muslim engagement. This gives him the luxury to define who the “reasonable Muslim” is in much the same way that Nawaz tries to define who the “moderate Muslim” is.
While Moghul and Nawaz are in many ways quite different, this is where they converge: both seem to believe they are endowed with the prerogative to speak for and about an otherwise marginalized community of Muslims.
So while Moghul claims to build bridges between Muslims and other communities, he effectively does it atop the ashes of bridges he continues to burn within the American Muslim community itself. The “angry loud minority” opposed to MLI that he brushes off as being “only that” and nothing more is in fact a substantial number of American Muslims (including both Muslim and non-Muslim Palestinians abroad as it relates to MLI) who feel disenfranchised. Some of them are members of my own family, and all of them are perpetually sidelined because of manufactured narratives that ostracize them as an inconvenient noise.
But the real problem with these Moghulites isn’t so much the personal positions they relentlessly advance when it comes to MLI, Israel, and Palestine. It is rather the audacity in assuming they may speak to non-Muslims on behalf of the broader Muslim community in the first place, on any issue. In Moghul’s case, this matters because he uses his privileged status to speak for and about American Muslims on a range of issues at the White House, on CNN, in Israel-Palestine, and through various other mediums typically unavailable to the “angry loud minority” he scorns.
It is not hard to see why many Muslims find this incredibly degrading. The intellectually disingenuous, morally questionable approaches Moghul and those like him take on behalf of the Muslim community may unintentionally reinforce a blatantly Orientalist “good vs. bad Muslim” narrative that so many have been mindfully combating for decades. Giving credence to the notion of a united “American Muslim Will” that in reality does not exist (and never has) will likely foster deep internal divides within Muslim communities, particularly if steps are not taken to ensure that personal agendas cloaked as community-wide beliefs and wrapped in the misleadingly eloquent language of pluralism do not flourish. Rather than helping Muslims, these attitudes will only further narrow the opportunities they have to express their views and execute on their ambitions.