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In the summer of 2014, Palestinians and members of the American Muslim community alike were stunned to hear of the creation of the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), an all-expense paid program that sends between fifteen and twenty “emerging religious and intellectual Muslim leaders” to Israel to explore how “Jews understand Judaism, Israel, and Jewish peoplehood.” The program is hosted by the Shalom Hartman Institute (SHI), a research and education institute based in Jerusalem that seeks to “deepen and elevate the quality of Jewish life in Israel and around the world.” After a number of individuals went public with their participation in MLI’s program in 2014, they were met with immediate public criticism for normalizing Zionism and violating the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement—a Palestinian-led call to withdraw support for cultural, academic, and political organizations that are complicit with the Israeli occupation.

As tensions between MLI participants, supporters, and critics rose, the issue became one of the most controversial and divisive topics within the American Muslim community. Nevertheless, the program continues today, although on a much more discreet level. Little information is revealed about the “Muslims leaders” who participate in MLI, and even less is known about the program’s outcomes and how they have benefited the American Muslim community. At the same time, MLI has received praise not just from pro-Israeli and Zionist institutions, but from the most rightwing and Islamophobic organizations in the United States as well, including the Clarion Project and Campus Watch. 

For these reasons, MLI raises a number of important questions about the relationship between American Islam and liberal influences. For starters, who gets to be an “American Muslim leader?” How should American Muslims engage with the political establishment? What role do Islamic ethics and liberal tenets play in the cultivation of an “American Muslim identity?” Most importantly, what precisely is “Muslim” about the Muslim Leadership Initiative? The answers to these questions situate two very opposing trends in the American Muslim community.

What Is The Shalom Hartman Institute?

Although SHI claims to adhere to liberal notions of “religious pluralism” and “building new foundations of understanding and cooperation” with leaders of other faiths, by all standards, it is still a Zionist institution, and one that is politically right-of-center. As evidenced by its mission statement, SHI seeks to “ensure Israel’s foundations as the democratic homeland of the Jewish people committed to equal rights and religious freedom for all.” The first half of SHI’s statement inevitably invalidates the second. As Omri Boehm has argued in The New York Times, “Whereas liberalism depends on the idea that states must remain neutral on matters of religion and race, Zionism consists in the idea that the State of Israel is not Israeli, but Jewish.” As far as SHI is concerned, Israel will always (and only) be a “homeland for the Jewish people”—a core tenet of Zionist belief. The second half of SHI’s mission statement, then, is simply meant to entice support from other religious groups—especially American Muslims—through its (contradictory) liberalizing Zionist agenda.

Indeed, on issues concerning Israel, the narrative of SHI is no different from centrist and hardliner state positions. It is certainly further “right” than its liberal Zionist counterpart, J Street, a “pro-Israel and pro-peace” policy organization that was formed to counter the influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) amongst American Jews. J Street has spoken out against Israeli settlement expansion and condemned the state’s illegal policies in East Jerusalem. By comparison, SHI’s most senior members affirm Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and work with AIPAC and other rightwing groups. SHI’s prevailing narrative is all too familiar: the Palestinians are to blame for the disruption in the peace process and for their plight, and Israel must act to secure its foundational interests. What really sets SHI apart, however, is its strong desire to bring into the fold those who are skeptical about the Israeli state’s official narrative, including leaders of other faith backgrounds.

One of the more controversial yet seldom-discussed ways SHI accomplishes this goal is through iENGAGE, a program which seeks to “respond to growing feelings of disenchantment and disinterest toward Israel among an ever-increasing number of Jews worldwide by creating a new narrative regarding the significance of Israel for Jewish life.” This program responds to a number of polls that show how support for Israel is declining steadily among young American Jews and Americans in general. In essence, the program seeks to renew allegiances to the “Jewish State” of Israel, seeking to counter the hard work of a number of Jewish progressive organizations, including Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP)—an organization that has put forth alternative, more just visions for the future of the state.

How exactly does MLI come into all of this? MLI was initiated in coordination with SHI at the request of Imam Abdullah Antepli, the Muslim chaplain at Duke University, who says he reached out to SHI in a bid to address what he believes is the “rise of anti-Semitism in Muslim communities,” and improve Jewish-Muslim relations. SHI agreed to cooperate, and unsurprisingly so, since MLI intends on “forging deeper and more nuanced relationships between the Muslim and Jewish communities in North America”—a clear fit with the institute’s aims. In fact, MLI allows SHI to situate itself as a liberal, tolerant, “pluralistic” Zionist organization that seeks to listen to and engage with diverse voices, while still maintaining its core commitment to Israel’s distinctly Jewish identity. It also fulfills a secondary goal, complementary to the iEngage program: to find pockets where resistance to the Israeli narrative is high, and to counter the efforts put forth by Palestinians and their supporters, who, in recent years, have made significant gains through BDS.

MLI & Hasbara

Undoubtedly, the Israeli state and its institutional allies, including SHI, are involved in hasbara, a form of propaganda that is aimed particularly at international audiences. The function of hasbara is to portray the policies and actions of Israel in a positive light, and to undermine the Palestinians at every turn. MLI, then, it would seem, fits squarely within hasbara campaigns, especially those that aim to undermine BDS.

There have been a number of important criticisms leveraged against MLI’s role in perpetuating hasbara, including crucial analyses that have pointed to how the initiative amounts to “faithwashing,” a term Sana Saeed defines in an article for The Islamic Monthly as “changing the cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (or, rather, Israeli occupation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine) from a mid-20th century Euro-American settler-colonialist project (that brought anti-Semitism to the Muslim world) to a non-existent centuries long enmity between Jews and Muslims.” Others have pointed out that MLI has included primarily non-Palestinian and predominantly South Asian Muslim Americans—those who are mostly disconnected from the occupation yet are made representatives of a cause they have no inherently personal investment toward.

Notably, the sole Palestinian invited to MLI, Kamal Abu-Shamsieh, renounced the program shortly after its completion. In his words, which were published in an article for the Hufffington Post, “MLI proved incapable of either challenging injustice or changing Israeli/Jewish attitudes towards the Palestinians. I asked Rabbi Donniel Hartman to address the 2014 Gaza war. My cohort listened as he passionately defended and justified Israeli actions, ignoring the slaughter of hundreds of innocent Palestinian civilians.” 

Even after the completion of a number of MLI cohorts, SHI has neither acknowledged Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, nor condemned the expansion of illegal settlements, nor criticized the ongoing repression, siege, and violence against the Palestinians. Instead, to buttress Israel’s claims to its Jewish identity, SHI trains “senior Israel Defense Forces officers in developing a strong, positive, Jewish-Israeli identity that will inform and guide the style of their military leadership and service.”

In defense of the program, MLI participants, including Imam Abdullah Antepli, have provided a number of vague, contradictory reasons for their participation, and have been unable to truly articulate what purpose it ultimately serves. Antepli and others have been unable to explain, for example, how exactly the program benefits the broader American Muslim community, and whether MLI’s “engagement” with a rightwing Zionist organization—in open defiance of BDS—has actually shifted the manner in which Zionists view the Israel-Palestine conflict. MLI participants have also failed to explain why they continue to strengthen their relationship with SHI, despite revelations of many disquieting activities which, according to American Muslims for Palestine, include “receiv[ing] millions of dollars from some of the leading funders of extreme Islamophobic groups (such as the Russell Berrie Foundation) in North America and [being] a major contractor for the Israeli military.” Perhaps most disconcerting is their blatant disregard and disingenuous silence towards the aforementioned criticisms.

Although Antepli claims he initiated MLI in order to address the supposed toxicity that exists between American Muslims and Jews, using his own personal experience of anti-Semitism as a stand-in for the experiences of the broader American Muslim community, how he determined that such toxicity is, in fact, a real problem is unclear. Indeed, there is no credible study that has polled negative attitudes of American Muslims towards Jews or documented a barrage of anti-Semitic crimes committed by Muslims in the United States. This is not to say anti-Semitism does not exist in the American Muslim community, but there is certainly no statistical basis to isolate American Muslims’ alleged “anti-Semitism” from the larger reality of American anti-Semitism. Moreover, Antepli willfully and purposefully conflates anti-Israel or anti-Zionist sentiment—which are both definite rallying calls within the American Muslim community—with anti-Semitism. 

It is these types of misinformed and dangerous conflations that shadow many of the arguments made by MLI participants. One participant, reflecting in the Huffington Post on his experience, vacuously described MLI as an attempt to understand the other side in order to “search for peace.” Another believed it is more about Muslim-Jewish relations in the United States, as Israel/Palestine is the ultimate “elephant in the room.” As reflected in a piece in Patheos, the participant states that “By understanding the impact of Israel on various American Jewish identities, I hoped I could better understand and have more meaningful conversations with many of my Jewish dialogue partners. I strongly believe that poor relations between Jews and Muslims in the West contributes to anti-Muslim sentiment worldwide as well as anti-Palestinian policies in both the US and Israel.” 

Astonishingly, another participant who also published in Patheos presented MLI as a philosophical inquiry into the nature of American Muslim “group think,” stating that “Consensus is a funny thing to impose on complexity…Enforcing broad uniformity on complicated, often politically-charged issues is ill-advised.” This statement, which situates the conflict as “complex and complicated,” utilizes Zionist talking points by situating the Palestine solidarity movement as an “echo-chamber,” despite its vociferous international support.

To chart a new path in the peace process, improve Jewish-Muslim relations in the United States, decrease Islamophobia, stop anti-Semitism in the Muslim community, “understand” the other side of a “complex” conflict, and put forth a multi-pronged political strategy are among the various explanations given in MLI’s defense. The program’s participants have largely avoided the concerns that have been raised by its critics, ironically using life-long Zionist tactics concerning “civility” to distract the conversation into one of adab, or prescribed Islamic etiquette, and the need for diversity of thought. 

How exactly does an MLI pedigree impact the Muslim leaders that are a part of it? The answer is perhaps clearest in a recent piece in The Atlantic by American Muslim journalist and writer, Wajahat Ali, who was part of MLI’s first cohort, and remains one of its most vociferous defenders.

In his article, entitled “A Muslim Among Israeli Settlers? What happens when a Pakistani American writer goes deep in the West Bank,” Ali immediately sets the tone of the story in religious terms. He describes how he, as a Muslim, is seen amongst Jewish settlers. We, as readers, are meant to assume that the Jewish-Muslim dichotomy is a natural one, and that Ali’s presence in Palestine as a Pakistani American Muslim is somehow equivalent to that of a Palestinian. He situates the equivalence of “both sides” of the conflict by narrating both the Jewish and Palestinian perspectives on the events of 1948 (and the subsequent occupation). In Ali’s words, “lives are lost on both sides…Israelis fear their Palestinian neighbors, and Palestinians are suffocated and immiserated by the Israeli occupation.” Indeed, Ali goes to painful lengths to equate the two sides: the Israeli settlers are equated with Palestinian “hard-liners” (what constitutes the latter is never made clear), and those Palestinians who advocate a one-state solution are labeled “extremist,” just as the Israelis who seek to conquer the Temple Mount. He flippantly reframes Israeli apartheid as a “real-estate dispute…with a profound religious complexity.”

Instead of making a call for solidarity against all forms of oppression, Ali attempts to undermine Palestine solidarity by stating that in his own mosque community back home, Palestine “superseded all other Muslim suffering, including the ongoing occupation of Kashmir, the repression of Chechen Muslims, and the daily racism experienced by many African-American Muslim.” This “whataboutery” is of course a standard Zionist tactic. When speaking of Israeli state violence and apartheid, the Zionist response is, “What about Hamas? What about the violence of Arab states against their citizens?” Similarly, in demanding solidarity with Palestine, the derisive response from MLI’s members has been “What about issues X, Y, and Z?”—instead of actually acknowledging how critical the state of Israel has been to the promulgation of modern-day imperial domination.

The remainder of Ali’s article continues to situate the two narratives—that of the Israeli settlers and the West Bank’s Palestinian residents—side by side, both as equally compelling and conceptually flawed. The article makes every attempt to equate the oppressor and the oppressed, and in so doing, reveals a fundamental insight to MLI’s approach. 

Although Imam Antepli argues that MLI is “about learning the other’s positions in order to create more informed and thoughtful engagement” (on what precisely is yet unclear), it is the explanation provided by one participant that hints to the real potential boon of being part of MLI: an opportunity to be “in the room” when important decisions are made on a policy level.

Professionalizing Islam

How does MLI fit into increasingly dominant trends within the American Muslim community’s political engagement? There are two main answers to this question. The first is that MLI enables an emerging group of professional Muslims to enter the American liberal political mainstream. The second is that MLI showcases how this group of “professional Muslims” utilizes vague adaptations of “Islamic ethics” to justify their participation, leading to a liberalization of Islam in America. The term “professional Muslims” is employed loosely in this context—the term does not imply any level of adherence to the religion. Rather, these are individuals whose career trajectory in an atmosphere of Islamophobia and the War on Terror largely relies on the utilization and profession of some part of their Muslim identity.

MLI has emerged in a unique political moment in which the Zionist campaign to undermine the increasingly successful Palestinian solidarity movement coincides with a desire for “professional Muslims” to enter into the American political mainstream. By situating themselves as more rational, open-minded, and tolerant of the “other side” than their more close-minded, echo-chambered religious brethren, these professional Muslims become the “good Muslims” with which the broader American political establishment can simultaneously engage. 

It is unsurprising the issue that allows them to do this concerns Israel-Palestine. Support for the official Israeli narrative in American politics has always been a track to respectability for a number of political actors (including civil rights activists and African American political leaders). That Israel has become a prime issue for bringing out these “Muslim leaders” may reveal something about MLI’s ultimate aims, as well as the objectives of some members of the American Muslim community.

The desire to be in the political mainstream has been an increasing trend amongst professional Muslims since 9/11, as the Muslim community’s political marginalization in the aftermath of the attacks led a number of organizations and individuals to seek greater acceptance within the corridors of power (often at the expense and to the detriment of long-held community issues). MLI is, as such, far from removed from other trends, including the articulation of an “exceptional” American Islam (which is allegedly more “enlightened” than its variations abroad), participation within the American security state, and the rise of Muslims as a “model minority.” All of these play upon the good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy, and show how Islamophobia can be internalized by the very people it targets. 

Indeed, since 9/11, there have been various initiatives that seek to reform Islamic ethics and politics to fit the needs of the neoliberal Western state, and depoliticize Muslims from positions that are seen as politically “fringe” or too “radical” (anti-war, anti-empire, anti-capitalist) in order to re-politicize them into positions that fit neatly into the American liberal political mold (of the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama variety). This mode, with its emphasis on “individual freedoms” and “individual liberties,” allows professional Muslims to instrumentalize and leverage their individual “Muslim” identity in favor of the demands of the neoliberal state. In this liberal, relativist mold, individuals are empowered to make their own claims on Islam, highlighting one of the primary challenges that liberalism posits for the religion and its adherents. 

One clear example of this is the growing number of professional Muslims (a substantial number of whom are MLI members) who are vocal proponents of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs, which give grants to community organizations, government offices, mosque communities, and police departments to “derail people at risk of engaging in terrorism.” CVE has been proven to be ineffective in predicting those who are at risk; instead, civil rights groups have argued that it is a means of “strengthening…investigative [and] intelligence gathering abilities.”

Another example is the Concordia Forum, an exclusive, invitation-only, elitist initiative that brings together professional Muslims from Europe, North America, and the Muslim World, to network and “synergize their talents.” The Forum, which is in its ninth year, and has involved nearly 1,000 leaders, is held in “secluded resorts” in places such as Spain, Italy, and Portugal. Participants come from major media outlets, government and international bodies, multi-national corporations, and grassroots Muslim organizations. The reports and findings of the forum are not made public (the program also prohibits social media engagement to protect privacy and minimize security risks). The Forum promotes a self-selected leadership model of professional Muslims—one gets to be a leader depending on their network and how much social (and financial) capital they can leverage. One wonders why the self-professed leaders of the Muslim world are so secretive and private—why are the masses they are supposedly working for not privy to their grand plans for their betterment? 

MLI, then, is part of a growing number of initiatives that allows American Muslim leaders to utilize their Muslim identity to further their career interests and leverage the liberal political mainstream. This trend, inevitably, leads to a number of questions that have thus far been ignored. Can one self-profess to be a “Muslim leader?” What makes someone a “Muslim leader?” Who gets to represent Islam and why? What representations are accepted into the liberal political mainstream over others? While professional Muslims may differ in their religious ideology or practice, this coterie of like-minded individuals agrees upon one thing: the insatiable desire for political “relevance,” and ultimately, power itself, at any cost. 

Islamic Justifications

While the title of the program itself suggests there is something “Muslim” about it, initially, MLI participants did not clearly delineate any Islamic justification for the organization, focusing more on the need for dialogue and political strategy. Yet after receiving significant criticism, MLI advocates increasingly began to defend the program as deriving from an Islamic ethics of political engagement. Imam Abdullah Antepli has claimed that the program is for the “sake of Islam.” In a profile on Antepli, the Times of Israel described the Imam as standing for “authentic Islam. For an Islam of tolerance and equality. For an Islam whose American adherents seek constructive integration into mainstream American society. And if this decent Islam is to be accepted in an America scarred by Islamic extremism, he believes one of the central paths to that acceptance runs via the US Jewish community, which itself so successfully integrated into America.” The call for assimilation, rather than any kind of Islamic ethical engagement, rings more soundly from MLI—and one remains confounded by what an “authentic Islam” or a “decent Islam” looks like. Does “decent Islam” call one to completely overrun the wishes of Palestinians in favor of their oppressors?

In another essay for The Islamic Monthly, Antepli again conflated anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel, saying that as a faithful Muslim, “I couldn’t reconcile my intense anger and hate with Qur’anic teachings, nor with the example of the beloved Prophet of Islam. I began to see the dangerous consequences of allowing your religion, ethics and morals to be led by absolutist, political ideologies and sentiments.” In fact, invoking the Prophet Muhammad’s name in defense of MLI has become standard practice for many. In a Patheos article about MLI, for example, Maggie Siddiqui, a disciple of Antepli’s, states: “I feel that spiritual remedies are needed for the traumas of the occupation and its reverberations around the world. And this starts with the hard work that our Prophet (peace be upon him) called us to do when he commanded us to help those on both sides of a conflict, whether they are oppressors or the oppressed, by helping to stop the oppression.” One remains confused, however, as to how MLI will “stop the oppression.”

Even if one does situate the Israel-Palestine conflict as a religious one (which it resoundingly is not), what exactly are the Quranic teachings towards oppressors? How did the Prophet deal with those who repeatedly oppressed the Muslim community and broke their treaties with the Muslims, as the Israelis have done time and again by undermining every international treaty? The answers to these questions will, to be sure, make “professional Muslims” uncomfortable, as they do not seamlessly fit into the narrative of the Prophet which is palatable for Western audiences. Nonetheless, BDS—a consistently non-violent call to resistance—is far from a militant response to oppression. And yet, it is still seen as “absolutist” and “ineffective.”

The Islamic justifications for MLI are half-baked and completely ill thought out, signaling once more that the core of the program is not based on “Islamic ethics” at all. Instead, the program highlights the liberalization of Islam in America. It focuses on individuals over the broader community, and vague notions of “dialogue” and “getting to know the other side,” over justice. It reveals the agency of individual community actors in shifting the moral center of Muslim identity into one that assimilates into the American liberal mainstream. It highlights the instrumentalization of Muslim identity for certain political ends. Any individual or group can do what they want, and claim they are “Islamic” just because they are doing it as “Muslims.” There is no attempt to achieve community consensus, or listen to the wishes of the primary stakeholders (Palestinians). 

MLI and programs like it commodify Muslim identity to fit a liberal political agenda—this ultimately is the power of liberalism itself. Ironically, however, this liberalization is self-defeating. By only bolstering one particular group of Muslims over others, MLI is deliberately countering liberalism’s mandate to be neutral on matters of religion. 

Unravelling MLI

Ultimately, MLI reveals the dark underbelly of the American Muslim project. It reveals the tensions of this “liberal” initiative, one in which self-professed individuals can seamlessly claim to represent American Muslims without any credibility. Whether out of political naiveté or personal ambition, the American Muslim project reflects a desire amongst some Muslims to fit into the American mainstream so desperately that Islamic ethics and religious identity are used to score political points, all the while undermining the Palestinian solidarity movement and dividing the community. Under the leadership of these professional Muslims, American Islam is in deep jeopardy.

It took MLI’s stark violation of the Palestinian-led call to BDS for a number of these trends to come to the fore; most American Muslims were simply unaware of these concurrent trends previously. For decades, if there was one issue that united a diverse group of ethnicities, religious ideologies, and sects within the American Muslim community, it was Palestine. For this to unravel shows that we are entering a new phase where moral boundaries are fluid, political alliances are made for strategic purposes instead of principled stances, and those, whose plight does not coincide with the interests of the American security state, will increasingly be thrown under the bus, or misrepresented by American Muslims “leaders.”

MLI has provided access to particular political circles for a number of its participants. While the secrecy of the program does not allow for a thorough investigation into the post-MLI activities of its participants, a number of its most visible members have since published books, gained access to prominent writing gigs with media houses like The New York Times, and obtained fellowships with leading neoliberal political think tanks, like the New America Foundation. One participant has secured a position with SHI itself, serving as a fellow in Jewish-Muslim relations, and giving lectures to Muslim communities throughout the country. 

Yet, it remains unclear whether the MLI program has delivered on its supposed aims of creating improved relations between American Muslims and Jews. Instead, it appears that its professional Muslim members have doubled down on compromising on political issues in order to maintain access to power. One thing above all is crystal clear: MLI has contributed to a grievous split within the American Muslim community, between those who support the Palestinian cause and call for BDS and those who do not (or do so disingenuously). It has also underscored a shifting trend within the American Muslim project toward a framework that relies more on political strategy and mainstream acceptance over and above Islamic ethics.

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