21 Aug 2019
There was a
time when Islam was a revolutionary force in America. Decades ago,
"Muslim" was a political identity grounded in an ethos of dissent,
exemplified by Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. Being Muslim meant standing up
against white supremacy and global empire, whether in Alabama or Vietnam; it
meant standing in solidarity with the struggles of black and brown people everywhere.
American Muslims eagerly claim the legacy of brothers Muhammad Ali and Malcolm
X as their own, but lack the political courage and moral integrity by which
become a community without a principled political vision, impotent in the face
of state oppression: the continuous FBI surveillance and entrapment and
ever-expanding anti-Muslim legislation. Not only are we unable to organise on
these issues, but we have also lost the common ethical ground that could unite
us around a common political vision and action.
recently, despite the divisions within the community, the Muslim American
community seemed united at least in its opposition to the Trump administration;
that appeared to be the lowest common denominator of a shared American Muslim
political identity. But then on July 8, Secretary of State and top Islamophobe
Mike Pompeo announced the creation of a Commission on Unalienable Rights to
advise the Trump administration - a serial human rights violator - on human
rights. One of our most prominent leaders, Hamza Yusuf, accepted to become part
of the theatrics.
announcement marked the culmination of years of mainstream Muslim organisations
and individuals promoting those among its ranks who align themselves with white
supremacy, the erosion of civil liberties, and global tyranny.
outrageousness of Yusuf's decision, many in the community still defended him.
Imam Zaid Shakir, who in the past has also voiced his support for "blue
lives matter" also appeared to shield him from accountability. In 2006, he
and Yusuf were profiled in the New York Times as reformed troublemakers, former
critics of American policies, who have now been rehabilitated into the
mainstream as "good" Muslims.
the two founded Zaytuna College, a Muslim liberal arts institution aimed at
educating "students to become morally, intellectually and spiritually
accomplished persons". The college publishes a journal which is funded by
the Templeton Foundation whose benefactors are known sympathisers of the
ultra-conservative Tea Party. The same foundation also supports the Quilliam
Foundation of UK-based self-professed "counter-extremist" Maajid
been others like Yusuf in the Muslim American community who have engaged in
dubious interactions with state power. Another prominent scholar, Sherman
Jackson, is a board member of the UAE-based Muslim Council of Elders. In 2015,
together with other members, he attended a meeting with Egyptian dictator Abdel
Fattah el-Sisi at the height of his brutal crackdown on political dissent,
which saw tens of thousands thrown in jail, tortured and forcefully
disappeared. In 2018, the council also congratulated the Egyptian president for
winning uncontested a second term in a sham election.
also an adviser to the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) initiative of the
right-wing think tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies, alongside
former British PM Tony Blair, who stands accused of war crimes in Iraq.
and Sherman Jackson are A-list celebrities of American Muslim subculture. Yet,
when they lend credibility to white supremacy and tyranny, American Muslims
refuse to hold them accountable.
also been prominent figures within the community who have backed the Supreme
Court's decision to uphold the Trump administration's "Muslim ban"
and others who have repeatedly crossed the picket line drawn by the Boycott,
Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and engaged with representatives of the
Americans also continue to embrace and support the US army, even when it is
deployed in Muslim countries to carry out our government's imperial ploys. To
appeal to the "white gaze", we have lionised someone like Khizr Khan - a man whose only claim to fame is being the
father of a Muslim soldier who was killed during his deployment to support the
US occupation of Iraq.
culture of political subservience and collaboration isn't limited to a select
few individuals. Prominent organisations like Muslim Public Affairs Council
(MPAC), the Ta'leef Collective, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) and
others have engaged (or have tried to) with CVE programmes funded by the US
government and law enforcement. The community has yet to register so much as a
murmur about these organisations, despite ample studies and analysis available
detailing the harm caused by CVE initiatives.
this, mainstream Muslim organisations are involved in a variety of other
problematic practices. The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), which
continues to enjoy much support among American Muslims, is known for condemning
what it identified as "riots" in Baltimore after the police killing
of Freddie Gray and starting a partnership with the Islamophobic American Jewish
Committee (AJC). In 2015, months after Israel's invasion of Gaza which killed
over 2,000 Palestinians, ISNA's president, Sayyid Syeed, notoriously attended a
closed-door meeting with former Israeli President Shimon Peres.
example is Emgage, an organisation that claims to empower Muslim Americans
through its voter registration drives, political lobbying, and campaigning, Yet
its national chair, Khurrum Wahid, has gone on a trip to Israel funded by the
Shalom Hartman Institute as part of a faith washing initiative known as the
"Muslim Leadership Initiative" in direct violation of the Palestinian
call for a boycott.
cosponsored several events with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an
organisation that even Starbucks was forced to drop from its diversity training
programme after activists pointed out its historic cosy relationship with law
enforcement and its discrimination against black and Muslim Americans. When a
corporate coffee chain holds itself to higher standards on Muslim issues than
leading Muslim organisations, we have a problem.
far more cases of problematic practices by Muslim individuals and organisations
than can be addressed here. However, even this cursory overview is enough to
raise a question. What moral integrity, what political courage remains in a
community whose every pillar - the intellectuals, the spiritual leaders, the
political organisers, the schools, the mosques, the civil service
organisations, nearly everything - is compromised?
hundreds of Muslims jailed across the country after facing biased pre-emptive
prosecution, some for simply engaging in charity. Many of them can be
considered political prisoners. How can we claim the legacy of Malcolm X who
rallied thousands to demand the release of Brother Johnson within hours of his
arrest, when today, we refuse to even utter the names of our political
prisoners in our own mosques?
American Muslims to collude with state-sponsored oppression? There are several
factors, including a culture of aspirational whiteness among immigrant Muslims
and a drive to gain legitimacy and insider status within hegemonic political
factor is money: Institutions often struggle to raise funds and programmes like
CVE offer millions of taxpayer dollars in grants. Just as the Islamophobia
industry funds the careers of Islamophobic personalities and sustains
Islamophobic think tanks and lobbying firms, there is a growing cottage
industry that has made it lucrative for Muslim individuals and organisations to
collaborate with government programmes that harm the community.
their collaboration using talking points widely discredited by academics and
activists, but as American politician Upton Sinclair observed many decades ago,
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary
depends upon his not understanding it."
In the case
of scholars and imams, the answer partly lies in colonised readings of the
Islamic tradition that push for political quietism and obedience to state
power. As well-versed as many Muslim scholars are in aspects of the Islamic
legal tradition, applying theoretical maxims to the context of modern politics
without understanding its history and dynamics often leads to positions that
are naive at best and in the service of oppression at their worst.
theological approach of scholars like Hamza Yusuf not only stifles Muslim
resistance efforts worldwide, but also preaches against so-called
"self-victimisation", which often descends into outlandish defences
of Donald Trump and the dismissal of conversations concerning institutional
political cowardice is the defining feature of our leaders and institutions,
when a theology of obedience is the approach of our scholars, and when
corporations like Starbucks take more principled stances on our issues than we
do, we can be sure that we have lost the common principles that bind a
hundreds of our most vulnerable are imprisoned as part of a wider attack on us all,
and, out of fear or apathy, we prefer to erase their existence, to forget their
names, surely we have discarded the love that members of a community feel for
one another. We have ensured that the decades-long campaign to neutralise our
community is now complete.
Al-Arian is an independent filmmaker who has previously worked as a journalist
with Al Jazeera.
Headline: The political impotence of the Muslim American community