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This Ramadan, many American Muslim leaders are anxiously awaiting to hear whether they have made the cut for the annual White House Iftar. An invitation to this iftar, as with similar events the State Department and the Pentagon hold, serves to symbolize recognition in the halls of American power and a degree of success for those Muslims who have sought active engagement within the political arena. Rewarded by a chance to break their fast with President Obama, they have been formally recognized as leaders in a fraught religious community. Representing a variety of civic, political, religious, cultural, and educational institutions and initiatives, these are individuals whose work is deemed to have contributed to the “diverse and collective experience of what it means to be an American,” according to a 2014 State Department Report. At best, this engagement has been actively negotiated with the established power of the US state and its political and security apparatus. In this process of negotiation, of offer and approval, the mainstream archetype of “American Muslim identity” is forged. Ultimately, however, the decision of whom the United States government accepts into its fold is as unilateral as the invites it sends. In turn, there is a danger that in allowing the state to shape the contours of this engagement, these “moderate Muslims” become implicated in the ideology and practices of a US empire that has increasingly set its sights on the world of Muslims during the past two decades.
In addition to high-profile interactions with state institutions, American Muslim leaders are also actively participating in initiatives led by a variety of private institutions that have their own interests in managing the political boundaries of this community. In a drastic break from longstanding practice, a number of prominent American Muslim figures recently accepted an invitation to travel to Israel to participate in an interfaith program that a Zionist organization, Shalom Hartman Institute, has led and funded.
These broader shifts across the United States political establishment showcase an increasing tendency within American Muslim activism—particularly since 9/11—to reorient its engagement with policy-making circles (including government, think tanks, private institutions, and media) in a way that risks becoming reappropriated and rearticulated for a new political reality. It has occurred largely by rewarding accommodationism and the “good” half of the “good Muslim/bad Muslim” divide in ways that were never as explicit previously. In this article, we explore the historical context for this shift, its increasing manifestations, and the repercussions it holds for American Muslims. While the American Muslim community is diverse, with Black American Muslims representing between twenty and forty percent of the population, given the varied historical experiences and trajectories, we are primarily interested in examining the role that American Muslims of immigrant backgrounds have played in the course of these developments. Although the history of Black American Muslim engagement with state power is instructive for this discussion, it demands to be examined in a separate article.
The Roots of American Muslim Engagement
The history of Islam as a minority religion with deep roots dating back to the European discovery, colonization, and economic development of the American continent largely through African slave labor has been explored at length elsewhere. What is of particular interest in this piece is the means through which the expression of Islam as a religious tradition was consolidated through community institutions that gradually took on a political character in the second half of the twentieth century.
While there was considerable Muslim immigration to the United States in the first half of the twentieth century, the majority of American Muslims today are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants who made their way to the United States beginning in the mid-1960s primarily from North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. In addition to fostering a sense of community and fulfilling the basic spiritual and ritual practice needs of this growing population, local mosques, Islamic centers, and chapters of the Muslim Student Association (MSA) provided space for advocacy on behalf of various political and charitable causes which were viewed as an extension of one’s lived faith. Therefore, by the mid-1980s it was not uncommon, for example, to see sessions devoted to the ongoing crises in Palestine, Lebanon, or Afghanistan at the annual conference of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) in what became consistently the largest gathering of American Muslims.
In due course, more immigrant Muslims began to assimilate into US society, acquiring citizenship, establishing families, and abandoning the “myth of return,” that is, the notion that their stay in the United States was a temporary and economically driven diversion from life “back home,”—to be sure, not an uncommon evolution among many immigrant communities in the United States. Consequently, their advocacy on behalf of issues that fell under the broad spectrum of “Islamic activism” became increasingly specialized though equally broadened to incorporate a wider audience. National organizations dedicated to public advocacy, lobbying, political mobilization, and engagement with other communities were established to expand the work of community leaders operating at the local level. Groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), the American Muslim Alliance (AMA), and the American Muslim Council (AMC) led a veritable alphabet soup of institutions that sought to address the community’s growing needs as it stepped into the public square.
Community engagement initiatives included organizing popular protests and demonstrations, founding dedicated charitable institutions such as the Holy Land Foundation (HLF), building broad-based coalitions, and eventual outreach to policy makers on a range of issues of great interest to the community. For instance, the humanitarian crisis in the Balkans during the early 1990s yielded the Bosnia Task Force, an ad hoc grassroots organization that helped spread awareness within the United States about the atrocities committed against Bosnian Muslims; on the national level, it backed interventionist measures that the Clinton Administration took in response to the crisis. Similarly, when the Oslo Peace Agreement was signed in September 1993, President Clinton ensured that, despite the deep skepticism surrounding the accord from large segments of the American Muslim community, some of its leaders would be present on the White House lawn to witness a historic development on an issue that was clearly of importance to this constituency.
By the late 1990s, however, increased political engagement coincided with the rise of the first major civil rights crisis to target the immigrant Muslim community directly. The arrest and use of “secret evidence” against dozens of community leaders and members throughout the United States allowed their protracted imprisonment without charge. Indeed, the securitization of the United States government’s outlook toward American Muslims has its roots in the era that preceded 9/11, complete with widespread surveillance, intimidation, intense media scrutiny, and indefinite detentions. Violations of the civil rights of American Muslims galvanized a grassroots campaign that took on a national character, yielding judicial challenges in federal courts, legislative correctives in the form of congressional hearings and a bill to end these abuses, a national media campaign, and eventual widespread electoral mobilization. During the second presidential debate of the 2000 election, candidate George W. Bush decried the use of secret evidence before a national television audience of sixty million Americans in a bid to earn the votes of American Muslims in key battleground states such as Florida, home to the most prominent of the secret evidence cases.
The lesson from the short-lived (and admittedly limited) successes of this experience centers on the ability of American Muslim leaders to challenge dominant views seeking to marginalize and stigmatize their constituency and instead assert counter-narratives that uplift the experiences of an otherwise voiceless minority community. When it occurred, political engagement took place in a piecemeal fashion and largely on the community’s own terms, which necessarily meant that certain doors were closed to particular groups who carried the unfortunate baggage of representing a community with policy concerns that often conflicted with the accepted line inside the DC beltway.
The Post-9/11 Crisis and Beyond
Irrespective of the successes and failures in translating community mobilization into tangible changes in policy, on the eve of the post-9/11 crisis, American Muslim institutions were poised to play a critical role in galvanizing grassroots opposition to some of the worst excesses of US domestic and foreign policy. The events of 9/11 and its aftermath served as a critical point of self-reflection for American Muslim leaders and institutions as well as the younger generation of college-aged students and new professionals. Facing an increasingly Islamophobic narrative in the public sphere, an unprecedented civil liberties crisis, as well as the prospects of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran, with a second intifada arising in Palestine, the leadership was forced to make key decisions on how to move forward. This led to critical shifts in the stances of earlier, more established organizations as well as a flourishing of new ones, including ASMA Society, Cordoba Initiative, and the American Islamic Congress. Viewing themselves as having been insular and disengaged from the broader society, these institutions sought to expand their cooperation with the American political establishment, confront the dominant narrative on Islam and Muslims, and build bridges with other communities.
As expected an outcome as this may be, the ways in which this engagement has taken place, and the almost uncritical and unabashed acceptance of the discourses of empire raise serious concerns. With a posture that the global context created after 9/11 determined, American Muslim leaders and institutions increasingly departed from taking critical stances on issues ranging from continued US support for Israel to the ever-expanding “War on Terror.” Given the linkages between the domestic and the foreign that delineate the imperial project, an American religious community was forced to sync with a highly contested set of foreign policy positions while contending with the rise of a new national security culture at home.
A significant and often overlooked point to note here is that this development also reflected an important turning point in the US political establishment’s view of the Muslim community generally and the ways in which the former dictated the terms of engagement. Leading government institutions and think tanks, such as the National Security Council, Department of Homeland Security, USAID, Department of Defense, the White House, State Department, Brookings Institution, Council on Foreign Relations, Center for Strategic and International Studies, RAND Corporation, and Freedom House, set up initiatives that sought to broadly address issues of Muslim engagement, sometimes framed as seemingly innocuous pluralistic, interfaith or public diplomacy efforts, and other times as counterterrorism.
For example, the RAND Corporation's National Defense Research Institute, which receives federal funding to conduct research and analysis for the Department of Defense, has been repeatedly tasked with projects that identify the types of Muslims with whom the US government should engage and under what conditions that engagement should take place. In a five hundred page 2004 report entitled "The Muslim World after 9/11," RAND constructed a typology of ideological tendencies in Muslim societies and encouraged the exploitation of Sunni, Shiite, Arab, and non-Arab divides in an effort to promote US policy interests. The report also called for harnessing American Muslim communities to promote US interests on the ground (xviii-xxv).
In another report from 2007 entitled "Building Moderate Muslim Networks," RAND recognizes a parallel between the Cold War era and today. The report calls for the creation of an international database of potential and existing partners, formulating a well-designed plan for supporting these networks, and arranging for “feedback loops” to track the progress (xxi). It requires the creation of an institutional structure within the US government to guide, oversee, and monitor these networks. In this regard, the researchers
recommend targeting five groups as potential building blocks for networks: liberal and secular Muslim academics and intellectuals; young moderate religious scholars; community activists; women's groups engaged in gender equality campaigns; and moderate journalists and writers. Functioning again in a foundation-like role, the United States should asset programs that promote democratic education, particularly programs that derive authoritative teachers supportive of democratic and pluralistic values from Islamic texts and traditions, moderate media, gender equality and advocacy for moderate agendas (xxii).
It also includes an “Application of Criteria” that lists the qualities of a “moderate Muslim” and declares that secularists, liberals, and moderate Sufis are the best potential allies for American interests.
From these two reports, and countless others like them, we can see a clear correlation between empire and the strategic use of the American Muslim community. These initiatives inevitably included a number of American Muslims who were expected to play the role of “native informants” as well as reach out to various Muslim institutions in the United States and beyond. This demonstrates quite clearly that the broader strategy for engagement was already being developed in these circles, and a number of individuals and groups could be situated into these developing frames. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement for all involved.
While many may consider the increasing involvement of Muslims in the corridors of US empire to be a positive development for American Islam, especially in terms of the role they may play in changing US policies towards Muslim communities at home and abroad, the ways in which this is occurring and the long-term implications for such involvement is being largely ignored. Cosmetic appearances of acceptance notwithstanding, one can scarcely point to any substantive policy changes over the past decade in relation to foreign or domestic issues that historically have been of importance to Muslim communities. While the discursive techniques the establishment uses have become more inclusive of particular segments of the American Muslim leadership, in some ways, this has only served to sow deeper divisions within the community and alienate dissenting voices.
One of the primary consequences of this type of engagement is the creation of a “moderate Muslim” and subsequently the promotion of a “moderate Islam.” As has become more apparent in recent years, a moderate Muslim is not simply one who rejects violence and fundamentalism (the underpinnings of both of these assumptions demand their own critique), but one who is also uncritical of empire, liberalism, and neoliberal economic policies. Critics have repeatedly noted how the conceptualization of a moderate Muslim is intended to fit within a set of binary designations, the “good Muslim/bad Muslim” divide that gained traction during the Bush presidency. It is not simply a description of modes of ritual practice, but rather, of one’s residual benefit to the advancement of government policy. As Mahmood Mamdani asserts, “the implication is unmistakable and undisguised: whether in Afghanistan, Palestine or Pakistan, Islam must be quarantined and the devil exorcised from it by a Muslim civil war” (Mamdani 24). As Tariq Ramadan notes, the binary has existed since Western colonial incursion into Muslim lands—good Muslims were those who “collaborated with the colonial enterprise or accepted the values and customs of the dominant power. The rest, the ‘bad’ Muslims, those who ‘resisted’ religiously, culturally or politically, were systematically denigrated, dismissed as the ‘other’ and repressed as a ‘danger.’” In the US context, a “good” Muslim overlooks the role that US policies have played in political and socioeconomic developments in Muslim societies, and instead situates blame entirely on other Muslims’ understanding or interpretation of Islam. The role of the establishment in crafting this moderate Muslim subject by determining the lines of what is acceptable and unacceptable is evident through the patronage of particular voices in the Muslim community, as seen by the RAND reports.
Consider, for instance, a 2006 New York Times profile of two prominent American Muslim leaders, whose “history of anti-American rhetoric” is laid bare as part of their rehabilitation and reinvention as mainstream leaders whose religious devotion became an important asset to the Bush Administration’s ideological battles. The mainstream media’s construction of such “born-again moderates” has been inextricably linked with the broader aims of US empire.
As a result, those critical of US militarism in Iraq and Afghanistan, the unchecked drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen, the interminable detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, the continued colonization of Palestine, and the unrestricted surveillance and targeting of American Muslims risk marginalization by their own leadership. That marginalization, in turn, feeds into narratives promoting the need to combat “extremism” and “self-radicalization” within the American Muslim community, which then actively legitimizes the securitization of large segments of the population and paves the way for widespread civil rights abuses by authorities. The Associated Press’s 2011 report on the New York Police Department's abuses and more recent revelations by journalist Glenn Greenwald on the NSA’s illegal spying on prominent American Muslims affirm that there is indeed a concerted effort to enforce conformity to a particular political (and indeed, religious) orthodoxy, with catastrophic consequences for those who resist. Consequently, American Muslims have increasingly been placed in strategic positions to legitimate and authorize the actions of empire.
On the occasion that substantive issues are discussed, it occurs in a way that is not ever explicitly critical of the most troubling underlying principles of US policy. The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) is one of the leading American Muslim organizations that is “working for the civil rights of American Muslims, for the integration of Islam into American pluralism, and for a positive, constructive relationship between American Muslims and their representatives.” A quick glance at MPAC’s website reveals the internalization of some of the more troubling discourses of US politics. On matters of foreign policy, MPAC’s regular press releases and reports scarcely depart from the safe confines of the binary structure of US partisan politics, whether in its support for US military strikes in Syria or its timid position on the United States-sponsored “Peace Process” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Still more alarming is the apparent complicity of mainstream American Muslim organizations in the United States government’s shift toward viewing their communities through the prism of national security policy. In addition to the surveillance and infiltration of community spaces by law enforcement agencies, these organizations themselves have advanced self-policing. MPAC launched the Safe Spaces initiative earlier this year, which examines community activism purely through the lens of its propensity toward engaging in violence and proceeds to offer antidotes to extremism. Also this year, a CAIR press release urged mosques to apply for funding from the Department of Homeland Security’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program. According to the press release, “the program is designed to assist nonprofit organizations that are vulnerable to terrorist attacks with procuring and installing security equipment to enhance safety.” One cannot help but marvel at the notion of a leading American Muslim civil rights organization calling on mosques to willingly open their doors to government surveillance. Indeed, participation of groups and individuals in government initiatives such as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) and so-called “sensitivity training” programs with law enforcement agencies has become a booming economy unto itself.
American Muslim leaders and organizations have thus far successfully managed to straddle the line between service to their community and connivance with the excesses of state power in part by attempting to shift the discourse on Islam and Muslims in the United States to one that privileges accommodationism at every turn. Though programs promoting interfaith dialogue, public relations campaigns, and governmental engagement are important, they cannot be separated from the broader political framework in which they operate. Their aim is to reframe the debate around the root causes of religious and political conflict and avoid the uncomfortable truths of power hierarchies amongst religious and political identities in the global arena. While dialogue is a necessary component of any democratic society, if it seeks to depoliticize Muslim subjectivities and promote religious identities that are detangled from political realities and can be easily accommodated by mainstream discourses, then it will ultimately backfire.
In fact, all one has to do is follow the money on the interfaith trail to find donors who are closely linked to soft Zionist projects (including the one mentioned below) actively working to obscure political realities on the ground. It is not surprising, therefore, that many participants have described these sorts of initiatives as seeming “fluffy” or “lacking substance.” Dialogue initiatives and attempts to understand the other side, as well as apologetic gatherings to explain Islam and Muslims to Islamophobic audiences ultimately delegitimize actual grievances and normalize oppressive structures in an already unequal power paradigm. Muslims do not need to “understand the other side.” They have historically understood them all too well.
The recent delegation of American Muslim commentators, policy analysts, and chaplains that participated in an interfaith trip to Israel sponsored by the Shalom Hartman Institute serves as the culmination of a number of worrying trends. By recasting the struggle for Palestinian rights as a religious conflict among interfaith partners, this approach ignores the ideological and structural dynamics at work in the repression of Palestinians. Rather, it actively promotes an Israeli narrative that seeks to conflate Zionism with the Jewish faith and legitimize an apartheid system as the fulfillment of Jewish nationalist aspirations. Since their interlocutors are unwilling to acknowledge the historic injustices Palestinians suffered—as this undermines the Zionist narrative—any “understanding” will come from one side only and serves nothing more than to prolong the status quo. Within this dynamic, the act of understanding the oppressor is far from a sign of empowerment, as its proponents suggest. It signals willful submission to the realities of that oppression. Given the historical power imbalance and legacy of discrimination against racial and religious minorities in the United States, one would expect that American Muslims would be especially troubled at the prospect of endorsing institutions that attempt to whitewash similar inequalities elsewhere.
However, the attempted cooptation of those oppressed minorities by inviting them to understand their oppression is a timeworn strategy for neutralizing opposition. As has been explored at greater length in other critiques of these recent actions, the development of programs such as the sponsored trips to Israel reflects a strategy to weaken a perceived stronghold of support for pro-Palestinian activism in the American Muslim community. The strategy seeks in part to exploit ethnic and cultural divisions within the community given that there is virtually no representation of Arab Americans (let alone Palestinian Americans) within these programs. Similarly, given the particular vulnerability of American Muslims, whose political activism engenders far greater public scrutiny than most other communities, these efforts have attempted to disconnect prominent American Muslim figures from the broader Palestine solidarity movement in the United States that the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in part represents. While organizations from the Gates Foundation to the Presbyterian Church have recently taken steps to divest from Israel, American Muslim leaders have remained largely silent on the question, or in the case of some figures, have openly defied calls for BDS through participation in programs such as the one sponsored by the Shalom Hartman Institute or the iftars hosted by the Israeli embassy in Washington.
Indeed, such initiatives cannot be divorced from the broader project to promote the “moderate Muslim,” for whom endorsement of Zionism is a basic prerequisite. To be sure, those who acquiesce are assured of direct personal gain, from greater employment prospects and funding for projects to networking opportunities with political elites and positive exposure in the mainstream media. Such incentivizing of particular modes of American Muslim advocacy adds another powerful dimension to a phenomenon that is already fraught with internal conflicts and contradictions.
A High Stakes Game
The long-term implication of these kinds of developments is the eviction of radical politics from the American Muslim narrative. Most American Muslims nowadays cannot be expected to articulate anything beyond the very narrow and acceptable political positions that the partisan divide of Washington dictates. This is unlike other minorities who exhibit both the mainstream political trends as well as radical and progressive activist tendencies that exist locally in communities and outside of the halls of power. This has been particularly true since the 2008 election of Barack Obama, upon whom many American Muslims pinned their hopes for a favorable shift in government policies toward their community. Sadly, it has resulted in even greater pressures to forego their own agency, toe the administration’s line, and sanitize their positions in such a way that makes Obama’s legacy for American Muslim activism far more destructive than Bush’s.
Ultimately, the question of engagement involves stakes that are far higher than most American Muslims have thus far acknowledged. The ethical component of these opportunities raises serious concerns that have never been fully explored as part of an open and inclusive discussion. For years, American Muslim leaders have been in awe of the pro-Israel lobby and amazed at its level of unrestricted access to power and proven ability to influence US policy. That some leaders would voice their admiration for the pro-Israel lobby and view it as a model for emulation, especially as the latter confronts its own critics from within the American Jewish community, is troubling to say the least. It is useful to think critically about what it means to approach the corridors of power without challenging what that power itself stands for. Adoption of a model that privileges access as the key to advocacy is the line of thinking that has perpetuated problems of political, economic, and social injustice in the first place.
In the event that they are welcomed into positions of authority, the actions of American Muslims have consequences that reverberate across the world. Those leaders of immigrant backgrounds are expected to reflexively place their supposed knowledge of their countries or region of origin at the service of imperial projects. While Muslims in the diaspora might be able to provide some insight into “native” minds, as well as some much-needed linguistic skills and cultural literacy, their extraterritoriality shape their agendas and their understandings. Situated comfortably in the lap of empire, their positionality determines their perspectives, and they do not necessarily reflect the complex views and aspirations of people on the ground. In addition to the countless consulting opportunities with various government agencies from the Pentagon to the Department of Commerce, this trend has also manifested in the cross-cultural programs the State Department has sponsored, in which an American Islam is packaged and sent abroad for showcasing as a model of moderation and integration to Muslim countries.
This raises further questions about the ways in which the careful selection of American Muslim leadership is intrinsically linked to the politics of contemporary reformation in Islam. While important advances are occurring separately and at the local level, this particular reformation is not happening organically within the Muslim community. Rather, it is being manufactured in offices in Washington DC, New York, and California. Saba Mahmood captures this phenomenon: “the United States has embarked upon an ambitious theological campaign aimed at shaping the sensibilities of ordinary Muslims whom the State Department deems to be too dangerously inclined toward fundamentalist interpretations of Islam…. In this understanding, the US strategists have struck a common chord with self-identified secular liberal Muslim reformers who have been trying to fashion Islam along the lines of the Protestant Reformation” (Mahmood 329). Offering a revealing answer to the tired question of “who speaks for Islam?” a 2005 article reported, “From military psychological-operations teams and CIA cover operatives to openly funded media and think tanks, Washington is plowing tens of millions of dollars into a campaign to influence not only Muslim societies but Islam itself” (Kaplan 2005).
The point of the critique offered in this article is not to suggest the need for a monolithic approach to American Muslim political activism and engagement. The community’s diverse backgrounds and experiences require that a multiplicity of views representing the broad spectrum of approaches to these critical questions be represented. Rather, the trajectory of mainstream activism explored here is highlighted for its corrosive effect on alternative forms of advocacy. It did not develop in a vacuum. It is the product of countervailing forces that have sought to diminish the organizational and mobilizational capacity of American Muslim activism. Perhaps no example of this is more instructive than the civil rights crisis afflicting the earlier generation of American Muslim activists. In addition to curtailing the development of oppositional politics, the gross excesses of state policy against those individuals and organizations dating back to the late 1990s and continuing throughout the Bush and Obama administrations were meant to serve as a lesson to the newcomers.
This is evidenced by the general lack of action against both the underlying policies that permit such widespread abuses as well as particular civil rights cases that have arisen with alarming frequency. The past decade is replete with examples of institutionalized discrimination and targeting of American Muslims by the government that include: ubiquitous surveillance, targeting of leaders, intimidation of community members, infiltration of community spaces, entrapment of youth, criminalization of speech and charitable contributions, political prosecutions, unlawful detentions, punitive prison conditions, and so on. Although most American Muslim institutions have at one point or another decried some aspects of these abuses, these issues are mostly being taken up by activists and institutions outside of the American Muslim community. Silence on these issues reinforces the narrative that the state has tried to promote: dissent is unacceptable and American Muslims should fear the repercussions. Interestingly, in attempting to be more palatable to their American audiences, when leading voices remain silent on these civil rights issues and yet vocal about others like normalization with Israel, they are participating in the silencing of dissenting views and creating a climate of fear and intimidation—they become an extension of empire itself.
Kaplan, David. “Hearts, Minds, and Dollars: In an Unseen Front in the War on Terrorism, America is Spending Millions…to Change the Very Face of Islam.” U.S. News and World Report, April 5, 2005.
Mahmood, Saba. “Secularism, Hermeneutics and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation.” Public Culture 18, no.2, 2006, pgs. 323-347.
Mamdani, Mahmood. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror. New York: Pantheon Books, 2004.
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