American Muslims are among the most diverse and heterogeneous national populations of Muslims in the world, made up of many different communities with different histories and priorities, yet American Muslim community leaders regularly refer to American Muslims as a singular community with a shared political agenda. Given the sociological fact of their diversity, consensus among American Muslims, particularly on controversial and divisive religious and political questions, is not a tenable goal. American Muslims do not need to achieve perfect consensus in order to effectively organize around particular political issues of shared concern and speak in a collective voice.
Consider the issue of racial/religious profiling. Although some American Muslims are more aggressively policed and profiled than others, a shared opposition to racial/religious profiling in principle allows American Muslim leaders to organize a diverse range of Muslim communities on this issue. Their collective opposition to racial/religious profiling certainly represents the perspective of the vast majority of American Muslims, although there are American Muslim outliers who defend such discriminatory practices.
In terms of American Muslims’ political investments in the Middle East, historically, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been another unifying political issue with a wide range of American Muslim communities standing together in shared opposition to both the Israeli occupation itself and the US government’s long-standing role as Israel’s chief ally and source of aid. Unfortunately, they have had very little impact on US policies related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. American Muslims’ political impotency on this issue was made manifest at the recent annual White House Ramadan Iftar: President Obama insultingly reaffirmed the US government’s unequivocal support of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza during his short address to American Muslim leaders and other dignitaries including Israel’s ambassador.
As American Muslims debate how best to challenge the US government’s unconscionable support of the ongoing massacre of civilians in Gaza, they are also debating the roles and responsibilities of American Muslim leaders in representing their point of view and how they should interact with Israeli Zionists.
From these concerns has emerged heated debate in American Muslim print publications and in social media over a group of American Muslim thought leaders involved in the controversial Muslim Leaders Initiative (MLI), an initiative organized by the Duke University Islamic Chaplain Abdullah Antepli and the Shalom Hartman Institute, an Israeli-based Zionist educational organization. Over the period of a year, this group of American Muslim leaders made two trips to Israel under the auspices of the Shalom Hartman Institute in order to learn about Judaism, Zionism, and Israeli history.
The MLI program has come under strong criticism from a wide spectrum of American Muslims as well as from activists committed to the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. American Muslim critics and BDS activists alike are puzzled and troubled by the MLI program and its prolonged cooperation with an organization committed to defending Israeli occupation.
On my own campus, most of the BDS activists are not Arab or Muslim and these students and faculty take considerable professional risks supporting BDS. Like many students in Yale’s Muslim Students Association, many of these BDS activists were perplexed to learn that our Muslim chaplain, Omer Bajwa, who identifies as a staunch supporter of Palestinian liberation, was a participant in the MLI-Hartman program.
One American Muslim student who supports BDS expressed her disillusionment: “Our campus’ Muslim chaplain has plenty of [objections] about stringed instruments, music, and modesty when Gazans make their own “Happy” video but somehow Islam has nothing to do with the question of breaking BDS to hang out with Zionists in Israel or to break his fast at the Israeli ambassador’s iftar party? If that is not missing the spirit of [Islamic] law for the letter, I do not know what is.” 
In an effort to better understand their motivations, I spoke to the MLI program’s main organizers, several of the participants in the program’s first cohort, and a few recruits for the second. In particular, I inquired about how they reconcile this partnership in the context of their opposition to the Israeli occupation.
Several of the university chaplains and interfaith leaders in the MLI aim to establish empathetic friendships with the Hartman faculty. They believe that their Hartman association will enhance both their ability to teach others about Islam and their authority in interfaith contexts in which demonstrating openness to dialogue is critical.
For other MLI thought leaders working in the media and in the realm of public policy, they believe the association with Hartman grants them legitimacy and authority such that they are considered “more objective”, and they credit the experience with deepening their understanding of Zionist logics and arguments.
None of the MLI participants I spoke with identifies as a Zionist; each and every one of the MLI participants supports Palestinians and hopes that whatever authority they derive from their MLI-Hartman affiliation, they will ultimately be able to use it to benefit the cause of Palestinian liberation.
The public debates over the MLI program amongst American Muslims have been largely restricted to the good intentions of the Muslims involved and delineating an Islamic etiquette of disagreement. There has been little focus on the actual political differences at stake.
As a professor who values the full exchange of views and as someone who supports BDS, I offer a critical response to the MLI-Hartman partnership and American Muslim critics of BDS as well as some preliminary thoughts on how American Muslims might move forward organizing in support of Palestinian liberation, particularly when their activist strategies are not working in a parallel cooperative spirit but are directly at cross-purposes, regardless of good intentions or shared goals.
BD What?: How MLI-Hartman Undermines Palestinian Liberation
The MLI-Hartman partnership reveals a deep disconnect between American Muslims’ approaches towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the BDS movement spearheaded by leftist, anti-war activists. A few of the MLI participants confessed that they did not know much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when they agreed to participate, while other MLI participants I spoke with demonstrated a deep knowledge of the history and the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the course of our conversations. But by far the most salient feature that has emerged in discussions with MLI participants and in the ensuing debate amongst American Muslim activists is the widespread ignorance of the BDS movement as well as the broader phenomenon of leftist, anti-war activism.
Some were surprised by the backlash from American Muslims and Palestinians against their involvement in the MLI-Hartman partnership, while others expected the controversy. All of the MLI participants with whom I spoke affirmed that they have no regrets about their participation. When asked, participants noted that the redeeming qualities of the program ranged from the pedagogical value of the “eyewitness” experience to the opportunity to successfully teach Zionists basic information about Islam, although technically the program is not an interfaith dialogue.
First, what is the value of their “on-the-ground witnessing” considering the fact that the MLI participants’ contact with Palestinians was orchestrated by Hartman and most of the MLI participants cannot converse in Arabic? Second, is creating awareness of Islam and Muslims worth undermining the work of activists who are committed to Palestinian liberation, specifically the BDS movement? Is it acceptable for American Muslim leaders to be ignorant of this movement?
BDS is a global, peaceful solidarity movement led by 170 Palestinian civil society institutions (built on a full consensus of Palestinian political parties, unions, refugee networks, NGOs etc.) and inspired by the fight against South African apartheid. Unlike charity, which is premised on vertical relationships in which “the haves” give to the “have-nots,” solidarity movements are horizontal, requiring allies to follow the lead of the Palestinians themselves on how best to help them resist, even if we may not agree with every detail of their resistance strategies.
For example, many BDS supporters, such as Noam Chomsky, remain unconvinced by the analogy between Israel and apartheid South Africa despite the striking parallels drawn by Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and many scholars and activists. Supportive critics such as Chomsky remain committed to BDS because they recognize Israel as a colonial occupying force that must be resisted.
In contrast to such sympathetic and constructive ongoing debates about BDS, in recent weeks there have been a spate of articles authored by American Muslim thought leaders misrepresenting and dismissing BDS for “banning dialogue,” being ineffective, “inchoate”, and an “absolutist” fringe movement. These American Muslims’ reactions reflect a series of misunderstandings about the scale and impact of BDS and a pervasive failure to engage its arguments. For example, several American Muslim critics of the BDS movement dismiss it as a self-defeating and politically marginalizing movement through sloppy analogies between the BDS boycott and calls amongst American Muslim to boycott of the annual White House Iftar.
BDS is not a Muslim or Arab movement; it operates at a global scale beyond the strict limits of formal electoral politics and lobbies. BDS has never depended on numbers of American Muslim or Arab American votes. The BDS movement has three major goals:
- institutional economic divestment in Israeli companies that are connected to Israeli human rights offenses with a related global consumer boycott of individuals refusing to buy products from those companies;
- a cultural boycott in which artists and athletes refuse to perform or promote their work at Israeli institutions and events aligned with normalizing the occupation;
- an academic boycott by institutions, academic associations, and individual scholars and students of events, conferences, and joint ventures with Israeli universities and educational institutions that normalize, whitewash and/or suppress dissent against Israeli occupation.
Shalom Hartman is a self-identified Zionist educational institution, and, as such, any partnership by an individual or group with the institute directly undermines the academic boycott of BDS. Most of the MLI participants support only the economic dimension of the boycott but not the cultural and academic boycott (two expressed a general distaste and disapproval for BDS) because they wrongly believe BDS prevents meaningful dialogue with Jewish, Zionist, or Israeli individuals. For example, several of the MLI participants are under the wrong impression that BDS requires that they abstain from travel to Israel. The BDS academic boycott targets official travel, not private trips; institutions, not individual scholars.
The sustained and vociferous criticism that MLI participants have faced stems from the unique challenge that the program presents to BDS in the United States: a rejection by the very US constituency that would seem the most natural advocates of the Palestinian cause. Criticism of the MLI has been amplified since it was discovered that Shalom Hartman had been openly highlighting the MLI as evidence of the success of their anti-BDS initiative, their “IEngage” program with AIPAC. The screen shot of the webpage highlights this pull quote from an MLI participant: “I think the breakthrough for me was coming here [to Israel, to the Hartman Institute] as someone who has always been very careful to frame herself as an anti-Zionist but not an anti-Semite and now not quite sure if I am an anti-Zionist anymore. I am not saying I am a Zionist. I am saying I do not know what I am anymore.”
Considering that a major directive of Hartman’s anti-BDS “IEngage” program is to draw a wedge between “soft critics” and “hardline delegitimizers” of Israel (BDS), this MLI participant’s “conversion” story reads like an unambiguous endorsement of their anti-BDS campaign. Finally, Shalom Hartman’s website proudly claims the MLI Muslim chaplains, from six top US colleges and universities in the first cohort, have invited Shalom Hartman representatives to speak to students on their campuses.
Despite this evidence, most of the MLI participants I spoke with are reticent to acknowledge how Shalom Hartman has openly exploited their partnership to serve the institute’s agenda and combat BDS. Abdullah Antepli insists that the moment he feels used, he will abandon the partnership. In contrast, MLI participant Haroon Moghul, who has worked with BDS campus activists and remains committed to BDS’s economic boycott, noted that this undermining of the academic boycott is partly what made his decision to participate in the MLI program so fraught:
Of course [Shalom Hartman] has used us and will continue to use us, but my intention is to use [Shalom Hartman] too. . . as a way to get access to certain spaces and [important political] people and to introduce my point of view on the conflict. That is the nature of politics, you use each other and try to push your agenda and that’s the arena in which I think I can most effectively support Palestinians.
There are any number of ways in which American Muslims committed to dialogue with Israelis or Jews in Israel could have accomplished this without violating BDS. Since the MLI program is bankrolled and hosted by an Israeli-Zionist organization, and its stated objective is to counter BDS, however, it does break the academic boycott. Several MLI participants insisted that since they never agreed to the terms of the academic boycott, they did not “break” anything and should therefore not be blamed as such.
This response demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of how boycotts work. Just as in a labor strike, if workers organize a walk-out and freeze operations, and the employer brings in replacement workers, those individuals are “breaking” the strike. They are called “scabs” precisely because they “fix” the hurt inflicted by the strike on the employer.
This same logic extends to the academic boycott. Of course, none of the MLI participants have the celebrity status of Stephen Hawking who recently joined the academic boycott nor does the MLI have the institutional weight of academic associations aligned with BDS such as the American Studies Association and the Critical Ethnic Studies Association. The fact remains, however, that as individual scholars and students affiliated with high profile US think tanks and universities, the MLI participants’ relationship to Hartman breaks the BDS academic boycott.
Efficacy of BDS
The BDS movement, which just celebrated its ninth anniversary, is the most successful non-violent Palestinian liberation movement in decades. By their own admission, worries over the success of BDS are keeping Israel’s top government officials up at night. Netanyahu considers BDS a very serious “strategic threat.” Israel’s Justice Minister Tzipi Livni urged her government to take criticisms of Israel more seriously given the fact that BDS “is moving and advancing uniformly and exponentially,” warning that uncountered, BDS could reduce Israel to “a lone settlement in the world.”
That is not to say BDS is an overwhelming success—far from it. While military sanctions seem like an unrealistic goal and the economic boycott has yet to be as successful as it was in South Africa, Israel’s top business executives are growing deeply concerned about the financial impact of even a partial boycott, estimated at a 5.7 billion dollar loss. As a result, many top CEOs of Israeli businesses, such as Google Israel, have broken their political silence and are pressuring Netanyahu to make peace. As of January, the European Union (EU) passed a pro-BDS directive that prohibits EU states from signing deals with Israel without an exclusion clause for Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories.
In the United States, economic divestment lags far behind Europe, but thanks to the efforts of the BDS movement, my own retirement provider, TIAA-CREF, recently divested over nine million dollars in Sodastream, calling their former investment “socially bankrupt, operating out of an illegal [West Bank] settlement.” In addition to state actors and corporations, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Presbyterian and Methodist churches have committed to partial economic divestment. And as someone who has taught about the United States’ relationship to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on three different US campuses in the last ten years in classes that draw students from every side of the issue, there is no doubt in my mind that the BDS movement deserves enormous credit for dramatically changing the terms of the conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict among American coeds.
Furthermore, BDS activists have a proven record of successfully connecting their solidarity work with other grassroots activists and social justice struggles. For example, Detroit just witnessed its largest pro-Palestinian rally in years in part because BDS activists and organizers connected Israel’s racist and cruel denial of water to Gazans to the racism and classism behind the denial of water to the poor of Detroit, a predominantly black city where water is more expensive than it is in most of the country and almost forty percent of the population lives under the poverty line.
American Muslims and the Power of Dominant Racial Narratives
Rather than recognizing and appreciating the partial gains of BDS, the MLI participants I spoke with challenged the efficacy of the BDS movement, contrasting it with their “constructive” work in the MLI program, building relationships and nurturing exchange.
American Muslim religious leaders are regularly asked to differentiate what “Islam really says” from what Muslims do. Under pressure to promote a positive image of Islam and Muslims in the context of the War on Terror, American Muslim leaders who may sympathize with the plight of Palestinians are repeatedly put in the position of having to distance themselves and “real” Islam from Palestinian armed resistance. This often entails explaining how suicide bombings are outside the pale of Islam or condemning groups like Hamas. Given this tension, one might expect American Muslim leaders who support Palestinian liberation but oppose Palestinian armed resistance on religious grounds to be supportive of the one peaceful, non-violent resistance movement that is having the most powerful effect. What I found is that a surprising number of American Muslim leaders are very critical of BDS and are not the least bit ambivalent about participating in programs such as MLI, even if they undermine strides made by peaceful, non-violent efforts like BDS.
Given how heavily surveilled American Muslim communities are, it is not surprising that debates about politics quickly degenerate into shaming “sell-outs” and “traitors.” Engendering such pervasive dis-ease and distrust within a suspect minority community has long been a tactic of hegemonic majorities, and it has been one of the most devastatingly effective weapons used against American Muslims in the War on Terror. The impact of such divisive strategies is evident in mainstream media representations of American Muslim religious scholars, and are also being employed by the Shalom Hartman Institute.
In my book Islam is a Foreign Country I explore the ways even seemingly sympathetic US journalists draw some of the leading ulema in the United States into a narrative of “Good American Muslim citizens” that implicitly contrasts them against “bad Muslims” both in the United States and abroad. These esteemed religious leaders have devoted their lives to a range of projects in order to nurture the growth of Islamic learning in the United States. It is only natural that they would want to share their work in the mainstream media. What I argue is that despite their good intentions and the merit of their projects, the journalists’ framing of their work reduces them to a set of racial markers of the “good Muslim citizen.” One of these scholars, Amina Wadud, recognized this manipulation of her work and as a result she began declining journalists’ interview requests. Occasionally, American Muslim commentators are able to effectively subvert such racial narratives during media interviews, as Reza Aslan did while promoting his book on FOX news. For the most part, and again despite their good intentions, American Muslim leaders continue to passively fall into the racial narrative of “Good Muslims” and bad Muslims in the mainstream US press, a narrative that is used to justify collectively punishing American Muslims for terrorism with deportation, incarceration, racial profiling, surveillance, and intimidation.
Israeli Zionists also have powerful racial narratives that justify the collective punishment of Palestinians that the MLI participants have been drawn into. One dominant narrative pits “bad, violent, angry” Palestinians (and Arabs in general) against “good,” non-Arab Muslims. Another one exalts American Muslims as the “civilized” leaders of the global ummah in contrast to the backward, violent masses of the Muslim world, exemplified by the Palestinians. Like American Muslim leaders in the United States, the MLI participants have unintentionally played into and been used to reinforce profoundly racist Zionist narratives.
The cohort of Muslims who participated in MLI was composed of one Turkish-American Muslim, a white American Muslim, an African American Muslim, and several South Asian American Muslims. There were no Arab American participants, let alone a Palestinian one, which lends credence to Zionist claim that they are not opposed to Muslims or Islam, only irrational and violent Arabs. When I pointed this out to Abdullah Antepli he promised that future MLI cohorts would include Arabs.
However, when one African American imam I spoke with (who was formerly involved with the Shalom Hartman Institute but not an MLI participant), invited a Palestinian American refugee to visit Israel with him in order to raise the issue of the right of return and Israeli racism, the Israeli border patrol refused entry to his Palestinian colleague. The Shalom Hartman faculty were then forced to acknowledge that the true obstacle to the Jewish-Muslim dialogue they organized were Israeli borders and policies, not Palestinian “irrationality.”
Finally, the most subtle and insidious racial narrative pivots on the idea of two (equal) sides in this military conflict, with both sides equally at fault and suffering equally. This framing completely elides the history of the occupation and Palestinian expulsion and conceals the massive differences in power, treating the greatly exaggerated military threat of Hamas’ homemade rockets (which frequently do not even explode) as on par with the precision weaponry of the most powerful, destructive, and sophisticated military force in the Middle East.
In a TIME article that triggered the recent debate amongst American Muslims over the MLI-Hartman partnership, MLI participant Rabia Chaudry describes how her visit to Israel helped her understand Israeli fears of Palestinian rage. By failing to point out that Israeli fears of the Palestinians are understandable only in colonial terms that exaggerate the threat in order to justify Israel’s military excesses, she implicitly confirms the troubling racial narrative that she hopes to challenge.
If the end goal of the MLI is simply the exchange of ideas (and not the legitimacy accorded by Hartman to MLI participants) the MLI program could have been funded and hosted by a Palestinian institution, and individual scholars could have been invited to speak and teach MLI participants about Zionism. Avoiding the sponsoring auspices of a Zionist organization like Shalom Hartman would probably have led to a franker exchange of views on the part of Israeli academics, many of whom support the academic boycott of Israeli educational institutions precisely because their universities censor them for criticizing their government’s policies. Allowing Shalom Hartman to host MLI conceals the ways in which the Institute constrains its own faculty.
By Abdullah Antepli’s own admission, some of the Hartman faculty expressed private concerns about the recent violence in Gaza. Yet none have been willing (or allowed?) to make any public criticisms of Israeli military aggressions against civilians in Gaza. Where are the fruits of thirteen months of dialogue, exchange, friendship and rapport if not a single one of Shalom Hartman’s faculty is willing to speak out against such extreme violence against civilians? When I posed this question to an MLI university chaplain he assured me that there were long-term benefits to the program that might be hard for me to appreciate, such as exposing the Hartman faculty to Islamic theology.
Interfaith work is important and can be a tool in the fight for Palestinian liberation but if we are honest about political efficacy, interfaith efforts are not something Netanyahu is losing sleep over. This is why I believe the MLI organizers and participants ought to reorganize their program such that it does not violate BDS in the future. While operating within the constraints of BDS may be a low priority for those who work in the policy realm and through the channels of formal politics, for those American Muslim leaders who work on campuses where BDS is having the most impact, the costs of breaking the academic boycott are not worth the gains even if they do not fully support the BDS movement.
I am heartened that Homayra Ziad, one of the MLI organizers, is open to this option. Although she remains opposed to academic and cultural boycotts in principle, she noted: “We [MLI participants] should not be defensive. If the purpose of our program was engagement with Zionists, it does not make sense to be unwilling to engage Muslim critics within our own communities. We need to have formal forums where we can reimagine what the MLI program will look like in the future in light of [positive and negative] feedback, and even whether we should continue at all.” I hope the MLI participants are willing to follow her lead over this bridge.
 Since publication, Abdullah Antepli has asked me whether the use of this anonymous student`s quote about her unnamed chaplain in this article is libel, slanderous, and defames the MLI chaplains because it grossly misrepresents the nature of the religious instruction they engage in on their respective campuses. To be clear, verifying the veracity of the student`s quote was beyond the scope of research I did for this article and not relevant to my argument. As an anthropologist, my purpose is simply to illustrate what I consider to be a degenerating public debate. I fully agree with Abdullah Antepli that all of the MLI chaplains are talented individuals who I believe have a rich appreciation for the ethical spirit of Islamic law. I use this student`s quote as evidence of students` perceptions and the unfortunate ways the Hartman-Shalom affiliation has compromised the religious authority of Muslim chaplains on US campuses for some Muslim students and/or BDS activists.