How to protect your interfaith efforts against Islamist imams when you’re not sure who is an Islamist? This is a more common question than one might imagine, and we’re seeing it play out firsthand with the downfall of the Women’s March as its leadership’s anti-Semitism surfaces at rapid pace.
It’s often difficult to identity the true nature of the individual or organization you’re allying with. Eagerness to develop partnerships and launch programs, along with a general attitude of good faith toward your brothers in faith, can make it very difficult to spot Islamists from those worth allying with.
Recently, a member of a synagogue reached out to an allied organization and inquired about a local imam set to present at the synagogue. The concerned member wanted to know if the imam they were considering hosting and partnering with had integrity. The allied organization reached out to me, and I reached into my network. Within a day, thanks to my own alliances with other like-minded researchers and organizations, we were able to identify this particular imam as a through and through Islamist. This imam didn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist, supported CAIR and very likely advocated for Hamas (based on his social media posts).
What was particularly confusing to the folks who reached out is how flowery the imam’s message was and how he wanted to showcase interfaith cooperation. The imam wanted to offer a presentation highlighting the support Muslims have given to Jews in the past.
However, we’re in a day and age where it matters less and less what helping hand was lent to a group of people a century ago. In the short time that we have in these shared spaces, what we must do is talk about today. We must have radically honest conversations about right now.
There are a few things any organization can do to vet a group or imam they’re considering partnering with.
Don’t buy the hype of an imam
Remember that (traditionally) an imam is a prayer leader. He’s not always necessarily a scholar. If he is a scholar, you have ask what his specific background is. It’s not always de facto to have an imam who is a scholar, let alone a scholar across all Islamic sciences. Further, an imam who is a scholar isn’t guaranteed to be personally interested or knowledgeable about the faiths of other people. How many imams have picked up a book by a rabbi or a Jewish scholar? How many have read the Bible? Chiefly, is the imam interested in partnering for the sake of insulating his brand or message, or is s/he genuinely interested in community and togetherness of faith groups? In other words, is the imam there for themselves and to represent their faith, or is the imam there for all faiths. It’s rarely the latter. If it is the latter, the imam should have some level of awareness of the experiences, traditions and challenge of other faith systems, along with knowledge of core history and belief structures of other participating faith representatives. If the imam cannot check off these boxes, the imam is not capable of navigating the discourse of the 21st century. There are some terrific imams out there, but not all imams are terrific.
Think outside the imam
In light of the tectonic cultural shifts in our generation, we need to look at who else can be framed as powerful ally. Consider community activists and other thought leaders, many of whom are emerging as non-traditional leaders in a faith space. When vetting these people, go back to some of the key identifying markers in point #1.
Do they believe in Israel’s right to exist?
Watch out for the linguistic gymnastics. Believing in Israel’s right to exist doesn’t mean they believe Israel needs remain centered around Jerusalem. It could mean they believe Jews should be removed to a completely separate region — a “new” Israel somewhere in another part of the world. It could mean a two-state solution. It could mean Israel has a right to exist under Palestinian rule. It could mean many things. You want to be specific about what this means to someone outside of yourself.
Do they believe in reform?
If they don’t support the larger premise of Muslim reform, you’ve got a problem on some level. They don’t need to like all reformers, but they on some level should be able to agree with the premise of reform and its salient points. A key component of Muslim reform is a willingness to go back to the basics in Islam while keeping Islam in step with universal human rights.
Beyond these four steps, organizations should build dialogue with reform-minded allies. If nothing else, it is very useful to be able to contact an ally and have them assist you with identifying the intentions of an individual you may not be able to clearly gauge for yourself.