ISNA Pulls Back From Muslim-Jewish Alliance

The Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council (MJAC) is a flagship collaboration between Jewish and Muslim activists and community leaders in America. The organization was founded as a collaboration between the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

The organization’s stated goal is to focus on protecting the shared interests of both communities and not allowing differences of opinion over Middle Eastern politics to forestall the possibility of creative partnerships between the two faith groups.

Now, however, ISNA has just done exactly that, allowing concerns over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to lead it to pull back from full-throated support.

Read ISNA’s full clarification statement here.

In a “clarification” statement, ISNA said, “Following the public announcement of the formation of MJAC, an internal inquiry revealed that standard reporting and approval mechanisms were not followed to secure formal approval of ISNA leadership to elevate involvement of ISNA to the level of “co-convener” of MJAC. We were thus surprised to receive the announcement about ISNA’s collaboration with AJC on the formation of the MJAC.    
The efforts to launch MJAC, while laudable, are not limited only to ISNA and AJC. Rather MJAC is a separate and independent body comprised of over thirty individuals and organizations represented on the council. The co-chairs of MJAC do not represent AJC or ISNA.”

This clarification clearly distances ISNA as an organization from MJAC and puts responsibility for the enterprise solely on the shoulders of those in MJAC. It also serves as an attempt to exonerate the higher-ups in ISNA from culpability for the establishment of MJAC in the first place.

This is despite the fact that MJAC was founded to make new alliances at a time when large sections of the Muslim community are feeling frightened over the possibility that President-elect Donald Trump could pursue draconian and discriminatory policies towards their community (something Muslim supporters of Trump dispute he will do).

In its clarification statement ISNA noted the goals of MJAC are as follows:

The Council will highlight the contributions of Muslims and Jews to American society, and aim to celebrate their contributions in the best traditions of American democracy.

The Council will develop a coordinated strategy to address anti-Muslim bigotry and anti-Semitism in the U.S.

The Council will work to protect and expand the rights of religious minorities in the U.S., as enshrined in the Constitution, so they may practice their faiths in full freedom and security.

ISNA says it “supports these action items and will honor the agreement reached with AJC and the MJAC members to promote Muslim-Jewish dialogue and understanding.”

Good. Those goals are highly commendable and everyone ought to support them, especially at a time of deepening division in civil society.

But if ISNA was truly committed to the goals of promoting Muslim-Jewish dialogue and understanding, why would it issue this embarrassing clarification just after the launch of the fledgling MJAC?

ISNA is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Some of its founders were Brotherhood members, although ISNA later said their influence was limited.

In 2007, ISNA was listed by the Justice Department as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation trial, the largest terrorism financing trial in American history.

The Holy Land Foundation was housed in the same building as ISNA, and ISNA gave them checks addressed to ‘The Palestinian Mujahadeen’ which were deposited in the Holy Land Foundation’s account.

At the time, the U.S. government listed ISNA as one of the “individuals/entities who are and/or were members of the U.S. Muslim Brotherhood.”

The organization officially repudiates these connections. ISNA officials stated it “is not now nor has it ever been subject to the control of any other domestic or international organizations including the Muslim Brotherhood.”

It says it does not accept funding from foreign governments and “rejects all acts of terrorism, including those perpetrated by Hamas, Hizbullah and any other group that claims Islam as their inspiration.”

So, given these worrying links, it is a good thing that ISNA has backed away. Hopefully this will leave MJAC room to grow into an organization genuinely committed to peaceful cooperation and harmony between Jews and Muslims, free from any Islamist influence from ISNA.

There is yet another silver lining to ISNA’s actions, which can be found in the criticism ISNA received from other Muslim activists who wish to see this organization succeed.

“What did ISNA’s qualification of support for a joint Muslim-Jewish committee accomplish?” wrote author, commentator and activist Haroon Moghul as part of a statement on his Facebook page. “Why create goodwill, and then squander it? Why make yourself look weak right after you start to look strong? Why alienate the people who are expending political capital to work with you? Is this the best we can do?”

Moghul stressed in his post that his criticism “is not to attack ISNA, or to invalidate its work, or to reject its leadership.”

His post was shared and discussed by other Muslim activists including Rabia Chaudry, who sits on MJAC and who previously penned a piece in Tablet on why the Muslim Jewish Advisory Council is an essential organization (despite whitewashing some of the legitimate criticisms of ISNA as a mere conspiracy theory).

It is clear that there are a number of prominent Muslim activists who, despite continuing to have substantive differences over policy with both the mainstream Jewish community and with various governmental positions on tackling extremism, are committed to fighting past those differences and building a future where the Muslim community in America can flourish in an integrated and accepted way.

They oppose extremism, but also want to work out inter-communal differences rather than shying away from them and seek to build partnerships rather than walls, as opposed to groups like ISNA.

These people should be encouraged and supported rather than alienated or attacked and their concerns listened to and addressed.  

Concluding its clarification, ISNA writes:

“Lastly ISNA leadership reiterates that even as ISNA is represented on the MJAC, our principled commitment to domestic and international causes of concern to Muslims will remain strong.” This implies that working with Jews at all naturally leads to suspicion that one is a traitor to the Muslim cause.

This is an insidious, insulting and highly damaging statement, especially in the context of setting up a new organization that aims to bring Muslims and Jews closer together.

“We specifically would like to reiterate support for the right of individuals and organizations in the US to peacefully work for human rights and the right of self-determination of Palestinians without fear of legal sanction,” ISNA adds.

It is well known that the Jewish organization behind the council, the AJC, is a Zionist organization. MJAC was specifically established to avoid fighting over Middle East politics and instead focus on issues of domestic concern.

ISNA’s couching of the terms of its cooperation — i.e., making sure the Muslim community knows ISNA still hates Israel — weakens their commitment to interfaith harmony.

Indeed, it shows how desperately an organization such as MJAC is needed.

Clarion Project has reached out to ISNA for comment, but had not received an answer as of press time.