Since it started in 2013, the Muslim Leadership Initiative has taken American Muslim leaders (hence the name) to Israel to learn about Zionism and Judaism. Fellows go in batches to the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem on top of some short courses in the States, and read first-hand about Zionism and Judaism. This groundbreaking effort has seen, for the first time, activists and leaders embedded in the established American Muslim community take the time to come to Israel and learn about Zionism and Judaism from the source.
MLI is going strong. Dozens of attendants have visited the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and come to a new understanding of Israel and about Zionism.
Many of those involved have suffered personal consequences for participating. Wajahat Ali, hardly Captain Zionism, was disinvited from an event in New York after pressure from those who didn’t like MLI forced the local Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) chapter to withdraw its invitation to Ali. Rabia Chaudry, one of the most prominent open alumni of the program, has suffered vicious attacks in hit pieces such as “The Incoherent Ramblings of Zionist Shill Rabia Chaudry” and through abusive messages sent to her directly.
My first impressions of the program were a mixed bag.
On one had, I was thrilled to see that a cadre of people whom I had previously regarded as implacably opposed to the founding bedrock of modern Jewish politics would be open enough to listen to this side of the story. Even though they might not come to a point of agreement, the mere decision to listen and engage as equals with validly different points of view is a world away from the outright rejection of Jewish sovereignty which has permeated Muslim organizations around the world since 1948.
On the other hand, I was deeply saddened to see the ferocity of the critique leveled at these individuals, many of whom have given years of service to the community as lay leaders, advocates, intellectuals and organizers. If even trying to understand (without agreeing with) the Jewish Zionist narrative prompts this level of backlash, how are we ever going to move towards less suspicious attitudes between the two communities?
Yet despite that, MLI has flourished and the results have been encouraging. In 2016, the American Jewish Committee and the (Muslim Brotherhood-linked) Islamic Society of North America joined forces to form the Muslim Jewish Advisory Council to work together against anti-Muslim bigotry and anti-Semitism alike. This was a huge step, and although ISNA later distanced themselves from the MJAC in an embarrassing clarification statement, MJAC itself remains in existence.
Another alumnus of the program, Amanda Quraishi, has just launched a Digital Centership program, teaching leaders in the American Jewish and Muslim communities how to foster more productive dialogue online.
Such an initiative is extremely useful work to help heal a highly partisan polity and could not come at a better time.
To those still inclined to be critical of MLI, take a look at what those who participated are saying:
Haroon Moghul, one of the organizers of the program said, “To me, a lot of the literature on Islam has its head in the sand. You have this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra, which is fine if you mean Islam should be a religion of peace. But clearly, there are many Muslims who do not believe that, and believe their violent worldview is justified and encouraged by Islam. You have to deal with that. You can’t simply wish it away.”
That exactly the sort of honest engagement that is the starting point for challenging Islamism.
Alejandro Beutel, a participant writes, “While many Muslims and Jews will continue to disagree on issues such as Israel/Palestine, we can no longer afford to allow these differences prevent our communities from working with each other on common ground issues.”
Principled, yet pragmatic, statements like this show a willingness to start engaging constructively about what really matters.
In her widely shared Time article, “What a Muslim American Learned From Zionists,” Rabia Chaudry described Zionism thus, after going through the program: “The Jewish people’s longing of thousands of years for a homeland, a return from exile, a sanctuary from being a hated minority in the diaspora, an opportunity to establish Jewish values and honor God, a Biblical promise, a chance for redemption.”
She’s dead on. That is exactly what Zionism is about.
These are just three examples, but read what the participants of MLI have to say about their experiences or better yet, speak to them. You will find nuanced, introspective and sophisticated opinions, which you may disagree with but which are far from the rejections supremacist stances of Islamists.
As far as I understand it, MLI’s message to the Muslim community is: Enough importing Old World grievances to a New World situation. Don’t let the political situation of a country you do not live in, whose leaders you did not vote for (or against) shape the relationships you have with those of Jewish faith in America today. Instead, listen to what Zionists have to say. Then use that information that further better relationships between Muslims and Jews in America. To non-Muslims, the program says, “Muslims are here to stay, and we are serious about developing the positive relationships with other communities necessary to flourish in this country.”
None of this means we are going to agree on everything with all participants of MLI, or that there isn’t extremism that needs to be challenged or everything is now fine.
What it does mean is that a significant number of leaders from within the establishment Muslim community in America have taken the time and trouble to go outside their comfort zones and make a serious effort for better inter-communal relations. The fact the program did not fizzle out but is only getting stronger after several years shows there is keen interest and a deep bench of potential attendees.
For those who are serious about opposing Islamism without targeting Islam as a whole, MLI and other such initiatives deserve support.
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