The following is a transcript of Episode 82 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Yehuda: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Identity/Crisis: A show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer president of Shalom Hartman Institute North America, and we’re recording on Monday, December 20th, 2021.
So if you’ve ever hung around Jewish interfaith efforts with people from other traditions, Christian, but especially Muslim, you’re probably familiar with two traps that tend to undermine these efforts.
The first is the foregrounding of the things that we agree about and the avoidance of the stuff we disagree about. For the last few decades, that thing that we disagree about usually relates to Israel/Palestine. So either you spend a lot of time talking about it. It’s all you talk about. And then the relationships will fall apart, especially when there’s an outbreak of hostilities. Or more commonly you avoid the topic altogether and the relationships definitely fall apart when there’s an outbreak of hostility.
The second trap is a little bit more subtle, but a lot more pernicious. And that’s what happens when different groups essentialize the other, as a means of separating out the good and bad interlocutors on the other side. So good Muslims, for instance, will be the ones who condemn terrorist violence by other Muslims, and that, in turn, casts dispersions on anyone on their side, who doesn’t act according to the rules that we construct for them. Or the good Jew quote-unquote will be the anti-Zionist. This Jew, the version of a Jew who best aligns with the politics of their interlocutor.
This happens all the time and not just in interfaith spaces. Because you see the hardest thing about encountering other people across difference is actually engaging with them in their fullest complexity and not just by means of the categories that make their identities more or less convenient for the purposes of our being in relationships.
These kinds of moves illustrate for us how sometimes what purports to be work about relationship building is really about mobilizing political power. And of course, how our political differences in America continue to grow as the strongest forces that divide us from one another often much more profoundly than the theological or other differences that may have divided us in the past.
In the past few weeks, this story, especially as it implicates Muslim-Jewish relations, reared its ugly head again in a big way. A story to which I want the Jewish community to pay attention.
At the conference of American Muslims for Palestine on November 27th, 2021 Zahra Billoo the executive director of the San Francisco office of the Council on American Islamic Relations, we’ll talk about these organizations shortly, gave a blistering speech in which she said as following, I’m quoting. It’s available on YouTube if you want to watch the speech. She said, “first we have to connect the dots. The organizations that promote Zionists agendas, materials, marketing, and legislation are the same ones that want to ban Muslims, are the same ones that want to pass anti-Sharia legislation. The police officers in the United States who kill unarmed black men, women, and children are trained by the Israeli military. The technology that is used at the United States-Mexico border is the same technology that is used at the apartheid wall.”
So that’s one argument that gets made and then it gets immediately followed as follows by what I think is more relevant to our conversation, “I also want us to pay attention to the polite Zionists, the ones that say let’s break bread together. We need to pay attention to the ADL. We need to pay attention to the Jewish Federation. We need to pay attention to the Zionist synagogues. We need to pay attention to the Hillel chapters on our campuses because just because you’re their friend today does not mean that they will have your back when it comes to human rights.” And in contrast, Billoo goes on to identify the good guys, quote, “know your Jewish Voice for Peace leadership, your Students for Justice in Palestine leadership, your If Not Now leadership.” The list goes on.
This speech followed on the heels of a report from American Muslims for Palestine itself, which made a similar divide between the quote-unquote “good organizations,” those safe to work with, and the “bad ones.” And it listed a similar type of list, Federations, Hillels, synagogues, and so forth.
Those, that list of the bad ones parenthetically represents in organizational membership and in viewpoints, the overwhelming majority of American Jews. So the divide that Billoo draws is between the good Jews and the bad Jews. There are very few good Jews. They are dissidents in their own community.
And quite the rest of the majority of the rest of us are the bad Jews. And full disclosure, the Hartman Institute, and our own Muslim Leadership Initiative are all over the American Muslims for Palestine report. It’s one of the key examples frequently cited of a Jewish organization, ours, masquerading our politics through the guise of doing interfaith work.
And even though we have been transparent for a while about both the self-interested and altruistic objectives we have for our program to build more resilient relationships between American Jews and American Muslims, by engaging directly on the issue of Israel and Palestine as core features of our identity, it’s hard to escape the conspiratorial accusations about what we are or what we’re trying to do in this work.
And I would venture to say, sadly, that these kinds of polarizations, the effort to identify allyship through identifying who are the good people on the other side and demonizing the bad are picking up momentum. So I wanted to talk about this today. And to do so I’m really excited to talk to my friend and colleague Imam Abdullah Antepli.
Abdulla is Associate Professor of the Practice of Interfaith Relations and Associate Professor at Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke. He is also a senior fellow on Muslim-Jewish relations here at the Hartman Institute where he co-founded and co-directs the Muslim Leadership Initiative. And I would say Abdullah lives every day with the consequences of trying very desperately to live in that in-between space between good Jews and good Muslims.
That is to say between Jews and Muslims in their fullest sense of the word. So Abdullah, thank you for coming on the show. And I guess I want to start by asking you to paint a picture. What are the organizations for a primarily Jewish audience? What is CAIR? What is American Muslims for Palestine? Is this a marginal issue?
And if it’s not, what does it reflect? What story is it telling about Muslims in America?
Abdullah: Thank you, Yehuda, always good to be with you. Before directly answering your question, I want to make two initial relevant comments. Through these two comments, I will register my deep sadness of these recent episodes you mentioned and others where Jewish-Muslim relations are. And I hope beyond these tragic developments, we can actually talk about the Jewish-Muslim relations broadly as a significant part of this conversation as well.
So, the problems that you beautifully articulated, you put on the table or the events of AMP, American Muslims for Palestine, or CAIR. These are manifestations of a long time neglect and deeply rooted problems in interfaith spaces, broadly speaking, social justice activism but specifically about Jewish-Muslim relations.
So in so many ways, chickens are coming home to roost. Jewish and Muslim communities – and there are many people who could be guilty of this recent unimpressive, sad reality, but in the words of Joshua Heschel, many of us are responsible. The problems are not because of anything. And it’s deep. No one should be naive enough that this is about one individual, one organization.
There’s a solution here. If only we can find one right Muslim or right Jew. By all indications is going to get a lot worse before it gets any better. So, no one should think these are simplistic issues and problems. It is as a result of decades-long partisanship being blinded by small victories, not seeing the big picture specific to for Jews and Muslims, increasingly their inability to tame the bullies and marginal voices in their communities and creating this vacuum filled by charlatans and non-representative organizations and individuals who are taking all the oxygen in the in area.
And secondly, the second point I want to make is what’s going on? We can talk about, especially with your question, who are these people? What do they represent?
But the reaction to these incidents says more about the communities. Then the groups are individuals that we are trying to identify, analyze – how on earth Americans for Palestine can put together a reprehensible and despicable report like this being in the business of good Jew and bad Jew? Declaring 90 plus percent of the American Jewish community as non-Halal and non-Kosher gives a platform to an activist who works for the largest civil rights, as they claim, of the American Muslim community trafficking in the most reprehensible and despicable anti-Semitic statements. And how do they get away? How can’t the Muslim community give any serious and meaningful reaction?
There is a deafening silence, no conversation. How on earth does this create more noise and buzz in the Jewish community than the Muslim community? It was so telling that these incidents are telling more about these communities themselves. In the Muslim part, why the American Muslim community is still allowing these activists bullies to dominate the space for policing?
And literally, I wrote quite recently, how the American Muslim community is being held hostage by this particular type of pro-Palestinian activism that AMP and Zahra Billoo represent. And seemingly the rest of the community, even though they are not very representative is incapable of pushing back, responding, putting a nuance, or presenting some large spectrum of the American Muslim community’s experiences and opinions on this issue. It really speaks in volumes of American Muslim communities huge area of growth in building institutional groups, organizations and also the reaction, the overreaction or greater reaction of the Jewish community is also speaks in volumes.
They are quick to judge, picking up the biggest guns and in so many ways making things worse.
Yehuda: Right. So to interrupt you for a second, ironically, on one hand, I want to talk about this because it does implicate the Jewish community. I recognize myself in it, but in some ways, by taking the bait, it kind of has the effect of doing the same thing that I was criticizing at the outset, which is identifying a marginal voice, what you’re describing as a marginal voice in the Muslim community and responding to it as though it represents something stronger. But that would take for granted and I want to know whether this is actually right, that what you hear from this AMP conference, what’s in the amp report is in fact marginal. So is that the case? Like what do we know about the kind of mainstream position? If the mainstream position of American Jews is broadly pro-Israel views Zionism not as a bad word broadly, pro-Israel with a range of political expressions.
Abdullah: Zionists, what’s wrong with it?
] Yehuda: Well, it’s complicated, but it’s a weird thing right now that we’re seeing in a whole bunch of places that even people who identify as pro-Israel struggle with the use of that terminology. But it’s fine. I’m happy to say it myself. What,s the dominant story within American Islam?
Is it not represented by these positions? Because you’re essentially arguing that your community has been overtaken by bullies who have created bully pulpits. And I’m trying to figure out where’s the center of gravity in the American Muslim community on Palestine.
Abdullah: That’s the most painful thing that I’m trying to say respectfully. There is no center. There is no center of gravity. These organizations CAIR, AMP, ISNA, MES all of them combined they don’t have half of the Houston Jewish Federation’s budget. I’m talking about the Houston Jewish Federation, not New York, not Chicago, not the Bay Area. And every study of PRRI, Pew, Gallup, every demographic and sociological study on the American Muslim community says this alphabet soup represents at most 10% of the American Muslim community. There is really a lack of centralized institutional leadership in the American Muslim community. By no stretch of the imagination, these people – I don’t care what they claim.
They don’t represent in any significant portion of the American Muslim community. They represent the organized Muslim community space, which is more or less like 10%. And they are bullying and thought policing that space irresponsibly, reprehensive really with so many consequences to the American Islam and American Muslim community.
Their damage is not limited to 10%. They are further alienating American Muslim communities. They are further marginalizing American Islam. They are damaging the image of Islam as a religion and Muslims as Americans, Muslims as a people. But by all means, they are not representative. And why isn’t the other 90% doing what they’re supposed to do after seeing what’s being done in their name? And why they are not capable of pushing them back or building alternative types of organizations and leadership is a much broader conversation. Unfortunately, I was just registering my deep commitment and sadness to build those alternative types of relationships and the leadership that needs institutions.
Yehuda: So, I guess I want to go back to my first question, which is what is CAIR? I mean, based on my own research, it’s pretty easy to find that CAIR only emerges in the mid-nineties. If you read the language on their website, in terms of their self-description, it sounds an awful like the Muslim equivalent of the ADL.
There’s very similar language about self-positioning as a civil rights organization particularly interested in anti-Muslim bigotry. But as the ADL does frame that within a larger context of looking out for all minorities, all viewpoints, people of all faiths and creeds. So if you can help us position a little bit at the same time, by the way to your point, it has a $3 million annual budget, which is like the catering budget at the ADL.
Abdullah: AIPAC’s catering budget.
Yehuda: Right. So I’m trying to figure out like, you’re suggesting that the American Muslim community, just doesn’t map as effectively institutionally as the American Jewish community might where for better or worse, the American Jewish establishment and network of organizations may not reflect exactly the dominant position of American Jews, but it’s not a terrible approximation of the viewpoints.
But you’re saying that that’s not the case. So help us understand why this constitutes something significant. How is CAIR understood by American Muslims? What do they see its function as? And what the average, for lack of a better term, what the average Muslim or Muslim leader in the American Muslim context might think about something coming out from CAIR?
Abdullah: Sure, but what you just beautifully articulated needs to be underscored and emphasized. Part of the problem is the American Jewish community’s inability to read the American Muslim communities. They know American Jewish communities, American Catholic communities, American Protestant communities, American evangelical Christian communities.
They think there is some sort of a spectrum of structures, leadership organizations, centers of gravity in the Muslim community. It will hopefully happen, but it’s not there. There is no American Muslim community to say that in the simplest of terms. There are American Muslim communities with very little structure, overarching connection to other Muslim communities. CAIR in so many ways is a product of 1990s pro-Palestinian activism. The founders of CAIR, neither then nor now for the national leadership American civil rights was never their primary concern. They were looking for a platform in which they can do pro-Palestinian activism. And in so many ways they wanted to implement or pattern and copy American Jewish communities.
The way the American Jewish communities are organizing around Israel, they wanted to do something similar and they found that civil rights is the most suitable and the low hanging fruit of a framework aligned with. It will give the kind of right entry and access point, the American lingo, mainstream American discourse.
So this needs to be underscored. Primarily in the DNA of this organization, they have a particular way of I don’t want to say exclusive, but primary attention is given to a very particular type of pro-Palestinian activism. There is no one way of being pro-Palestinian. I am a pro-Palestinian Muslim myself.
But I see my pro-Palestinianism in so many ways actually helping and is making a difference in the life of Palestinians. But there are so many others. They see pro-Palestinian activism as being anti-Israeli and putting a lot of emphasis in that kind of activism. So the CAIR founders and current national leaders are deeply embedded in this particular type of activism, which gave rise to BDS movement and the AMP it represents.
But 9/11, of course, changed all of the discourse. To everybody’s dismay, American Muslim and Muslim American civil rights problems became a real issue. And CAIR sort of found this renewed energy, money, and cost. And there’s a demand. As the anti-Muslim bigotry and hate has risen very, very significantly.
Now, more than one in two Americans feel negatively against Islam and Muslims, anti-Muslim bigotry against Muslim organizations and institutions is on the rise. So in an unexpected way, it was really a historical accident that CAIR had to grow and put a lot more emphasis into actual American civil rights, domestic problems, as the Mosques are burned as the woman with hijab is attacked, as Islamaphobia has gone viral, especially certain geographical parts of the United States. So as a result, they have 20 plus, I believe 25 local chapters, and many of their local chapters are doing a really incredible, good job. That’s the dilemma. That’s why a lot of the American Muslim community is not aware of the national leadership’s origin, problematic and toxic relationship with Middle Eastern politics and their network and connection with some really troubling organizations and leaders who are now on the list of terror by the State Department of the American government.
What they know in Kentucky, North Carolina, Florida: these are the people to call when mom receives a death threat. When you’re wife spat on in a mall when she’s shopping. When your children are bullied at school.
For the longest time, they had been the only game player in town, thankful they are not anymore. There are many other organizations like Muslim Advocates that emerge and other organizations stepping up. But again, these are in the infancy stages of their organization. Regretfully and again, reprehensible, I will not mince my words against these bullies anymore.
And I’m sick and tired of the American Muslim community being deceived by the national leadership of CAIR. They sort of use the American Muslim community’s real civil rights issues. And I’m sure the local chapters are really trying their best to address those issues, but they never strayed away from their core mission to me, at least of incredibly problematic Pro-Palestinian activism, which is increasingly becoming zero-sum, which is increasingly becoming us versus them, which is increasing imposing litmus tests to American Muslim communities. If you are an American Muslim, you have to be a particular type of pro-Palestinian. You have to exclusively take the BDS platform as your creed, and you have to follow it even if it is at the expense of marginalizing the entire American Muslim community to the fringes of the American mainstream.
Yehuda: Right. So the distinction that you just drew feels very essential to me. And I want to put a point on it, which is, well, you’re not arguing that pro-Palestinianism c’t be as I’ve often heard people joke, it’s not that it can’t be one of the pillars of American Islam. It can be, maybe it is.
Maybe it can be considered because it’s one of the most prominent cases of a Muslim conflict. Well, maybe that’s not true. There are plenty of places for Muslim conflicts around the world. This is a very prominent place that is very important to American policy where there’s a major Muslim population that is implicated by Israeli policy and American support.
You’re saying it’s okay for American Muslims to consider pro-Palestinian activism a key part of their identities and their community’s agendas. But you’re trying to parse between pro-Palestinian activism, generally speaking, and particular expressions of pro-Palestinian activism you see as captive.
Abdullah: I want to correct your statement. Pro-Palestinian activism and Palestinian solidarity not could be, or should be, must be one of the pillars. There is no way Palestinian suffering is not the only, and not the worst suffering of the Muslims in the world. It’s not the only one. It’s not the worst one, but the American Muslim community cannot divorce themselves from the Palestinian suffering because of being in America because of how America is involved in this conflict. How their taxpayers, how their governments and decision-making mechanisms – anybody who would like to completely divorce American Islam and the American Muslim community from Palestinian suffering or Palestinian solidarity, they have very little respect from me. But that pro-Palestinian activism should have room for different strategies.
It should have a culture of disagreement. It should have a broad spectrum of – like the way the pro-Israeli sentiment manifests in the Jewish community. You have JVP on one hand and you have ZOA on other hand and thousands of different organizations. On the other hand, really the predicament and the calamity of the community is you don’t have any spectrum at all.
These bullies are imposing one type and one type only. They are essentializing and regretfully, please allow me to take this cheap shot at them, their activism has nothing to do, almost has nothing to do with Palestine. It doesn’t go beyond anger and just street shouting and protests.
There is no one single policy so far they have ever passed that made the lives of the Palestinians any better. They are not interested in gaining the hearts and minds of broadly speaking, American mainstream and helping Palestinians so that they will have a well-deserving better life, better schools, that will be a two-state solution. It is very unique to me, utopian, that they think through activism, they can undo Israel. They can somehow undo 1948 and create this one state where everybody is one vote, one et cetera. It’s unrealistic. So the American Muslim community should broaden the base.
Not only it should keep investing in pro-Palestinian activism, but the loud voices in the market are really far from bringing any constructive solution into the process
Yehuda: I understand that, but there’s a second argument that I think you’re making, which is expanding the tent multiple different ways in which to be pro-Palestinian and not being narrowed to one particular type of political expression. If Muslim Americans don’t do that, it also marginalizes Muslim Americans as a political force.
It severs the relationship with Jews and, and Jewish communities and Jewish institutions. But it also basically makes Muslim Americans politically irrelevant. So I want you to talk about that second piece. I think I got the first piece, but I’d love for you to talk a little bit about that second piece and to notice that when someone thinks that their strategy is morally correct, then they’re going to be willing to sacrifice their relationships with the Jewish community.
They’re going to be willing to sacrifice their political power. It’s a form of martyrdom. So how do you respond to that instinct towards political martyrdom?
Abdullah: Sure. I think enough mistakes have been done. And the Palestinian suffering has only gotten worse over the last decades. Being morally and self-serving right didn’t serve the Palestinian cause. American Muslim communities also should reflect not only just being right or morally correct but also being wise. Is this wise? Is this one way of being moral? Because ultimately to answer your question directly, our pro-Palestinian activism should ultimately be done and effectively impact our fellow Americans. We should never be seen as proxy soldiers of international conflict and primarily be defined by foreign entities and foreign realities. That’s what so dangerously CAIR national people are doing. We should not on the Palestine issue, but on any given social justice issue, we should probably claim our space in American civic space, in American civic culture. And we should argue these issues as Americans primarly, if not exclusively, and we should be able to gain their hearts. And if you are morally correct, if our strategies are morally accurate, and if our strategies are wise enough, open enough, inclusive enough, ultimately it should gain the hearts and minds of fellow Americans. They should be able to broaden our base and support and move our policies towards a Middle East in favor of the Palestinians.
But it’s just the opposite that is happening. We are even alienating the most low hanging fruit of Two-state solution Jews. We are even declaring Hillels our enemies. We are declaring established American Jewish organizations as vicious, satanic organisms. I wish these CAIR national people, AMP people, they could see how they land on the average, forget about Jews and Muslims, average Americans’ mirrors and screens when they make these irresponsible reprehensible categorical mistakes.
Yehuda: It seems to me Abdullah that the first major shift that happens for the American Muslim community is 9/11. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about this. I’ve met a lot of Muslim leaders, basically of my own generation who kind of came of age because of 9/11. And it totally altered their career trajectories.
They became the ambassadors on behalf of their communities as writers and thinkers. In many cases, they are the first generation of their families who is going to speak in unaccented, English and they served a certain kind of function. And you suggested that that’s when the American Muslim community leaned into a civil rights agenda, that was broader than it had been prior.
But then you get the Trump administration. And my anecdotal observation is that the Trump administration basically emboldens the more marginal position out of a kind of larger claim of, well, this country is going to be Islamophobic anyway, we might as well position ourselves against it. And the particularly irony is that the Trump administration forced the Jewish community to actually confront Islamophobia in a more significant way for the first time. So it feels very tragic that just around the time where the mainstream Jewish community actually has to look Islamaphobia straight in the face with the Muslim ban and other expressions of it is exactly the time when you see a kind of turning away by some of these Muslim American institutions, from the unifying civil rights agenda to a much more partisan, very, very politically progressive agenda for American Muslims. Is that right? I mean, that just feels devastating.
Abdullah: So very much. So that’s what I meant right at the beginning. I think what you are seeing on your screen is a result of this broader and much deeper – This is a manifestation of its grip in its social ideals. This is a manifestation of ideological polarization, partisan polarization.
And this civility and civil discourse is broadly speaking, this is only one manifestation of it. It was unthinkable 20 years ago when I first came to the United States, Hillels on campus would be seen as quote-unquote enemy. And when I first came to Duke 14 years ago Ramadan coincided at the beginning of the academic year and we didn’t have any space back then.
And the Hillel was our place where we did our entire Ramadan, 30 days of breaking the fast, praying, even in nights and prayers. And the Jewish community regretfully, it has, as with America, those relationships, everybody’s now back to their corner. Forget about the big picture. Let’s recruit as many foot soldiers as possible, and let’s invest in partisanship.
Yehuda: Abdullah, you have a unique tolerance for dirty hands. I say that flatteringly as a pluralist, as a person who also likes reaching across difference, right? Truly you have a unique tolerance for it. Most people don’t. Because you care about your community and because you want to do something different in terms of embodying what a real relationship to the Jewish community looks like and enables you to literally shake hands, break bread with not just those members of the mainstream Jewish community, who, as you said, could very much be part of the same political polity of American Muslims, but even pretty far-right people in the Jewish community, which I think would even stretch the capacity of non-CAIR moderates in your own community. Can you talk a little bit about that? What does that feel like? Why you’ve been willing to kind of take that risk?
Abdullah: I do love m community. And I will never stop loving American Islam. And I came to this country to be part of that story. But I’m not the pipe dreamer. I am not an irredeemable polyannic optimist. Because I know firsthand that in the individual quality of America and American Muslims, there is an incredible amount of talent, quality, power, and force for good in the American Muslim community.
That’s why I’m so frustrated when individual communities’ quality and talent are not manifesting into our collective leadership. Why American Muslim communities organized leadership gatekeepers are far from reflecting the diversity, the richness, and there is so much potential of the American Muslim communities.
So I know that we can do better. That’s why I tolerate anything and everything. At some point, we have to figure out what is inhibiting? What is hindering? What are the obstacles for the American Muslim community by and large? Our reality is very impressive. And after 9/11, in so many ways, individually and at the small local level, we have risen up to the task and we are maturing.
We are growing, but somehow public leaders and our alphabet soup who are claiming to represent us are still far behind, out of the curve, and far from establishing and carving out a respectful space for Islam and Muslims in America in which similarly, over the years, I have seen how much good, moral integrity, moral courage, moral decency there is in the American Jewish communities.
That’s why this AMP report and the Zahra Billoos are despicable. Really, it should be condemning the most possible strongest words this broad generalization. Here is a community constantly telling America don’t homogenize me.
Don’t define my pain. Don’t tell me what is Islamophobic and is not Islamophobic. Don’t be in the business of good Muslim, bad Muslim. And here we are doing the exact same reprehensible fault against the Jewish community. So why I’m so tolerant is because I know the ocean-sized goodwill in the American Jewish communities.
I know the good work that these American Jewish organizations are doing. I know they share most of my pain about Palestinian suffering. I know many of them would be dancing with me on the streets of America if he established a two-state solution tomorrow. So that gives me a lot of hope, but again, even there in the Jewish community that moral decency and commitment to peace is not always rising up to its leadership.
Partisanship is in this kind of climate, especially throughout the Trump administration since then it is not showing the best of the Jewish community either.
Yehuda: So, this is one of the things that’s fun to talk to with you about since you take such a publicly critical posture of your own community, and in some ways, an admiring posture of the Jewish community who you want to work with it actually obligates me morally to do the reverse and to say, here’s what I need to do to fix my community.
We’ve talked about this in the past, in public, what are the hard texts of our own tradition and trying to figure out how to do that in public, because ultimately it models a kind of religious leadership, which is more invested in loving one’s own people by being critical and then finding ways to build bridges to other peoples.
So the flip side of the first CAIR story is this very strange story that appeared last week about care in Ohio, where staff…
Abdullah: Completely bizarre story.
Yehuda: Bizarre story as a staffer at CAIR was abruptly fired by the organization because it turns out that they were a spy who, or at least was accused of being a spy, planted there by somebody associated with Steven Emerson who’s widely called on the internet an Islamophobia in terms of the policies that he’s advocated for in Washington around both Muslims around the world, as well as American Muslims. He’s just kind of a public enemy of American Muslims.
The story just came out. I assume that there’ll be more about it. But it does raise some pretty significant questions about how much the Jewish community is really prepared to engage with even the open arms strategy that you’re trying to do here. There’s a long history with the ADL of surveillance of mosques in the 90s and 2000s.
There’s a tremendous history of skepticism and cynicism maybe about a protective impulse may be about something more insidious by American Jewish organizations. So take that last comment that you made a little bit further. What also has to change in the American Jewish community is to be receptive to you and the people like you who are trying to do something different than what American Jews may see and experience from American Muslims.
Abdullah: The American Jewish community has taken internal Jewish Islamophobia seriously, but there’s room for improvement, significant room for improvement. Understandably, there’s a tendency to marginalize and trivialize this problem and see the Steven Emersons, David Yerushalmis, Pamela Gellers of the world as non-representative. In a way, they pay so much attention to non-representative models in the Muslim community and rightfully so, but they are not taking enough responsibility all the time about the past mistakes of these major organizations, ADL, AJC, and others, and what they have done knowingly or not knowingly.
But not that the fact that they’re sins per se and they’re intentional, deliberate Islamophobic, anti-Muslim activities. If this is true, I won’t be surprised at all. That’s what Steve Emerson is. For years, he’s been sending spies to ISNA conventions. I talked to people who were ashamed of themselves for doing this in the 1990s.
Some of them are our mutual friends. They were poor college students. Steve Emerson approached them and sent them into ISNA conventions just to record secretly or take notes, et cetera. There is a small but highly powerful well-organized well-funded Jewish Islamaphobia. To my delight and to my joy and to my pride increasingly being denounced and marginalized within the Jewish community, but not completely disowned. Steve in the eyes of many Jews, Steve Emerson is a national security expert.
Steve Emerson is almost like a prophetic figure to some of them because, in 1993, he predicted the first world trade center bombing before 9/11 happened. And he used that as a launching ground and predicted that Muslim extremism and jihadism will take over America. And constantly and successfully he and people like him are casting a cloud of fear and suspicion and hate around Islam and Muslims. In 2002, a few months after 9/11, people who have negative views of Islam and Muslims was about 20%. Today, it’s almost 60%. 60% of Americans. They changed their mind for worse about Islam and Muslims. And it’s not all just wars and media.
It is these vicious people like Steve Emerson like Pamela Geller like David Yerushalmi – they are as Jewish as it gets. You cannot disown these people and their funding resources are mostly from the Jewish communities as well. Thankfully, most of them lost their ground in the Jewish community.
These individuals were on the speaking circuits of synagogues, making millions of dollars of money out of poisoning, Jewish hearts and minds about Islam and Muslims. This is no longer the case, but they are still there and they are still functioning with very impressive budgets. They should further be silent.
They should further be defunded. There should be some effort, a community effort of putting them on a much tighter leash than they are.
Yehuda: Yeah. So one of the in which this work is particularly difficult, especially when you talk about mainstream Jewish organizations is because things like funding and partnerships and relationships are so complicated and they’re so entangled and sometimes their historical relationships with this person who maybe once worked there or as we know from Hartman, we take money from a particular source that also funds things that we consider to be problematic. And the easiest way to turn something from being a complicated story to a conspiracy theory is by trying to draw really straight lines. You take money from here.
Therefore you are complicit in whatever else that funder is funding. This has been part of the public criticism about MLI and the Hartman Institute from the beginning. It emerged out of the fact that one of our MLI-ers wrote a report at Center for American Progress called Fear, Inc on documenting the money behind the Islamophobia industry, and lo and behold, some of it is connected to an institution like Hartman.
We have been adamant since the beginning that we can take money from a whole bunch of places, have complicated partnerships and programs and we can still be sincere about what we do with our work, evaluate us on the merits of the work, as opposed to trying to draw these connections. But it’s not surprising, Abdullah, that a lot of people are going to look for those kinds of smoking guns.
I can connect you by two degrees of separation to something that’s really problematic. So I would love to hear your approach on that because modeling something different is going to be an essential part of trying to break down the kind of clean ideological silos that we’re seeing.
Abdullah: The main problem here Yehuda as you know better than most is that deficit of trust. If we can build some level of trust people wouldn’t go that far to find a smoking gun. For any American Muslim organization, it is not too difficult to find two degrees of separation because of the country of origin and their connection, et cetera.
The same applies to the American Muslim community. And similarly, the American Muslim community rightfully says you can’t judge me based on this chain of funders and guilt by association. You can only judge me with my work. You can only judge me whether or not that connection, how far or close it doesn’t matter is it reflected in the work that I do?
Is it altering my agenda? Is it poking holes in my moral integrity? Am I compromising the kind of work that I am doing? America should be a country where people are based on what they do, not on who they are, who they sit with, et cetera, primarily. But of course, there are people at some point, even if you had a relationship in the past, if they are repeated offenders like Pamela Geller, Steve Emerson, David Yerushalmi if over and over and again, these people are just bad-faith actors, they are in the business of making money out of hate. If people make some sincere efforts to atone and ask forgiveness and say, I’m sorry, I did it in the past.
Another good example is the admirable applaudable apology of the ADL towards Park51. I think it’s an exemplary act of saying we messed up here.
We made a mistake. Our stand was wrong. We thought that was the wisest thing to do then, but it is not now. Once people seek and demand and ask for a second chance after showing sincerity for forgiveness and dependence, they should be welcomed as well.
Yehuda: You know, I’m going to ask you a question that maybe it’s an opportunity for some of your Imam’s side to come back into play. But I do sometimes wonder whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in spite of those of us moderates or liberals or whatever we are, who believe that the problems are fixable that it might be insurmountable. And that may, in turn, engender among American Muslims and American Jews, that at a certain point, listen, this is unbridgeable. We’re going to have to pick sides. And your side is going to have a handful of our people. And our side is going to have a handful of your people, but that’s essentially where we’re going to be.
And I think that would be a heartbreak for people like me and you and many other really sincere people who are trying to say, no, that’s not how this has to be. What’s holding you from that kind of despair? There’s something about sometimes the convenience of despair. It would make your life a lot easier.
What’s holding you back from that?
Abdullah: Two things. I’m a person of faith. In my religion, you are not allowed to be hopeless. It is the greatest of great sins. If you believe in God and if you have gone through an education it shows over and over that God intervenes in human history. I don’t want to sound too messianic, but over and over again things don’t always go as bad as what we see right now.
So I believe in a higher power. I believe that there is an ultimate planner. And there is an endless mercy compassion, healing, power of that divine heavenly reality. I don’t care what you call it or how you worship, but I know that there is a partial, modest role of us to activate that divine healing. It will happen over and over again.
And I said this is in my public conversations many, many times with you and others. My second source of hope in addition to God is God’s work in history. I look at similar problems elsewhere, how conflicts like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, much worse, enmities, millennium-long hate, deeply entrenched bigotry and violence over time with the help and the work of good people like you and I and others it bounced back. But regretfully, it often bounces back after a major calamity like the Holocaust like wars and death and destruction.
I am hoping at some point, humanity has matured enough that without things getting as bad as violent that much blood will be shed we will find out a way to bounce back the way the Christian-Jewish relationship has bounced back, the way certain racial tension in this part of the country has healed or other examples from around the world. Human history is full of dark things full of despair, as the Jewish-Palestinian relationship the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as it is now through the good work of other people, people who are committed to peace and justice open some new horizons that weren’t visible in those dark moments.
Yehuda: That’s a wise person once said, Abdullah, inshallah. Well, thank you. Thank you as always up Abdullah for your hope and for your optimism and more than anything else for your resilience. I know how much you have endured, in some ways lost, for the willingness to kind of stand in the breach where you’re standing.
And may we continue to walk hand in hand with you in the pursuit of your vision.
Abdullah: Amen. And I am taking this as an opportunity also reaching out and crying to my American Muslim community. They have to take this AMP report sister Zahra Billoo’s really irresponsible and anti-Semitic and unacceptable rhetoric incredibly seriously and broadly. They have to demand a different kind of leadership from the organized American Muslim communities.
As I said, one pillar of American Islam is pro-Palestinian activism. But the current leadership people who are running this show in the name of pro-Palestinian activism, we have to ask them, what have you done for Palestinians so far? How did this bring us any inch closer to peace? What lives of Palestinians have improved?
What is your report card? What is your evaluation assessment report? If your measure of success is how many Jews you angered, how much cry and how many crisis narratives you have created in the American Jewish communities, that’s not enough for me. That’s immoral to me that your measure of success is how much you hurt people, how much you scare people, how much you anger people, how much you further marginalized Islam and Muslims in those communities.
That’s counterproductive to me. So I really, really hope people will pay attention to what’s being done in their name, how American Islam is being hijacked by this small group of zero-sum activists, bullying, and thought policing anybody. And everybody has to courageously stand up to them.
Yehuda: Yeah. And I’ll say it from my end. I really want to look long and hard at the faces of those Jewish organizations that appear positively as the good Jews in this story. And to say what you’ve gained in terms of the allies who see you as the good Jews is coming at an enormous cost of the Jewish people who you’re willing to kind of leave behind. That trade is whatever access or power is granted by being seen by some people as being the good Jews is coming at an enormous cost for Jews and for Jewish people. And so with that, thank you Abdullah for being on the show, and thank you to all of you for listening to Identity/Crisis.
Identity/Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced this week by David Zvi and edited by M Louis Gordon with assistance for Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz and music provided by So-called.
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