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Faithwashing: A reflection on the Muslim Leadership Initiative Open in fullscreen

Sa’ed Atshan

Faithwashing: A reflection on the Muslim Leadership Initiative

A Palestinian flag is raised at protests in Ferguson, Missouri [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 7 April, 2015

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Comment: The Israeli initiative to bring young Muslim-Americans to Israel is deeply troubling. It conflates Zionism with Judaism and violates the moral imperative to act against a profoundly racist state.
The Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI) of Israel's Shalom Hartman Institute has now sent two small cohorts of Muslim-American leaders to Israel/Palestine. MLI's stated purpose is to shape the understanding of these cohorts with regards to Judaism and Zionism.

This conflation of Judaism and Zionism is troubling, in addition to MLI's overstating the religious and theological dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. MLI decontextualises this human tragedy, which cannot be resolved without attention to human rights, land, political struggle, decolonisation and the need for equal rights between Israelis and Palestinians.


MLI's approach also reduces the conflict to Jewish-Muslim relations without understanding the role of Christians. The assumption that all Palestinians are Muslims further marginalises the voices of Palestinian Christians, atheists and other segments of Palestinian society, diminishing the long and rich history of Palestinian Christians in their fight for freedom in Palestine. At the same time, American Christian Zionism has significantly bolstered unwavering US support for the Israeli occupation and has had a devastating impact on the lives of Palestinians.


The reality of the occupation

As a Quaker and a pacifist, and having grown up in the West Bank under Israeli occupation, I understand these dynamics intimately. For hope, I often turn to Jewish people of conscience in Israel and around the world, including those in Jewish Voice for Peace in the US, that have been partners in the global Palestinian solidarity movement.

However, the US Muslims in the MLI program are falling in step with the Israeli state's conflation of Judaism and Zionism. Their neglect of the long and rich history of anti-Zionism among Jewish communities adds another layer to the Shalom Hartman Institute's silencing of Palestinian voices.

US Christian Zionism has significantly bolstered unwavering US support for the Israeli occupation.

Hartman is a Zionist Israeli institution that supports the status quo in Israel/Palestine while the Israeli state enacts a system of settler-colonialism, ethnic cleansing, military occupation, and apartheid on the indigenous stateless Palestinian population. Hartman receives much of its funding from the right-wing and Islamophobic Russell Berrie Foundation, the same organisation that has supported the anti-Palestinian Daniel Pipes.


Hartman research fellows spoke openly in media sources in favour of Israel's assault on the Gaza Strip this summer while 2,200 Palestinians, mainly civilians, were killed. Their 2013 annual report discusses the organisation's attempts to undermine Palestinian solidarity activism on college campuses. And their director has spoken openly about their commitment to undermining the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

Yet some MLI participants continue to support the programme vigorously with full knowledge of this reality. Moreover, it was disheartening to watch footage of my friend, who is a resident of Jerusalem, being assaulted by an MLI participant. He tried to film and interview them to understand why they were violating the Palestinian BDS call through MLI.


The latest strategy of some MLI participants has been to appropriate, misrepresent, and mislead the voices of their few Palestinian interlocutors. Yet one of these individuals, Mazin Qumsiyeh, has signed a petition calling for a boycott of MLI and has spoken unequivocally against the programme after his name was used in an attempt to legitimise it. When we raised this issue with MLI participant Haroon Moghul during our debate on al-Jazeera, Moghul asserted that Qumsiyeh, like other Palestinians, has no choice but to speak for boycott. For an American MLI participant to deny the political agency of a leader in the Palestinian Christian community, a former professor at Yale, and currently a professor at Bethlehem University and activist in the Palestinian nonviolent resistance movement, reeked of colonialism.

For an MLI individual to imply that Palestinians such as myself and Dr. Qumsiyeh, who support the boycott movement, are irrational and merely being intimidated by our community, and to dismiss our voices and political efficacy, was disappointing. Furthermore, MLI's other Palestinian speaker, Mustafa Barghouti, informed me that once he became fully aware of the Shalom Hartman Institute's role in the programme, it was clear to him, as he stated, that "MLI is a violation of the Palestinian civil society-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement."


MLI's participants are outliers in the Muslim-American, Arab-American, and Palestinian-American communities (not to be conflated, since the majority of Arab-Americans are Christians) in their undermining of BDS. Muslim-American leaders such as Imam Khalid Latif (NYU), Hatem Bazian (UC Berkeley), and Sheikh Omar Suleiman speak openly about their opposition to MLI. Hundreds of individuals and institutions, including the US Palestinian Community Network, have signed the MLI boycott petition.


Israel is the largest recipient of US aid in the world and US taxpayers are therefore complicit in the oppression of Palestinians. That is why US citizens bear a particular responsibility to respect the Palestinian call for BDS to be applied to institutions that are linked to the Israeli occupation. Working with the Shalom Hartman Institute, an organisation that collaborates with the Israeli military, MLI participants not only fail to honour their moral responsibility, but they deepen their complicity in the subjugation of Palestinians.

The BDS call represents as close to a consensus as possible within Palestinian civil society, with leaders of agricultural associations, youth movements, women's groups, the LGBT movement, trade associations, educators, Palestinian Christian and Muslim leaders, and many others endorsing a boycott of institutions complicit in Israeli apartheid and inspired by the anti-apartheid boycott movement from South Africa.

And while the South African boycott movement included both individuals and institutions, the Palestinian boycott call has strategically chosen to target only the latter. This includes the Shalom Hartman Institute. The Palestinian BDS National Committee has subsequently issued an official statement condemning MLI.

Visits to Israel/Palestine must be done with sensitivity to the Palestinian people languishing under military occupation.

Haroon Moghul has attempted to justify MLI and their violation of the BDS movement, crossing the picket line that Palestinian civil society has been working tirelessly to maintain. The BDS call and its three principles - ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees - comprise a nonviolent strategy towards liberation based on international human rights law. All three spheres of Israeli state power - economic, academic, and cultural - are interconnected. This is why the boycott addresses all three.

Attempts to excempt the academic realm places Israeli academic institutions outside of their political context and whitewashes their complicity in the occupation. These institutions receive Israeli state funds, are built on ethnically cleansed Palestinian ancestral lands, support the military, and are inextricably tied to the occupation.


During apartheid South Africa, the academic, cultural, and sports boycotts were particularly symbolic and powerful. When teams around the world would not play South African teams, the white apartheid regime was shaken.

Our form of boycott is a nonviolent protest, responding to the cry of an oppressed people, and refusing to proceed with business as normal with apartheid states like South Africa or Israel until their indigenous populations are granted equal rights. And this is precisely why one US professional academic association after another, such as the American Studies Association (with 5,000 members) and the Peace and Justice Studies Association (with an 87 percent vote in favour), have endorsed the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.


An imperative for people of conscience

I am a firm believer in dialogue, interfaith activism, intellectual exchange, and engaging people with whom we disagree, whether Zionist or anti-Zionist, particularly at the individual level. It is also important for people of conscience to visit Israel/Palestine to bear witness to the suffering and injustices there and to stand in solidarity with the oppressed.

Yet visits to Israel/Palestine must be done with sensitivity to the Palestinian people languishing under military occupation. There are ethical ways to do this, such as with an Interfaith Peace-Builders delegation. This year, there was also delegation of Black and Latino journalists, artists and community organisers from Dream Defenders, Ferguson, MO, Black Lives Matter and Black Youth Project 100 which traveled to Palestine in solidarity with those living under occupation, memorably producing a flashmob dance in support of BDS.


MLI participants were in Israel/Palestine at the same time, choosing to engage in an institutional partnership with Hartman, and accepting funding and resources from Hartman, in contravention of the Palestinian civil society call for BDS and in disregard for our self-determination as Palestinians. I hope that MLI will stop faithwashing Israeli apartheid, silencing our voices, and undermining our liberation struggle. As the South African anti-apartheid moral giant, Nelson Mandela, once stated, "We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians."

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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