The new generation of Muslim American leaders

The White House iftar controversy signals the next phase of Muslim leadership.

US President Barack Obama hosted the annual White House Iftar on July 14 [AFP/Getty Images]

When widespread criticism arose from President Barack Obama’s gratuitous lecturing of Muslims at a White House iftar about Israel’s right to defend itself as unarmed civilians in Gaza died by the hundreds, it signalled a generational shift in Muslim American leadership.

This year’s White House iftar could have proceeded uneventfully like the many others preceding it. A group of Muslim individuals are hand-picked by government bureaucrats who reward them for good behaviour.

Such good behaviour can range from withholding public criticism of flawed government policy, diffusing community anger over abusive practices, or persuading the community that the adverse impacts of national security law enforcement are not based on bad intentions and thus should be tolerated. The reward for good behaviour is getting re-invited the following year and having access to government meetings that leave much to be desired in terms of changing policies.

And like any other White House event, there is the usual contingency of photo-op seekers who just want to be seen with the president even if it means legitimising abusive treatment of Muslims. Once there, attendees justify their silence as consistent with a good moral upbringing that requires courtesy to the host and restraint from rude behaviour as a guest.

These iftars occur as Muslims bear the brunt of aggressive national security laws and policies infected with stereotypes that conflate Islam with terrorism. As a result, mosques, businesses, and student organisations have been infiltrated with thousands of dubious informants and undercover agents. Tenuous terrorism prosecutions of Muslims rely on charlatans acting as experts to exploit juries’ fears.

Feeding off the government’s legitimising policies, anti-Muslim bigots have raised tens of millions of dollars to vilify Muslims en mass. Similar to the racist war on crime rhetoric of the 1990s that maligned African Americans as criminals and a threat to society, the war on terror rhetoric unashamedly treats Muslims as a fifth column worthy of surveillance, prosecution, and deportation. Thus, it came as no surprise when the National Security Agency’s surveillance of Muslim leaders, including those who had attended White House iftars, came to light.

Fed up with over a decade of mistreatment, a new generation of Muslims leaders publicly called to task the usual suspects of invitees for failing to take a more assertive and defiant approach to defending Muslim communities.

Through a sign-on petition and social media campaigns calling for a boycott of the iftar, young Muslim women and men brought to light the growing discontent with the older, primarily male, and immigrant “official” leadership by a younger, more gender diverse generation of Muslims.

Their efforts generated healthy debate about the dissatisfaction with established Muslim organisations’ inability to produce tangible results despite years of advocacy. The few organisations who have successfully worked with their counterparts in other racial and religious communities to address the root causes of rights violations were recognised for their trailblazing work.

While the post-9/11 civil rights leaders have made significant strides in laying a foundation, Muslim youth born and raised in the US are demanding bolder and more effective advocacy to counter over a decade of bipartisan discrimination.

Not unreasonably, those in the trenches advocating on behalf of a community that is reviled outright or barely tolerated by many Americans were taken aback by the backlash of criticism.

Despite its shortcomings, the current state of advocacy and community mobilisation is leagues ahead of its dismal state just after 9/11. In a community over-represented by engineers, business people and doctors, few Muslims in America at the time had the skills or training to engage with media, write persuasive op-eds, file civil rights lawsuits, and negotiate public policy at state and federal level. As a result, most Muslim American leaders today are self-taught advocates whose training is on the job in a high-stakes environment.

Prosecutors and policy makers quickly took note of the communities’ inexperience and exploited it. Indeed, I have attended meetings as an advocate where hard-hitting national security experts from the ACLU (American Civil Libertise Union), the Constitution Project, or the Brennan Center were purposely excluded, as government officials disclosed rights infringing policies.

Exploiting the fact that many Muslim leaders in the room did not have the legal expertise to fully comprehend the implications of the new policies, government officials then issued press releases announcing they had informed the Muslim communities as part of their good faith efforts in community outreach. Meanwhile, the few Muslim organisations and individuals who took a more critical stance were vilified as troublemakers or supporters of terrorism.

The controversy surrounding the White House iftar represents a broader need for more effective and creative forms of advocacy, community mobilising, and representative leadership. To start with, advocacy leaders should be selected based on their professional expertise rather than their popularity or religious piety. Legal and public policy advocacy is a profession, and a tough one at that. Likewise, more gender and age diversity at the board level would breathe fresh ideas into organisations whose significant strides in Muslim community organising are not adequately representing the new generations.

Obama’s misuse of his bully pulpit to lecture a captive audience of Muslims while disingenuously failing to acknowledge his administration’s mass surveillance of their communities warranted the uproar.  Hopefully, the event will also trigger a long overdue changing of the guard in Muslim leadership as a new generation of Muslim Americans come of age.

Sahar Aziz is associate professor at Texas A&M School of Law. She is the author of Policing Terrorists in the Community and Caught in a Preventive Dragnet: Selective Counterterrorism in a Post-9/11 America