The political impotence of the Muslim American community

Today prominent Muslim American figures and organisations stifle the spirit of political resistance in our community.

Hamza Yusuf
Sheikh Hamza Yusuf speaks during a fund raising event at the Alliance Francis in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on July 2, 2015 [File: AP/Kamran Jebreili] [Daylife]

There was a time when Islam was a revolutionary force in America. Decades ago, “Muslim” was a political identity grounded in an ethos of dissent, exemplified by Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. Being Muslim meant standing up against white supremacy and global empire, whether in Alabama or Vietnam; it meant standing in solidarity with the struggles of black and brown people everywhere.

Today, many American Muslims eagerly claim the legacy of brothers Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X as their own, but lack the political courage and moral integrity by which they lived.

We have become a community without a principled political vision, impotent in the face of state oppression: the continuous FBI surveillance and entrapment and ever-expanding anti-Muslim legislation. Not only are we unable to organise on these issues, but we have also lost the common ethical ground that could unite us around a common political vision and action.

Until recently, despite the divisions within the community, the Muslim American community seemed united at least in its opposition to the Trump administration; that appeared to be the lowest common denominator of a shared American Muslim political identity. But then on July 8, Secretary of State and top Islamophobe Mike Pompeo announced the creation of a Commission on Unalienable Rights to advise the Trump administration – a serial human rights violator – on human rights. One of our most prominent leaders, Hamza Yusuf, accepted to become part of the theatrics.

This announcement marked the culmination of years of mainstream Muslim organisations and individuals promoting those among its ranks who align themselves with white supremacy, the erosion of civil liberties, and global tyranny.

Despite the outrageousness of Yusuf’s decision, many in the community still defended him. Imam Zaid Shakir, who in the past has also voiced his support for “blue lives matter” also appeared to shield him from accountability. In 2006, he and Yusuf were profiled in the New York Times as reformed troublemakers, former critics of American policies, who have now been rehabilitated into the mainstream as “good” Muslims.

In 2008, the two founded Zaytuna College, a Muslim liberal arts institution aimed at educating “students to become morally, intellectually and spiritually accomplished persons”. The college publishes a journal which is funded by the Templeton Foundation whose benefactors are known sympathisers of the ultra-conservative Tea Party. The same foundation also supports the Quilliam Foundation of UK-based self-professed “counter-extremist” Maajid Nawaz.

There have been others like Yusuf in the Muslim American community who have engaged in dubious interactions with state power. Another prominent scholar, Sherman Jackson, is a board member of the UAE-based Muslim Council of Elders. In 2015, together with other members, he attended a meeting with Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the height of his brutal crackdown on political dissent, which saw tens of thousands thrown in jail, tortured and forcefully disappeared. In 2018, the council also congratulated the Egyptian president for winning uncontested a second term in a sham election.

Jackson is also an adviser to the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) initiative of the right-wing think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, alongside former British PM Tony Blair, who stands accused of war crimes in Iraq.

Hamza Yusuf and Sherman Jackson are A-list celebrities of American Muslim subculture. Yet, when they lend credibility to white supremacy and tyranny, American Muslims refuse to hold them accountable.

There have also been prominent figures within the community who have backed the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Trump administration’s “Muslim ban” and others who have repeatedly crossed the picket line drawn by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and engaged with representatives of the Israeli occupation.

Many Muslim Americans also continue to embrace and support the US army, even when it is deployed in Muslim countries to carry out our government’s imperial ploys. To appeal to the “white gaze”, we have lionised someone like Khizr Khan  – a man whose only claim to fame is being the father of a Muslim soldier who was killed during his deployment to support the US occupation of Iraq.

This culture of political subservience and collaboration isn’t limited to a select few individuals. Prominent organisations like Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), the Ta’leef Collective, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) and others have engaged (or have tried to) with CVE programmes funded by the US government and law enforcement. The community has yet to register so much as a murmur about these organisations, despite ample studies and analysis available detailing the harm caused by CVE initiatives.

Apart from this, mainstream Muslim organisations are involved in a variety of other problematic practices. The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), which continues to enjoy much support among American Muslims, is known for condemning what it identified as “riots” in Baltimore after the police killing of Freddie Gray and starting a partnership with the Islamophobic American Jewish Committee (AJC). In 2015, months after Israel’s invasion of Gaza which killed over 2,000 Palestinians, ISNA’s president, Sayyid Syeed, notoriously attended a closed-door meeting with former Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Another example is Emgage, an organisation that claims to empower Muslim Americans through its voter registration drives, political lobbying, and campaigning, Yet its national chair, Khurrum Wahid, has gone on a trip to Israel funded by the Shalom Hartman Institute as part of a faith washing initiative known as the “Muslim Leadership Initiative” in direct violation of the Palestinian call for a boycott.

Emgage has cosponsored several events with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organisation that even Starbucks was forced to drop from its diversity training programme after activists pointed out its historic cosy relationship with law enforcement and its discrimination against black and Muslim Americans. When a corporate coffee chain holds itself to higher standards on Muslim issues than leading Muslim organisations, we have a problem.

There are far more cases of problematic practices by Muslim individuals and organisations than can be addressed here. However, even this cursory overview is enough to raise a question. What moral integrity, what political courage remains in a community whose every pillar – the intellectuals, the spiritual leaders, the political organisers, the schools, the mosques, the civil service organisations, nearly everything – is compromised?

We have hundreds of Muslims jailed across the country after facing biased pre-emptive prosecution, some for simply engaging in charity. Many of them can be considered political prisoners. How can we claim the legacy of Malcolm X who rallied thousands to demand the release of Brother Johnson within hours of his arrest, when today, we refuse to even utter the names of our political prisoners in our own mosques?

What drives American Muslims to collude with state-sponsored oppression? There are several factors, including a culture of aspirational whiteness among immigrant Muslims and a drive to gain legitimacy and insider status within hegemonic political frameworks.

Another factor is money: Institutions often struggle to raise funds and programmes like CVE offer millions of taxpayer dollars in grants. Just as the Islamophobia industry funds the careers of Islamophobic personalities and sustains Islamophobic think tanks and lobbying firms, there is a growing cottage industry that has made it lucrative for Muslim individuals and organisations to collaborate with government programmes that harm the community.

Some defend their collaboration using talking points widely discredited by academics and activists, but as American politician Upton Sinclair observed many decades ago, “It is difficult to get a man to understand  something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

In the case of scholars and imams, the answer partly lies in colonised readings of the Islamic tradition that push for political quietism and obedience to state power. As well-versed as many Muslim scholars are in aspects of the Islamic legal tradition, applying theoretical maxims to the context of modern politics without understanding its history and dynamics often leads to positions that are naive at best and in the service of oppression at their worst.

Thus, the theological approach of scholars like Hamza Yusuf not only stifles Muslim resistance efforts worldwide, but also preaches against so-called “self-victimisation”, which often descends into outlandish defences of Donald Trump and the dismissal of conversations concerning institutional oppression.

When political cowardice is the defining feature of our leaders and institutions, when a theology of obedience is the approach of our scholars, and when corporations like Starbucks take more principled stances on our issues than we do, we can be sure that we have lost the common principles that bind a community together.

When hundreds of our most vulnerable are imprisoned as part of a wider attack on us all, and, out of fear or apathy, we prefer to erase their existence, to forget their names, surely we have discarded the love that members of a community feel for one another. We have ensured that the decades-long campaign to neutralise our community is now complete.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.