American Muslim ‘leaders’ are just waking up to the horrific consequences of a surveillance police state even as they try to curry favor with the oppressive system.
Seasons come and seasons go, each year of the post-9/11 US political calendar is marked by leaders of the US Muslim community jockeying for acceptance by the US political system. Traditionally, the White House iftar is the benchmark of such influence — if you receive an invitation from the White House to this exclusive Ramadan supper, it is taken to mean that you’ve made it, that you’re a credible card-carrying “insider.” But as the 13th anniversary of 9/11 beckons this year, a slow sea change can be noted — the first meaningful stirrings of resistance and criticism in American Muslim leadership to the US political system.
The background to this domestic tempest is the July 2014 White House iftar, which several leaders of the US Muslim community had decided to boycott. The leadership — composed of community notables, Muslim businessmen and well-heeled professionals, and heads of organizations like ISNA, CAIR, MPAC and the ADC — has been severely shaken by revelations made in the preceding months that they have been under surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA). As Faisal Gill, former serviceman in the US Navy and a community leader in Northern Virginia stated, “If somebody like me could be surveilled [sic], then [there are] other people out there I can only imagine who are under surveillance.” In protest against US abuses of power, organizations such as the Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and Muslim Advocates boycotted the iftar, even as others such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) decided to attend.
At the iftar, President Barack Obama began by congratulating several of the invited guests, noting that “they had helped the next generation share in the American Dream.” Then the meeting turned into a hostage situation, with the president appropriating the pulpit and his captive audience to turn the event into a stumping for Israel’s inhumane war on Gaza. “We’ve been very clear that Israel has the right to defend itself against what I consider to be inexcusable attacks from Hamas,” declared Obama before a shocked audience. Many of those attending left the dinner shocked. The president’s comments, “…sent a clear message that American Muslims can have a seat at the table only when they subjugate their own voices and dissent,” wrote Zeba Khan, a Muslim American writer who has been an invitee to the iftar in years past.
Many of the invitees this year were angered and humiliated — particularly as Obama had also invited the Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, to the iftar who later tweeted his approval of Obama’s comments, sparking a firestorm of protest. “@WhiteHouse for iftar dinner. Appreciate strong statement there by President Obama about Israel’s right to defend itself,” read the tweet. Palestinian American Tarik Takkesh, who was invited to this year’s iftar, wrote his thoughts about the experience in a July 18 article for Mondoweiss. “It was during the networking portion of the night that I first noticed the Israeli ambassador amongst the crowd, sitting eerily alone and reviewing the Muslim attendees like a watch guard at a security checkpoint,” he wrote. “In my shock, I wondered — would the President ever dare invite a representative from Hamas to a White House Passover Seder dinner? Or was this kind of disgrace reserved only for the American Muslim community?”
As shell-shocked as Muslim American leaders and their various groups and associations were, it seemed as if they were content at the end of the day to sweep the affair under the rug. After all, taking abuse is part of the inconveniences of seeking power, right? Perhaps next season, Obama and the rest of the US political establishment would come around. These pleasant illusions were recently dispelled by a fiery article from Tariq Ramadan tilted “Why I will not attend the ISNA (August 2014) and RIS (December 2014) conferences.” A popular staple of the Muslim American conference circuit, Ramadan directed all his celebrity star-power against the fragile egos of the organizers of mainstream Sunni and Sufi associations that have focused on developing a relationship with the US establishment at all costs. Here is a short except of the eloquently-penned article.
“Summary arrests, arbitrary prison terms, inhuman psychological torture and solitary confinement, the shadowy role of informers and the deeply troubling and unacceptable methods used by the FBI, which has provoked young people to engage in extremist actions, must be unconditionally condemned. Not in the name of Islam, but in the name of the values proclaimed by the United States. However, the ISNA leadership is too often silent, as if paralyzed by fear. It fares no better with respect to American foreign policy.
“Its [ISNA’s] silence over American support for the outlaw and inhuman policies of Israel cannot be justified, even less so after attending an iftar organized by the White House during which President Obama defended Israel while the Israeli ambassador tweeted his delight! We cannot be forever silent: what kind of active and responsible citizenship does the ISNA leadership offer young American Muslims? What kind of example? That of silent, fearful sycophants — or of free, public-spirited citizens who, while defending the values of human dignity and justice, serve their country in the most sincere and critical way? That of the unconditional loyalty of the timorous, or the critical loyalty of free individuals? To attend the ISNA convention would be to endorse their silence.”
Ramadan’s refusal to endorse the silence of the organizers of the ISNA and RIS conferences (the latter is held in Canada) has accomplished the unthinkable — he has sparked a valuable, and important debate within the Muslim American and Canadian communities about their relation with the state, citizenship, and the public domain. Psychologically castrated by fear because of the rhetoric of terrorism deployed against them like a cudgel, they are finally asking: how much is enough? What is the point of no-return on the practice of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” adopted toward the domestic and foreign policy excesses of the US government? What does it mean to be a patriotic US citizen — one who enables or supports irresponsible actions by the US government, or one who takes power by dissent?
Of course, part of the increasing willingness of the Muslim American community to directly grapple with the US government’s abuse of civil liberties is linked to a demographic change — the heads of the well-known, well-heeled organizations and associations such as ISNA tend to be first generation Muslim immigrants from countries such as Pakistan and Egypt. Cashing into the image of American Dream through their desires for economic stability and success, the first generation Muslim immigrants have clung to the status quo and have sought gradual incremental change.
The second generation Muslim Americans (and Muslim Canadians), who have been born in the US or Canada and who have a far more organic understanding of US history of racial oppressions, ethnic confrontations, and civil rights struggles, it is they who are finally questioning the tactics taken by their parents’ generation. The historic indifference of ISNA and RIS to the African American Muslim narrative is also a factor in the disenchantment of Muslims with such organizations. These slow bubbling tensions have erupted into an ethnic and demographic schism that is pitting the older, economically successful, far more frightened immigrant Muslim community with a young guard that is far more productively searching for its identity