Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI): Love Me or Hate Me

Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI): Love Me or Hate Me January 29, 2015

photo courtesy of wikimedia commons
photo courtesy of wikimedia commons

The Muslim Leadership Initiative, sponsored by the Shalom Hartman Institute, has been a topic of great controversy in the American Muslim community and beyond. Altmuslim is publishing a few perspectives this week, and we welcome your comments below.

By Samar Kaukab

Here is a fact: most Americans, and even many American Muslims, have never heard of the Muslim Leadership Institute (MLI).

Co-founded by Imam Abdullah Antepli, Chief Representative of Muslim Affairs at Duke University, and by the Shalom Hartman Institute, a leading academic institution based in Israel and New York, MLI is a year long academically oriented program that invites religious and intellectual leaders within the American Muslim community to “expand their critical understanding of the complex religious, political, and socioeconomic issues facing people in Israel and Palestine.”

Yet, in certain subsets of the Muslim internet, MLI has become the tempest in a teapot issue de jour. Opinions and stances about the program vary widely. At the far ends of the spectrum, reaction has ranged from unrestrained personal affront, worrisome threats, and demonization of participants in the program on one end, to unbridled support as a defense mechanism that is devoid of sufficient empathy and a rigorous analysis of incoming critique on the other.

Anchor principles

Disregarding the concerning reactions on either of these ends for a moment, the heart of the debate lies around issues concerning strategy (single or multi-pronged?), tactics (Does BDS necessitate broad and complete compliance on each front? Is institutional engagement even effective if it occurs in neutral spaces?); and, representation (Palestinian autonomy, group decision-making process, and leadership choices).

Despite the wide distribution of ideas with respect to actual strategies and tactics, what might be most important to note is what is not up for debate: That most American Muslims, if not all, who are approaching the MLI conversation are rooted firmly in the anchoring principle that for decades the Palestinian people have suffered gross human rights violations and oppressive treatment at the hand of American and Israeli policies, current and past. It is this shared principle and a desire to change associated outcomes that should place us all on the same side of this issue broadly.

It is also important to recognize that despite what we might be seeing in actual practice with respect to how “teams” are being formed in reaction to the MLI program, tactics and strategies are not in of themselves guiding principles. More concretely, they are too narrow to be significant markers of large group identity.

Echo Chambers of Like-Mindedness

Consensus is a funny thing to impose on complexity. As a general principle, enforcing broad uniformity on complicated, often politically-charged issues is not only ill advised, but in a healthy, vibrant society, it’s nearly impossible. Despite this maxim, echo chambers, or enclosed systems in which beliefs are repeatedly amplified until they become “cultural facts,” necessitate the exact opposite.

In its most pristine conception, the Internet was intended to exist as a democratizing medium for the dissemination of information. Yet, in our efforts to tame the vast amount of data available on the Internet and remove that which we do not like, we have inevitably curated ourselves into deep wells of like-mindedness. Forget the Middle East, democracy dies every single day in online echo chambers in Chicago, New York, Dallas and the world over.

This is deeply problematic because, for many of us, our primary – if not only – source for information, news and analysis is through our online social media feeds. What’s worse is that as our interactions with others progressively occur online, these online echo chambers increasingly become the only environment in which our ideas are formulated, tested, processed and confirmed. Put more simply, we consume information and form opinions vis-a-vis memes, which may work for captioned kitten pictures but not so much for complexity laden issues of social justice, foreign policy and social identity.

Perhaps most disturbingly, this self-defeating reinforcement of moral sameness — these echo chambers — have become a strategy for winning arguments and the “hearts and minds” of our communities. Meme culture even penetrates into the way we react to instances of more nuanced critique. When we are presented with in-depth analysis of these issues, our online reactions often tend towards using these instances as tools of confirmation for already existing slogans and stances. Thus, any quest for nuance is completely lost as we gladiator-style cheer on those who agree with us and horridly denigrate those with opposing viewpoints.

This echo chamber effect can be vividly seen in many of the reactions to MLI in recent weeks. For instance, in the past few days a petition has been circulating to American Muslim religious leaders demanding that supporters “refuse any and all assistance to those seeking to break the Muslim Community’s solidarity with the oppressed.” Not only are such jargon-heavy responses offensively overbroad and vague, they demand solidarity and bright lines without sufficient explication, nuance, or clarity. In other words, who’s in and who’s out? And does it even matter who gets outed under this approach?

What then gets lost in making sport out of enforcing consensus around specific strategies and tactics? With a lack of exposure to divergent viewpoints from trusted and credible sources, we kill any opportunity for creativity, innovation and successful risk-taking in our ideas and approaches. At best, we deny the complexity of human experience. At worst, we cannibalize our young – as our brightest, our most energetic, and passionate advocates become Internet-era collateral damage.

In an age where the lines between public and private are blurry, we watch as our own neighbors and friends are personally attacked and demonized, not based on their ideas about tactics but because they have them. While there have been a few important articles written recently that bring an honest and needed critique to the MLI program, all too often the sharing of these pieces is prefaced with personal disappointment and judgment of the individuals involved, not simply their ideas.

Demoralized by the inappropriate and unreasonably personal nature of such critiques on one end and a lack of sufficient empathy on the other, a fresh crop of leaders, activists, and thinkers inevitably become lost, disengaged, and bogged down by slogans and vague threats of exclusion conceived in echo chambers.

What is Actually Interesting about MLI

In many ways, if one evaluates the near-term implications of this program — whether the MLI program is enhancing individual capacity to effectively engage Israeli institutions and mainstream viewpoints, or whether it is problematically funded in a way that threatens the success of the BDS movement — is not what is most interesting about the program’s short-term impacts upon the community.

What is actually interesting is what these reactions demonstrate about our community’s vulnerability to groupthink. It has been nothing short of fascinating to witness the ease with which unifying principles are tossed out the window in order to enforce consensus instead around highly discrete tactics and action steps. What results is a sort of rationalized conformity that finds strategies and tactics to not only be expedient and necessary, but to also be good, right, and encompass the very definition of moral.

In other words, our shared vision is no longer rooted in broad universal maxims or philosophies. Instead, our shared values are derived from “next steps” on an action plan. This sort of thinking within a social group leads to groupthink as seeking consensus overrides any desire to realistically assess alternate courses of action.

Love Begets Hate

Disagreement and passionate arguments on either side of a discussion on strategy are healthy. This is rooted in love for one’s community and a desire for better outcomes. What isn’t healthy is when love for one’s community dangerously permits hate of our own people.

In fact, recent neuroscience research informs us that hate can be triggered from love. According to Nicholas Epley, Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business in his recent book, Mindwise, hatred toward an “out group” is typically developed when individuals within an “in group” are feeling threatened. This occurs to the extent that people are even willing to put their lives on the line in their attempts to save someone who is a member of their “in group.” So in effect, the tightest of group bonds can instigate the highest levels of hatred and animosity towards others. In other words, it is love that begets hate.

Why is that important? It is important to understand that none of the participants in the MLI debate are coming from dispassionate places. In fact, each one of us is coming from a place of love — love for our community and love for our people. The issue, perhaps then, is not our intentions. Rather, the issue quickly spreads to the question of who is it that we consider to be in our “in group”? Who is it that is permitted to be on our team?

Perhaps more poignantly, unpack the who’s who of the “in team” and the “out team” in this particular situation and you will soon find people who have known each other intimately for years now outing and vilifying each other as it relates to the MLI program. Here too, love rapidly begets hate.

Saying “We are on the same team” is Not a Diversion Technique.

The truth is the world and the issues we care about, including the fate of the Palestinian people and the brutal, horrific reality of the Israeli Occupation is terrifying, uncertain and full of trauma, anxiety and layers and layers of complexity. The broader American Muslim community is big, with a vast well of human experience. We are diverse, we have many super- and sub-identities. And, even within those sub-groups, we each are different.

Despite these important differences, our core group identity – being an America Muslim in 2015 – and our shared principles do not get displaced, barring of course, significant, catalytic events. And yet, we have become so comfortable at subtly outing others from this very identity in the interest of protecting our sub-interests.

For instance, as American Muslims — we are collectively pained and horrified by the plight of the Palestinian people and the real impacts that have resulted from American and Israeli foreign policy decisions. As our more specific identities come into the purview, they shape and refine our views and opinions. Recognizing our vantage point and bringing with us our own experiences, we may then each diverge about how to process this information, how to develop strategy and how to make decisions about what it is that we will do with the information that we each receive. For an issue that is arguably anything but localized, this is important and healthy.

What bears to be repeated is that it is not healthy or helpful to “out-team” those who belong to our broad social group based on their particular stances or backgrounds. Yes, Palestinian voices absolutely should be heard and their voices processed as they lead the way in the struggle for justice. Yet, there is strength in adding diversity and disruption to our collective thought processes.

We can and should disagree with each other. Vehement disagreement is healthy. Vicious, personalized disagreement and disappointment is not. To put it bluntly, we cannot take the people we belong to and throw them to the curb while saying, “You belong to a different team; you are not like me.”

It also bears repeating that there is nothing wrong with attaching oneself to parallel and sub-identities. However, what also matters is that we affirmatively identify American Muslim as a social group that we each belong to. For any number of reasons in 2015 America, being an American Muslim has to mean something. As for what that is, there is still much work needed on formulating what exactly our shared, broad anchor principles are.

In the meantime and drawing upon our faith-obligated pursuit for justice, I think it is safe to say that we likely have agreement that the oppressive treatment of the Palestinian people that is a direct consequence of both American and Israeli policies should be on that list along with other high-level concepts, both domestic and global in nature.

So now, as we confront our successes and failures on this issue, and, as we diverge on strategies, tactics, and next steps – let us disagree with each other, let us debate each other, let us push and pull each other, but let us not make the horrible mistake of saying, you, and you and you, belong on another team. That would be a tragedy. That would be mindless.

As the Managing Director of Arete at the University of Chicago, Samar Kaukab works with leading faculty and University leadership to develop UChicago’s large-scale research strategy and launch complex initiatives that enhance the University’s research enterprise. She is also Mama to three little Wild Things.

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