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, and we welcome your comments below.
By Deanna Othman
I’ve always been a person who has prided myself on my voice as a Muslim American. I believe that my experiences in life have, in every sense, prepared me to be part of the generation that defines the voice of Islam and the Muslim community in America. I have always faced challenges, obstacles and tests of patience that could potentially make me abandon hope of effecting change, or that would impede me from contributing to the greater narrative of Muslims in America. Yet I never allowed myself to feel defeated — whether by forces within the community or without.
However, the recent rhetoric surrounding the Shalom-Hartman MLI trip has left me feeling despondent, dejected and utterly disappointed in the silencing, dismissal and delegitimization of my voice, not by Islamophobes or bigots, but by those within my own community.
As a Palestinian American, I was never fully cognizant of my privilege living in the diaspora. I grew up very connected to my heritage, but I was never able to visit Palestine then. I never saw being Palestinian as being in conflict with my identity as a Muslim, and instead only made it more dynamic. However, both of my identities placed me in the position to be scrutinized, judged and questioned, even in the most mundane situations.
Often feeling sidelined as a minority while becoming an adult in a post-9/11 America, I made it imperative upon myself to voice my opinions as a Muslim and a Palestinian living in America. My privilege as a Palestinian American — able to choose how I became involved in the movement, under what circumstances and to what extent, with the ability to distance myself and thereby make judgments on resistance to an occupation I had never experienced firsthand — only became glaringly apparent to me when I visited Palestine for the first time.
I had felt the repercussions of occupation reverberate through my family’s experiences and accounts, but in 2010 I visited Gaza, the birthplace of my husband, to meet both my in-laws and the land of my parents for the first time.
That trip and the experiences I gained were life-changing; paradoxically soul-crushing and uplifting.
Any description of the utter devastation, crippling effects of the siege, or the life lived under constant threat of bombardment could not give even the slightest insight into how these Palestinians live their lives. All of these elements awakened me to my privilege as a Palestinian American.
But nothing alerted me to my entitlement like the moment I prepared to leave Palestine.
I remember standing at the door of my in-laws home in the Jabaliya refugee camp, watching my husband embrace his family members, all of them crying, with the unspoken sentiment that this could be the last time some of them saw each other hanging in the air.
As I prepared to say goodbye to my sister-in-law, I broke down in tears with emotions I had never felt before. An unspeakable sense of guilt and responsibility overcame me; how could I leave them in a situation more dire then any I had ever fathomed and go back to my life of comfort, ease and luxury, in every sense of the words? How could I board an airplane, returning to a place where I had the ease of movement, the freedom of expression, the availability of any and all resources I could ever possibly need? More importantly, when I returned to all of that, what was I going to do with my experience?
After undergoing such a jarring, harrowing experience, I could not in good conscience accept people from my community normalizing relations with the oppressors of my family, lending legitimacy to the false assertions and racist ideologies of an apartheid state, simply with their presence. Even if some of those participants vocalize disapproval with such policies, there are certainly other means to achieve such ends that are respectful of those who have lost their lives, land and loved ones to the settler colonialism of Israel. I could not fathom anyone seeking to understand the Zionism from the very people who manipulate that ideology to cage my family in Gaza, leaving them prey to attacks from above and restrictions on all sides.
By this point, everyone is well aware of the objections against MLI: Its Islamophobic and Zionist funding, the breaking of BDS, etc. But the breaking of BDS, the willingness to “hear out” and “engage” with an apartheid state that has orchestrated thousands upon thousands of human rights violations and deaths, whose image is constantly whitewashed in our media, whose language of “self defense” scrubs and sanitizes its bloody actions, while Palestinians are demonized and reduced to mere targets of an “anti-terror” campaign, is plainly a betrayal of everything Palestinians hold sacred.
It is an affront to the people of Gaza, to our families, who have suffered loss of life, demolition of homes, shortage of water and electricity, and levels of posttraumatic stress that will haunt generations to come. By holding my tongue against criticism of MLI, I could never face my family again as anything short of a hypocrite.
I do not judge the intentions of those who went on this trip. I do not believe in personal attacks, name-calling or labeling. And I vehemently deny the characterization of opposition to MLI as a minority, or as people seeking to defame, slander or excommunicate members of the Muslim community. As a Muslim and a Palestinian, I will denounce actions and choices, not individuals. But I will not accept a narrative colored with the shades of an oppressor. Our voices have been marginalized enough by our occupiers.
We have heard justifications for MLI ranging from interfaith understanding to political strategy, all means to attaining greater understanding and justice, however they may define those things. However, true solidarity is not minimizing my pain in a so-called attempt to understand a vicious, racist ideology. True solidarity is not maligning my very legitimate disagreement and hurt, and portraying it as unfounded. True solidarity is not usurping my voice without my consent, and speaking and acting on my behalf as a Palestinian American. True solidarity is not you telling me how to feel.
MLI participants have insisted they do not purport to represent all Palestinians, nor do they intend to silence their voices. But by gaining a significant and very public platform to share such experiences, they inevitably end up doing just that.
You do not choose or dictate the terms of solidarity when you are not a member of the group undergoing the oppression. As a Palestinian American, I don’t choose it either; I comply with the wishes articulated by Palestinians civil society. Palestine is not a cause for Muslim Americans to experiment with alternative strategies or a varied means to the same end. The Muslim American community does not have ownership over this cause and can not dictate the rules of engagement. Our privilege as Muslim Americans blinds us to that reality.
At a time when student movements across the country are calling for divestment, with the dynamic shifting among American Jews who increasingly no longer see Zionism as compatible with their Jewish identity, and with the Presbyterian Church (USA) voting to divest from companies complicit in the occupation, it is shocking that this argument even needs to be made to some within the Muslim community.
We criticize others within our community for employing language and practices that misogynistically marginalize women or for spouting racist rhetoric within our cultures, as we rightly should. Those making such criticisms and calls for self-evaluation may be pelted with accusations of tearing the community apart. But despite this gross mischaracterization, they continue to call out individuals and organizations for such errors, because it is the right thing to do, done with the hope that they will recognize and admit their errors, and move on.
The case here is the same, despite being portrayed otherwise. Refusing to acknowledge the pain that MLI has inflicted upon Palestinians and those that support their call has proven that to some, humanizing an oppressor is more important than respecting the call of brother.
Those who have signed onto the letter at boycottmli.org are simply calling for people to acknowledge their misjudgment, apologize and move on. And even if they do not do so, to at least to respect the dissent of those who oppose their decisions without resorting to portraying themselves as victims of some angry mob with unfounded concerns, or conflating those who rationally disagree with brash internet trolls.
I never feared a day when I’d have to choose between allegiance to Muslim American organizations and leadership figures, and my responsibility to the Palestinian cause. I never envisioned a conflict between the two. I shouldn’t have to.
Deanna Othman is a Palestinian American freelance journalist from Chicago. She currently blogs for the Huffington Post, and has been published in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and the blog Mondoweiss. Deanna also serves on the executive board of the Chicago chapter of American Muslims for Palestine.