We Must Challenge Our Leadership - On Both Sides

Shamil Idriss

bismillah.jpg
In the name of God, the most Compassionate, the most Merciful.

"The USA will never turn its back on Israel"
former Senior American diplomat

"We will not dialogue with the Jews"
Senior Islamic religious scholar

These remarks, made on opening night of a recent major gathering of American and Islamic leaders in Doha, Qatar indicate both the need for more such encounters, and the significant obstacles that stand in the path of their success. What such comments should do, is compel Muslim Americans to take a greater lead in reconciling the two communities of which we are a part.

Political and religious leadership in both the U.S. and in the Muslim world needs an attitude shift.

Political and religious leadership in both the U.S. and in the Muslim world needs an attitude shift.

For many participants in the meeting co-organized by the government of Qatar and the Brookings Institution, the comments crystallize a core frustration of Islamic-American dialogues today: among the current political and religious leadership, neither is much interested in discussing the issues that are of primary importance to the other.

Predictably, the Doha meeting opened with Muslim leaders placing front and center the need for the US to play a more active and even-handed role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The American reaction, provided by a former senior American diplomat, was blunt: “The US will never turn its back on Israel” followed by an appeal that conference participants turn their focus to areas of potential Islamic-American cooperation, such as the global AIDS crisis.

It did not matter that no one had asked that the US turn its back on Israel. The American message was clear: the issue that many Muslims most wanted to discuss was off the table. The diplomat could have acknowledged how important that issue is, and appealed for participants to discuss other issues as well. He could have acknowledged that there is reason for Muslims to be upset over American policy, even while admitting that such policy is unlikely to change due to U.S. domestic politics, especially in an election year. Instead, what he said was heard as, “Forget it - your concerns have been heard a million times and we?re tired of them - let?s discuss AIDS.”

The result was predictable. Even those Muslims who did not want to spend three days talking about Israel-Palestine - who only wanted the issue to be raised and registered - would now hammer it home for the rest of the meeting, because the Americans clearly didn?t get it.

Muslim Americans are accustomed to such interactions, but what is remains baffling to many of us is that the same topics that are off-limits for discussion in the U.S. get a much fuller hearing in Israel itself. Compare the articles and opinion pieces in Israel?s major daily newspapers to those in the U.S. The narrowness of views that get a hearing in the major American media would lead you to think that the U.S. has a greater stake in maintaining the occupation than do the Israelis.

In the past few months, Israel?s Army chief of staff and four former directors of Israel?s internal security service, the Shin Bet, have denounced Israeli policy in the occupied territories. Hardly peaceniks operating on the fringes of society, these critics have said publicly that Israel?s approach to Palestinians is not meant to enhance security, but to humiliate the Palestinians. Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has stated what all Israelis increasingly realize: given the demographic realities west of the Jordan River, continued occupation of Palestinian land puts the future of the Israeli state at risk - finding a different solution must become a priority. Meanwhile in the U.S. hardly anyone of prominence will even entertain the discussion and now, it appears, some won?t even do it when meeting Muslim leaders abroad.

The interventions of some Muslim leaders on opening night in Doha were no more encouraging. When asked whether Muslim intellectuals might engage in interfaith dialogue, the most prominent Muslim religious scholar present responded, “We will not dialogue with the Jews”, ostensibly until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved.

Each bears considerable responsibility for a state of Islamic-American relations that is terrible and getting worse.

Each bears considerable responsibility for a state of Islamic-American relations that is terrible and getting worse.

I wondered, “Does that mean you won?t dialogue with Jews or with Israelis?” Clearly he said Jews. “What about the prominent Jews who just called on the Israeli government to reform its policies vis-?-vis the Palestinians?” “What about the Jewish human rights activists who have spent decades documenting abuses and advocating on behalf of Palestinians?” “What about the Jews who act as human shields, risking their lives to protect Palestinians in the territories?” In short, what about Jews who have done at least as much to help Palestinians than practically every Muslim and Arab present at the Doha meeting, including the religious scholar himself?

Is this the best that our religious leadership has to offer? The Quran commands us to make peace with the People of the Book - Christians and Jews - while seeking justice. We expect our religious scholars to lead us in this effort - to provide guidance in our spiritual renewal and help us to rise above hatred of others.

Like the taboo on criticizing Israeli policies in the U.S., the inadequacy of current Islamic leadership is not a new frustration for Muslim Americans. While looking to the foreign homes of many of our ancestors - the Arab and broader Islamic world - for spiritual guidance, we are often disappointed. We are faced with religious leaders who are more comfortable stating what they won?t do, what we as Muslims shouldn?t do, and what everyone else must do. We are faced with too many who seem unable to reject unequivocally the murder of innocent civilians, no matter how just the cause. In the end, we are faced with one choice, driven home to me by an Egyptian scholar on the last day of the Doha meeting: “Forget about getting your religious leadership from this region - cultivate your own Islamic scholarship and leadership in the U.S.”

Of course, for Muslim Americans, such a thing does exist, or at least it did decades ago - in the person of Malcolm X. On an Ivy League college campus in the early 1960s, Malcolm X was confronted by a young white student who, expressing admiration for him asked, “What can I do to help you?” At the time, Malcolm X viewed whites as completely untrustworthy - harmless at best, dangerous at worst. Brushing by her rudely he responded, “Nothing”. Like today’s religious scholar, his message was, “We will not dialogue with the Whites”.

As an older, wiser man, Malcolm X reflected with regret on that experience. He wished he had told her to help by getting to work in her own community - she had access there and could make a difference there that he could not.

As Muslim Americans, we can take a lesson from Malcolm X and work on our own communities. Both of them. Political and religious leadership in both the U.S. and in the Muslim world needs an attitude shift. Neither seems capable of serious self-reflection, despite the fact that each bears considerable responsibility for the predicament in which we now find ourselves: a state of Islamic-American relations that is terrible and getting worse.

As Muslim Americans, we should get to work on both, and get to work fast.


Published Monday, February 9th, 2004 - 04:37pm GMT

Shamil Idriss is Chief Operating Officer of Search for Common Ground, an international conflict resolution organization.

Article courtesy of Dar al-Hayat

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Shamil Idriss



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