Action alert

Call for immediate halt to Muslim Leadership Initiative

Dear U.S. Muslims: 

Please read this important call co-initiated by AMP Chairman Dr. Hatem Bazian, Omid Safi, Laila El-Haddad, Kamal Abu-Shamsieh, and Zareena Grewal, then take a minute to sign and then share, particularly with folks who you think may consider participating in the notorious MLI program, which has been used to drive a wedge within Muslim communities to undermine Palestinian liberation and to provide cover for apartheid Israel.

Consider this analogy: Imagine an MLI-type program that was designed to address racial tensions and understanding of police violence in the United States. MLI is akin to going to Ferguson, but not meeting with Michael Brown’s family, and instead devoting oneself to “engaging” the supporters of Officer Darren Wilson. At a time that we are seeing a proliferation of on-the-ground, social justice Muslim efforts to sit with the suffering of our fellow human beings, MLI is oddly out of touch, bypassing the suffering of our own community at a time of their ongoing bombardment.



A Principled Critique of the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI)

This is a public letter in criticism of the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), a program designed and funded by the Shalom Hartman Institute (SHI) in Jerusalem. We are American Muslims who know and have worked with MLI’s architect, Imam Abdullah Antepli. We call for an end to this program that we consider a betrayal to the Palestinian people, and a betrayal of our own highest aspiration towards the loftiest ethics of justice for American Muslims. Furthermore, we call on the previous MLI cohort participants and those invited to take part in the upcoming third cohort to suspend their participation as a moral and courageous act of solidarity with the Palestinians, and also to chart a higher ethical path for American Islam.

We are profoundly disillusioned, saddened, disturbed and violated by the MLI program and by Imam Antepli’s continued promotion of it and his unwillingness to change it even in the aftermath of months of private conversation, through and after the brutal assault on Gaza. Our discontent is rooted in a deep love for our American Muslim communities and a deep love for the people of Palestine who continue to suffer under an ongoing brutal military occupation and dispossession as they have for decades. Over the past year, we have seen how this program has fractured American Muslim communities and institutions and has mobilized selective American Muslim leaders as tools to further conceal rather than challenge the oppression of the Palestinian people.

Imam Antepli insists his critics simply do not understand the program; however, we have either participated personally in the program or spent hours discussing it directly with the participants. We, the undersigned, fully understand MLI, its goals, and its apparatus. The entire MLI language of “engagement” with Zionist power structures is done in a way that is politically naïve (at best) and dangerous (at worst). All of us who sign this letter do so with a commitment to holistic justice for all the parties involved, including Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others in both Palestine/Israel and America. Our vision of justice calls for the recognition of suffering, prior to engagement. There is tremendous suffering in Palestine, both in the occupied West Bank and under siege Gaza and in Israel proper. Over 500 Palestinian children were killed in Gaza as a result of Israel’s 2014 assault. While UN special envoy for children and armed conflict, Leila Zerrougui, referred to children’s death as “unprecedented and unacceptable” and “raises grave concerns about Israel's compliance with international humanitarian law”, MLI’s curriculum neither contains any reference to the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza nor calls for engagement to understand and alleviate their suffering.

If a goal of MLI was to appeal to the conscience of SHI participants, the program utterly failed. We abhor the statements of Rabbi Donniel Hartman, President of SHI, who offered a most strident political and moral cover for the Israeli assault on Gaza, calling them justified under “Rabbinic” values:
"I know that we are strong in the rabbinic sense, as well, which measures strength through the ability to restrain oneself from using it……I know that our society is at its core a decent and moral one and that our Army is committed to the highest standards of ethics on the battlefield… I do know that Operation Protective Edge is a just war, and as such, needs to be fought."
Hartman’s response further denied the Palestinians even the space to mourn their dead children, merely categorizing them as “a public relations success.” Imam Antepli has often justified MLI by calling it a bold process of changing hearts and minds of the Jewish community towards Muslims and thus reducing Islamophobia. If seeing the bodies of over 500 Palestinian children and a multi-year MLI “engagement” has not brought about the slightest change in this callous defense of Israeli operations, perhaps the participants and architect of MLI should pause to ponder the moral cost of collaboration with such a conversation partner. Perhaps it is time and past time to make sure that our ethical partnerships reflect our own highest aspirations.

Consider this analogy: Imagine an MLI-type program that was designed to address racial tensions and understanding of police violence in the United States. MLI is akin to going to Ferguson, but not meeting with Michael Brown’s family, and instead devoting oneself to “engaging” the supporters of Officer Darren Wilson. At a time that we are seeing a proliferation of on the ground social justice Muslim efforts to sit with the suffering of our fellow human beings, MLI is oddly out of touch, bypassing the suffering of our own community at a time of their ongoing bombardment.

To engage the occupier without sitting down in solidarity with the occupied first is politically delusional, morally misguided, and ethically callous. So many Palestinians are unable to visit their own ancestral homeland, or to go back to the very homes of their grandparents, or to freely move between the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel proper. This extraordinary dispossession, restriction, humiliation, and subjugation is not some mere pretext to MLI’s “engagement” project. It is the ongoing reality that continues to bring us pain. Yet the Palestinians continue to tell us the MLI program does not account for their suffering, reality, and experiences. Even the only Palestinian who participated in MLI saw no redemptive value in the current structure of MLI, attempted to reform it, and ultimately abandoned the organization.

Imam Antepli frequently affirmed that he will continue with this program "unless he sees any harm from it." We are here to tell Abdullah that you are harming us. Make no mistake: the MLI is one initiative that we experience as an injury, a pain, and a betrayal. MLI is now fully a part of the Hasbara Israeli propaganda operation.

We continue to insist that fundamentally the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not a religious one, but a historic political land grab mired in the context of competing nationalisms exacerbated under the stench of oppressive colonialism. To “understand” Zionism one has to understand politics, history, and context then and now. That need not be done in Jerusalem, it must not done through bypassing the voice of the Palestinian community who is the primary victim of this historical event, and it need not be done through Zionist funding and agenda.
The language of “engagement”, and the “need to be engaging powerful Jewish institutions” also betrays a fundamental moral confusion about the role of power in Islamic consciousness. Power by itself is neither positive nor negative. Our Islamic values teach that power needs to be coupled to an unflinching concern for justice; otherwise it corrupts absolutely. Prophet Moses left the court of the Pharaoh, the center of power, to gain perspective, and speak truth to power. Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was called out by Allah for merely ignoring and frowning in the face of a blind man who was interrupting his attempt to engage with the powerful chiefs of Mecca to win them over. If the prophets of God are held to this standard, are we to do any less for our own contemporaries today?
MLI betrays a concern with engaging power at the expense of justice. By seeking to understand the powerful and the occupier before they have expressed meaningful solidarity with the weak, marginalized, and the occupied the MLI program has essentially lost its moral credibility. The work that faces all of us, including combatting Islamophobia, is far too important to be handled without the strongest moral and ethical foundation.
The people of Palestine are suffering. Palestinian civil society has cried out in a show of unity, asking for a nonviolent boycott of institutional relations with Israeli institutions, including academic ones such as the Shalom Hartman Institute. In response, the Shalom Hartman Institute has stated that they have designed MLI to break this boycott. The MLI program is deliberately designed by Shalom Hartman to make Muslims more sympathetic to Zionism, and to present an anti-BDS perspective. The goal of SHI’s Muslim Leadership Initiative “is to empower an elite group of emerging and religious and intellectual leaders—including university chaplains, journalists, academics, and cultural figures—to influence the North American Muslim community in reassessing its preconceived notions of Judaism and Israel.” We the undersigned are not confused about the preconceived notions of Judaism and Israel. We are opposed to injustice, to tyranny, to occupation, to land grab, to dispossession, to humiliation, to second-class citizenship. And we do not need or want Zionist funding to help us understand this.

The BDS movement is a global peace movement, made up in large part by peace-loving American Jews critical of Israeli policies, and it has been so successful in creating support for the Palestinian cause on American campuses that American Zionist billionaire Sheldon Adelson just donated 50 million dollars to undermine it on US campuses. The MLI program is precisely the kind of programming that Zionist far right extremists in the US and Israel want to fund in order to stop the BDS movement from making any further gains. This itself should give Imam Antepli pause and we call him to retract his public statements in which he has referred to American Muslim and American Jewish BDS peace activists as part of a “fringe” movement.

The MLI program dangerously confuses Zionism for Judaism. MLI is set up as a Muslim/Jewish program at the same time that they insist it is not an “interfaith” program. The equation of Zionism with Judaism plays into the hands of those who want to silence the ever-increasing voices from within the Jewish community (Jewish Voices for Peace, Tikkun, Open Hillel, BDS etc.) who no longer wish to be silent about the atrocities of the Israeli regime, beginning with the Occupation. It pains us to hear MLI participants parrot the talking points of AIPAC and some of the most conservative, militant, and hardline Zionist organizations when these American Muslims say that peaceful Jewish voices are irrelevant and unworthy of serious engagement. We have already seen how eager national media is to depict the MLI as making Muslims more ambiguous, and more sympathetic, towards Zionism. What the world needs is not Muslims who are more ambiguous towards Zionism, but Muslims who deeply and passionately see the suffering of Palestinians, and insist on connecting the full humanity of Palestinians with the full humanity of Israeli Jews, insisting on a paradigm that guarantees equal rights and dignity for each and every single citizen of Palestine/Israel.

Writing from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King once said “there can be no great disappointment where there is not great love.” He also said. “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice.” Our hope is that Imam Antepli will finally come to see that if his own close friends and colleagues are critiquing him in public, that it is time to finally stop this program and the injury it continues to cause so many Palestinians and people of conscience who support their just cause. Imam Abdullah must pause and ponder why so many people whom he claims to admire disagree with him so passionately, and why the institution that he works for (Duke University) insists that it has absolutely no association whatsoever with MLI.

Palestinian scholar, Professor Mustafa Abu Sway, whom Abdullah Antepli has met with explicitly declared MLI a violation of BDS and an Israeli attempt to “normalize” relations. Professor Abu Sway added that if he ever receives MLI participants, it is part of his hospitality as an Arab Muslim Palestinian, and does not indicate his approval of this program. Abu Sway has also called for freezing MLI until the on the ground realities change.

Any small good that has come out of MLI could have been achieved using alternate, more morally sound, principles of solidarity that did not involve trampling on the dignity of Palestinians. It takes courage to pause, evaluate, and make amends. By ceasing with this program, you acknowledge and honor the suffering, humanity, and hopes of those who are most in pain in this ongoing tragedy, rather than marking the anniversary of the Gaza war with the trip of the third MLI cohort. We call Imam Abdullah Antepli and all MLI participants to heed the call of Palestinian civil society and be in solidarity with their call for boycott, divest and sanctions to hold Israel accountable until it complies with international law, and, at the very least, ad‘af al-iman, to stop actively undermining the peaceful efforts of Palestinians.

May all of us be participants in restoring a peace that mingles with justice in this conflict, both in Palestine/Israel, and here in the US.


Laila El-Haddad
Kamal Abu Shamsieh
Omid Safi

Sign the letter 

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