The American Muslim community, suffering from an accumulated six years of disappointment with President Obama’s policies, is roiled by an increasingly charged debate. After the high point of the 2009 Cairo speech, the administration has angered Muslims on surveillance and civil liberties, its failures on the peace process, inaction on Syria and a general aimlessness (or worse) on the Arab Spring. Things seemed to come to a head with an attempted boycott of the White House’s annual Ramadan iftar, or breaking of the fast, with community leaders.
Muslims, lacking a strong lobbying presence in Washington, may feel particularly disadvantaged, but the dilemma is a universal one: Are changes in policy more likely to come about as a result of working “within the system,” or through a more oppositional, protest-oriented politics? In his response to the boycott calls, Rep. Keith Ellison, one of the two Muslims in Congress, looked back to the civil rights movement for guidance. “The leaders of the Montgomery Bus boycott and the United Farm Workers’ boycotts didn’t have the opportunity to speak directly to the White House about the issues affecting their communities,” Ellison said in a statement. “Boycotting was one of the few tools on the table at that time.” The iftar wasn’t just a photo-op. Attendees had the opportunity to discuss a variety of sensitive issues with Obama and his team, and several of them took full advantage. According to various accounts, the discussions appear to have been tense.
Then the iftar itself became a problem. Obama, in what seemed like a head-scratching use of a religious celebration, emphasized Israel’s right to defend itself, while offering no criticism of Israel’s disproportionate use of force. Given the setting — this wasn’t exactly a news briefing, and many attendees had already mulled a boycott — it provoked outrage throughout the Arab- and Muslim-American communities. It seemed like a deliberate slight: Either Obama knew it would anger his audience and went ahead anyway, or didn’t, and neither reflected well on the president. On Twitter and Facebook, the iftar attendees were branded as sell-outs and traitors to the cause, or, worse, “house Muslims.” Why didn’t Muslim leaders walk out to register their disapproval, many asked.
Everyone who was at the #WhiteHouseIftar should wear a scarlet “T”, for traitor. Seriously I’m baffled. — Rayan (@rayanqab) July 14, 2014
Luckily, none did. It would have been a classic act of self-destruction. Feeling morally satisfied is one thing, but it would have looked terrible to those outside the community, suggesting Muslims were unwilling to listen to, much less accept, alternative viewpoints. It would have also set a troubling precedent, especially with an administration that has been uniquely disappointing on an array of Middle East conflicts, including in Syria, Iraq and Egypt. If we started now, there would be no end to “walking out.”
Since the Arab Spring began, the Syrian regime and Egyptian authorities have been more brutal to their own people than Israel has been to Palestinians under occupation. But, of course, Palestine, in a way that the others aren’t, is the open wound of the Muslim community — and one that unites people who otherwise can’t agree on much at all. Even here, though, cracks have emerged in recent weeks. Rabia Chaudry, a fellow with the Truman National Security Project, launched the debate with an article in Time magazine that filled the Facebook pages of politically active Muslims. She had taken part in a fellowship program, funded by the Shalom Hartman Institute, which invites Muslims “to experience how Jews understand Judaism, Israel, and themselves.” Chaudry, who always saw herself as “proudly anti-Zionist,” spoke positively of the experience. “After a year,” she wrote, “we built the trust necessary for a needed exchange of admissions. The Muslim fellows understood Jewish fear and the Jews’ deep desire for a homeland after thousands of years of being a mistrusted minority.” What followed was a volley of responses, clarifications and attacks (for a taste, see here, here and here).
Chaudry and the other participants were attacked for, among other things, “breaking BDS” — the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement — by working side by side with a Zionist organization. (It wasn’t clear why American Muslims were under any obligation to respect BDS rules, if they didn’t, in fact, agree with the BDS line.) But since the overwhelming majority of Jews are “Zionists,” in that they believe Jews should have a homeland where they are a majority, a ban on dialogue with Zionists means a ban on dialogue with the very population whose agreement will be needed for any future peace. And the BDS movement will become increasingly relevant – and contentious – the more time passes without a two-state peace deal.
Yet it’s very problematic to use BDS as a litmus test for American Muslims to prove their activist bona fides. All too often, BDS goes hand-in-hand with calls for a one-state solution. For example, the original BDS demands do not include any mention of West Bank and Gaza borders or U.N. Resolution 242, long the bedrock of the two-state solution, and refer to the Israeli occupation of Palestine rather than the territories acquired through force in 1967. Dismantling the Jewish state is an example of correcting a previous wrong with another wrong (unless, of course, Israelis somehow decided, through the democratic process, to change the very nature of their state). And even if a one-state solution were “right,” it is completely impractical. There is no historical precedent for a people voluntarily merging into a new state where they become the minority.
Because the one-state option is so impractical – and Washington tries to focus on what can actually get done – it discourages engagement with government. Discussing a binational solution with even the most open-minded members of Obama’s national security team is a non-starter.
Again, it is an old debate about how change happens, and perhaps the only answer is to accept that Muslims, like any other community, can, should and will have conflicting views on any number of issues, including Palestine. But, as a believer in the importance of engaging with policymakers, I worry that the oppositional approach – strengthened by the slight of the Muslim community at the White House iftar and the slow deterioration of U.S. policy toward the region more generally – is growing ever more attractive.