The spectacular failure of American Muslim politics

The spectacular failure of American Muslim politics
The long read: American Muslim organisations would be foolish to mistake a seat at the White House iftar table as an easy alternative to community-building and activism, writes Waqas Mirza
15 min read
12 Dec, 2016
An iftar dinner with religious leaders and grassroots leaders from the Muslim American community [Getty]

This is the first in our series of 'long-read' articles exploring the themes they deal with in an in-depth and contextualised way.

After being relentlessly mocked for his untiring support of Donald Trump in the months preceding the election, Sajid Tarar, founder of American Muslims for Trump, is having the last laugh.

Since the surprising victory of Trump, Tarar says he has been receiving hundreds of messages a day from Muslims in the country. "The same community, those [who had] been challenging my religion, my nationality, background. Now they are asking me that I should become a bridge in between them and a new administration," he says.

He would like a position in the Trump administration and has expressed his interest in an interfaith or outreach role to the president-elect's team.

The Islamophobia central to Trump's campaign and which inspired attacks against American Muslims both during and after the election has done nothing to deter Tarar's fawning admiration for the president-elect.

But it does produce a sense of urgency for another Muslim Trump supporter. Saba Ahmed, founder of the Republican Muslim Coalition, believes that American Muslims need to accept Trump as their President and work to "counter" the "anti-Islamic folks" who are being given a platform by his transition team.

"The only way to get beyond this nonsense is for Muslims to get involved and defend themselves… we have to match their efforts in terms of [finances] or not be heard," she says. She, too, has been discussing a possible role within the administration with the Trump transition team.

Tarar and Ahmed's support for Trump makes them a minority among American Muslims, only 13 percent of whom voted for him according to an exit poll conducted by the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR).

It mistakes access to those in power, for influence, and eschews any serious commitment to grassroots organising

Following the election, however, their preferred strategy of collaborating with the incoming Trump administration will be dutifully emulated by a plethora of American Muslim organisations which have spent the past eight years doing much of the same under the Obama administration. The immediate reactions of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) to Trump's victory, for example, promise more of the same.

ISNA for its part, said it remained committed to "engag[ing] with the incoming Trump administration and national leadership to build bridges and engage across faith and political divisions."

It found Trump's "tone in his victory speech" encouraging and promised that it will continue to "work with Congress, the White House, government agencies and through the various conferences and conventions we organise," just as it has done "for over half a century".

MPAC apparently saw its "engagement model" vindicated by Trump's election victory, and suggested that this model is needed "now more than ever". The Council, avowed the statement, will continue to "engage all governmental and non-governmental sectors to establish common ground and defend our democracy".

It is unfortunately no surprise to find American Muslim organisations asserting the need to "engage" and find "common ground" with a repulsive bigot who is busily appointing far-right, anti-Semitic, and Islamophobicwhite nationalists to his administration.

These organisations continue to follow a fruitless strategy which sees engagement as virtue regardless of the terms on which such engagement takes place. It mistakes access to those in power, for influence, and eschews any serious commitment to grassroots organising which can create community power capable of serving as a bulwark for the most vulnerable, and influencing and pushing through policy changes.

Read More: American white supremacy rears its ugly head

Such a strategy is thoroughly lacking in any commitment to principle, seeing compromise as a necessity to reach the elusive common ground. It requires an extraordinary faith in the goodwill of government officials, whose priorities are in pursuing policies to promote the national security objectives of the United States, rather than protecting the rights and civil liberties of groups which are marginalised and stigmatised by such policies.

At times, calls to engage are tinged with disdain for those who see grassroots organising as the most effective way to hold government agencies accountable and curb their excesses. At other times, they include tepid, rhetorical calls for such outside organising to increase pressure on government agencies.

But they are always marked with a sense of resignation at the status quo which borders on fatalism. Government agencies will move forward with these policies regardless of American Muslim involvement; such tortured reasoning goes. Is it not prudent to have a seat at the table and help create policies that are beneficial for our communities?

The answer to this question, and the price of the proverbial seat at the table, has been answered numerous times over the past eight years

The answer to this question, and the price of the proverbial seat at the table, has been answered numerous times over the past eight years. It was most spectacularly evident in the humiliating fiasco of the 2014 White House iftar and the Obama administration's Orwellian Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programmes.

The boycott that wasn't

In 2014, as Israel pummeled the Gaza Strip with full backing from the Obama administration, and days after The Intercept revealed the NSA and FBI's surveillance of prominent American Muslims, a campaign was launched to boycott the annual White House iftar.

A petition warned that the dinner "represents nothing more than an attempt to whitewash state violence, absolve government institutions from taking responsibility and creating mechanisms of accountability and transparency for the civil rights violations that have been perpetrated towards Muslims and Muslim Americans, and Americans at large..."

Read More: Prevent profiteers: Companies exploit climate of fear

The petition contrasted the iftar with "other potential policy changing initiatives where community leadership successfully engages the government and influences the development of beneficial social and foreign policies".

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) released a statement recognising that while "having a seat at the table" is crucial it is only so when "that seat is intended to amplify our voice as a community, not tokenize or subdue it".

Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim member of Congress, opposed the boycott. The statement released by his office disingenuously construed the boycott as an attempt to "close Guantanamo Bay, guarantee a cease-fire between Israel and Palestine," and "undo the NSA's targeting of Muslims," only to meekly suggest that the boycott would not accomplish any of this. "If the boycott was successful and no Muslims showed up," read the statement, "then no one would talk about the issues on behalf of our community".

Joining Ellison, was Haris Tarin, the Washington Director of MPAC, who argued that attending the iftar was important because "it actually does allow us to engage with senior White House officials for a decent amount of time on substantive issues… It's not just the ceremonial thing that people talk about."

Symbolic gestures like the White House iftar are highly exploitative

The iftar itself was a humiliating ordeal. Unbeknownst to the attendees, the Obama administration invited Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer, the very representative of the government carrying out war crimes in the Gaza Strip. President Obama's remarks that evening included a defense of Israel's assault.

"Israel has the right to defend itself against what I consider to be inexcusable attacks from Hamas," said the president, toeing the Israeli narrative before telling his guests to "get back to the soup". Asked about surveillance of American Muslims, Obama defended the NSA, saying it had broken no laws.

In a statement following the iftar, MPAC said it was appalled "that the White House would take the Iftar as an opportunity to express unequivocal support for Israel" and called for "more substantive policy discussions with the administration concerning Gaza, surveillance and other issues impacting the American Muslim community".

Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer, on the other hand, appreciated the "strong statement" by President Obama on "Israel's right to defend itself".

Regardless of the Obama administration's decision to invite the Israeli ambassador or to deliver a speech whitewashing Israel's crimes in the Gaza Strip, the iftar was always going to be, as the petition promised, an opportunity for the White House to exculpate itself from its support for Israel, surveillance of American Muslims, and its many wars abroad.

Keith Ellison and Haris Tarin may have genuinely believed that the iftar was an opportunity to talk about substantive issues, but there was nothing they could tell the president that he did not already know.

The seat at the table was not in any way tantamount to influence but rather a token used to absolve the Obama administration from its policies which continue to harm Muslims

Instead, symbolic gestures like the White House iftar are highly exploitative, projecting an appearance of embracing the community to suppress concerns about policies which affect that community. The display of accommodation and acceptance relieves any pressure to take concrete steps to address concerns. The seat at the table was not in any way tantamount to influence but rather a token used to absolve the Obama administration from its policies which continue to harm Muslims.

The defense of attending the iftar was based on hollow assertions of engagement which were never likely to produce any results and mistaking access to the president for influence. In fact, the premise seems to have been that the president was simply unaware of the moral dubiousness, legal questionability and the very real harm of his policies, and that increased awareness would lead to policy changes.

President Obama, of course, was all too aware of his policies and their consequences. They were simply not a priority for his administration.

Countering Violent Extremism

The CVE summit hosted by the White House in February 2015 outlined the Obama administration's priorities towards American Muslims. The objective of the summit, according to a fact sheet released by the White House, was to "discuss concrete steps the United States and its partners can take to develop community-oriented approaches to counter hateful extremist ideologies that radicalize, recruit or incite to violence".

While CVE strategies take care to avoid focusing explicitly and exclusively on Islamist extremists, the administration's Strategic Implementation Plan made it clear that the priority was to be "preventing violent extremism and terrorism that is inspired by al-Qa'ida and its affiliates and adherents".

The display of accommodation and acceptance relieves any pressure to take concrete steps to address concerns.

American Muslims had their role to play in these programmes, exhorted the President, telling prominent community members to "do more to distance themselves from brutal ideologies". Muslim leaders, continued the President, "need to do more to discredit the notion that our nations are determined to suppress Islam". This was a difficult conversation to have, admitted Obama, but nonetheless one he wanted to have "honestly and clearly".

This honest conversation did not apparently involve pointing out the irony of President Obama asking American Muslims to discredit the idea that the United States was "determined to suppress Islam" while promoting a programme effectively aimed at policing and surveilling American Muslim communities. A few civil rights and community groups lodged complaints, including the ADC and CAIR, detailing their concerns with the programme.

These groups rightly objected to the programme for stigmatising American Muslims as "inherently suspect," relying on discredited models of radicalisation, securitising relationships between American Muslims and government agencies and focusing almost exclusively on Muslims creating a climate of fear through community surveillance. This in turn stifles dissent and political expression and enables hate crime by private actors, as well as the handpicking of religious and community leaders to fund and collaborate with.

Read More: Hypervigilance in a time of terror: Counting the cost

They also pointed out the disturbing frequency with which past law enforcement community outreach programs had turned out to be intelligence gathering operations, making any "mutual trust" difficult, if not impossible. CVE itself - these groups could have added - was an attempt to counter "violent extremism" by dissociating it from US policies which continually produce such violent extremism.

The expectation that American Muslims would unify in opposing such a harmful and counterproductive programme targeting their community would have been reasonable but misplaced. Rabia Chaudry, president of a CVE training firm, wrote that "a core aspect" of the strategy "is empowering and partnering with local Muslim communities," if one considers collaborating with law enforcement agencies to snitch on community members based on dubious notions of radicalisation as somehow empowering.

Ali Jakvani, a delegate to the summit from Los Angeles, tried to dispel the myth that there will be "new programmes". In fact, he suggested, "we as a community want to push surveillance programmes out of our mosques and replace them with partnership programmes led by the community, not the government".

American Muslims being deputised as agents of the state to carry out surveillance of community members for law enforcement agencies is apparently the progressive alternative to law enforcement surveillance

American Muslims being deputised as agents of the state to carry out surveillance of community members for law enforcement agencies is apparently the progressive alternative to law enforcement surveillance.

MPAC asserted the need for American Muslims to "take on a leadership role in confronting and countering violent extremism" and make CVE "more effective and constitutional," as if there was a threshold of unconstitutionality that the programme had not yet crossed.

MPAC has been long vying for this leadership role, having already devised its own CVE strategy which received praise from Vice-President Joe Biden and widespread criticism from American Muslims.

Wajahat Ali, a writer and State Department consultant, justified working with the government on CVE, remarking that "the government is going to move forward with CVE and CT [counter-terror] measures" regardless of American Muslim involvement.

He admitted that this "sucks" and "doesn't mean you accept it wholesale". Nonetheless, he argued, "you have to accept that this is the current and foreseeable [sic] reality" and it is "wiser to have some people on the inside trying to create more helpful, sane and beneficial policy". Being a participant, Ali concluded, is better than being a mere spectator.

It is worth considering exactly how CVE programmes have proceeded and exactly what "people on the inside" have accomplished so far.

The FBI's 'Don't Be a Puppet' strategy is aiming to recruit teachers as informants to monitor their students for supposed vulnerabilities to violent extremism. This is part of a broader drive to integrate high schools across the country into CVE in order to report students who criticise government policies or travel to "suspicious" countries.

The programme is modeled after UK's Prevent strategy which was recently denounced in a report by Rights Watch UK. The programme, effects of which will now be felt in schools in the United States, "stigmatises Muslim students, stifles creativity and free expression, interferes with the right to education, undermines privacy and may actually promote the very extremism it seeks to curb," concluded the report.

Recently, federal government agencies have begun to incorporate anti-bullying initiatives into CVE, raising fears that it will "put children at greater risk of being funneled into the prison system or suffering mistreatment themselves".

Mental health professionals are also being asked "intervene and prevent" their patients from turning to violent extremism, with scant attention paid to the effects this has on the necessary trust and confidentiality between doctors and patients.

Rejecting the offer of either being participants or spectators, they have preferred to resist the targeting of their community

The evidence from the UK is again damning. As one GP writes, the programme "risks turning doctors into counter-terrorism agents" and "destroying" the trust that is "the cornerstone of the doctor-patient relationship". Doctors are seen as "agents of the state, ready to act… on our conscious or unconscious biases, and report our patients for 'extremism' to the authorities".

In Montgomery County, Maryland, more than 25 people had been identified as "may be at risk of violent extremism" for "homesickness, suffering from 'acculturation related stress, feelings of alienation,' and having 'economic stressors in their family'" as part of the World Organization for Resource Development and Education's (WORDE) community-led CVE programme.

WORDE's programme is also led by the local police department which has publicly stated that it sees the partnership as a way to "gather information on security threats". Local community members seem to have internalised the destructive "see something, say something" mentality advocated by such stalwarts of civil liberties as the Department of Homeland Security and FBI.

If these are some of the benefits of having "people on the inside" then perhaps it is time to contemplate alternative strategies.

Thankfully, Somali American organisations like Minnesotans Against Islamophobia have not waited for any such benefits but instead have focused on organising and mobilising their members against CVE.

Rejecting the offer of either being participants or spectators, they have preferred to resist the targeting of their community, despite facing intimidation from the FBI that "people on the inside" were evidently unable to prevent.

In fact, these activists have repeatedly come up against those on the inside who are being used to project them as troublemakers attempting to spoil a unique opportunity for American Muslims and government agencies coming together to solve a problem.

The failure of insider influence

It is no surprise that Muslim supporters of Donald Trump such as Sajid Tarar and Saba Ahmed, along with organisations such as MPAC, are advocating engagement with the incoming administration.

The profound and spectacular failure of engaging with the government on any terms, and working with and within government agencies to influence rather than oppose programs targeting American Muslim communities, should compel us to pursue alternative strategies.

Trump's administration will likely be devastating for American Muslims. It is futile to invite the president-elect to the Muslim American Inaugural Gala and Golden Minaret Awards, as a recent letter by a "cross section" of self-proclaimed community leaders did.

There can be no accommodation or compromise with those seeking to strip our communities of their rights and liberties

There can be no accommodation or compromise with those seeking to strip our communities of their rights and liberties.

There are lessons to be learned from the successes of other movements. The "tipping point" for LGBT rights that President Obama presided over, for example, was only made possible by "a group of people who were deemed unreasonable because they refused to engage the political system in accepted and ordinary ways".

Large scale protests and aggressive pressure on the administration (made possible by years of organising), succeeded where "Beltway's Democratic establishment and even many of its LGBT institutions" had failed. Scornful of the "Washington-insider notion that access means influence," LGBT communities developed "an outside strategy that openly challenged the White House".

It is easy to romanticise outside resistance and the temptation must be resisted, for it obscures the constant and often thankless organising that makes it possible.

Still, in the age of Donald Trump, it is more necessary than ever to build independent community power that is capable of exerting political influence. Donning a suit and tie and dining with government officials will no longer do, if it ever did.  

Waqas Mirza is a writer and activist based in Massachusetts. His work focuses on US foreign policy, War on Terror, Islamophobia, surveillance, policing and development.

Follow him on Twitter: @waqasahmi

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.