On Tuesday, I was disinvited from the 55th annual conference of the Islamic Society of North America, which proclaims itself one of the leading American Muslim organizations. My crimes? Talking to Zionists, writing an article about it, and thanking God for a bowel movement.
In a one-page letter, the program committee chair wrote that “our Muslim speakers” are “expected to support broadly our values,” including “our community’s support for the Palestinian people of all faith traditions, in their struggle against occupation and dispossession.” He added that he found my “recent work … troubling.” He also objected to my “continued use of language referencing Allah in manners not befitting His Majesty, whether in jest or otherwise.”
The proximate trigger for the letter appears to have been my story in The Atlantic’s June issue, “A Muslim Among the Settlers.” But it marks the culmination of a years-long campaign by some online activists and religious leaders to limit the range of voices at such events.
The controversy stems from my involvement with the Shalom Hartman Institute and its Muslim Leadership Initiative—a program that promotes engagement between American Muslims and Jewish scholars, both in Israel and in New York City, to learn how diverse Jewish communities debate and discuss Israel, Zionism, and Judaism.
I am neither a Zionist nor a supporter of Israel’s occupation. Neither am I an agent of Mossad and the CIA forged in a Tel Aviv lab and sent to infiltrate and destroy American Muslim communities—although that would be an awesome plot for a TV show.
But that has not kept these activists from pushing organizations to disinvite me, and other MLI participants, from communal events. They use words like ban, stop, marginalize, and remove. Their boycott has been largely unsuccessful, but I give credit where it’s due: They successfully had me disinvited from a CAIR-NYC function last year. (In fact, my presence caused CAIR-NYC to cancel the entire program, a Thanos-level act of destruction.) And I’m not alone. Rabia Chaudry, of Serial podcast fame, had a “Top Muslim Achievers” award rescinded in Chicago, and she was recently disinvited by Harvard’s Islamic Society.
Just last week, some activists tried to have me disinvited from Northwestern University, where I gave a speech about Ramadan. A few months ago in Austin, three young students passed out some leaflets at an ISNA fundraiser where I was speaking with some false, interesting, and amusing accusations about me and MLI. Most audience members had no idea what MLI was. They enjoyed the speech, thanked me for coming, and we all devoured a tasty halal Pakistani dinner together. That was one of three regional fundraisers for the ISNA at which I’ve spoken in the past year alone.
But now, it seems, things have changed.
Activists have ripped statements from their context to provide pretexts for their campaign of exclusion. In October, after a violent Muslim extremist rammed a car through a crowd in New York while yelling “Allahu Akbar,” I took to Twitter to explain how a phrase many Americans associate exclusively with terror is actually an integral part of ordinary Muslim life. In one of my many tweets, I wrote, “I’ve said Allahu Akbar after taking giant dumps.”
I stand by the tweet because there is literally a prayer of thanks both before and after you enter the restroom, because it was important to explain to an audience unfamiliar with or afraid of the phrase that Muslims use it as a way of saying thanks and also in prayer, and, well, because it’s true.
But people spent days debating this tweet. It was the main topic of conversation in various Muslim WhatsApp groups. Various American Muslim leaders were obsessed with what I had written. They demanded and commanded that I remove the tweet; some resorted to threats. Meanwhile, Trump was engaging in anti-Muslim bigotry, promoting his Muslim ban, and recommending an end to the diversity-visa lottery program.
In The Atlantic piece, I wrote: “Throughout the trip and afterward, I kept asking: Is this land worth all the pain and suffering and bloodshed? I couldn’t ask God, because I’m convinced that he’s now an absentee landowner. He sold Abraham’s children a lemon.”
Thankfully, the majority of those who read that line realized I was using figurative language. But those who would excommunicate me found in this, as in the earlier tweet, evidence of kufr—disbelief. I am a practicing Muslim who prays, fasts, just completed the Hajj, and believes in God. If the great Muslim poets Rumi and Hafiz were alive today and writing verses, these people would destroy them. Literalism, like political absolutism, has become a disease in our communities.
But even taking its claims at face value, the ISNA’s letter leaves me with a long list of troubling questions. It claims that other than “creed,” there is “perhaps nothing more exemplary and unifying than our community’s support for the Palestinian people.” The organization supports a two-state solution, but many Muslims are pushing for a one-state solution. Some Muslims support recognition of the state of Israel, others adamantly oppose it. How can the ISNA’s “unifying” position—whatever it is—represent the diverse viewpoints of 1.7 billion Muslims?
Second, why does the issue of Palestine stand alone next to “creed”? Does that mean Palestine is a religious issue, and not a purely political question as many activists and academics have long insisted? Why is this issue more important than, say, the genocide of Rohingya? The conflict in Kashmir? The plight of the Uyghurs in China? The massacre of innocents in Syria? Do these issues not rise to similar importance?
What happens if people disagree? Are they going against the “creed,” and is that in some way un-Islamic?
The ISNA says its Muslim speakers are expected to “support broadly their values as a unifying Islamic organization.” What values, specifically? What happens if someone simply disagrees with them, or has a different interpretation of these values?
If engaging with Zionist Jews is disqualifying, then how does the ISNA reconcile its own interfaith and civic-engagement work with many self-described Zionist Jews? What is the ISNA’s institutional position on working with Jews who self-identify as Zionists?
If my own recent language referencing Allah is not “befitting His Majesty, whether in jest or otherwise” and “is troubling,” and causes “conflict with [the ISNA’s] principles and potentially harms the purposes for which [the ISNA] exists,” then how does it reconcile the use of language and God and religion by some invited speakers that attacks women, Shia, minorities, and the LGBTQ communities?
How does it reconcile inviting representatives of the Turkish government and supporting President Erdogan, when his administration has jailed so many journalists? Why is there no conflict with leaders and speakers working actively with Saudi Arabia, which is currently bombarding Yemen, or with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, countries which have very dubious track-records on human rights and women’s rights?
It’s the prerogative of any organization to define its boundaries. But organizations, especially those that claim to be representing the unified voice of millions of American Muslims, need to have transparent standards and to apply them consistently. We should be consistent in expressing our values and principles across the board, not when it suits our needs, politics, ticket sales, or likes and shares on social media.
I told the ISNA’s leadership to do what they need to do for the sake of their organization—but I believe they are making a long-term mistake for a short-term fix. Most people don’t care. They will come to the conference, spend $6 for an overpriced samosa, try to find a spouse for their kid, and attend a few lectures in between. If the ISNA’s leaders cave to the bullies, they will only feed the growing trend of toxic absolutism. Sooner or later, it will be turned against them, as well.
Instead, I offered a different approach. The ISNA is a pluralistic body that convenes diverse Muslims—why not embrace those values? Instead of canceling my appearance, it could host a debate: “Should We Engage With Zionist Jews?” or perhaps, “Is Wajahat Ali a Kafr?” I even offered to make popcorn and sit quietly in the audience. Why not seize the opportunity to model respectful debate and conversation around controversial topics within the Muslim community?
I still have the popcorn; the offer stands.