Almost twenty years ago at a Muslim conference in Washington DC, I heard the distressing argument that Palestine should not be a central topic on the American Muslim political agenda. That point, which took many by surprise, was enunciated by a young American Pakistani Muslim academic, whose name is not important for my purpose here.
What I found reassuring, however, was that almost everyone at the gathering shook their head in disagreement. The young academic was obviously an intellectual pariah. It was clear that Muslims, at least those at that specific conference, would not be abandoning their advocacy for Palestinian freedom in a hurry.
A few months later, the 11 September attacks took place, opening a Pandora’s Box of violence, racism, orientalism and Islamophobia. The results have been felt ever since.
A less discussed portion of the US war on Islam and Muslims over the past twenty years is the systematic and centralised attempt at breaking down American Muslim society. The same can, of course, be said of the anti-Muslim sentiment that has flourished in Europe during the West’s wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, and other Muslim countries.
American Muslims have since been forced to make bleak choices to avoid media demonisation and government persecution. Some choose to toe the line; to become an advocate of the very colonial, savage powers that were unleashed against Muslims around the world, killing, torturing, imprisoning and sanctioning with no regard whatsoever for the international laws and conventions that the West itself had fashioned following World War Two.
Hamza Yusuf, formally known as Mark Hanson, was and perhaps remains the best example of the so-called “pet Muslim”, as he became known due to his collaboration with the George W Bush regime during America’s genocidal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He and his kind became immensely crucial to American-Western designs in Muslim countries, being the ideal amalgamation between the “native informer” — as a supposedly learned Muslim, although from a white, Christian background — and the typical orientalist, the Western scholar who can be trusted to decipher and dissect the Muslim “Orient” to the colonialist West.
According to the Guardian newspaper, Yusuf once told Muslim political dissidents, “If you hate the West, emigrate to a Muslim country.” He thus displayed the same racist sentiment often lobbed by far-right chauvinists at anyone who dares question government policies on war, immigration or anything else. The same sentiment was repeated by US President Donald Trump when he tweeted last July, “In America, if you hate our Country, you are free to leave.”
According to the infinite wisdom of Yusuf and Trump, you can only earn the right to be a bona fide citizen if you fully abandon your democratic right to disagree with the government’s policies. In Yusuf’s shameful thinking, apparently, it also follows that a Muslim can never truly be a permanent citizen in any Western polity, which is a sentiment embraced by the neo-fascist movements that are currently plaguing Europe.
It should have come as no surprise, then, that when US Secretary of State and well-known anti-Muslim bigot Mike Pompeo announced the formation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights — another platform for political and religious prejudices targeting Trump’s enemies around the world — Hamza Yusuf was immediately handpicked to be a member.
The problem, however, is bigger than a single orientalist. It has become clear that the terrible consequences of 9/11 — the bloody wars that followed, and the tragic but predictable backlash of anti-Western militancy in the US, Europe and elsewhere — have, sadly, emasculated mainstream Muslim discourse in Western countries, especially in the US.
Once upon a time, every Friday, hundreds of Imams in American mosques would preach solidarity with Palestine, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Chechnya and so on. Money would be raised for various organisations that provided humanitarian aid for victims of wars throughout the Muslim world. Unity around the issue of Palestine seemed to bring millions of Muslims together despite their vastly different cultures, classes and even their very own interpretations of Islam itself.
The direct result of the 11 September attacks, the so-called “war on terror”, has changed all of that, imposing a new paradigm and a stark choice on Muslim communities all across the US. The shutting down of the Holy Land Foundation and imprisoning of its officials because of its support for Palestinian and other victims of Israeli violence, was only the tip of the iceberg. The bank accounts of many Muslim charities and organisations were seized, while hundreds, if not thousands of well-educated and outspoken Muslim intellectuals were either detained, deported, fired from their jobs or forced into silence by other means.
Sadly, it was the dawn of a new and tragic era where the self-loathing, self-seeking and opportunistic Muslim intellectual peddlers reigned supreme. It is through this compromising and compromised bunch that Western governments have managed to tailor their own version of the “good Muslim” to be juxtaposed with the radical and — God forbid — freethinking Muslim, who was inevitably, unfairly and incessantly seen as a terrorist sympathiser.
I have had the displeasure of knowing or learning about many of these “good Muslims” over the past twenty years. They are ever so keen to claim spots at phoney “interfaith dialogue” conferences, serving the role of the well-behaved Muslim whenever demanded of them.
For this odd breed of Muslims, Palestine is an obstacle and Kashmir is a forgotten wasteland, for their mission is not to advocate on behalf of the oppressed. Instead, they are often used as middlemen who convey the official diktats of governments, states and city councils to their fellow Muslims. In other words, they become the “official” Muslims, whose agenda is not that of their own community — helping to mobilise, organise and advocate while building solidarity with other marginalised groups — but, as in the case of Hamza Yusuf, to embrace the agenda of Trump himself and his equivalent in other countries.
The problem with these spiritual charlatans is that they feed the misguided view that Muslims can only be either quisling hacks or potential terrorists; that Muslims must be subdued or they become a danger to society; and that Muslims cannot be part of a larger collective of political dissidents who advocate justice and equality in their own society, and elsewhere in the world.
Currently, at many mosques across the US, places of great and perpetual injustice such as Palestine, Kashmir and Afghanistan are hardly mentioned. Many mosque officials shy away even from political advocacy and intersectionality within their own communities. Perhaps they fear that doing so would place them on the radar of the FBI or local enforcement agencies.
However, what is Islam without justice? In one Qur’anic verse (Chapter 5, verse 8), God says, “O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm for God, witnesses in justice, and do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness.”
The emphasis on justice, and the building of communities and nations that stand for what is right is at the core of Islamic values. Neither Hamza Yusuf nor any other Muslim can possibly change that.
As for governments that are constantly caricaturing Muslims and Islam to fit their own agendas, they are not doing themselves any favours. A strong society is predicated on the freedom of individuals and groups to operate within a legal and democratic framework, with the overriding goal of advancing the interests of the entire nation. Freedom for Palestine, Kashmir and Afghanistan, as well as the rights of minorities, social justice, gender and racial equality at home, all go hand in hand.
No sincere advocate of justice, self-respecting scholar or, needless to say, true Muslim, would disagree with the notion that justice is indivisible, because a moral doctrine has defined Islam and Muslims for fifteen centuries. For that reason alone, Palestine (and Kashmir; and Afghanistan et al) must be placed back at the centre of Muslim discourse in the West.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.