An Invitation to Decline
On the Muslim Leadership Initiative and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement
by Bilal Ansari
First Published in Ummah Wide
A month ago an 18-month-old Palestinian boy was burned to death after Israeli settlers set fire to his family’s home south of Nablus City in the occupied West Bank. Clearly this was a criminal act of violent aggression. Yet American Muslims are debating whether it is ethical to support collective direct action through boycott and whether individual educational “engagement” with Zionist organizations is helpful to the plight of Palestinians under occupation.
It is embarrassing to me as an American Muslim that Dr. Hatem Bazian, who was born in Nablus, has to argue about why American Muslims should support the boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and avoid participation in “engagement” programs like the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI) which, with the Shalom Hartman Institute, sends American Muslim leaders to Israel to learn the Zionist perspective on Palestine.
In light of the upcoming debate Dr. Bazian will engage in at ISNA this Labor Day weekend, I thought it might be a good time to say publicly why, as a Muslim college chaplain, I twice refused MLI’s effort to recruit me to go on a free trip to Israel.
Imam Abdullah Antepli, program director of MLI, whom I have known quite well for nine years since our days together as seminary students, asked me to join his first cohort. I thought initially what an attractive and generous invitation: A trip to Jerusalem with several notable professors of Islamic Studies, Muslim political activists and Muslim college chaplains who I knew very well and respected. It seemed to be, as they say, a “no brainer.” Really — who turns down a free trip to visit Al Aqsa in the good company of fellow colleagues? But what appeared to be a wonderful trip of intense Jewish-Muslim dialogue quickly began to feel and look like a bad decision. My prayer was as every Muslim prays before a major decision: God, if this is good for me in this world and the next, then facilitate this for me; but if not, please do not facilitate this for me. My answer became clear and I felt God was not facilitating this trip for me. Instead of excitement and eager anticipation, I felt an uneasy disturbance in my chest.
Providently, my invitation came just as I began my first year as Muslim chaplain and Assistant Director of the Center for Learning in Action at Williams College. Thank God, I worked for an honest and insightful Presbyterian minister who, when I asked his permission to join this trip, frowned and turned away from me. Yes, I felt his “abasa wa tawala” (frown and turn away) treatment as a divine intervention, and I immediately asked myself what I was blind to that my supervisor saw. This subtle turn and frown felt internally more like a jolt and stare; you would have to know my supervisor’s calm disposition to understand. When I told him which other elite institutions were allowing their Muslim chaplains to go, he, in the most polite, gentle but clear way said, “those chaplaincies are not positioned institutionally like our chaplaincy here at Williams.” Once he said that my eyes were opened and my prayers answered and instantly my chest felt relief. My soul knew he was right, and I immediately called Imam Antepli and declined the invitation. There would be a cost to this trip, and I realized this was not such a generous offer after all. What blinded me about this invitation was all the potential personal benefit, but with a little compassionate reflection, I knew it was going to be at the expense of the collective will of the oppressed in Palestine. This subtle frown and turn alerted me that this would be a heavy burden on my soul.
The philosopher, Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel once commented, “Irony is the form of paradox. Paradox is what is good and great at the same time.” Paradoxically, this invitation to “engage” with MLI, my request to join this trip, and my being at the outset in a new role as college Muslim chaplain all converged at the same time. The irony was all these converged while I was on an interfaith immersion service-learning trip in the Deep South that concluded in Birmingham, Alabama’s Civil Rights Museum. Here I was forced to ask myself: Who are you? What do you stand for in the struggle? The words of my Islamic chaplaincy professor, Dr. Ingrid Mattson, came back to me: “Saying yes to a request means you are saying no to something else.” In fact, the price of saying yes to join the company of those on this MLI trip would have been saying no to following in the righteous footsteps of the thousands of those who fought and died for my now privileged position at Williams. The reward of saying no to this trip would be to join the company of those who, despite criticism or loss, always patiently persevered and sacrificed on behalf of the weak. Those who follow the prophetic way in their response to the call for help from the weak shun the call from the powerful in high positions.
In the past four years since my saying no to MLI, I have learned what a blessing it is to affirm and support people who are powerless. I felt God had placed amazing people in my life and work environments. For example, at Williams College I worked with one of the most eminent scholars of boycott and civic engagement, Dr. Stewart Burns, America’s top scholar on the Montogomery Bus Boycott. At Zaytuna College, Dr. Hatem Bazian, director of the Center for the Study and Documentation of Islamophobia and founder of American Muslims for Palestine, and my beloved wife, Dr. Colleen Keyes, Edward Said scholar and activist for Palestinian rights. I studied and learned why the Presbyterian Church (USA), The United Church of Christ, The United Methodist Church, The Quakers and the Mennonites have joined the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. All these congregations are attempting to reconcile and repent for their past transgressions, and they are just hoping to be on the right side of history this time as American Christian leaders. Dozens of academic institutions have also joined the divestment movement in pursuit of solidarity as opposed to their past exploitative history. Professor Craig Steven Wilder explained thoroughly the imbrication of American colleges and universities with racism and slavery in Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. A review of the book says:
The earliest academies proclaimed their mission to Christianize the savages (sic) of North America, and played a key role in white conquest. Later, the slave economy and higher education grew up together, each nurturing the other. Slavery funded colleges, built campuses, and paid the wages of professors. Enslaved Americans waited on faculty and students; academic leaders aggressively courted the support of slave owners and slave traders.
Significantly, as Wilder shows, our leading universities, dependent on human bondage, became breeding grounds for the racist ideas that sustained them. The colleges that have divested from Israel have distanced themselves from oppressive practices that sustain subjugation of an entire people.
In light of all the successes of the BDS movement, I pondered the powerful meaning of those words of both my supervisor and my teacher. I asked myself: Who am I serving and what, by my acceptance, am I rejecting? From my Islamic perspective, what my supervisor had said meant: “The flocks those chaplains serve are not like the flock you serve.” This made me question my individual desire to benefit from the trip against my sense of moral responsibility to support the collective struggle. This experience of grappling with the invitation and my own inclinations versus what I knew was right and just, the memories of my people in the struggle, and the words of my mentors affected my heart deeply. This is because I had just written my master’s thesis on the words of our beloved Final Messenger of God, who is reported to have said:
“Every one of you is a shepherd and is responsible for his flock. The leader of people is a guardian and is responsible for his subjects. A man is the guardian of his family and he is responsible for them. A woman is the guardian of her home and her children and she is responsible for them. The (employee) of a man is a guardian of the property of his (employers) and he is responsible for it. Surely, every one of you is a shepherd and responsible for his flock.” Sahih Bukhari 6719, Sahih Muslim 1829
These prophetic words made me realize that had I participated in MLI and the Shalom Hartman Institute, I would have undermined my authenticity, authority, and solidarity with my flock at Williams College. My Muslim chaplaincy position had emerged from a coalition of minority clubs that petitioned the college to create my position. The Muslim students were an integral part of that process, but it was the minority coalition that collectively opened the door and welcomed the office of Muslim chaplaincy. Students for Justice in Palestine along with the Jewish organizations at Williams had all advocated to hire a Muslim chaplain. The Black Student Union and other minority clubs saw me as a representative of their voice and someone that genuinely cared for their well-being. These clubs selected me two out of the three years I was present at Williams as their Administrator of the Year, an affirmation and appreciation of my care of all of them.
Attending the MLI trip would have been a decision that hurt many in my flock. Although it would have won me personal closeness with the most powerful minorities on campus, it would have been at the expense of the majority of minorities I served. The book Ebony and Ivy includes Williams College in that painful history of supporting and benefiting from enslaved people, but my presence on campus was a form of atonement and an institutional attempt to reconcile. Saying no meant saying yes to my role as the Muslim chaplain to the college, affirming my role as shepherd of the campus working to heal and support a better Williams.
Truly I am blessed and thankful to God to have actually used my brain and listened to my heart with this otherwise apparent “no brainer” invitation. I now understand the difference between my institutional pastoral role from that of my colleagues. In my chaplaincy position I was able to guide, lead, and direct much of the activism on my campus as an authentic advocate of the historically oppressed. I became the staff human resource for the Black Lives Matter movement, both in word and deed. Other Muslim college chaplains I know do not experience or see their roles similarly. In fact, one of them told me: “The days of the William Sloan Coffin type of chaplain are gone.” In other words, what I understand from many of them is that they do not see any moral responsibility to the historically oppressed in their decisions as Muslim leaders. Therefore, they do not see any Ebony in their Ivy positions. As a student of Imam WD Mohammed, I knew I could not accept that understanding. In Tulsa, Oklahoma on October 14, 1990, my teacher Imam Mohammed said in a public address:
“As Americans and also as Muslims we have to carry the burden of the crisis in the Middle East. Don’t think that we can escape this and be healthy in our souls. We are not going to be pleased in our souls no matter how much we fool our hearts with our rationalizing and fabricating and pretending that behavior is right. If Muslims suffer anywhere in this world, it is supposed to burden Muslims everywhere in this world. The Palestinian situation is a burden and a pain on us. And we cannot accept it and never will. If we can find any way to make a contribution to their relief, we should want to do it. We have to support our Palestinian Muslim brothers. If they were not Muslims, we would be obligated. We should support any people against those who would mistreat them… What happens to the Palestinians must affect us sooner or later, one way or the other. We are together in this, and that is what we have to understand. Allah says, “You are one community, and I am your Lord. Therefore, worship Me (obey Me).”
After feeling disturbed in my soul and a keen mental awareness of my responsibility to God and His creation, I realized that I had to do something to support the Palestinian effort. First, I felt morally obligated to accept the invitation of my new colleague at Zaytuna College, Dr. Hatem Bazian to boycott MLI.
In fact, saying no to Imam Antepli, was to me saying yes to join the BDS movement.
Like Imam Mohammed had forewarned, my soul could not feel pleased no matter how hard I rationalized and fabricated acceptance of the behavior of my peers in the MLI program. Therefore, I began to call for the boycott of this MLI program among my fellow chaplains. I began a critical conversation amongst us after my public opposition and call to boycott MLI was sent to our private group email list of college chaplains. Second, I spoke individually with each of my fellow chaplains who participated to learn about their experience and ask for their voice against MLI. Many welcomed the discussion amongst us and everyone agreed that this conversation should happen. Others desired not to join the conversation in public but chose to remain silent and would only speak privately about it. To be honest, nothing disturbed me more than those fellow chaplains who attended and knew of the wrong of it but remained silent. You will understand why at the end of this article. Their silence polarized our very fragile fraternity of Muslim chaplains; this silence did not help the younger Muslim chaplains to decide whether to accept MLI’s invitation to break the education boycott.
It should be noted that this program has been a source of dissension that has affected all of us as Muslim chaplains. I learned that a large group from the 1st cohort exhorted Imam Antepli to place a halt on this program until significant changes occurred and a collective conversation among chaplains could be had. Similarly, the 2nd cohort members asked for reform and chaplain Kamal Abu Shamsieh, the only Palestinian to participate in MLI, has since come out publicly against MLI. Chaplain Kamal asked me to join him as his brother and fellow chaplain on the 2nd trip. I declined his invitation too.
Lastly, I called a retreat of all college chaplains last spring and this time together allowed us to organize a private debate about MLI which helped to reconcile tensions and clarify the significance of the boycott. It also allowed the MLI participants to explain the personal benefits that they thought outweighed the negative impact of violating the boycott. As we college chaplains debated this privately amongst ourselves at Harvard University, Imam Antepli told us there, despite our exhortations, that he would not stop. In fact, he shared that a third cohort was scheduled to take off for Israel immediately after Ramadan. The 3rd cohort were being welcomed to Israel by the trainers of the military who exactly a year a go massacred over 2,000 Palestinians mostly women and children. Imam Antepli was going back to Israel, regardless, because his political “engagement” program meant more to him then any pastoral concern.
Now another debate will be held on Labor Day weekend at ISNA about this form of “engagement” during a time of collective boycott. This debate has the stated purpose of avoiding the social media debates that have polarized a lot of Muslims grappling with the MLI issue. The upcoming debate is portrayed as an attempt to rediscover “Islam’s tradition of open, honest, respectful debate in a neutral forum.” I hope this debate contextualizes the much broader concern and question that needs to be answered. While good etiquette in form and function is desirable, a meaningful discussion on the moral content and courage of Muslim leadership in America is absolutely necessary. The moral question is: Is it ethical for Muslim leaders, when an oppressed group of people have called for your help in the form of boycotting an oppressive state, to ignore a boycott? Is it ethical to not just break the collective boycott but to actively enjoin “engagement” efforts for individual benefit? Let’s be clear: These are the questions we should seek answers to through the debate at ISNA. We need to be asking ourselves about the religious implications of the so called Muslim Leadership Initiative. What is the most righteous behavior and God-conscious choice of Muslim leaders? We all are commanded to help each other in good and not help to help each other in acts of sinful aggression:
“…help one another in goodness and piety, and do not help one another in sin and aggression; and be careful of (your duty to) Allah; surely Allah is severe in requiting (evil).” The Qur’an, Surah Al-Maidah 5:2
In closing, I feel it is extremely important to remember the history of how boycott and civic engagement won Black Americans their human and civil rights and how some Christian leaders ridiculed, ignored and questioned the morality of boycott, which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called out in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” We should remember especially in light of this year’s theme at ISNA’s Convention — Stories of Resilience: Strengthening the American Muslim Narrative — the stories of the early nineteenth century when women like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman resisted on behalf of the resilient oppressed people despite dominant public opinion. Similarly in 1895 Ida B. Wells published a book called The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States. Wells began a “crusade” against the overwhelming odds of the prevailing attitudes that allowed the lynchings of my ancestors to go unchecked by the rule of law. What Ida B. Wells sought to change was the dismissive attitude of the Christian leaders who ignored the struggles of the abolitionists who insisted: Black lives matter. In 1954, Rosa Parks continued this legacy when she similarly resisted oppression with her intentional non-violent direct actions that initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The BDS movement is another non-violent resistance effort that uses strategies similar to the successful actions of Wells and Parks. These are the stories of resilience that must inform the Muslim American narrative about the moral standard of strength from which my community emerges. Saying yes to MLI is to say no to the legacy of the struggle of human rights, freedom, and justice for all in America and beyond.
Wells purposely chose a poem “Freedom” written by abolitionist James Russell Lowell to conclude The Red Record. It is about moral obligation — a call to action based on the righteous convictions of Christian abolitionist leaders of the day wrestling with their counterparts apathetic to Black suffering, a call to reclaim the soul of America. As relevant as that was yesterday to Christian leaders, it is today to Muslim leaders regarding Black suffrage and Palestinian non-violent resistance. Equally relevant today because the perennial question of our era still is: do Black Lives really Matter? Over 1,000 of my fellow Black American scholars and activists in the Black Lives Matter Movement have just collectively joined the (BDS) movement in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. Tubman, Truth, Wells, and Parks would be proud of all those who feel morally obligated to support the educational, cultural and economic boycott collectively enjoined by Palestinian civil society since 2006. This is because to affirm that Black lives matter is to affirm that all oppressed lives matter. I republish these words and this poem to those Muslim leaders who may feel morally neutral about MLI or no obligation to boycott it. Wells wrote: ‘To those who still feel they have no obligation in the matter, we commend the following lines of Lowell on “Freedom.”
Men! whose boast it is that ye
Come of fathers brave and free,
If there breathe on earth a slave,
Are ye truly free and brave?
If ye do not feel the chain,
When it works a brother’s pain,
Are ye not base slaves indeed,
Slaves unworthy to be freed?
Women! who shall one day bear
Sons to breathe New England air,
If ye hear, without a blush,
Deeds to make the roused blood rush
Like red lava through your veins,
For your sisters now in chains,
— Answer! are ye fit to be
Mothers of the brave and free?
Is true Freedom but to break
Fetters for our own dear sake,
And, with leathern hearts, forget
That we owe mankind a debt?
No! true freedom is to share
All the chains our brothers wear,
And, with heart and hand, to be
Earnest to make others free!
They are slaves who fear to speak
For the fallen and the weak,
They are slaves who will not choose
Hatred, scoffing, and abuse,
Rather than in silence shrink
From the truth they needs must think;
They are slaves who dare not be
In the right with two or three.
Bilal Ansari is the Director of Student Life at Zaytuna College. He is the former Assistant Director and Muslim Chaplain at Williams College and a doctoral student at the Pacific School of Religion and has studied with numerous Muslim scholars in America. He is a former prison chaplain and has been an urban and rural community organizer for the past two decades. He is the son of Imam Usamah Ansari and the father of Qiyam, Shaheed, Sumaya and Maryam.