The MLI Controversy: We are family!

After its recent retreat in Jerusalem, the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), an interfaith collaboration sponsored by the Shalom Hartman Institute, became the subject of an intense conversation within the American Muslim community. Several MLI participants publicly shared their experiences on the trip, and subsequently, critiques were raised against their participation. As the debate intensified online and on social media, it also almost immediately degenerated, moving from critique to vilification. Whatever the debate over the merits and faults of MLI,  this episode demonstrates a festering community ill.

That ill is the willingness to treat each other as partisan opponents rather than the family our community is supposed to be. While debate and criticism is integral to winnowing good ideas from bad, constructive families don’t blacklist their own over a difference in thought. They don’t harass each other or launch public character assaults. So why do we?

To be sure, many of those critical of MLI have spoken with respect and civility. The pain MLI unearths is neither fabricated nor irrational, and to many it understandably cuts deep. Yet, much of the public defense of MLI makes no attempt to engage those sentiments, inappropriately dismissing that pain as irrelevant.

Still, it was vexing how quickly many anti-MLI voices sank to an ad hominem assault against their own colleagues and friends. This wasn’t the case of bickering within some ethereal Muslim “community” that is a community in name only. This was a familial fracture fought through personal attacks in a public forum. Were we really made into tribes, or at least carefully cultivated digital communities, to attack each other?

This episode is a data point in a growing trend within the Muslim community — the suppression of dissident voices by an increasingly belligerent social media hegemon. That belligerence is born of an admirably deep care for those perceived to be victims of injustice. Yet, this resolute intractability and unbridled hostility to diversity is a disease. It prevents constructive critique of one’s premises, tactics, and strategies, and it stifles creative approaches.

It was particularly damaging that this battle took place online and on social media. Our Muslim family partially exists within social media spaces. These spaces are dear to our generation because our local communities are so often temporal. Those communities are also so often alienating—who hasn’t suffered the pain and frustration of feeling ostracized from a local mosque because it refused to listen to you, to accept you? Because of the inane insistence of those who control those spaces to curate sameness rather than diversity, and the willingness to drive out those who don’t belong?

The whole world’s a mosque, and for our generation, social media is a sacred space. Within it, there are those who wield a powerful megaphone. Those individuals have an incredible responsibility as curators of this space. This responsibility goes beyond practicing the basic courtesies of a functioning family—listening before speaking, assuming best intentions, acting politely from a position of love and respect. It also requires vigilance in protecting from public harm those with whom one disagrees, rather than standing in the vanguard of the lynch mob against them.

We are too quickly sinking into a space dominated by demagoguery and bullying. We are adopting the worst attitudes and behaviors that make us feel uncomfortable in our physical spaces. We are choosing to take members of our family, publicly shame them, and cast them out because they don’t act as we would act, think as we think, seek truth how we seek truth.

Of all the voices we’ve heard the past few weeks, Ingrid Mattson‘s has been particularly enlightened: “I refuse to sever relations with any person because of a disagreement over political tactics. This form of disassociation is lethal to community.” Perhaps MLI is the misguided, destructive, and offensive betrayal we’ve been led to believe. Sometimes people need to hear harsh truths, and MLI’s perspective is not unassailable. But quite frankly, the substance of MLI’s perspective is irrelevant until we’ve allowed them to speak, earnestly listened to what they have to say, and carefully considered whether we’d speak publicly of our own brother or sister in the same manner. After all, that’s what they are — our family.

 This article does not represent the views of the altM team. altM welcomes response pieces to this post.

Adam Sitte is a lawyer, previously based in Washington, DC working on civilian empowerment in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison and the University of Chicago Law school.


(Photo Credit: Martha Soukup)


  • Sana says:

    This is shameful. This piece is without a single citation of proof for the claims presented. It is the continued attempt to make martyrs out of MLI participants – and it is the attempt to further delegitimize legitimate criticism, legitimate hurt caused by participants in the MLI program.

    Absolutely shameful that AltMuslimah would publish such an unfortunate, baseless and accusatory piece — that is ultimately nothing more than libel written under the guise of false calls to family. Because according to this piece: the only Muslim family here consists of the MLI participants and those who stand with them. Not anyone else.

  • Kash says:

    This is a terrible article that misrepresents what’s happening here. The “reverse vilification” accusations are absurd and dangerously attempt to shift focus away from the harm that the MLI program has caused.

    One of the basic things we learn about allyship is that we should *listen* to the people we claim to be standing in solidarity with. If white people, for instance, are seeking to become anti-racist allies for people of color, but then do or say something racist and are called out on it, then that means they NEED. TO. STOP. If a man claims to be opposing sexist oppression but then does or says something misogynistic and is called out on it, then he NEEDS. TO. STOP.

    The MLI members and supporters have been told consistently – again and again – about how harmful this program is, especially for Palestinians. Yet the MLI participants refuse to listen and still engage with a Zionist, Islamophobic program. They have been informed, but they refuse to listen and would rather silence the voices of Palestinians who have been speaking out against this.

    What has the MLI program done for Palestinians? What has it done for the Muslim community? Who appointed these participants as “leaders” of Muslims in America? What does the MLI program do other than vilify BDS, normalize Zionism, and reinforce the “Good Muslim/Bad Muslim” divide even further within our own community? That’s the real problem that this article fails to understand.

  • Margari Hill says:

    Salam alaikum,
    Some of the apologists have engaged in ad hominem attacks against MLI critiques also. As an anti-racist organizer healing and reconciliation is an important for us, as we deal with intra-Muslim racism. We utilize nonviolent communication to support reconciliation and amending our relationships with people who have offended and have been offended by discriminatory behavior. There are four steps for reconciliation and healing:

    1. Actor demonstrates empathy for the receiver
    2. Actor mourns the impact of the conduct
    3. Actor expresses the needs he/she was seeking to meet in the conduct that was distressing to the receiver
    4. Agreement between the parties that would restore the relationship
    So far, I think that the vocal MLI apologists have yet to do 1 and 2. So, how do we move forward? Here is MuslimARC’s statement:
    Here is MuslimARC’s statement:
    “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another…” [49:13]
    Muslims are of every ethnicity, race, and color. We speak different languages and bear different nationalities. As Allah SWT tells us in 49:13, this is intentional and Divinely ordained.

    We are thus also instructed to celebrate this diversity by embracing our differences and learning from one another.

    At MuslimARC, we are committed to fostering and promoting genuine solidarity and alliance between Muslims of diverse backgrounds. Central to this commitment is the amplification of marginalized voices. To “be in solidarity” means more than a few words or a hashtag. It means hearing those who are oppressed and centering their voices. It means respecting their requests. It means prioritizing the voices of those who are affected most.

    The Muslim Leadership Initiative is in its second cohort this year. Funded by the Shalom Hartman Institute, MLI is made possible in part due to the financial backing of Islamophobic groups in the United States. [1] In addition, the Institute is a major contractor for the Israeli military and works closely with the Israeli government’s efforts to combat the Palestine solidarity movement. [2]

    Since April 2004, PACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, has called upon intellectuals and academics worldwide to “comprehensively and consistently boycott all Israeli academic and cultural institutions as a contribution to the struggle to end Israel’s occupation, colonization and system of apartheid.” [3]

    The second cohort of MLI is currently visiting Jerusalem. These delegations have so far included only one Palestinian American Muslim.* In contrast, many Palestinians – whether living in Palestine or abroad – are denied access to Jerusalem and other cities in Israel-Palestine due to the Occupation.**

    In the last weeks, we have witnessed the dismissal of prominent Palestinian-American voices, like those of Linda Sarsour, Dr. Hatem Bazian, Shaykh Omar Suleiman and others. We have witnessed a lack of concern for their perspectives, viewpoints, and asks. [4][5] Today, a video was released of a Palestinian in Jerusalem being treated with hostility and even a physical assault when he sought to question the participants. [6]

    Disrespectful acts should not be justified by an excuse of having had good intentions. Being “Muslim too” should not erase or dismiss people’s differences. Thus, we must teach our communities that once you have stepped on someone’s toe, you have a responsibility for acknowledging the act and apologizing for the pain. You should not seek to tell the other how much pain s/he has felt, that the stepping did not occur, that the stepping was done with the person’s best interest in mind, or that you have no responsibility for the person’s pain.

    We call on all Muslims to respect each other’s differences. We call on Muslims to fight ego, to look inward, and seek to understand one’s own privilege relative to Muslims of other backgrounds. We call on Muslims to center voices of Muslims from other ethnic groups, to prioritize their feelings for issues that most directly affect them, and to hear them when they speak of how others can stand with them.

    We call on all non-Palestinian American Muslims to center Palestinian voices, and to study, learn, and consult with Palestinian Americans on issues surrounding the occupation of Palestine.

    The call for boycott, sanctions, and divestment is clear.
    Palestinians have requested our support in this manner.
    Respect the picket line.

    For those MLI participants who have already gone or returned from Palestine: we call on you to engage with Palestinian Muslims in a respectful, genuine, and gracious manner, with awareness that you are in a position of privilege having gone to another’s occupied homeland using money that sustains that occupation. We call on you to acknowledge and apologize for the pain and hurt you have caused with your actions, whether these actions were taken with full knowledge, and irrespective of your ‘good intentions.’ A broken toe is a broken toe, and there is no question of it being your shoe.

    We call on all American Muslims to engage in any discourse surrounding privilege and racially/ethnically discriminatory acts with humility and respect.

    We leave you with the example of moral courage. [7]
    Al-Hurr bin Yazid (RA) was a commander in the army of Umar bin Sa’ad’s while they lay a siege against Al-Husayn bin Ali (RA). While on the battlefield, Hurr realized his error in fighting against the Prophet’s ﷺ grandson and family.

    He left bin Sa’ad’s army, and joined Al-Husayn (RA).

    He said, “I am Al-Hurr bin Yazid.” Al-Husayn told him “You are Al-Hurr [meaning the free] just as your mother named you. And you will be free insha’Allah in this world and in the hereafter.”

    Let us be generous in our compassion, accepting of critique, and humble and decisive in seeking to right what has been wronged.

    * 1-21-15 After our statement was released, the one Palestinian participant currently on the trip posted a status on Facebook briefly noting why he decided to join this year’s cohort. We have amended our statement to reflect his participation.
    ** 1-21-15 This sentence has been edited for clarity. It previously said, “Moreover, many Palestinians today are not so much as allowed to enter Jerusalem.”
    [1] [2]
    [4] Imam Khalid Latif alludes to the dismissals of criticism in his post on the subject:
    [5] Dismissal of Linda Sarsour by the 1st cohort’s participants on Twitter:
    [7] Narrated in the History of Damascus by ibn ‘Asakir.

  • Bradley says:

    For me many of the “discussions” have been shameful. As a convert, I have sometimes found it shocking the tone of the discussions around this. Physical threats, vulgar language, arrogance, assumption of intent and bullying abound, even toward those that are just asking questions to understand the debate. Questions are not allowed! I have had discussions with other converts about reconciling the behavior we have seen with the behavior we take from our beliefs. There are participants on both sides that can be accused on not listening. Thank you for this article, although I have little faith that anyone will bother looking at their own behavior.

  • Jonathan Brown says:

    Stressing communal unity works when parties in conflict are willing to compromise with each other, or when they realize that they can both pursue their paths without harming one another. Neither of these cases apply here. Despite my proposing this to an MLI founder, there has been no decision to make the program BDS compliant (or even just LESS affrontory to BDS). Moreover, how can someone who sees how successful BDS is becoming simply let go of this issue when, as has been proven without dispute, Shalom Hartman started MLI for the purpose of combating BDS? In this situation, the ‘appeal to kin’ argument is just a (unintended) proxy for supporting MLI in its highly compromised mission.

  • Nadia says:

    Margari Hill’s response piece to this op-ed can be found here:

  • Farheen says:

    I agree with previous commenters in saying this article is shameful. The members of MLI are so arrogant that they refuse to listen to Palestinians even! It makes one wonder what they are really doing this for, since it’s not for Palestinians? And for this author to support such arrogance and stubbornness, which is feeding into the oppression of Palestinians, is embarrassing. Truly. If calling out oppressive behaviours within the Muslim community is divisive then so be it. You cannot use the idea of “unity” to guilt those Muslims dedicated to social justice out of demonstrating solidarity with and showing support to the oppressed.

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