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)