In 2016, election interference efforts aimed at weakening Democrats came from Russia. In this election cycle at least some of those efforts come from a far different source and are aimed at dividing the American Muslim community.
President Trump has made clear that he intends to contest the upcoming election results. Without a shred of evidence, he has accused the Biden campaign of committing voter fraud through mail-in-ballots. And we know that if he loses by a narrow margin, he will try to use the Republican Party’s domination of the Supreme Court to invalidate a Biden victory and secure his second term.
Our democracy is in danger. If Trump prevails, moderate Republicans, centrists, independents, Democrats, and progressives will have little to do except watch while he spends the next four years destroying what little remains of the institutional checks and balances already being eroded by his government. When I first arrived in this country as an immigrant from Turkey in 2003, I could have never imagined such a scenario.
American Muslims and other minority voters have the power to put an end to this assault on the American ethos. We have this one last chance over the next month to mobilize our families, friends, and communities to vote for Biden.
That’s why I am so shocked that a group of loud activists and keyboard warriors on the fringes of our communities are attacking the very people working to bring us out to vote. Indeed, I am talking about the mob who has been attacking Emgage in the name of Pro-Palestinian activism in the last couple weeks. The reality is that Emgage is a newly formed coalition of institutions that seeks to empower Muslim Americans through political literacy and civic engagement.
Ironically, while the Republicans frame their opposition to Biden in the name of ideological purity and moral rigor, closer investigation reveals the selectivity of their outrage. As it turns out, the people who loudly proclaim their loyalty to occupied and marginalized peoples are perfectly willing to sideline, or even deny, outright human rights violations that are inconvenient to their worldview.
American Muslims should be rallying behind projects like the Million Muslims Vote campaign run by Emgage. Instead, a nexus of foreign interests appears to have rallied together to derail their efforts and other similar campaigns. Those behind this campaign are those whose priorities are not the health of American democracy, the viability of our Republic, or the flourishing of the Muslim American community.
I have hesitated to write this because I have long believed that, as the Obamas would put it, when they go low, we go high. But having been myself the target of attack for engagement with American and Israeli Jews, I have watched with grave concern as fringe figures seek to intimidate American Muslims and prevent us from pursuing partnerships with potential allies on shared issues of concern.
To be clear, I am not arguing that we should not stand on principle or support causes close to our hearts. For too long, a vocal and hostile minority within American Muslim communities has shut off the possibility of real political advancement as the health of the American experiment is increasingly at risk. This kind of virtue-signaling and narrow-minded intolerance has become outright dangerous.
What, after all, is the purpose of attacking an organization like Emgage?
How do American Muslims or other minorities benefit if the primary organizations driving voter turnout in the most important election of our lifetime are undermined?
And what is the possible motivation for such immature and irresponsible behavior?
In my engagement with American and Israeli Jews, I have founded and co-directed a pioneering educational program called the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI) of which I am deeply proud. The program is sponsored by The Shalom Hartman Institute. It is one of Israel’s leading educational institutions. It teaches young emerging Muslim American leaders about Judaism, Israel and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Its purpose is to help Muslim Americans better understand the Jewish community and facilitate deep interfaith engagement. While the program has been denounced by some in the Muslim American community as “faith-washing” Israeli policies, I, along with other participants have continued to be vocal defenders of Palestinian rights. We simply believe that engagement, rather than boycott, ultimately leads to better results.
Like the opponents of the Muslim Leadership Initiative, critics of Emgage are selective in their outrage. A closer investigation into their relationships, activities, and statements demonstrates that far from being principled on foreign policy, they pick and choose which moral outrages are worthy of attention—while dismissing grave crimes against Muslims.
Yet, in recent weeks Emgage has been targeted by the sort of organized campaign designed to influence the 2020 presidential election in a campaign quite similar to Russian influence operations aimed at the 2016 presidential election though this time the trail leads to a likely culprit not Moscow but, another capital in Eastern Europe.
It’s legitimate to raise questions of strategy about which organizations Muslim leaders should engage with over the fraught Israel-Palestine question. But why attack Emgage at this time, when there is a risk of encouraging potential voters to retreat into apathy or, worse yet, to dismiss the Democrats entirely? This is not an abstract concern. It is exactly what happened in 2016, and it played directly into the hands of Trump – whose campaign micro targeted 3.5 million black Americans with anti-Hillary Clinton advertisements to deter them from voting. In 2016, it meant targeting progressives and eroding their confidence in Clinton. Today, it means doing the same to Biden.
Enter Turkish President Erdogan who is growing closer to Trump, speaking with him by phone as much as twice a week. President Erdogan’s record on human rights is well-known; this, however, does not seem to be a legitimate moral concern for some of his agents keen to divide Muslim Americans ahead of this important election.
The issue is not one of ideological difference per se vis-a-vie American politics rather this disturbing behavior is in line with the president’s efforts to involve himself in American Muslim affairs. The family of the late great Muhammad Ali declined an offer from Erdogan to speak at the death of the famed boxing champion in order to not politicize the event. Last year, a Turkish NGO purchased one of Muhammad Ali’s former homes in the suburbs of Chicago
In August, a delegation from the US Council of Muslim Organizations (USCMO) – of which Emgage was a member – met with Erdogan.
Thus, the same week of the Erdogan visit a video produced by the Florida office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) attacking Emgage was published.
This campaign is apparently at the behest of Sami al-Arian, a former University of Florida professor currently in exile in you guessed it – Turkey. Al-Arian recently appeared in a video series called on Muslims to boycott Emgage’s million Muslim vote campaign. Al-Arian accused Emgage of “dancing with Zionists” and trying to “infiltrate” Muslim communities.
This isn’t the first time al-Arian, nominally a figure of the political Left, has campaigned against the Democrats. The same al-Arian campaigned on behalf of the Republican Party and helped Bush win the state of Florida in the 2000 elections. While he has claimed that he only supported Bush because of the latter’s promises to oppose the use of secret intelligence against Arab and Muslim Americans, this didn’t stop al-Arian from courting top Republicans long after 9/11 and the Patriot Act.
He went on to be convicted of material support for terrorism and sentenced to 57 months in federal prison. As part of his eventual plea bargain with US authorities, al-Arian was exiled to Turkey.
By late September, American Muslims for Palestine – whose head had attended the USCMO delegation to President Erdogan – issued a statement “prohibiting” Muslims from working with Emgage. This has been followed by a curious string of attacks on Emgage in fringe publications.
There is a deeply troubling convergence of foreign interests here which have one thing in common: they overlap with “progressive” Arab and Muslim movements working to undermine efforts to mobilize voters behind Biden. (Tellingly, al-Arian discredited Emgage, but never indicated how to make up for the loss of its efforts.)
Muslim Americans must ask themselves: Are these groups working in our best interest, as Americans and as Muslims? American Muslims and other minorities should resist efforts effectively aligned with foreign interests whose outrage against anti-Muslim violence is selective.
We cannot allow apathy and resignation to undermine us as happened in 2016. There is far too much at stake.
Muslim American leaders must courageously speak out against the destructive bullies seeking to undermine our support for Biden and say no to their shameful intimidation tactics. Failure to do so only further empowers these destructive voices . In the end, Muslim Americans will pay the price for the failure of our leaders to push back against the destructive forces in our midst.
Update: Emgage has resigned from USCMO, you can read their resignation letter here.