Thursday, February 22, 2024

American and Anglosphere Muslims Grapple With a Response to October 7th Attacks

Islamist DissentAmerican and Anglosphere Muslims Grapple With a Response to October 7th Attacks

The impact of the Hamas-led feast of flesh and blood on October 7th, self-labeled as the “Al-Aqsa Floods,” has had a dramatic effect on American political discourse. In particular, it has completely upended political calculations for the American-Muslim community.

Voting patterns for American-Muslims could previously be looked at through the lens of 9/11. Before 2001, most Muslims in America preferred the Republican Party. After 9/11, the American-Muslim community took a hard-left turn, which has seen progressives and segments of the far-left exercise enormous influence within the American-Muslim community.

For a while, the progressive-Muslim coalition managed to coexist with a religious establishment in the American-Muslim community that remained conservative, suspicious of reform, and committed to upholding traditional understandings of Islam.

Within the past couple of years, however, that post-9/11 coalition has been tested. Along with religious conservatives of other faiths, American-Muslims have organized to protest inappropriate school library books and teachings on gender and sexuality in public schools. In Michigan, Maryland, California, and other states, Muslims now show up at school board meetings to make their voices heard.  This stance has placed some American Muslims at odds with sections of the Left, with former White House officials and newspaper editorials denouncing this apparent betrayal.

The Left’s apparent intolerance of dissent led to an uptick in American Muslim support for the Right. Ismail Royer of the Religious Freedom Institute, for instance, became a leading voice encouraging interfaith cooperation to combat the ostensible threat of progressivism, making this case in a Washington Post opinion piece. 

Much further to the right is Daniel Haqiqatjou. Before online audiences of hundreds of thousands, he began a campaign of lambasting prominent Muslim figures seen to have cooperated in any way with non-Muslim progressives. In particular, Haqiqatjou denounces those who appeared at rallies alongside members of the “LQBTQ community,” most notably Omar Suleiman, arguably the most popular and influential imam in America.

Debates raged on Muslim podcasts, WhatsApp groups, across social media and in mosques. The shift to the Right was notable. All this coincided with some far-right and “alt-right” figures speaking positively about Muslims, and in some cases even embracing Islam. The conversion of the enormously popular “masculinity” guru and social media “influencer” Andrew Tate offered a particularly vivid example of this trend.

Sensing unease within mosques over political alliances with the Left and an insurrection led by Haqiqatijou and others, America’s most prominent Muslim leaders, led by Sheikh Yasir Qadhi of Plano, Texas, issued a statement titled “Navigating Differences”.

Qadhi and others found themselves trapped by two dissenting forces. On the one hand, their statement was subjected to intellectual criticism from Ustadh Ubaydallah Evans, a religious traditionalist and graduate of Egypt’s Al Azhar, currently scholar-in-residence at the American Learning Institute For Muslims. On the other side, American imams also found themselves ferociously countered by progressive Muslim academics and activists on social media.

Among the charges leveled against Qadhi and Navigating Differences signers was that they were aiding and being controlled by white supremacy. Ironically, this was countered by supporters of Navigating Differences alleging that their critics were, in fact, intellectually controlled and guided by white progressives. Thus, in the weeks and months leading up to 10/7, it appeared that a political and cultural war would rage within the Amerian-Muslim community, leading all the way to the 2024 presidential election.

Then October 7th happened

There are few issues about which nearly all Muslims agree, Palestine, however, is one of them. While there may be Muslims who advocate a safe, secure, and prosperous Israel, they are few, marginal, and ostracized within the community.

But while the consensus is anti-Israel, the reaction hasn’t been uniform. The progressives are reasserting themselves as leaders of the anti-Israel movement, and of American Islam, while the coalition of American-Muslims building bridges with American conservatives have been left in a defensive position.

The results have been fractious. Just last month, Hamza Yusuf, of Zaytuna College in California, was booed off stage at the Reviving Islamic Spirit conference in Toronto. Why? Due to his association with the United Arab Emirates and Mauritanian scholar Abdallah bin Bayyah, and his general critique of progressive ideology, Yusuf is painted as a “normalizer” of Israel and a supporter of the Abraham Accords.

Islamists have also repeatedly condemned Yusuf after a video interview of him surfaced suggesting the possibility of Muslims and Jews sharing the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem. Fundamentalists quickly denounced Yusuf as a murtadd (apostate from Islam) while the fury of Muslim Leftists such as Maha Hilal, who has been advocating the cancellation of Yusuf for years, have only intensified such criticism.

Protests against Israel have erupted in hundreds of American cities. In many cases these events have included outright antisemitic language and violence.  Many have joined such protests and grown to prominence online with the support of grassroots Muslims, from the far-right white nationalist Jackson Hinkle to an assortment of far-left actors.

After years of decline, the Islamist progressives are finding their voice once again. The bulk of the protests have emerged from the old-guard Islamist-Leftist alliance. Organizations such as American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) have played a particularly important role.

SJP is a campus-based organization with ideological fluidity in its ranks, ranging from the far-left to Islamist, and relying heavily on a Fanonesque language of “settler colonialism” and a defense of revolutionary violence. AMP, meanwhile, is the organization in America most closely aligned with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood from an ideological perspective. Through the politics of intersectionality, the language of colonialism, and social sciences academic theory, it has become easy for them to work together.

When Zareena Grewal of Yale, for instance, says, as a self-described radical leftist, that there are no innocent civilians in a “settler-colonial state,” this is language that can easily be incorporated by Islamists, as that is also the official Hamas line. 

This coalition seems to be helping to move the needle with younger Americans according to recent polls. This has also had an impact on internal Muslim discourse. Progressive-leaning prominent Muslim commentators such as Wajahat Ali have previously been targeted by Islamists for involvement with interfaith-friendly groups such as the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), which organized visits to settlements in the West Bank.

Yet, since 10/7, Ali has emerged, along with journalist Mehdi Hasan, as among the most vocal anti-Israel critics in the mainstream media from a progressive perspective. There is a sense that Ali, and some others previously affiliated with MLI, have used strident anti-Israel rhetoric since 10/7 to refurbish their reputations among American Muslims.

Imam Omar Suleiman, previously denounced for his tolerance of partnerships with LGBT groups, has moved from benign religious teachings and self-help messaging on October 6th to leading hardline anti-Israel denunciations by October 8th, speaking before marches of many tens of thousands, and producing sermons on the “rewards” for “refuting Israeli propaganda,” all while wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh.

Meanwhile, those who are seen as insufficiently anti-Israel and those who discourage protesting are subject to cancellation and attacks. The popular UAE-based Salafi teacher Faris al-Hammadi, known for his English-language social media content, has been labeled “Rabbi Faris” because of his stance against attending pro-Palestinian protests and his previous critiques of Islamist politics.

Shamsi Bensafi, a popular figure at Speakers Corner in London who shares the same outlook, was physically attacked in the street. The politics of Islam and Islamism play an important role here: both men are of the “Madkhali” branch of the Salafi movement.  

Still separate from all of the above is the Salafi-Jihadi camp. They have advocated against attending protests and mixing with disbelievers and members of the LGBTQ community, and against participation in the political process. They argue the only solution to the Palestinian issue is jihad. Then, others such as Imam Marc Manley in California have focused on anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and prayers for the destruction of Israel.                          

Some Islamist leaders have opted to use all this new momentum to oppose President Joe Biden in 2024, with a coalition of activists recently launching the Abandon Biden campaign, citing the President’s support for Israel as the reason. This effort is being partially led by Hassan Shibly, a former official of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, whose last media foray featured domestic violence and sexual harassment allegations.

Other agendas are evidently at work here. Previously, Shibly has claimed that “the real danger of Islamophobia fueled by conservative republicans was pushing a generation of Muslims to align themselves on the opposite end of the political spectrum in a manner that quite frankly is antithetical to prophetic teachings.”

There is reason to believe American-Muslim politics, and political positions towards Israel, will remain fluid. Recently, St. Louis Muslims held a fundraiser for “Squad” member Congresswoman Cori Bush, and have enthusiastically supported her due to her steadfast criticism of Israel and support of Palestinians. She is being challenged in the Democratic primary by St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell, who has attended pro-Israel rallies and has good relations with the local Jewish community. The same community also hosted an educational seminar featuring Dr. Abdullah bin Hamid Ali, who has been labeled “Imam Q-Anon” for his far-right positions on vaccines, elections, immigration, and other issues.

In a world of rapidly changing American Muslim politics, cults of personality, Islamist ideological competition, and logic-defying political alliances, Western Islamists are using the October 7th attacks not as a crisis for the ummah, but as an opportunity to build their brands.


Umar Lee is a writer and political analyst from St. Louis, USA. His work includes the analysis of events and trends within the Muslim community. His Twitter is @UmarLeeIII

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