Thursday, February 22, 2024

Former Salafist Umar Lee: Middle East Islamism Is in Decline

Opinion & InterviewInterviewsFormer Salafist Umar Lee: Middle East Islamism Is in Decline

Umar Lee grew up in a Baptist family before converting to Islam at the age of 17. Living as a teenager in North St. Louis, Lee was keenly aware of — and troubled by — America’s racial divide, which he hoped to transcend by converting to Islam. “I was attracted to Islam by black men — the lectures of the Nation of Islam, rappers and the legacy of Malcolm [X],” he wrote in his recent memoir, In Malcolm’s Path: A Journey Through Community Chaos, Muslim Fundamentalist Fantasy, and The Tragedies of America (2020).

After affiliating with Salafism in his twenties and thirties, Lee became disillusioned and wrote a critique of the movement titled The Rise and Fall of the Salafi Dawah in America: A Memoir (St. Louis Stranger, 2014). In recent years, Lee has been a particularly harsh critic of Islamist leaders and intellectuals in the United States.

Lee has condemned Jonathan A.C. Brown, the Alwaleed bin Talal Chair of Islamic Civilization in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University who has condoned slavery and toed the line of the Muslim Brotherhood. Lee asks why a member of the Saudi royal family is funding Brown’s work in light of his support for the Ikhwanis, whom the Saudis have worked to suppress. Earlier this year, Lee traveled to Israel, enduring significant blowback from his fellow Muslims as a result.

Lee recently spoke with Focus on Western Islamism about the attraction disaffected young men in American society have for Islam, the male-led insurgency against “woke Islam,” and the growing alliance between Islamists and the Far-Right in the United States. In addition to affirming his previously-expressed view that young white men should not convert to Islam, he declared that the Islamist revival that began in the Middle East in the late 1970s has faded away in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. For his own part, Lee reports that his “conversion had some negative consequences, a period of extremism and Islamist political support, but it also kept me out of trouble and away from a criminal lifestyle.” He also offered a stark warning against the growth of antisemitism, particularly in the black Muslim community.

This interview, condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted by FWI’s managing editor, Dexter Van Zile, on November 9, 2022. Links have been added for context.

FWI: I’ve read your memoir In Malcolm’s Path: A Journey Through Community Chaos, Muslim Fundamentalist Fantasy, and The Tragedies of America and I am struck by how much suffering is evident in the lives of American converts to Islam. They seem to have a lot of unmet needs that they hope Islam will meet. This is particularly true among young men, black and white, from cities. Does this suffering make people, young men especially, vulnerable to the allure of political Islam or Islamism?

I’ve said before that I don’t think it’s a good idea to convert, but I’m in a different situation. It’s like a 30-year marriage. I might as well ride it out.

Umar Lee

Lee: I would say no. If you’re going to specifically talk about political Islam, I would say that I’m an anomaly. I’m part of a small minority. What most would be attracted to is the countercultural. It’s apolitical in a sense. It’s almost like dropping out of society—particularly with black American Muslims.

It’s different in the UK where there’s a big appeal to Salafi jihadism. That appeal has always been marginal in the United States. The strain of Salafi that became popular here was largely guided by Rabee al-Madkhali, a Saudi scholar who instructed people to leave political affairs alone.

It’s countercultural, it’s political in the sense that it would call to non-participation in American politics. It would hold up an ideal of a theocratic governance, but it’s non-participatory, not active. I don’t think it made young men vulnerable to Islamism. I think I was the anomaly. I was not alone, but for most people it was more of a countercultural experience.

We’re seeing people convert, but not like we used to.

Umar Lee

FWI: In Christianity, sometimes we hear people talk about a quietest impulse. They have some sort of hope for utopian end times, but they’re not really interested in politics.

Lee: That’s a good correlation. That’s an accurate phrasing. There’s this vague idea of this kind of theocratic utopia but no action towards that. We do see them become very political. It is most often because they have, either online or in suburban mosque settings, been acculturated into some immigrant group, whether it be Palestinian, Pakistani or some other community.

Declining Conversions

FWI: You would encourage people not to be too alarmed by disaffected young men converting to Islam.

Lee: I wouldn’t be alarmed at all. I also would say the numbers are much lower than they used to be. The data is clear. The recent mosque study [conducted by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding], indicates that the number of converts is decreasing. Anecdotally, we already knew this.

In the history of American Islam, the conversions came in waves. In the late 1960s-early 1970s, there was a movement mentality where a lot of African Americans were joining various movements. Islam was seen as one movement to join. In the late 1980s-early 1990s, because of the re-emergence of the popularity of Malcolm X and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X film, the re-release of his biography by Alex Haley, and conscious hip-hop, there was another big wave.

We’re not seeing a wave these days. We are seeing people convert, but not like we used to. Islam has declined in popularity in the black community. It doesn’t have the prominence and popularity and esteem that it once had for a variety of factors.

But when we do see young men converting, it really depends on how they convert, where they convert, and what happens afterwards because most don’t stay around long. And those that do, the percentage that would be attracted to political Islam would be minuscule. In most cities, it’s more of a quietist Salafi influence.

On the West Coast, pockets of Sufi influence are growing. Even in terms of people that — I’m talking about not just converts but Arabs and South Asians, for example — used to be Islamists, many of them have gravitated from Salafism to Sufism. Sufism has become much more popular and with that, what I call neo-Ottomanism, a fetishization of the Ottoman Empire, because the Sufi scholars that they follow are quietest. They’re people that are not affiliated with Islamist politics.

Many of them, what I call the “Akh-Right,” especially males, have gravitated toward conservative and right-wing politics in the United States. The ground of political dialogue is rapidly shifting in these Muslim communities in America.

Islamism Losing Ground

FWI: How so?

Islamism is no longer popular. Back in the day, it was very popular. Islamism is kind of like the Patriarca crime family which used to dominate organized crime in New England [before its fortunes declined in the face of federal prosecutions the 1980s and 90s]. It just kind of died a death of old age. People flipped. People went to jail. People died. Their kids became successful, middle-class Americans and didn’t want to pursue that life. It’s not that there aren’t still guys around there that are hustling and making money. They’re still there, but they don’t have the clout that they once did. Islamism is in the same situation, it’s no longer popular. Very seldom will you talk to someone of any age, outside of a MAS convention or something like that, who espouses Islamist politics.

I attribute that to reality — the failure of the Arab Spring, the disaster of what happened in Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. Islamist politics has become so unpopular in the Muslim world that historians in 100 years are going to write that there was a 40-year period — from the mid- to late seventies until the late 2010s — of this Islamist political revival that faded away after the Arab Spring. In the U.S. we don’t see people talk about Islamist politics.

FWI: You have distanced yourself from Islamism.

Lee: I have changed a lot, evolved a lot. I was one of those people who was very much attracted to Islamism — never to the extreme ISIS type, but definitely to the Islamist spectrum.

But we also have to combine that with the things law enforcement did in America after 9/11. Oftentimes they were doing intelligence, but they weren’t that intelligent.

They would go to a place like Philadelphia and see all these violent black guys on the street and think, “Oh wow, this is a real Islamist threat. These guys are real militant radicals” — when actually, that wasn’t the case. They weren’t Islamist at all. They weren’t Islamic militants at all, like zero on the scale, because they were influenced by the quietest Saudis. But they were street guys.

They weren’t going to commit a terrorist attack. They may shoot each other. They may sell some drugs. Law enforcement saw these guys in Philadelphia as inherently suspect and dangerous, even though they weren’t Islamist. Some of them were criminals, but they weren’t Islamist. Their demeanor, their posture and just who they are seemed threatening.

With me, yes, I was attracted to Islamist politics, I was with Ali Tamimi and Sheikh Abdul-Rahman al-Basir and many people that were espousing those views and kind of got acculturated in it. I took on that rhetoric and worldview. But I’m also a north St. Louis Guy. Even if I hadn’t been a Muslim, I probably would’ve been out robbing people. It wasn’t like I would have been like a dove if I hadn’t been a Muslim. I liked to talk smack before I was a Muslim, I liked to talk smack after I became a Muslim.

Conversion had some negative consequences, a period of extremism and Islamist political support, but it also kept me out of trouble and away from a criminal lifestyle. You have to remember that a very high percentage of guys who grew up where I did ended up addicted to drugs or alcoholics. Many didn’t live to see 40 and quite a few didn’t make it to 21. For all of the problematic aspects of the Muslim experience in America, there is a track record of conversion keeping some men off the streets and clean.

Converting to Transcend Race, Class Conflict

FWI: In Malcolm’s Path you indicate that you are part of a group of young white men who are frustrated by the issues of race and class America. Is this frustration one reason why you said the shahada? Did Islam represent a way to transcend the white-black divide in American society?

Lee: A hundred percent. That was the initial attraction to Islam for me and for several other people I’ve talked to. It was naive and of course ludicrous, but that was the initial attraction, no doubt about it.

FWI: What allowed you to stay a Muslim? Was there something about the practice of the faith?

Lee: Yes, there was. When I’m feeling high-minded I’m tempted to say it was the theological concepts and the connection to God, but what really made me stay was really the brotherhood. I developed this comradery and learned how to live as an adult in a different way. I don’t eat pork, alcohol’s not a part of my life, for example. It’s a different way of living, a different way of talking. We got enculturated into this Americanized version of Islam. But we never quite get to where a Muslim from a Muslim family and country gets because we don’t have that cultural component. We’re kind of hybrid, but we identify with each other.

Impact of 9/11

FWI: In your text Malcolm’s Path and the text that preceded it, The Rise and Fall of the Salafi Movement in America you argued that 9/11 was a catastrophe for Muslim communities in the United States. But the message that I saw in parts of the media was that there was an increase in interest in Islam in the aftermath of the attack and that this interest was a great driver for conversion. What was really going on?

Muslims are passé. America has moved on twenty years after 9/11.

Umar Lee

Lee: Well, I’ve heard that said. People have said that. I’ve never seen the data that backed it up and I didn’t see that personally. Interest definitely increased a hundred percent. People studying Islamic studies in universities and Middle Eastern studies went up, foundation grants went through the roof, as did media interest, book deals, which have all kind of fizzled out in the last years. It’s hard to get a book deal writing about Islam now. Public interest in Islam has plummeted. Muslims are passé. America has moved on twenty years after 9/11.

As far as 9/11 being a catastrophe for Muslims, I don’t even look at it in the sense that a lot of people were harassed. I think that was true. It happened and it happened to me as well but at the end of the day it was not that big of a deal by itself.

But all of those things went to create an immigrant Muslim identity movement, divorced from religion, a kind of a secularized ethnic identity that led people into book deals, that led into TV shows like Ramy [a TV show about an Egyptian immigrant family living in New Jersey] that led into every news outlet having to hire a hijabi and promote this kind of hijabi culture, divorced from faith and piety.

If all you are offering is identity politics, you can go to TikTok and get that. You don’t need to go to the mosque if there’s no spiritual component.

Umar Lee

It led people to think “OK, we see ourselves as oppressed and marginalized, so we have to abandon dawah, abandon calling to the faith, abandon publicly discussing the faith and just root ourselves as an oppressed minority and have this perpetual victim mentality.” That became the dominant culture of the community, a victim mentality, secularized identity, using Islamist talking points when it suited, using progressive talking points when it’s suited, sometimes kind of merging the two, in weird, odd ways, that didn’t make a lot of sense. So essentially the stance of the mosque community became nothing more than identity politics, anti-Israelism and victimization. If you don’t see a lot of people converting now, or you see mosques without a lot of young people in them, I think it’s because the community did not offer a lot. If all you are offering is identity politics, you can go to TikTok and get that. You don’t need to go to the mosque if there’s no spiritual component.

Gender Divide in Muslim Politics

FWI: Sam Westrop at the Middle East Forum has written about a growing connection between Islamist leaders, the Republican Party, and the conservative movement in the United States. One of the concerns he’s raised is they’re actually affiliating with white supremacists.

Lee: That’s right. So when I went on that podcast to talk about my trip to Israel, Mahin Islam, the host, got attacked. People said, “Why did you have this guy on?”

I said, “Hey, you had Richard Spencer on! How am I controversial?” And Mahin said, “Well, most of my listeners are quiet Nazi racists. He said Richard Spencer wasn’t controversial to them at all. He was half joking. But what he meant is that his base is very far to the right in terms of race and other issues. Richard Spencer was not controversial to them. And I’ve seen several instances just in the last year of people that used to be steeped in this kind of Islamist rhetoric and worldview and now they sound like Candace Owens. They’re echoing MAGA talking points. They’re not using the talking points of MAGA, but the talking points of the very Far Right,, the neo-Nazis, the extreme Right. That’s growing and it’s growing with males.

What you’re increasingly seeing in the Muslim community in America is a gender divide. You’re seeing that progressive politics [are] very popular, especially with women, especially young women. We know after 9/11 there was this leftward shift in the American Muslim community — the Muslim Brotherhood, Muslim American Society — all those people supported that. It was kind of Machiavellian because they weren’t actually progressive.

But what happened is that their kids went very far to the left. It was a project — a political calculation in response to the Patriot Act, the Iraq War, MAS [Muslim American Society], the Ikhwanis, they allied with the Left. But their kids and the younger generation genuinely became progressive. They couldn’t manage the creation that they created. Their idea was “We are going to send our kids to Harvard, to Columbia and they’re going to come out being eloquent spokesman for political Islam.” And they came out leftist.

Now some of them, like Dalia Mogahed, would kind of merge the Left with Islam. But often, the young girls are coming away with a very secular world view and a secularized Muslim identity. At the same time, these progressives have the institutional support within the organized Muslim community.

But you’re seeing an insurgency led by men, particularly younger men, that are rejecting this progressive shift. They’re rejecting it in very harsh terms and going very far to the right. What you’re seeing in the Muslim community is — especially the young people — the Left, and now this segment of the Far Right, are really taking up all the oxygen and moderate politics is very unpopular.

What we’re seeing is an insurgency against the institutionalization of progressivism because the ‘woke’posture of the Muslim community, of Linda Sarsour, of Ilhan Omar is not the actual Muslim community.

Umar Lee

People went nuts when I supported Joe Biden in the presidential primary, because Bernie was so popular. It was almost a heresy, that’s how popular Bernie was to young Muslims.

What we’re seeing is an insurgency against the institutionalization of progressivism because the “woke” posture of the Muslim community, of Linda Sarsour, of Ilhan Omar, is not the actual Muslim community. The actual Muslim community is a very conservative place. The actual Muslim community is not a “woke” place. When I say conservative, I’m talking about cultural conservativism. A lot of people just said, “Hey, why do these people have a monopoly on the discourse or representation of Muslims?”

I get that. I understand that, but I don’t see why you have to say, “OK, now I’m going to be a Trump person, or “Now I’m going to go even further — I’m going to be Akh-Right, associated with people like Richard Spencer.” I get the critique because I had the critique myself. I don’t like the politics of Linda Sarsour and I don’t like the politics of Ilhan Omar. That doesn’t mean I have to flip off to the extreme Right. But that’s being instigated by people like Daniel Haqiqatjou and others.

The Akh-Right

FWI: I look at Daniel Haqiqatjou and I see a disaffected young white guy who’s going off the rails.

Lee: He’s not that young. I think he’s like 40. His father’s Iranian, his mother’s white, he went to Harvard. The Muslim community is very big into academic credentials. He’s a very angry and bitter guy and essentially is just what you could find on Newsmax, but with an Islamic spin, with a little Arabic thrown in, a little Islam thrown in, not a deep thinker. I watched his debate with Imam [Mohammad] Tawhidi. Tawhidi just destroyed Haqiqatjou because he’s a terrible debater and he can’t think quick on his feet. But he’s been able to organize this group of young, disaffected males.

Now, I wouldn’t call all of them incels [a neologism, meaning “involuntary celibates”]. Here’s what I tell people: If they weren’t Muslims, they would be incels. It’s a lot easier for Muslims to get married. If you have a job, if you come from a decent family, you may not get who you want, but you’ll get somebody, right? For white American young males there’s no family-arranged marriages. It’s just a lot more difficult to get married if you’re kind of an unattractive guy, you’re not smooth or whatever the case may be. They are probably just unhappily married probably. That’s probably the more likely scenario.

If I look at it analytically, they’re annoying. I’m sure they’re terrible to be married to, but they’re not as bad as the guys in Birmingham in the UK.

“Don’t Convert”

FWI: In a recent Substack post, you wrote that white people should not convert to Islam because of the distrust they are subjected to by non-white Muslims. You stated that “no matter what you do, no matter how much water you carry and ass you kiss, you’ll never be fully trusted and accepted, so why bother?” Was that a heat-of-the-moment response to the blow back you got from your trip to Israel?

Lee: I’ve said before that I don’t think it’s a good idea to convert, but I’m in a different situation. It’s like a 30-year marriage. I might as well ride it out.

But no, I tell young people when they ask me [if they should convert], I say “Don’t.” That’s my advice. Now I have a buddy of mine from St. Louis who’s a lawyer down in Atlanta, Todd Barbee, black guy, and he tells young black guys the same thing. “Just take a yoga class or something,” he says. But some people need religion, some people really do, and it really helps them. You can’t make a blanket statement, but for most, it’s not going to work. But there are some people that, not just Muslims, they need some structure and religion, but the numbers don’t look good. I wouldn’t advise it.

White Women Fetishized

FWI: Do you think this distrust is the same for men and women in the community?

Lee: No, it’s more for men. There’s this real strong brotherhood for men. I don’t want to generalize, but there’s often not as strong of a sisterhood for women and part of that is because of polygamy. A lot of times women see other women as competition. As a Muslim guy, I can invite a brother over to have dinner at my house. But if an attractive woman converts, she has a problem making friends. People don’t want to invite her over to their house, because their husband might say “Hey!” because of polygamy, particularly white women.

A lot of men, particularly Arab men and others, really fetishize white women.

Umar Lee

Not to be politically incorrect but let me do it: A lot of men, particularly Arab men and others, really fetishize white women. She could be unattractive, she could be not much to write home about, but whether for a green card, whether for citizenship, or whether just check it off the box, she’ll be coveted. White women are definitely coveted when they convert for marriage, while white men who convert are viewed with suspicion, like “Who is this guy?”

Now, part of it is kind of funny. There’s a thing with a lot of these immigrant Muslims. A friend of mine says, “When I look at a convert, I think this guy is a nut.” What he’s trying to say is “Why would he join this mad house?”

I do think that’s a kind of a underlying view for a lot of people. They won’t verbalize it because it doesn’t make you look like a pious Muslim. But they’re thinking to themselves, “Why is he signing up for this?” But yes, there is that suspicion definitely, for the white convert male, more so for the male than the female.

FWI: You’ve been very critical of Jonathan A.C. Brown at Georgetown. He seems pretty obtuse on the issue of slavery in Islam. Why does he have so many defenders?

Lee: Number one, his father-in-law [Sami Al-Arian] is a terrorist. [In 2006, Al-Arian pleaded guilty to conspiracy to providing funds to Palestinian Islamic Jihad.] Brown represents the climax of this Left-Academic-Islamist alliance because he’s a Brotherhood guy to the bone. He’s at Georgetown, a “progressive” institution where a Catholic academic defending Catholic slavery would be out of a job within weeks, where a Jewish academic defending Jewish slavery would be out of a job within weeks. But he’s able to hide behind this progressive Muslim-identity politics to say, “If you attack me, you’re attacking a marginalized group” — even though this is a white guy from Virginia. Jonathan A.C. Brown is absurdly able to hide behind this dialogue of intersectionality and oppression.

Number two, he’s an academic and academics have a lot of clout in the Muslim community — disproportionate to what academics enjoy in other communities. Number two, he’s white. And while there’s suspicion toward white converts, at this kind of elite level of a Hamza Yusuf or Jonathan Brown, there’s a pedestal on which white scholars have traditionally been placed.

Third, he has the Brotherhood’s support because he’s a Brotherhood guy. He has the Akh-Right support because he defends issues that they agree on. Rape, consent, slavery, all things, the Far-Right love, you’re talking their language. The progressives defend him. A lot of the academics don’t like him, but a lot of people defend him out of Muslim identity politics. And they like his wife because she is a woke-Islamist, an Al Jazeera-Leftist-Islamist-Frankenstein combination.

It’s important to counter [Brown’s] message on slavery. In Kansas City, Allison Fluke-Ekren was just convicted for being an ISIS leader in the federal court in Alexandria. She was a Muslim convert who used to be a schoolteacher at the Muslim school in Kansas City. She took her family, moved to Egypt, then ended up in Syria as an ISIS leader where her children got killed. She held slaves, organized terrorist attacks, and only got 20 years.

The group she joined — ISIS — made the exact same arguments about slavery as Jonathan A.C. Brown: “Hey, Western slavery was bad. Islamic slavery is OK. It’s not as bad. We do it within parameters within the legal framework, et cetera,” they said. That’s all they did.

“If the policy of Saudi Arabia is to oppose the Muslim Brotherhood … then why [is it] funding Jonathan A.C. Brown?”

A Question for the Saudi Royal Family

FWI: He seems to be one of these people that just doesn’t want to get it.

Lee: With Brown, I don’t know how much is a grift, and I don’t know how much is real, but one thing I do know is that his position at Georgetown is funded by a Saudi prince. I would like to get a message to the Saudi royal family: “You are a hundred percent opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, a hundred percent opposed to Islamist politics. Why is a member of your royal family funding this Islamist polemicist at an American university, an academic that is also supporting not only slavery but your political opponents?” (Laughs).

I would like the Saudi ambassador to answer that question. I would like the Saudi government to answer that question: “If the policy of Saudi Arabia is to oppose the Muslim Brotherhood, which they — and the UAE — have said is a terrorist organization, then why are you funding Jonathan A.C. Brown?”

The Problems With Imams, TikTok

FWI: How can moderate imams compete with the more radical imams you have condemned in recent years?

Lee: They need to address the circumstances of the Muslim community where it’s at. In many mosques in America, the discourse is detached from people’s lives. It’s irrelevant. This is why we have this un-mosqued movement. They go to jumʿah, it’s very boring. It’s not talking about anything relevant to their lives. If imams want to be helpful, want to be relevant, want to have the ears of these young men, want to have a bigger influence than Andrew Tate and Jordan Peterson and the Islamists or whoever — they have to talk to people about what’s real. Your discussion of sex can’t just be stuffed with law. Imams have to have a real discussion with people on sex, gender, and identity. They have to show their followers how religion can be used to make them better people, give them better lives, give them meaning. If it’s all about anger and judgment it’s not sustainable. It’s not healthy and it’s not beneficial for individuals or for the greater society.

We have girls that wear hijab at home when they’re out with their parents and they take it off and go to nightclubs. We can’t just say these people don’t exist. This is why Muslim TikTok and Muslim Instagram have become so popular. They’re spaces where young Muslims can go to have a real discussion about what’s going on in their lives — dating and all the other stuff that American youth go through.

The problem with that wild, wild west of TikTok and Instagram is that it is a wide-open door for extreme actors to walk into, whether they be Islamists, the Akh-Right, Communists, or other fringe figures — these social media applications have made their job much easier. It’s easy for crazy people to meet. You just go on social media, open up an account. Back in the 1980s, Communist supporters of East Germany and the Soviet Union. stood on street corners and passed out fliers and had 10-15 people show up at their meetings. We saw the same thing with the neo-Nazi groups. Now, through social media, they can easily connect with one another. If you want to have positive messages to counter that, you have to be online, you have to be on social media, you have to make good videos.

FWI: Is there a way to tell if an imam wants his followers to convert for their spiritual benefit and not out of a desire to recruit them into the cause of Islamism?

Lee: In the past, conversion has been used as recruitment, not just for Islamism, but for these groups like Jamil Al-Amin’s group, where when you converted, you made your bay’ah [oath of allegiance] at the same time, it was a simultaneous thing. People entered Islam and you entered the Jamaat Al-Amin simultaneously. And a lot of people didn’t even know it. They had made bay’ah to Jamil. [Jamil Al Amin, aka H. Rap Brown, was convicted of murdering a police officer in 2000.]

There have been people who converted because they believed Muslims are the most effective antisemites. A responsible imam will try to vet that out and try to explain it, but an irresponsible one, and there are many of them, won’t.

Umar Lee

It goes back to intent. A responsible imam will make sure that a potential convert is spiritually grounded and that his goal is to establish a relationship with God using the toolbox of Islam and the spiritual path of the Sunna — not pursue a political cause. We have seen fringe people, a lot of white guys in particular, who have been inspired by YouTube videos to convert to Islam to join ISIS or other terrorist groups and for antisemitism. There have been people who converted because they believed Muslims are the most effective antisemites. A responsible imam will try to vet that out and try to explain it, but an irresponsible one, and there are many of them, won’t.

Antisemitism in the Muslim Community

FWI: What’s your take on the main American Muslim organizations? You’ve mentioned Muslim American Society and the Islamic Circle of North America. I’m having a tough time squaring CAIR’s condemnations of antisemitic attacks with Nihad Awad’s praise of Yusef Qaradawi, a well-known antisemite.

Lee: It’s a farce. Nihad is such a phony. When they raised money for the Jewish cemetery that had been vandalized, it was just low hanging fruit to get good publicity, just a pure PR stunt. I remember being in a room with him in the nineties, and he mentioned that he met Clinton and he walked up to him and said, “My name’s Nihad Awad, and I’m against the peace process.” And he said, “Clinton’s kind of stunned and said, ‘Why’?’ He just gave him a card.”

Awad is a Hamas guy, everyone knows it. Any thinking person knows that, and we know what their position is. Read the Hamas charter, it’s all there.

Any condemnation of antisemitism from him, or even from people like Mehdi Hasan who have completely delegitimized Israel is false because a big driver of antisemitism is anti-Zionism. They are connected at the hip. People that de-legitimize the Jewish state are not in a position to speak out against antisemitism when they’re emboldening antisemitism.

There’s a lot of support for Kanye West and Kyrie Irving in the Muslim community, particularly among the black Muslims — and from non-black Muslims. It doesn’t have anything to do with Israel. It’s antisemitism. Israel is just a byproduct.

And Kyrie and Kanye are a lot more relevant than Nihad Awad. These guys have millions of followers and are very relevant to the culture so we could see violence against Jews. We can see another synagogue massacre like what we saw in Squirrel Hill [a neighborhood of Pittsburgh] in 2018.

FWI: Hostility toward Israel seems to be a unifying force for some pretty disparate groups.

Lee: Absolutely. If you’re in the Islamist camp, you have your own rhetoric. They’ll say “Palestine is an Islamic struggle,” “It’s a waqf [mortmain] of the umma of Mohammed,” “We have to save Al-Aqsa,” “Jihad is an obligation.”

If you are a leftist, you say “It’s a settler colonial state,” “This is not a religious struggle,” “This is a struggle of oppressed people of color against a European settler movement and the Zionist-controlled Congress.”

And if you’re on the Akh-Right, you just resort to the classical antisemitic arguments that Western antisemites have made: “The Jews run the world, the Jews run America. Israel is a Rothschild [run-state].” That never changes.

By far, the least popular thing you can do is support Israel. I could get on video and drink liquor, smoked weed and people would say, “Hey everybody, no one’s perfect. Everyone makes mistakes.” I could be in a porno and people would say, “Hey, well…” But support Israel? That is the worst thing that you can do. There was a lawyer from St. Louis who saw some of my photos and videos in Israel. What really set him off was me having breakfast in Jerusalem — which was a very delicious breakfast I might add. He said, “Oh how can you sit there and eat?” This is a clear violation of BDS!” That’s hilarious. Of all the stuff I did in Israel, eating breakfast was the worst thing this guy could imagine.

When it comes to Israel, everyone is still unhinged. It doesn’t matter what segment of the communities they’re in. There are very few rational people. And even the rational people I talk to, they’ll agree with me in private, they won’t say anything in public. In private, they’ll say, “Yeah, I agree with you, we got to be rational about this and realistic and Israel’s a reality.” But they won’t say that publicly cause it’s so unpopular.

Most Muslims believe that anti-Muslim bias is similar to anti-Jewish bias. One of the characteristics of antisemitism is the belief that all Jews get together in a dark room and plot how they are going to run America when the reality is they are all just going to their jobs, doing their thing, trying to live their lives. There are very few Muslims out there that even think about opposing the Constitution. They’re just functioning as every other citizen does.

But regarding Israel, we must look at what’s going on. We must put it all together because they’re all connected. When somebody is rabidly anti-Israel, they’re also antisemitic, they’re also not good neighbors to Jewish neighbors. Look at the Boston Mapping project — a blatant and complete antisemitic project. It’s a “Digital Kristallnacht” because it is a plan to mark every Jewish organization in Boston. It might begin in Boston, it won’t finish there. Next thing we’ll know it’ll be the “Chicago Mapping Project” and then it’ll be in Cleveland, St. Louis, and so on.

So how do you counter this? I think it’s very difficult. But people such as myself and other people — not just me — understand the issue and respect the Jewish community, Israel, and history. There’s a lot of people that don’t have that type of animosity, they’re not political zealots or Islamists. We need a format to make our voices heard so that other people can come out and voice these opinions and not be ostracized. You’re not going to get it at ISNA, you’re not going to get it from MAS. I mean even looking at Wajahat Ali, who took a very unique and weak position on Israel was banned from ISNA. He’s not a radical guy, not a particularly interesting guy in terms of what he’s saying, but even his weak position and that he visited Israel and Judea and Samaria — that got him banned from ISNA.

CVE Useless, Anti-Muslim Rhetoric Harmful

FWI: Some of the people involved in the counter-Islamist movement don’t understand the need for religion. They either dismiss Islam, become anti-Muslim, or even dismiss the notion of religion altogether. And that seems to hinder their effectiveness in the fight against Islamism.

Lee: There is the countering violent extremism (CVE) crowd and the counter-Islamist crowd. The CVE crowd is just another useless government program. The government says: “OK, we have a drug problem, so we’re going to allocate $5 billion to education against drugs” — which in reality, it’s just a bunch of non-profits that are making money. No one is getting off drugs because of this. So the CVE industry would say “Hey, we have to counter this message.” A lot of people make the money, get something nice for a grant. But not one person will say, “You know what? I’m a terrorist. I’m going to stop a terrorist because I read this brochure.”

Mosques are businesses, and most people, Muslims included, don’t want to be in the business of opposing the government.

Umar Lee

The problem with the counter Islamists is when they root their message in anti-Muslim language. Muslims leave the conversation when they hear this rhetoric. If you’re disrespectful towards Muslims and Islam, they’re not going to stick around to hear what good points you make. When you’re having a conversation trying to get religious people to be more moderate and be more reasonable, you can’t just inflame them by attacking their religion.

Most Muslims Support America, Most Mosques Are Businesses

FWI: Is there a way for Muslims to practice their faith as a fruitful, divinely inspired response to the human condition that can be embraced by Westerners in general and Americans in particular without promoting the overthrow of the constitutional order that Western democracies are based on?

Lee: Absolutely. Look at Imam Warith Deen Muhammad. His was a movement that promoted a strong Muslim identity. It was a movement that also promoted good citizenship and patriotism. They put the American flag on the front page of the Muslim Journal [published by Muhammad’s organization, the American Society of Muslims]. He went to Congress and led prayer and waved the American flag. He visited Jerusalem. We have examples of this.

That’s just one model. Look at what Ta’leef Collective is doing. It’s promoting an Islam that is not militant, that is not adversarial. There are other groups like that out there. I think that’s generally the direction people are going. Mosques are businesses, and most people, Muslims included, don’t want to be in the business of opposing the government. They want a piece of the American pie. They want their house in the suburbs.

FWI: Thanks so much for this interview.

Lee: You’re welcome.

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