While American Muslims debate how best to challenge the U.S. government's unconscionable, continuous support of the ongoing massacre in Gaza, they are also debating the roles and responsibilities of American Muslim leaders in representing their point-of-view and how they should interact with Israeli Zionists.
These concerns led to heated debates in American Muslim print publications and on social media over a group of American Muslim ideology leaders involved in the controversial Muslim Leaders Initiative (MLI), an initiative organized by the Duke University Islamic Chaplain Abdullah Antepli - an academic from the Gülen Movement, led by the controversial imam, Fethullah Gülen - and the Shalom Hartman Institute, an Israeli-based Zionist educational organization.
According to Yale professor Zareena Grewal, over the period of a year, MLI leaders made two trips to Israel under the auspices of the Shalom Hartman Institute "in order to learn about Judaism, Zionism and Israeli history."
The MLI program drew strong criticism from a wide spectrum of American Muslims as well as from activists committed to the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories. "American Muslim critics and BDS activists alike are puzzled and troubled by the MLI program and its prolonged cooperation with an organization committed to defending Israeli occupation," Grewal wrote in her article for Jadaliyya, an independent web source of insight and critical analysis.
Shalom Hartman is a self-identified Zionist educational institution, and, as such, any partnership by an individual or group with the institute directly undermines the academic boycott against Israel.
Criticism of the MLI has been amplified since it was discovered that Shalom Hartman had been openly highlighting the MLI as evidence of the success of their anti-BDS initiative, their "iEngage" program with The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which quoted an MLI participant as saying, "I think the breakthrough for me was coming here [to the Hartman Institute in Israel] as someone who has always been very careful to frame herself as an anti-Zionist but not an anti-Semite, and now not quite sure if I am an anti-Zionist anymore. I am not saying I am a Zionist. I am saying I do not know what I am anymore."
Since the MLI program is bankrolled and hosted by an Israeli Zionist organization, and its stated objective is to counter BDS - a peaceful solidarity movement led by 170 Palestinian civil society institutions - it does break the academic boycott.
The cohort of Muslims who participated in MLI was composed of one Turkish-American Muslim, a white American Muslim, an African-American Muslim, and several South Asian-American Muslims. There are no Arab-American participants, let alone a Palestinian one. "When one African American imam I spoke with (who was formerly involved with the Shalom Hartman Institute, but not an MLI participant), invited a Palestinian American refugee to visit Israel with him in order to raise the issue of the right of return and Israeli racism, the Israeli border patrol refused entry to his Palestinian colleague. The Shalom Hartman faculty were then forced to acknowledge that the true obstacle to the Jewish-Muslim dialogue they organized were Israeli borders and policies, not Palestinian irrationality," Professor Grewal wrote.
The Islamic Monthly columnist, Sana Saeed, stated that Gülenist academic Antepli trusted the Shalom Hartman Institute, which he had visited for three years straight prior as a participant at the institute's multi-faith, interdisciplinary International Theological Conference (ITC) "Imam Antepli did not deny the deplorable conditions of the Palestinian people or the 'disgusting' nature of segregated Israeli society; he minced no words in condemning the occupation and treatment of Palestinians as well as the Israeli attitudes towards both," she wrote.
The movement is led by a controversial imam living in rural Pennsylvania in self-imposed exile, who is at odds with the Turkish government over the influence he wields inside the Turkish police forces and top judiciary. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently requested the extradition of Fethullah Gülen both privately and publicly from the Obama administration, and accused Gülen of plotting a judicial coup against the Turkish government before the local elections last March. The movement is accused of wiretapping thousands of people including politicians, senior officials, prominent figures and more under fake terrorism-related cases as well as false identities.