Debate over political response to Gaza genocide marks pivotal moment for Muslim Americans

This Ramadan, the Muslim American community faced significant debate and introspection regarding effective political engagement in light of the atrocities in Gaza.

Young activists, disillusioned with the status quo, are driving a significant shift in perspective within the broader Muslim community, widening a generational gap in how our community engages in politics in America. They want accountability, not just from politicians, but from their own leaders.

In particular, the tradition of hosting iftar dinners with politicians and government officials became a flashpoint, leading to notable instances like the cancellation of the White House iftar meal after invitees opted out, amid warnings from community members not to attend. As the holy month comes to a close with the Israeli genocide in Gaza still raging on, the debate within the Muslim American community shows no sign of ending soon.

A generational shift 

Young activists want justice and accountability over having a seat at the table and photo-ops. This stance is fueled by a pressing moral imperative, galvanizing a community increasingly influenced by its younger members. 

Across the nation, in community centers and mosques, there is a burgeoning movement led by a younger generation, who are leveraging social media, organizing protests, and engaging in direct action on issues of injustice. Pro-Palestinian organizations and collectives have popped up across the United States, and share an analysis that simply establishing relationships with politicians through physical and social proximity will not help them achieve political goals. This perspective is not only challenging the community’s relationship to elected officials, but also relationships and understandings within the community itself. Many of the old guard within these institutions find themselves at odds with the sometimes direct and confrontational tactics of the millennials and Gen-Zs who draw inspiration from historical civil rights and anti-apartheid movements. 

The ongoing controversy over inviting politicians to iftars underscores this broader debate within the Muslim community as the younger generation exhibits signs of disaffection with the politicians as well as their own community leaders. It represents a broader disillusionment with the political process and the way in which Muslim interests and values are often represented in America – with an overabundance of photo-ops, superficial engagement, and unsatisfactory results. 

Many in the community feel that for over two decades, since 9/11, politicians have engaged the Muslim community through opportunistic and empty gestures which have not resulted in the policies that they truly desire. They are calling for political involvement that transcends mere symbolism and enters the realm of substantive policy and advocacy. A younger generation is challenging their community leaders and political figures for more authentic representation and engagement. 

Ramadan greetings will no longer be enough; iftar dinners are not going to satisfy the hunger of the younger masses who demand a robust domestic and foreign policy that no longer takes them for granted. 

Ramadan controversies

Many Muslim Americans are saying that those who continue to meet with President Biden and his administration at this point are not representative of the broader community. They are tired of listening sessions where officials feign empathy with community leaders, some self-appointed, while supplying Israel with military aid. 

Reflecting this sentiment, the grassroots group Abandon Biden put out a video on social media on April 6, in which they criticized Senior Advisor to the organization Emgage, Salima Suswell, for trying to take credit for the so-called ceasefire statement from Biden on a Facebook post. “The few Muslims that weren’t principled enough to stay away from the White House have been bragging that they were the ones who pressured Biden into a call for an immediate ceasefire,” said Tom Faccine, “There is no call for an immediate ceasefire. And it sure as heck didn’t come from people who showed up at the White House.”

Suswell, is also the founder and chief executive of the newly formed Black Muslim Leadership Council, (BMLC), and she has pledged to lead her community to support Biden and not abandon him as a significant population of Muslims are pledging to do in November.

Oddly enough, Suswell’s attendance is in contradiction to Emgage declining the invitation to the White House meeting, which she supposedly attended wearing the hat of the newly formed BMLC. Unlike many other groups and community leaders, Emgage has not clearly stated whether it will be abandoning Biden in November or building with him alongside Suswell’s new organization.

This tension was seen in Ramadan events across the United States.

The Pakistani American Community of Long Island (PACOLI) also faced resistance and criticism for hosting an iftar with anti-Palestinian politicians, who have been vocal in their support of Israel, and silent on the Gaza genocide. Elsewhere in Garden City, NY, activists successfully mobilized to have Islamic Relief pull its sponsorship of a Ramadan suhoor festival by Halal Guide, whose leadership has allegedly supported pro-Israel candidates. New York City’s Mayor Adams iftars also saw disruptions and protests. 

Meanwhile, in Dearborn Michigan, which has emerged as a significant hub for those opposing Biden’s anti-Palestinian policies, the largest Suhoor festival was entirely canceled in solidarity with Gaza. “It’s a very somber period,” Hassan Chami, founder of the festival stated in a video posted on Instagram.

Imam Faizul R Khan of the Islamic Society of the Washington Area (ISWA) issued a written apology and clarification that he was “deceived”  into attending an iftar co-sponsored by the Israeli embassy.

Imam Magid, leader of Adams Masjid in Sterling, Virginia, faced considerable criticism from the Muslim community, who were shocked to see him in a photo with Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, who vetoed several resolutions against a ceasefire in Gaza. This has sparked intense debate and disappointment among Magid’s community members, as some call for accountability. A request for a town hall was met with pushback from the Adams board, according to a community member who wishes to remain anonymous, fearing further backlash for questioning Magid. 

A microcosm of this debate surrounding the politicization of religious events and how Muslims engage with politics in America in the wake of Israel’s genocide, can be found in the city of Houston, Texas, where, last month, tensions came to a head between the city’s young Muslim activists and members of the community’s “Old Guard.”

In Houston, under pressure from the community’s younger generations, 40 organizations, including the largest Muslim organization in the city, the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, (ISGH), pulled out of the annual Houston Mayor’s iftar over the mayor’s refusal to support calls for a ceasefire resolution in Gaza. 

On March 11, the ISGH board met with Whitmire privately at ISGH headquarters where they encouraged him to call for a ceasefire. Whitmire refused. However, he promptly posted pictures of himself sitting at the head of the table to his Facebook page from the meeting, which rubbed many members of the community wrong. 

While the iftar took place as planned on March 17, with the majority of the attendees from the local business community, young Muslims showed up to the event and disrupted Houston Mayor John Whitmire’s speech. Highlighting this generational shift between the attendees of the iftar and the young demonstrators, one protester, who preferred to stay anonymous, broke from her parents’ stance of attending the iftar by participating in the demonstration instead. ‘Ceasefire now!’ she shouted alongside fellow protesters, as her parents looked on.

Many of the speeches given at the Houston iftar were oratorical, championing peace while being devoid of justice and substance. Imam Ali Kemal Civelek, from the Blue Mosque, affiliated with the Turkish Cultural Center, stressed Ramadan is the month of mercy and compassion, and instead of going to our elected officials asking for a ceasefire, Muslims should ask Allah to end all wars.

Ahmed Al Yaseen, President of Jordan American Association of Houston, scolded the peaceful protestors and promised Whitmire his full support. He emphasized that it was up to “Us, not the politicians, us, to stand there, and fight and ask for the food to be delivered to our brother and sister.” 

Path forward

Despite the comments of some at the event, the millennial and Gen-Z activists do not see their vocal opposition as a barrier to political progress, but as the very means through which it can be achieved. Their approach is a stark departure from their parents’ immigrant generation, who believe in a more incremental approach that emphasizes mainstream acceptance and requires blending in rather than standing out. 

As Ramadan comes to a close, the Muslim community’s Eid celebrations are dampened this year by guilt and grief. They are finding it difficult to celebrate while Gaza starves. The World Food Program (WFP) has warned that IPC has described the food insecurity in Gaza as “the highest number of people ever recorded as facing catastrophic hunger by the IPC system, and double the number in IPC Phase 5 just three months ago.” 

Shockingly, the famine caused by Israel is unfolding faster than any famine before, even projected to be worse than what we’ve seen in Yemen, Darfur, and Somalia.

As the community grapples with these issues, it has become clear that any path forward will require the elders and the community leaders to engage younger generations’ concerns and incorporate their tactics and views in the face of challenges.

Weeks after Houston’s iftar with the mayor the shift taking place in the Muslim community came into severe focus at the International Quds Day protest in Houston, where police aggression led to the arrest of three men. While Muslim elders had hosted Mayor Whitmire just weeks before, now the community’s youth rallied to an emergency protest at the Harris County Joint Processing Center. 

“This system, this institution behind us, is actually one of the most degrading, demoralizing institutions that exists on the face of this earth,” said Nablusi, who declined to give his full name, in his impromptu speech upon his release. He implored community members, activists, and organizers to challenge this system which preys upon the poor and working class, as they challenge the genocide and occupation. “Palestine is in there! Palestine is in there!” he stressed, as he pointed to the jail behind him.


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