Dialogue initiatives and attempts to understand the other side, as well as apologetic gatherings to explain Islam and Muslims to Islamophobic audiences ultimately delegitimize actual grievances and normalize oppressive structures in an already unequal power paradigm. Muslims do not need to “understand the other side.” They have historically understood them all too well.
The recent delegation of American Muslim commentators, policy analysts, and chaplains that participated in an interfaith trip to Israel sponsored by the Shalom Hartman Institute serves as the culmination of a number of worrying trends. By recasting the struggle for Palestinian rights as a religious conflict among interfaith partners, this approach ignores the ideological and structural dynamics at work in the repression of Palestinians. Rather, it actively promotes an Israeli narrative that seeks to conflate Zionism with the Jewish faith and legitimize an apartheid system as the fulfillment of Jewish nationalist aspirations. Since their interlocutors are unwilling to acknowledge the historic injustices Palestinians suffered—as this undermines the Zionist narrative—any “understanding” will come from one side only and serves nothing more than to prolong the status quo. Within this dynamic, the act of understanding the oppressor is far from a sign of empowerment, as its proponents suggest. It signals willful submission to the realities of that oppression. Given the historical power imbalance and legacy of discrimination against racial and religious minorities in the United States, one would expect that American Muslims would be especially troubled at the prospect of endorsing institutions that attempt to whitewash similar inequalities elsewhere.
However, the attempted cooptation of those oppressed minorities by inviting them to understand their oppression is a timeworn strategy for neutralizing opposition. As has been explored at greater length in other critiques of these recent actions, the development of programs such as the sponsored trips to Israel reflects a strategy to weaken a perceived stronghold of support for pro-Palestinian activism in the American Muslim community. The strategy seeks in part to exploit ethnic and cultural divisions within the community given that there is virtually no representation of Arab Americans (let alone Palestinian Americans) within these programs.