The Context

Bismillah ir’Rahman ir’Rahim

As one of the members of the second MLI cohort (housed at the Shalom Hartman Institute) I have, in previous weeks, read a lot of online chatter by uninformed parties about who we are and what we are doing with this program. Our critics have not understood what we are going through, and unfortunately this has led to personal attacks against MLI participants from people who are losing the nuances of all that we do for the sake of a sensationlist media headline to damn us.  

I publicly explained my role and my personal position about this venture a few months ago because I strongly feel that transparency is key to success in an environment where distrust among all parties is so high. Which is why I’m compelled to pause during my trip to address an incident that has attracted a huge amount of negative attention.

There has been a serious accusation against my MLI cohort while I’m here in Jerusalem– one of assault against another Muslim on the grounds of al-Aqsa mosque. A video was captured in which my face is clearly shown, and so I feel that I should give context to this story because the way it has been spun is shockingly irresponsible, dangerous and disturbing to me.

My account is as follows:

Our group was on it’s way to meet with a member of the Afro-Palestinian society (arranged by a member of our group through her own personal contacts) to hear about their history and the current condition of black Palestinians living in Jerusalem. As we arrived at their cultural center (located just a few steps from the gate to al-Aqsa mosque compound) we decided to run in and have a quick prayer. Initially the guards at al-Aqsa wouldn’t even let us inside the compound because it was closing, but then they told us we could pray outside in the compound on the ground if we hurried.

While praying on the ground outside in the mostly deserted al-Aqsa compound, I noticed a young man that I didn’t recognize standing off to the side watching us. It was Maghrib time and the light was not good. I wasn’t sure who he was or what he was doing, but I was focused on trying to get my prayers done quickly and still make them meaningful.

As I got up to leave, I heard several gunshots fired in the air at a distance in the city. By now the sky was dark (although there is lighting on the compound); the guards were shouting at us to hurry up and get out; and I was feeling nervous so I walked toward the exit gate. A voice behind me said, ‘excuse me’ and I turned to see this same young man standing a few feet away pointing a phone at me. He did not identify himself, but began asking questions and identified me as a participant of MLI and asked me what my name was. I was alarmed and my immediate response was ‘who are you?’ I try not to go around handing out personal information to strange men when traveling abroad.

In my unnerved state, I was grateful that one of my fellow MLI cohort, Mohammad, came up and covered the phone camera in my defense, telling him to put the camera away and ‘not to film the sisters’. At that point the young man started exclaiming loudly, ‘why are you being violent?’ and making a ruckus as if he were being attacked. There was no ‘violence’, unless you count someone pushing a stranger’s camera away from a woman who doesn’t want to be filmed as a violent act (which is possible– the celebrity website TMZ has built an entire platform on the concept). He was absolutely not hit or punched by anyone, and I swear this before Allah (SWT); also Mohammad’s explicit demand to not to film the women was missing from the posted video.

I turned and walked away, as did the rest of our group; although another one of the male members of our group, Khurrum Wahid, stopped to talk to him and a video of their conversation is also posted online.

Now, I understand that people may have a problem with me coming here and the way I came here. I went into this venture with the understanding that the approach I’ve taken is controversial. But it hurts me deeply that someone would purposefully seek me out in such a disrespectful way and then manipulate that encounter so as to make it seem that my group is being violent against our fellow Muslims on the very grounds of the al-Haram ash-Sharif. That is not ‘engagement’, and I am not inclined to respond to anyone who behaves in such a way.

On the other hand, I will say that I spent the entire day yesterday in the West Bank, meeting with Palestinians, including Mustafa Barghoti, one of the founders of BDS, who told that one size does not fit all in terms of the movement. I went to the location of where Bassem was killed in Bil’in (location of the documentary Five Broken Cameras) where a non violent protest occurs every week. I sat and listened to Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh speak to us about the occupation as he took us to the refugee camps in Bethlehem, namely the Aida camp. We met with smiling kids at the Alrowwad cultural center at that camp who danced for us.  We also met the world expert on al-Ghazali who teaches at al-Quds University, Mustafa Abu Sway who lives in East Jerusalem. I have also had conversations with Palestinians ‘on the street’ to hear their own individual experiences and hopes. Not a single Palestinian or Arab-Muslim resident living inside Israel (aside from this young man with the camera) has ever been anything but genuine, respectful, and warm during my encounters with them. It has been my enormous pleasure to get to know the Palestinians and benefit from their amazing hospitality, masha’Allah.

Since I’m still traveling, I’ll obviously write more upon my return to the U.S., but I felt this needed to be addressed immediately. I was very clear before I departed the U.S. that my engagement online during this trip will be minimal. I want to focus on the incredible opportunity I have to meet and speak with people living on both sides of The Occupation; but I’m writing today because there is a lot of online chatter around it and I feel that this situation needs to be clarified immediately.

I’m disappointed in the group that did this (which I have supported and shared articles from widely in the past), especially since it is clear that their intention was not good.

I hope we (the Muslim Community in America) can find a way to work together going forward with integrity, because it is my sincere belief that we need to be just as concerned with helping Palestinians as we are with creating discomfort to the state of Israel.