Meet Emgage, the pro-Israel Muslims backing Joe Biden

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Farooq Mitha is “Muslim engagement adviser” for Joe Biden, a reprise of the role he played in Hillary Clinton’s disastrous 2016 campaign. (YouTube)

As election day looms in the United States, one organization has jostled aggressively to become the go-to address for Democratic politicians courting American Muslim votes.

Emgage has enjoyed a rapid rise. But there has been little attention given to the group’s troubling ties to Israel and its lobby – including trips to Israel paid for by an organization with close ties to the Israeli army.

Emgage is not shy that it wants to be “the main civic organization for Muslim American communities.”

And the group, whose political action committee endorsed Joe Biden in April, scored a coup when the Democratic presidential nominee spoke to an online summit it organized this summer.

In July, The Washington Post described Emgage as the “largest Muslim American PAC” – political action committee – though it is unclear what that is based on.

The same article quoted a certain Farooq Mitha lauding Emgage on behalf of the Democratic nominee.

“Joe Biden is proud to stand with Emgage during one of the most challenging moments for Muslim Americans in recent history under Donald Trump’s presidency,” Mitha told the newspaper.

Based at a Florida motel

The Post identified Mitha only as “Biden’s senior adviser on Muslim American engagement.”

There was a glaring omission: Farooq Mitha is an Emgage board member. His father, Amin Mitha, also a board member, is Emgage’s registered agent in Florida, where the organization is headquartered.

Emgage’s official address is a Travelodge motel in Lakeland, Florida, owned by the Mitha family.

For Farooq to be boosting his own organization, run from his family’s business, on behalf of the Biden campaign, is a startling conflict of interest.

In a brief phone call on Tuesday, Mitha told The Electronic Intifada that he had “stepped away from Emgage formally,” but would not elaborate.

Mitha also did not respond to a question about previous attendance at conferences of AIPAC.

According to a past Emgage employee who spoke to The Electronic Intifada, Mitha told staffers he had attended the Israel lobby group’s conference and joined it as a member, justifying this as a way to learn about the organization. The former employee requested anonymity for fear of reprisals for speaking out.

Mitha said any comments to the media had to be cleared through the Biden campaign, however he did not respond to follow-up questions sent to the email address he provided.

The Mithas have promoted themselves as a plucky American success story, running small hotels across central Florida.

Amin was born into the Ismaili Indian community of British-ruled Tanganyika. He left in 1970, a few years after the country’s independence as Tanzania, because “the new socialist government made it difficult for Mitha to start his own business,” as a 2005 profile stated.

Farooq worked at the Pentagon during the Obama administration and took part in efforts to normalize ties between Israel and Arab countries under the banner of “Track II diplomacy.”

He also served as “Muslim outreach director” for Hillary Clinton’s disastrous 2016 campaign.

Fundraiser for pro-Israel Republican

Emgage may be a convenient vehicle to parlay business success into political influence and appointments. Yet despite its sudden elevation by association with the Biden campaign, Emgage is not a new organization.

It was founded in 2006 as the Center for Voter Advocacy.

Under that name, it sponsored a 2010 fundraiser at the Ritz-Carlton in Key Biscayne for Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Miami Republican who had one of the most hardline pro-Israel records in Congress. A blast email promoting the fundraiser sent by Farooq Mitha listed Khurrum Wahid, now Emgage’s board co-chair, as contact person.

The group changed its official address to that of the Mitha-owned motel in 2011.

The Center for Voter Advocacy then changed its name to Emerge USA in 2013. It became Emgage in 2017.

Until at least 30 August, Emgage listed its 10 board members – all men – on its website. That page was removed shortly after that date without explanation.

Cozy with Israel lobby

Now, Emgage is organizing what it calls the Million Muslim Votes campaign, though there is little indication it has the infrastructure to pull off such a massive national voter registration and mobilization effort.

In 2019, Emgage did receive a significant injection of funds from the Open Society Policy Center, one of the funding arms of billionaire George Soros: $75,000 to advocate against Trump’s Muslim ban and $1 million for “organizational support.”

Emgage did not respond to an inquiry about how many voters it has registered.

The effort is nonetheless backed by well-known national Muslim organizations such as CAIR, MPAC and MPower Change – the latter led by Palestinian American activist and lightning rod Linda Sarsour.

Whether they were aware of it or not, these groups have decided to partner with Emgage despite its coziness with the Israel lobby.

Emgage’s CEO Wa’el Alzayat worked at the State Department for more than 10 years. He did a stint at the American embassy in US-occupied Iraq.

Alzayat was also a senior adviser to Samantha Power, President Barack Obama’s UN ambassador and a leading proponent of regime-change wars under the banner of “humanitarian intervention.”

Alzayat has also been marketed as an “expert” by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a cut out of the Israel lobby group AIPAC.

He has spoken in at least one Washington Institute event.

Alzayat did not respond to The Electronic Intifada’s request for comment.

Junkets to Israel funded by Islamophobes

At least four Emgage personnel – including two board members – are alums of the Muslim Leadership Initiative.

MLI is a faithwashing propaganda effort run by the Shalom Hartman Institute, an Israeli think tank that works closely with the Israeli military.

The Shalom Hartman Institute and specifically MLI are funded by the Russell Berrie Foundation, one of the major financiers of extreme Islamophobic groups in the United States.

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Emgage co-chair Khurrum Wahid introduces Democratic nominee Joe Biden at an online summit in July. Wahid, and other Emgage personnel are alums of the Muslim Leadership Initiative, a project of an Israeli Zionist organization. (via YouTube)

Emgage national board co-chair Khurrum Wahid was an early MLI participant.

Wahid was present during an altercation at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque when a fellow delegation member allegedly assaulted a Jerusalem resident who challenged them over their involvement in the Israeli-organized junket.

Wahid’s Emgage co-chair AJ Durrani took part in a later cohort, according to an MLI program document seen by The Electronic Intifada. Farrukh Shamsi, a board member with Emgage’s Texas chapter, went on the same MLI trip as Durrani, according to the document.

Durrani did not respond to a request for comment from The Electronic Intifada.

And as recently as 2018, Nabila Mansoor, Emgage’s Texas executive director, was promoted as a “Muslim Leadership Initiative Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.”

Faithwashing Israel’s crimes

Journalist Sana Saeed has defined faithwashing as a propaganda strategy aimed at changing the cause of the ongoing Israeli occupation and ethnic cleansing in Palestine from a “Euro-American settler-colonialist project – that brought anti-Semitism to the Muslim world – to a nonexistent centuries long enmity between Jews and Muslims.”

In the name of healing this supposed religious enmity, faithwashing initiatives like MLI aim to co-opt and silence potential critics of Israel under the cover of Muslim-Jewish “interfaith” dialogue.

This false narrative has also been used to justify the recent normalization between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, under the banner of the so-called “Abraham Accord.”

One of MLI’s clear goals is to cultivate a North American Muslim “leadership” that is if not openly Israel-friendly, then at least will remain quiet about Israel’s crimes.

MLI is managed by Turkish-born Duke University professor Abdullah Antepli and Brooklyn-born Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi, a former adherent of Meir Kahane.

Kahane was the founder of the violent racist Israeli party Kach, which is designated by the US State Department as a foreign terrorist organization.

While Klein Halevi has softened his image in recent years, his anti-Palestinian extremism is intact.

In 2016, Klein Halevi published “A Salute to the Soul of the IDF” – a loving tribute to the Israeli occupation army that killed more than 550 Palestinian children during its 2014 attack on Gaza, an average of 11 every day.

The Hartman institute’s close ties to the Israeli military include directly employing senior officers to run a training program for soldiers with the goal of “strengthening the ethos and operations of the IDF.”

Hartman says its recent activities include “partnering” with AIPAC and sponsoring a Silicon Valley conference titled Zionism 3.0.

There was strong community pushback against MLI five years ago, after Sana Saeed and The Electronic Intifada widely exposed its ties to the Islamophobia industry and the Israeli military.

Hatem Bazian, co-founder of American Muslims for Palestine, called on Muslim leaders to shun initiatives like MLI lest they become “tools of Israel’s propaganda.”

Palestinians and hundreds of Muslim community organizations and individuals urged a boycott of the Muslim Leadership Initiative.

Alliances with Zionists

The Electronic Intifada has not seen evidence that Emgage CEO Wa’el Alzayat has traveled on an MLI junket.

But in December 2019, Alzayat joined MLI alum Wajahat Ali at the founding event of the Inter Jewish Muslim Alliance, a faithwashing project backed by the German government.

This “alliance” is actually run by the African Middle Eastern Leadership Project (AMEL), a Washington shop whose mission is to “mobilize, empower and unite millennial leaders and activists from the Middle East and Africa.”

AMEL’s “supporters and partners” include Bluelight Strategies, a public relations firm founded specifically to market Israel to skeptical Democratic and progressive constituencies.

Bluelight’s clients include the Israel on Campus Coalition, the Israel Action Network and the American Jewish Committee – all deeply involved in Israel’s efforts to crush the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights.

Alzayat is also a member of yet another faithwashing outfit, the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council.

His fellow members include David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, which is co-convener of the group.

Under Harris’ leadership, AJC has been one of the most hardline promoters of Israel’s agenda, including pushing for war with Iran, smearing supporters of Palestinian rights as anti-Semites and demanding that humanitarian aid after August’s Beirut explosion be conditioned on Lebanon’s resistance disarming itself in the face of the ongoing threat from Israel.

The Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council boasts of at least two members who are MLI alums.

Emgage has also partnered with the Anti-Defamation League, which campaigns against Palestinian rights and views the Black Lives Matter movement as a threat to US support for Israel.

Board co-chair Khurrum Wahid also boasts on his law firm’s website that he is a member of the ADL’s “civil rights committee for Miami.”

In August, some 100 anti-racist and civil rights groups called on allies to end relationships with the ADL because of its history of advancing a racist agenda while masquerading as a civil rights group.

“True Muslims support Israel”

While Emgage leaders have generally kept a low profile about their Israel lobby ties, at least one person who was recruited by the group has been loud and proud about his support for Israel: Hamza Khan, a longtime Democratic Party activist from Maryland.

In 2006, Khan appeared at a pro-Israel rally in Washington carrying a sign that read, “True Muslims support Israel.”

In 2012, he ran an online campaign to raise money to go to AIPAC’s conference and “let Pro-Israel American leaders know: In Hamza Khan, you’ve got a reliable Muslim friend and partner.”

Lately, Khan has offered limited criticism of Israel on social media, but has not renounced his previous views and his involvement with the Israel lobby.

Khan, who is of Pakistani ancestry, has also recently reiterated talking points demonizing Palestinians and Arabs more generally by association with the 11 September 2001 attacks.

In May 2019, he asserted at a Passover dinner at the University of Maryland, organized by the campus chapter of the pro-Israel group Hillel, that the “Arab terrorists” who perpetrated the hijackings claimed they had done so in order to “liberate Palestine” and “create an Arab caliphate.”

There were never any such claims from the hijackers.

It is notable that Emgage’s leadership was comfortable with recruiting Khan despite his high-profile pro-Israel advocacy.

At a 2015 event broadcast by C-SPAN and attended by Emgage co-chair AJ Durrani, Khan identified himself as a “fellow Emerge board member” with Durrani. Khan was on the board of the group’s Virginia chapter.

In April 2016 Khan participated in a meeting organized by Emerge USA – as Emgage was then known – with Clinton campaign staff.

Khan confirmed to The Electronic Intifada that he is no longer involved with Emgage. He said that he had been involved “for several months before resigning due [to] schedule conflicts and time commitments.”

Palestine is barely an issue

In light of these facts it is of little surprise that Emgage has almost no record of supporting Palestinian rights.

In July, Emgage board co-chair and Joe Biden delegate Khurrum Wahid did vote for an unsuccessful amendment to the Democratic Party platform that would have made it marginally less anti-Palestinian.

But there’s little else: The “Our Issues” section of Emgage’s website mentions only three international concerns: Kashmir, Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and Uyghur Muslims in China – all issues where blame can conveniently be placed on governments other than the United States and Israel.

Palestine and any other countries where people are suffering due to US intervention and bombing, notably Yemen, are nowhere to be found.

Silence on Jerusalem

Similarly, a letter organized by Emgage’s political action committee and signed by Muslim American elected officials to endorse Biden lists a host of Trump’s misdeeds concerning Muslims.

But there is no mention of Trump’s elimination of US aid for Palestinian refugees and hospitals, his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving of the US embassy there, or his “peace” plan that would abrogate Palestinian rights.

The letter is signed by representatives Ilhan Omar and André Carson, and Minnesota attorney general Keith Ellison – all politicians with records of speaking out for Palestinian rights.

Indeed, Emgage’s website does not mention Jerusalem or Palestine as issues at all.

The silence about Jerusalem is ominous as Israel – with the full backing of the United States – moves ever more aggressively towards seizing control of occupied East Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque compound, the world’s most revered site for Muslims after Mecca and Medina.

“Punkah walla”

Farooq Mitha, in his role as a Biden surrogate, is drawing sharp criticism.

In June, Palestinian American activists staged a virtual walkout from a Biden campaign Zoom call with Mitha.

One activist, Amer Zahr, engaged in a heated exchange with Mitha over the campaign’s dismissive treatment of Palestinian rights.

Zahr was kicked off the call by Mitha, prompting others to leave in protest:

And this month law professor and activist Nadia Ahmad accused “establishment Democrats from the Muslim community” of trying to co-opt efforts to give Muslims a meaningful voice in the Democratic Party.

Writing for Mondoweiss, she singled out Mitha, suggesting that his job with Biden’s campaign is to “keep us in check. Keep us in line. Keep us from doing anything.”

“Farooq Mitha is nothing more than a scrub from the Department of Defense looking to get ahead,” Ahmad says.

“All this is another male power grab for a punkah walla position in a Biden administration that may or may not happen,” she adds, using a colonial-era term for an Indian servant who operated a fan to keep British masters cool.

Hers is a merciless but sadly accurate metaphor for how so-called “moderate” Muslims have long tried to make themselves respectable to power – at least for their personal advancement if not for the benefit of the wider community.

In the United States, the first requirement to get some crumbs from the table is to throw Palestinians under the bus.

Emgage’s record indicates that it has already been doing that for a long time.

Follow-up article, 10 September:

Emgage response fails to address extensive Zionist ties

Ali Abunimah is executive director of The Electronic Intifada.