Why did ADL lead town hall on Muslim community safety?

Community members protested the ADL’s sponsorship of an Austin, Texas, town hall on “Muslim community safety,” on 24 January. The activists say the ADL perpetuates Islamophobia and works to suppress criticism of Israel.

Haithem El-Zabri

Why would a group that smears Palestine solidarity activists and prominent Muslim community organizations in the US be asked to lead a “Muslim Town Hall on Safety?”

That is a question that has been raised in Austin, Texas, over the involvement of the local branch of the Anti-Defamation League, along with the city’s police department and mayor’s office, in an event held in the city last Sunday.

The event was promoted as an opportunity to teach Muslims how to keep themselves safe in a time of increased hostility.

While Muslim community representatives helped initiate the event, their role has been overshadowed by the ADL.

The town hall was initially co-sponsored by the North Austin Muslim Community Center (NAMCC).

Haithem El-Zabri, a local Palestinian American activist, campaigned for NAMCC to withdraw its sponsorship. A website he created details how the ADL “claims to combat bigotry, while actually promoting Islamophobia, racism and censorship.”

The website includes links to such articles as “How the Anti-Defamation League fuels Islamophobia” as well as numerous articles on its efforts to suppress criticism of Israel and support for Palestinian rights.

Leilah Abdennabi, a 24-year-old teacher’s assistant who has directly experienced anti-Muslim harassment, told The Electronic Intifada that she had been invited to the event by several organizers but it wasn’t until days before it was scheduled that she learned of the ADL’s role.

“There are plenty of other Muslim groups and organizations that help fight Islamophobia that could have organized this event,” Abdennabi said.

“It doesn’t make sense to invite a group that perpetuates Islamophobia to teach us how to combat Islamophobia,” she said in reference to the ADL.

Outside the event on Sunday, several opponents handed out leaflets that listed ways the ADL has contributed to an anti-Muslim climate in the US.

“Official channel”

Muna Hussaini, the head of the North Austin Muslim Community Center’s media committee, was one of the initiators of the ADL town hall.

Hussaini did not respond to The Electronic Intifada’s requests for comment, but had defended the partnership with the ADL in an internal email.

“Engaging with the ADL through the City of Austin’s Hate Crimes Task Force is the official channel for planning this event in our local community,” Hussaini wrote.

Fueling the concern of community members like El-Zabri is that Hussaini has been identified among a group that traveled to Israel with the Muslim Leadership Initiative last year.

The Muslim Leadership Initiative takes “emerging Muslim leaders” on trips to Israel to supposedly enhance their understanding of Judaism and Israel.

The program is organized by the Shalom Hartman Institute, an Israeli organization that has received millions of dollars from one of the top donors to what the liberal think tank Center for American Progress terms the Islamophobia network.

The Shalom Hartman Institute is also a major contractor to the Israeli army.

The Muslim Leadership Initiative has generated an enormous backlash among many US Muslims who see it as an effort to co-opt Muslim American leaders at the expense of their support for Palestinian rights.

Hatem Bazian, chair of American Muslims for Palestine, has said participants risk becoming “tools of Israeli propaganda.”

El-Zabri sees a link between Muna Hussaini’s involvement with the ADL and her willingness to participate in the Muslim Leadership Initiative. “Clearly her work is purposely trying to establish a closer relationship between ADL and our Muslim community,” he told The Electronic Intifada.

In response to community pressure, NAMCC’s board of directors decided on 19 January to withdraw its support for the town hall. The Muslim community center removed the event from its website and contacted other mosques in the area to discourage their involvement.

But the decision has been fraught, as some worry that criticism of the ADL-sponsored event may prove a liability.

“People are afraid,” El-Zabri said.

“If anything, the NAMCC feels like they’ve put themselves out on the line and they’ve alienated themselves from the mayor and the APD [Austin Police Department]. That’s their main concern,” Mohammad Nabulsi, a law student at the University of Texas, Austin, and an activist with the school’s Palestine Solidarity Committee, told The Electronic Intifada.

Selective support

The ADL presents itself as an anti-hate group.

It discourages stereotyping of Muslims and condemns overt anti-Muslim bigotry and violence.

But the ADL campaigned against the construction of an Islamic community center planned for lower Manhattan in New York City, allying itself with key Islamophobic figures.

Under its former longtime leader Abraham Foxman, the ADL cozied up to the prominent Islamophobic pastor John Hagee, the founder of Christians United for Israel.

The group regularly conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, and advocating for Palestinian rights can land an individual or organization in the ADL’s crosshairs.

The ADL maintains a list of “The Top 10 Anti-Israel Groups in America.”

In addition to policing speech, the ADL has facilitated the training of US law enforcement in Israel.

The group has boasted that officers who take part “come back and they are Zionists” – adherents to Israel’s state ideology.

The ADL has disparaged national Muslim groups, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Muslim American Society and American Muslims for Palestine.

CAIR, the largest Muslim civil rights group in the US, has been targeted and blacklisted by the FBI.

Nihad Awad, the executive director of CAIR, is one of many prominent Muslim figures who has been spied on by the National Security Agency and the FBI, as whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed in 2014.

The ADL has encouraged the government’s villification of this group, in large part because of its criticism of Israeli policies against Palestinians.

“CAIR’s stated commitment to ‘justice and mutual understanding,’ however, is undermined by its anti-Israel agenda,” the ADL has said.

“Many people of good will and intent work at the ADL, particularly at the local level,” Corey Saylor of CAIR told The Electronic Intifada.

“However, the national policy continues to involve smearing major Muslim institutions, contributing to anti-Islam sentiment and suppressing reasonable speech and actions that are critical of Israeli policies,” Saylor added.

The ADL has mobilized against student Palestinian solidarity campaigning by training campus police and labeling activism as hate speech.

In 2013, students at Florida Atlantic University who staged a walkout of a speech given by an Israeli soldier were forced to attend an anti-bias training program designed by the ADL.

The ADL’s training programs – whether for law enforcement agencies, schools or cities – have helped establish it as a gatekeeper and arbiter of what is and is not bigotry. It has aggressively used this position to push its pro-Israel agenda.

In 2010, the ADL was one of the main convenors of the Hate Crimes Task Force in Austin.

As Muna Hussaini pointed out in her email sent within the NAMCC, this makes the ADL a link for groups seeking access to the city’s resources.

The ADL has also used this platform to train hundreds of Austin police officers.

Though the NAMCC’s leaders were ultimately not convinced by Hussaini’s arguments, she decided to go forward with the event.

For members of the community like Haithem El-Zabri, the impact of the ADL’s role will continue to reverberate.

“It is clear that the ADL wishes to divide us into ‘moderate’ Muslims who are willing to work with it, versus outspoken ones who refuse such collaboration, which then become easier to isolate and target,” El-Zabri said.

“It is extremely irresponsible of the organizers to refuse to see that, even when it has been pointed out to them,” he added.

The ADL did not respond to a request for comment.