Opinion

Muslim leader warns: ‘Emgage won’t change’

Following the decision by the U.S. Council of of Muslim Organizations to remove Emgage from its membership, Hatem Fariz recounts the organziation's history of reneging on assurances and breaking promises.
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In recent weeks, Emgage, a self-professed American Muslim civic engagement organization, has come under fire from prominent activists and organizers within the Muslim community following disturbing revelations of deep ties between the organization’s leaders and several anti-Palestinian, anti-Muslim groups in the United States. Most recently, the U.S. Council of of Muslim Organizations (USCMO) removed Emgage from its membership. 

In a statement released yesterday, USCMO stated it had been investigating concerns for a path forward. Yet USCMO stated, “Despite strong efforts by everyone involved and some progress, we were not able to reach agreement. As a result, Emgage is no longer a member of USCMO.”

Given my negative experience with Emgage, I could not stay silent as I saw my peers struggling to trust Emgage to end its Zionist normalization efforts. I spoke up. As a board member of a number of Muslim organizations and the director of an Islamic Center in Tampa, Florida, I witnessed firsthand Emgage’s use of false assurances and tactics to avoid accountability while misleading elected officials by claiming to represent Muslim voters in order to secure greater access to power. 

The USCMO statement stated, “Although Emgage has now said that it does not currently engage in any ‘joint programming’ with the ADL or the AJC, Emgage and its leadership have not addressed their other direct collaboration with these groups. Nor has Emgage pledged that the organization and its leaders will cease directly working with these groups.” These Zionist organizations have “a consistent track record of engaging in Islamophobia, especially against Muslims who support Palestinian human rights.”

“To that end, we encourage our brothers and sisters at Emgage to clearly, specifically, and publicly bar itself and its leaders from directly partnering with all of these harmful groups so that our community can reunite on common principles.”

The backlash against Emgage started with a series of articles exposing Emgage’s relationships with anti-Muslim Zionist organizations has led to a campaign calling on leading Muslim organizations to “drop Emgage” from their coalitions and partnerships. This has inspired many other community members from around the country to come forward with their own troubling stories about Emgage, including South Asian Muslim leaders who denounced Emgage’s ties with and endorsement of candidates linked to Hindu fascists. 

But even as more of these associations come to light, some Muslim leaders kept arguing that Emgage could be reformed or convinced to abandon its partnerships with a number of pro-Israel organizations—the same organizations that target our communities through abusive smear campaigns and push for dangerous policies as surveillance and preemptive prosecution. Indeed, one leader of the Muslim community even called for waiting until after the presidential election in November to confront Emgage’s leadership on their normalization efforts. This statement was posted as calls grew louder for the US Coalition of Muslim Organizations (USCMO) to expel Emgage from its member organizations. All that came to a head yesterday. 

Emgage USA (formerly Emerge USA) was founded in Florida. We knew its founders and many of its members since its early days. The manner in which they operated—from spreading misinformation and working to undermine long-established Muslim civil rights organizations to endorsing the opposing candidate in an election (counter to the consensus reached within the local Muslim community over which candidate would be endorsed) and excluding some of our local leaders from certain political campaigns—made them an extremely toxic organization that no one on the ground wanted to work with. 

By 2016, Emgage was banned from working in every mosque in the Tampa Bay area. However, their lack of establishing any meaningful presence on the ground in Tampa did not stop them from setting up meetings with our local elected officials and falsely presenting themselves as representatives of the Muslim community.

Finally, in April 2018, Emgage needed access to the Tampa community it claimed to represent after receiving a grant to register Muslim voters along the so-called I-4 corridor in Hillsborough County. Because Emgage had no base of supporters, it realized it needed to re-enter our community spaces if it was to be considered a legitimate representative of Muslims in politics. After a series of incidents where individuals from Emgage infiltrated and attempted to hijack our voter registration drives at Tampa mosques, the organization’s leadership requested to meet with a few leaders to convince us to allow them to operate in Tampa once again. 

At the meeting the Emgage participants were led by Khurrum Wahid, one of the organization’s founders and national co-chairman of the board. We questioned Khurrum on his trip to Israel with the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI)—a faithwashing program intended to undermine the BDS movement by sending Muslim “leaders” to Israel to learn about Zionism. Notably, the Shalom Hartman Institute, which runs the program, is funded by the Russell Berrie Foundation, a notorious backer of Islamophobic groups across the United States.

Khurrum gave us excuse after excuse, dodging the pointed questions by asking us to trust him due to his supposed history as an attorney representing Muslims. After much pushback at the time, however, Emgage gave us assurances and a written statement that they support “the Palestinian cause” and that his participation in MLI was merely “an opportunity to get an understanding of the social and political situation in both the Israel and West Bank, and to build bridges between communities in America.” (Recent statements by Emgage in September 2020 have even gone so far as to claim that a policy has been in place since 2018 to prevent any future Emgage employee or board member from participating in MLI.) They told us that the 2018 midterm election would be too important for us to allow past differences on tactics to limit our ability to mobilize Muslims en masse, in partnership with one another. 

After the 2018 meeting, we gave Khurrum and Emgage the benefit of the doubt and reluctantly believed their promise to change their ways. A decision we have regretted since.

The reality is that, despite the assurances they gave us in 2018, Emgage’s leadership maintained its ties to anti-Palestine Zionist organizations in the US. While Khurrum personally apologized for his participation in MLI—though notably, it was simply to those “offended” by the trip rather than expressing any regret for his actions including his blatant disregard for the Palestinian call for boycott—he remains conspicuously silent on his role serving on the anti-Palestinian, anti-Black, anti-Muslim group, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL)’s civil rights committee in Miami. Meanwhile, leaders of Emgage maintain a working relationship with the Shalom Hartman Institute, the organization that runs MLI. And just this past weekend, an Emgage-sponsored fundraiser for an AIPAC-backed congressional candidate was also widely criticized.

What we experienced with Emgage in Florida, from their attempts to obstruct our coalition work and voter mobilization efforts to their misleading the community about their partnerships with the ADL and other anti-Palestinian groups, should serve as a cautionary tale to the USCMO member organizations and other Muslim leaders who might have hope that Emgage would change its behavior. My only regret is that the Tampa community did not do enough earlier to expose Emgage and prevent them from misleading Muslims in other states and misrepresent themselves as serving their interests while instead working to serve those who harm and undermine our communities. 

Emgage only used the 2018 midterm elections to further entrench itself, and its unprincipled behavior, further in our communities nationwide. I commend our national leaders in taking a stand against normalization, a stand against the notion that political access can be bought on the backs of Palestinians by renouncing and boycotting Emgage immediately before the election when our voice matters most. And I urge all remaining organizations and individuals interested in fighting Islamophobia and standing in solidarity with Palestinian rights to do the same. 

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Emgage sounds like it might be an intelligence agency operation.