Questions About the ‘Muslim Jewish Advisory Council’ by Stephen Schwartz

The Weekly Standard Blog February 1, 2017

This evening, the Washington policy debate over radical Islam is promised a fresh interfaith effort. In the Dirksen Senate Office Building, beginning at 6 p.m., Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Ben Cardin (D-Md) will cohost a reception honoring a new “Muslim Jewish Advisory Council” (MJAC). The Council was formed in November by representatives of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the country’s premier Jewish leadership group, and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).

What could go wrong in such a worthy enterprise? AJC is a reasonable, credible institution. Its policy-makers doubtless feel more comfortable cultivating “dialogue” with ISNA, which is considered the weightiest American Muslim interest group. But ISNA has in the past been exposed as a channel for the spread of Saudi-based Wahhabi fanaticism in U.S. mosques.

The ISNA co-chair of the MJAC is an Indo-American Muslim named Farooq Kathwari, who hails from Kashmir, divided between India and Pakistan. Kathwari is the CEO of furniture maker Ethan Allen Interiors. His son Irfan, only 19, was killed while fighting in Afghanistan, according to Farooq’s brother Rafiq Kathwari, and this apparent “martyrdom” was memorialized when Farooq Kathwari endowed a foundation named for his son. In 2006, the Irfan Kathwari Foundation contributed $100,000 over three years, in partnership with the Clinton Foundation, to a program for refugee aid. Farooq Kathwari was appointed by Obama in 2010 to the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Their opening to ISNA and Kathwari did not earn the American Jewish Committee much in the way of Islamic appreciation. Hatem Bazian, a lecturer in Near Eastern studies at the University of California, Berkeley and among the most strident Israelophobes in America, became the designated laptop hitman for the aggrieved Muslims, many in the ranks of ISNA, who see “Islamophobia” as their only challenge. On his website, Bazian ranted against the AJC for allegedly fostering anti-Muslim bias, demanding peremptorily that AJC “fundamentally change its character” by “rescind[ing] and withdraw[ing]” its past hospitality to critics of Islamic extremism as diverse as Salman Rushdie, Daniel Pipes, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. According to Islamist demagogues like Bazian, before the Jewish leaders may be accepted in a dialogue with the Muslims, they must grovel.

ISNA got the message and on November 18 it issued a “Clarification” declaring that “it will honor the agreement reached with AJC and the MJAC members to promote Muslim-Jewish dialogue and understanding.” Nevertheless, ISNA claimed, “following the public announcement of the formation of MJAC, an internal inquiry revealed that standard reporting and approval mechanisms were not followed to secure formal approval of ISNA leadership to elevate involvement of ISNA to the level of ‘co-convener’ of MJAC. We were thus surprised to receive the announcement about ISNA’s collaboration with AJC on the formation of the MJAC.”

ISNA’s statement “reiterate[d] support for the right of individuals and organizations in the US to peacefully work for human rights and the right of self determination of Palestinians.” (ISNA removed the “clarification” from its website but it was archived.)

The American Jewish Committee cannot be faulted for its attempt to fulfill its long-established humanitarian mission by initiating contacts with Muslim leaders. Against the bogus charge of “Islamophobia,” the Committee’s record of diligence in the protection of all victims of bigotry is clear. AJC’s courtesy and the graceless reaction of ideologues like Bazian and the ISNA leaders could be filed under the heading of no good deed going unpunished. But Hill mandarins and good-hearted Jewish activists tempted by visions of easy cooperation with “official” American Muslims like those of ISNA should be wary of such accommodation.