US Muslim leaders explore Israel: ‘The Abraham Accords give hope’

Organized by Sharaka non-profit, group focuses on women’s empowerment in Bahrain before arriving in the Jewish state

A group of Muslim-Americans on a trip organized by Sharaka visits Israel, November 2022. (courtesy)
A group of Muslim-Americans on a trip organized by Sharaka visits Israel, November 2022. (courtesy)

In an effort to build bridges and promote the Abraham Accords, a delegation of 13 American Muslim leaders landed in Israel last week.

“The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has led to a polarized situation in which Muslims around the world feel they can’t even engage with Israel,” Dan Feferman, director of Communications and Global Affairs at Sharaka, one of the organizations behind the trip, told The Times of Israel on Monday. “We want to build a relationship of dialogue and understanding, where people can explore and discuss and get to know one another.”

Among the visitors was Talib Shareef, an imam educated under the Nation of Islam.

“The Abraham Accords give me hope,” Shareef told The Times of Israel by phone on Wednesday, referring to the 2020 agreements that normalized Israel’s ties to the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.

Shareef is African-American and the imam of the Masjid Muhammad, the Nation’s Mosque, in Washington, DC.

He studied under W.D. Muhammed, son of Elijah Muhammed, who led the Nation of Islam, a Black Islamic and political movement, for over 40 years, until his death in 1975. The organization then split into two camps. The one currently called Nation of Islam is headed by Louis Farrakhan, who has repeatedly expressed antisemitic positions, publicly praising Adolf Hitler and dabbling in conspiracy theories of Jewish control of the world.

“We inherit the past,” he said, “and we have to deal with it and learn how to live together in peace.” The trip, he explained, emphasized this imperative.

Shareef stressed that he was not affiliated with the organization headed by Farrakhan. The original Nation of Islam, he said, had evolved to be “something universal” that “embraced all of humanity.”

“We are looking, and we are learning,” he said, adding that he, as a religious leader, will share his impressions from Israel with the members of his congregation.

Talib Shareef, Imam at the Mohammed Mosque in Washington, DC, participates in an interfaith panel discussion in Jerusalem, November 2022. (courtesy)

This is not the first time Sharaka and American Muslim and Multifaith Women’s Empowerment Council have brought American Muslims to Israel. The last delegation, made up of Pakistani-American leaders, visited in September, aiming to foster dialogue in their community on the potential of Pakistan joining the Abraham Accords.

The latest group — which visited Bahrain for two days before coming to Israel — also consisted mostly of American Muslims of South Asian descent.

According to Ahmed Khuzaie, Sharaka’s US affairs director and co-organizer of the delegation’s trip to Bahrain, this was a conscious choice.

A group of Muslim-Americans on a trip organized by Sharaka visits Israel, November 2022. (courtesy)

“We wanted to address the American Muslim communities who are rarely exposed to the Gulf or to Israel,” he said. “They are originally from Pakistan, Bangladesh, or Sri Lanka and don’t know how the accords are functioning in daily life.”

Many Americans, he said, look at the Abraham Accords as a product of the Trump administration and do not believe in its long-lasting effects.

Since signing the accords, Israel and the three Arab states have appeared intent on cultivating warm ties, launching multiple initiatives to bring the nations closer together. The accords have also yielded economic impact. According to Israel’s Finance Ministry, since the start of their relationship, Israel and the UAE have seen trade jump to some $1.2 billion in 2021.

Since the trip was co-organized by the American Muslim and Multifaith Women’s Empowerment Council (AMMWEC), another focus of the delegation was women’s empowerment, especially during the first two days the group spent in Bahrain.

“We saw these Arab women that are happy about who they are and what they’re doing. They have jobs, they are empowered, they do what they like. That was exciting for us to hear,” Anila Ali, co-founder of AMMWEC and an activist for the Democratic Party, told The Times of Israel.

The group sat with the Israeli ambassador to Bahrain, visited the Bahraini National Museum, and met with businesswomen and female artitsts.

In Israel too, meeting succesful women from diverse backgrounds was an important focus. The delegation also attended an interfaith panel, where Shareef spoke, and toured historic sites relevant to Christians, Muslims, and Jews around Jerusalem, including Yad Vashem.

Bahrain, a small monarchy in the Persian Gulf, has in recent years seen an increase in the participation of women in the labor force – often regarded as a marker for women’s rights and empowerment – according to World Bank figures, from 29 percent in 1991 to 42 percent in 2021. (Participation in the US was at 55% in 2021; in Israel, it stood at 59%.)

Then-foreign minister Yair Lapid (left) speaks with his Bahraini counterpart Abdullatif Al Zayani at the airport in Manama, Bahrain, September 30, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

“I want to show that [Bahrainis and Israelis] live in tolerance, coexistence, and peace,” said Fatema Al Harbi, Sharaka’s director of Gulf affairs who accompanied the delegation in Bahrain. “And I want people to know more about Bahrain and especially Bahraini women.”

Faryal Khan, another co-founder of AMMWEC, said, “When we learned about each other’s cultures, we realized there was not much difference between us.”

Both women, as well as Ali, have faced criticism for their activism.

“There was a time,” Ali recounted, “when we couldn’t speak about antisemitism. People would immediately ask: ‘Are you Jewish?'”

They were also criticized, especially by their own community, she said, because they were women speaking out.

All of them feel, however, that they are making a difference. “A dialogue has opened, like never before,” Khan explained. “Some of it is positive, some of it negative. But there has been a change of mindset. And when people come to Israel, they see: it’s different than what is portrayed on social media.”

Soraya Deen, a laywer and public speaker who took part in the trip, explained that Palestinian voices were missing in the itinerary.

During her stay in Jerusalem, she said, her encounters with Palestinians were tense, including on her visit to the Al-Aqsa-Mosque. “I was cornered by seven people, because strands of my hair were showing, and they deemed that inappropriate,” she recounted.

“This medieval attitude makes dialogue difficult, since negotiations cannot exceed the people who are negotiating.”

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