Florida activists say the Democratic Party in the crucial swing state nixed a Muslim voter mobilization event this month because it included Palestinian American speaker Rasha Mubarak.

Some see this episode as fallout from the actions taken two years ago by Emgage – the controversial Muslim American group facing a growing backlash over its Israel lobby ties and support for hardline pro-Israel candidates.

Some view it as a stark example of the pitfalls of putting visibility and proximity to politicians above building up grassroots leverage that can then be used to hold the powerful to account and advance community demands.

The activists say that in 2018, Emgage undermined a collective effort in which Mubarak was to play a leadership role to push Florida’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate to take a less hostile stance towards Palestinian rights.

Mubarak tweeted on Sunday that the Florida Democratic Party “canceled” the recent event because “they refused to include me, a Muslim Palestinian woman, in the speaker lineup.”

She added that this “extends the establishment’s violence against Palestinians.”

Mubarak is a longtime political activist in Florida. She serves as national committeewoman – a leadership position – for the Florida Young Democrats.

The event organized by the Muslim Delegates and Allies Coalition did in fact go ahead as planned on 17 October, but without the sponsorship of the Florida Democratic Party.

It was supported instead by the American Muslim Democratic Caucus of Florida and the Democratic Party of Seminole County.

Nadia B. Ahmad, one of the organizers, shared with The Electronic Intifada a series of emails between her and Matt Jones, the Florida Democratic Party’s “deputy municipal victory director.”

“I wanted to follow up regarding the Day of Action on the 17th,” Jones wrote to Ahmad on 5 October.

“Do you have a list of suggested/potential speakers? Let me know what else you need from me,” he added.

Ahmad responded the next day with a list of 11 speakers, noting that several still needed to confirm.

“Okay great I will follow up with our team to create a Mobilize event and share the Zoom link with you,” Jones responded. Mobilize is an app the party uses to organize volunteers.

On 7 October, Ahmad sent Jones a confirmed list of 10 speakers.

Jones also brought Lisa Peth, the party’s “municipal victory director,” into the email thread.

“I am excited to work with you and your team for the Day of Action next weekend,” Peth wrote to Ahmad, suggesting they also set up a phone call.

Ahmad told The Electronic Intifada that she did not notice until days later – when Mubarak brought it to her attention – that the Florida Democratic Party’s event description on Mobilize listed only nine of the ten speakers whom Ahmad had confirmed.

Mubarak’s name was missing.

United front

The Florida Democratic Party’s shunning of Mubarak may be connected to the state’s gubernatorial campaign two years ago, longtime Florida activists told The Electronic Intifada.

Media reports in September 2018 cited an unreleased campaign document indicating that the Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum was going to take a very pro-Israel line.

The reports claimed Gillum would support legislation against BDS – the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement for Palestinian rights.

According to the activists, this caused concern among politically engaged members of the Palestinian and Muslim communities who were considering throwing their weight behind Gillum in the close race.

They formed a group to approach Gillum, a progressive who garnered the endorsement of Bernie Sanders.

They hoped that at the very least, Gillum could be persuaded to oppose anti-BDS legislation because it would violate the First Amendment.

“A lot of us felt maybe he just doesn’t know, or doesn’t understand BDS,” Manal Fakhoury, one of the activists involved in the effort, said.

“We agreed to have the Palestinian voices take center stage and appointed Rasha to be the contact rather than having multiple people calling the campaign.”

“We were also very clear that we did not want Emgage to interfere,” Fakhoury added.

Hatem Fariz, who directs an Islamic center in Tampa, was also involved in the effort to show a united front.

“Our issue with Emgage was the normalization and the trip with Khurrum Wahid,” Fariz explained.

Wahid, a Miami attorney, is Emgage’s national co-chair.

Cozy with Israel

In 2015, Wahid went on a junket to Israel with the Muslim Leadership Initiative – the trip Fariz referred to.

MLI is an Israel lobby project to co-opt up-and-coming Muslim “leaders” in the US under the guise of interfaith dialogue.

It is run by the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute, an organization with close ties to the Israeli army. MLI shares a major funder with some of the most Islamophobic agitators in the US.

Electronic communications seen by The Electronic Intifada corroborate the accounts of Fakhoury and Fariz about the unified strategy in which Rasha Mubarak was to take the lead in addressing the Gillum campaign over its anti-Palestinian stance.

The communications show that Emgage’s Wahid also agreed to the strategy and to letting Mubarak take the lead.

The Electronic Intifada has also learned that well-known figures from outside Florida, including activists Linda Sarsour and Noura Erakat, were involved in and endorsed the strategy.

Effort undermined

According to Fakhoury, there were discussions among the activists about what would be their “minimum ask” on BDS that would allow them to help mobilize support for Gillum.

“Emgage was not an honest player,” Fakhoury added. “It was them trying to do perhaps what I’ve seen they’ve do a lot – self-enhancement, always opportunistic, looking for inclusion at a higher level at the cost of the community.”

Manal Fakhoury

Yet according to both Fakhoury and Fariz, Emgage leaders undermined the strategy Wahid had endorsed.

“Later we found out that Khurrum [Wahid] was still speaking with the campaign on his own, making sure he is pulling, or controlling or being involved in that conversation,” Fakhoury said.

Mubarak found herself frozen out of a meeting with Gillum campaign staff, which an Emgage leader attended without disclosing their Emgage affiliation to Mubarak and other organizers.

Fakhoury and Fariz cited the role of Afifa Khaliq, an official with the Florida branch of the public employees union SEIU.

Khaliq, according to Fakhoury and Fariz, delivered the message to Mubarak that she could not be involved in meetings with the Gillum campaign, citing a “technicality.”

Fakhoury and Fariz told The Electronic Intifada that they did not know at the time that Khaliq was also involved with Emgage. They and other activists only learned of Khaliq’s affiliation with Emgage later.

“We would have had a problem with that if we’d known it at the time,” Fakhoury said.

Emgage’s own website is opaque about who is involved with the organization. However, Khaliq was recently identified by another group whose event she took part in as board chair of Emgage Florida.

Because of her SEIU position, Khaliq would likely have had relatively easy access to the Gillum campaign. The activists say she used this affiliation to gain their trust while leveraging access to the Gillum campaign for the benefit of Emgage.

Khaliq did not respond to a request for comment.

Fakhoury and Fariz say that Emgage undermined the collective leverage that the activists hoped to gain through a unified stance.

“It basically diluted that whole issue, because now you have two different people trying to speak,” Fakhoury said. “If I imagine myself being the [Gillum] campaign director, if I’ve already met with Khurrum, I’m not as interested in meeting another person.”

“Emgage was not an honest player,” Fakhoury added. “It was them trying to do perhaps what I’ve seen they’ve done a lot – self-enhancement, always opportunistic, looking for inclusion at a higher level at the cost of the community.”

“I believe that the blacklisting of Rasha Mubarak in 2020 goes back to some of that work,” Fakhoury added.

“Basically, Emgage lied to us and played us,” Hatem Fariz said.

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Two women embrace and raise fists
Florida Democratic Party activist Rasha Mubarak, left, with Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib.