By Azad Essa | Full article on Middle East Eye

Emgage’s rise to prominence during the 2020 US election is not a story of a group that advocates for Muslim communities, but rather of one that has served to mute their voices.

Despite relative obscurity just a few years ago, Emgage, which describes itself as “the first and largest” national Muslim American political action committee (PAC), has enjoyed sizeable media coverage in the months and weeks leading up to this presidential election.

The publicity stunts began earlier this year, but much of the attention focused on Emgage stems from an online summit held this summer in which Biden addressed the Muslim American community. 

An appearance by a presidential candidate at a Muslim event would have been unthinkable, Democratic insiders say, during Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, with the former president routinely fending off rumours that he was a Muslim for a large part of his candidacy and presidency.

President Biden addressing Emgage

But Trump’s frequent attacks on Islam and Muslims have created what the Biden campaign sees as an opportunity to snap up a chunk of the electorate in several swing states, including in Michigan, Ohio, Florida and North Carolina.

There are an estimated 3.45 million Muslims in the United States – a tiny portion of the population – but the Muslim vote in Florida for George W Bush, for instance, is sometimes credited with making Bush president in 2000.

While Emgage has received attention from the Biden campaign, very little is publicly known about the organisation’s actual ties to and place in the Muslim community.

But Muslim American community organisers who have long known the group, its founders and board members – and its links to pro-Israel groups – say Emgage’s rise to national prominence is not the story of a group that advocates for the Muslim community, but rather one that is meant to muzzle it.

Formed in 2006 by two Muslim lawyers from Florida, Khurrum Wahid and Farooq Mitha, the organisation was initially known as the Center for Voter Advocacy – before it changed its name to Emerge and later in 2016 to Emgage.  

Community activists from Florida and Texas who recall Emgage in the early days say the organisation spent much of its formative years networking with groups and organisations rather than organising at the grassroots level.

Several activists characterise Emgage as either trying to moderate the kinds of work being undertaken in the community, or controlling the visibility of other organisations.

Sarwat Hussain, co-chair of the American Muslim Democratic Caucus-National (AMDC-National), says she has been familiar with Emgage since 2012, and that her first interaction with the group’s leadership involved her being told by an Emgage board member to downplay her “Muslimness”. 

“He told me ‘don’t be upfront about your ‘Muslimness’. But it was the opposite of what we were trying to do. We were trying to show that Muslims were here to stay, to serve. I refused,” Hussain, who is based in San Antonio, Texas, said.

Hussain, along with several other community organisers across the country, told MEE that Emgage board members also found ways to pit Muslim activists and political organisers against each other, often using existing tropes to demonise others’ work. Following the fallout, they would attempt to bring in their own contacts to take over the roles.

She said once she recognised how Emgage operated, she and other organisers tried to steer clear of the group.

“They were always seen as trying to come in where work was already being done, and then claim the work as theirs,” said Nadia Ghabin, a community organiser in Florida, who was approached in 2018 by Emgage to partner on voter registrations. She flatly refused.

Olivia Cantu, who worked for Emgage for four years before she was fired on 30 June 2020, confirmed that Emgage had a tendency to bulldoze its way over other organisations.

She said that though there were honest and hardworking individuals at Emgage trying to make sense of the political terrain, Emgage in Florida was run by “a shadow board,” in which decisions were often made between the real powerbrokers outside of formal meetings.

Cantu, who started off as a volunteer at Emgage and moved up the ranks to become Florida operations director, told MEE she was not presented with a reason for her dismissal.

She assumes she was dismissed because she had refused to stop working with the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC) on the issue of rising Hindu nationalism, after a certain Emgage board member felt the organisation was not financially benefiting from the work.

MEE has a copy of her submission to Emgage’s human resources department shortly after her termination. Emgage did not respond to MEE’s request for comment on why Cantu was dismissed.

In Wahid’s letter to Muslim Americans last month, addressing his participation and that of three others from Emgage in MLI, the Muslim Leadership Initiative – a controversial scheme which, in part, brings Muslim Americans to Israel to study Judaism and Zionism – he tried to play down the impact four individuals might have had in an organisation made up of “100 staffers and national and local board members”. 

Emgage and the ADL

Since the Electronic Intifada accused Emgage of being a pro-Israel outfit, concerned Muslim Americans have been reaching out to the organisation to seek clarity on its relationships with other groups outlined in EI’s expose. 

For its part, Emgage released a statement on its recently created Medium page, rather than its official website, in which it affirmed “its commitment to Palestinians” and addressed what it described as “false claims”. 

But Emgage did not address allegations that it had links with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a pro-Israel organisation that in August was the subject of an open letter signed by more than 100 activist groups accusing it of “a history and ongoing pattern of attacking social justice movements led by communities of color, queer people, immigrants, Muslims, Arabs, and other marginalized groups, while aligning itself with police, right-wing leaders, and perpetrators of state violence”.

When the outrage did not abate, Wahid addressed the Muslim American community in a letter posted on the Emgage website. In his attempt to quell the rising anger, Wahid chose to mitigate the issue by explaining that Emgage had no “programming” with the ADL. Emgage now has a section on its website, called “Fact and Fiction about Emgage” that says the organisation has no formal links with the ADL.

But in March, in an interview with MEE, Wahid spoke candidly about Emgage and the ADL, characterising the relationship with the ADL as “transactional”:

“With the ADL – what folks don’t realise, and being a criminal defence lawyer, I know – is that in the judicial world, in the world of law enforcement and judges, the ADL has a very loud voice, and if you are not engaging them on some of these issues, you are ceding that territory and you are allowing them to put misinformation out to law enforcement and judges who make decisions about those who come before them.”

Khurrum Wahid co-founded Emgage in 2006 (Azad Essa/MEE)
Khurrum Wahid co-founded Emgage in 2006 (Azad Essa/MEE)

Wahid said he understood that the optics of working with the ADL was problematic but “sometimes substance has got to take priority over the optics”.

“Sometimes when you lead, you’re stepping into a space that others aren’t willing to follow.”

He added that Emgage would work, within limits, with any organisation, including the police and elected officials who don’t agree with the community, if they felt that that engagement could help improve integration, equality and opportunity for Muslim Americans.

“And whether or not we get tarred by some in our community as being the so-called Uncle Toms in our community, I don’t think that is our primary driver.”

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