On 10 April, Ismail ibn Musa Menk, the world-renowned Islamic scholar popularly known as Mufti Menk, sat down for an open-air iftar at the Maydaan Hotel in Dubai. He broke his fast with a date, a glass of water and some yoghurt. After early evening prayers, he posed for a group photo or two, and then excused himself.
Menk’s defense of the iftar, whether he knew it or not, was completely in line with Emirati talking points
“The United Arab Emirates is known for its tolerance and acceptance of the other, and this is the best evidence. Watch a group breakfast for different religious sects,” the consul general of Israel in Dubai tweeted, along with a video showing a rabbi seated next to Menk and other men in crisp white thobes. Around them, hundreds of other men and women of other religions, including Christians and Hindus, were seated in the scenic venue.
But the rabbi next to Menk wasn’t any ordinary religious leader: he was none other than Rabbi Levi Duchman, the UAE‘s chief rabbi and a prominent figure in facilitating deeper ties between the UAE and Israel.
The iftar, too, wasn’t any ordinary event. According to the Emirates News Agency, the iftar was part of the Dubai Ramadan 2022 initiative, organised by the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department. Quoting government sources, the news agency called the iftar an attempt “to consolidate the principle of moderation, wisdom and tolerance, as well as rejecting racism, under the umbrella of human fraternity”.
It was touted as the first of its kind in the Gulf.
Two days after the event, Al Jazeera Arabic published a story titled: “Israeli rabbi takes part in the first iftar for normalisation in the Emirates”. In the accompanying image, Duchman was pictured next to Menk. Al Jazeera’s story didn’t name Menk, but it wasn’t long before the internet recognised one of the most famous Islamic preachers in the world.
‘An agenda of hate’
A raft of criticism followed, with Menk at the centre of it. The Zimbabwean religious leader was taunted, his smiles with the Zionist rabbi juxtaposed with news of the recent raids on al-Aqsa Mosque complex.
Menk said he had nothing to do with the iftar and didn’t know who the rabbi was when he met him, adding that the event itself had been misrepresented in the media. He lashed out at Al Jazeera Arabic for writing “a very mischievous … deceiving title that was serving an agenda of hate”.
He inferred that he had been caught up in tensions between Dubai and Doha, the headquarters of Al Jazeera – politics he said that had nothing to do with him. “The idea of the iftar was to showcase Ramadan to the non-Muslims of the UAE. That’s not a bad idea,” he said.
“I saw some news reports that were quite accurate, initially, that there was this iftar was arranged by so-and-s0, for all faiths to get together who are living in the UAE – and the idea is [improving] harmony and understanding, and so on and so forth, which is true.”
His response left many disappointed. Usaama al-Azami, a departmental lecturer in contemporary Islamic studies at the University of Oxford, said that Menk’s attack on the media was unwarranted. “Mufti Menk seems to do a lot of good work in promoting a positive Islamic message globally. This is naturally to be acknowledged and appreciated.
“Given his global recognition, however, it seems understandable that some news organisations would express disquiet at his contribution, even unwitting, to the UAE’s efforts at normalisation of the brutal and illegal settler-colonial occupation of Palestine,” al-Azami added.
Several others also pointed out that this wasn’t the first time he had met problematic figures and then lashed out at those who critiqued him for it. In October 2021, Menk travelled to Indian-occupied Kashmir to officiate a marriage for a family with pro-India ties.
When he was criticised for fraternising with members of Kashmir’s oppressor class, his office released a statement saying that Menk wasn’t aware of the intricacies of the situation in Kashmir when he had travelled there. “Had he known in advance that Kashmiri Muslims are so divided within, he would never have visited,” his statement read.
Menk neither acknowledged the validity of the criticisms, nor committed to learning more about a part of the world suffering under oppression and occupation. Instead, his statement continued: “May Allah Almighty protect us from Kashmiri gatherings. You never know who might be sitting next to you and the whole of Kashmir will begin to swear at you.”
Whereas he could potentially get away with a pithy response to the Kashmiri critique, given its periodic erasure by all and sundry, the question of Palestine remains front and centre in the global Muslim imagination.
This wasn’t going to go away so easily.
Battle over narrative
On Monday, I wrote to Menk to ask him to address several questions about his visit to Dubai and the controversy it had stirred. I asked whether he would be willing to provide more details about his trip, why he continues to travel to Dubai despite the UAE’s transgressions as a state, and whether he appreciated how the optics of being seated next to a prominent Zionist was a coup for both the UAE and Israel.
If Muslim leaders aren’t willing to invest time into understanding the plight of their people, they don’t merely become complicit in their oppression, they normalise ignorance, too
To his credit, Menk replied.
In a tone markedly more conciliatory than the video statement, Menk said the motivation of his work, which has taken him around the world, was primarily “dawah [proselytisation] and healing the broken hearts, especially Muslims, struggling across the globe”.
He looked to bring people closer to Islam, build relationships and understanding. To make his point, he added: “I am not politically savvy.”
Regarding his trip to Dubai, Menk said he had travelled on invitation from the Al-Manar Islamic Centre to participate in three events in Dubai. He said he paid his own expenses, “as I usually do”. He has previously delivered lectures at Al-Manar Islamic Centre in 2019 and 2021.
Explaining the events of the final day, he said that following the conclusion of his final event, his hosts told him that he had been invited by the Department of Islamic Affairs to attend an iftar. He said he went along, without being provided any additional details, which led him to sit next to the rabbi.
As he narrated in his video statement, he said that he wasn’t aware of what role the rabbi played in the UAE. This time he added one more caveat: “Had I known, I wouldn’t have attended,” Menk said. But then came several contradictions that go to the heart of the controversy: a battle over narrative.
Over the past several years, the UAE has attempted to project itself as a tolerant country, so much so, that the ambition is written into the country’s soft-power strategy.
But its allusion to “tolerance” is merely a cover for its oppressive policies. “For at least a decade the UAE has shown a determination to harm Muslims around the world, whether it be in enthusiastically supporting China’s crackdown against the Uighurs, promoting Muslim scholars who advocate vicious crackdowns on peaceful Islamic democratic activists in the Middle East, or actively supporting far-right and Islamophobic parties in the West,” Azami said.
Through the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, for instance, the UAE secured backing from several prominent Islamic scholars for its policies, including normalisation with Israel, so much so that Judaism in the UAE has now become synonymous with the State of Israel.
To underscore this symmetry, Duchman stated in August 2020 that the UAE’s embrace of Israel “will change the relationship of Jews and Muslims all around the world”.
Menk’s defence of the iftar, whether he knew it or not, was completely in line with Emirati talking points. “Al Jazeera Arabic gave the function a feisty false title and lied that the idea was to normalise things, when it was definitely a generic open iftar,” Menk said.
The facts present an entirely different picture.
The UAE’s spin
Before Al Jazeera Arabic published its article, both the Israeli government and Emirati authorities used images of Menk and Duchman to project an image of closer ties. Notably, Menk hadn’t protested. It was only once Menk was criticised for being party to an event linked to normalisation that he claimed Al Jazeera Arabic had played foul. In response, Al Jazeera Arabic told Middle East Eye the article “dealt with a public event held in Dubai that has been covered by other media organisations as well, and did not contain any content targeting any person or entity.”
Later, in his interview with me, he said he found it “upsetting that everyone is using it for their own agendas” and that he was a “victim of a photograph and perhaps a form of political jostling among nations and media houses”. But whose fault was that?
Al-Azami commented: “Being hosted by the UAE government in any capacity should be approached with considerable circumspection. Unfortunately, Mufti Menk appears not to have been briefed on these aspects of the UAE’s record – a record that is too well-known to be disregarded.”
Did he feel used by the Emiratis? I put this to him. “Intentions are known by Allah,” Menk replied. “As for myself, I don’t think they used me as in for who I am, but rather for what I looked like. The photo showed a Muslim religious person meeting a Jewish religious person. I think the media, including Al Jazeera Arabic, used an image without knowing who exactly I was.”
Menk is a global figure in the so-called larger Muslim world. He shares his thoughts and prayers on a daily basis to some 8.7 million followers on Twitter. It is unlikely that the journalists at Al Jazeera Arabic did not know who he was. But for argument’s sake, let’s imagine they didn’t; it doesn’t change the facts.
Rabbi Duchman is still the Zionist facilitating normalisation between the UAE and Israel. And Menk sitting next to him is immensely problematic, whether he knew it or not. His reasoning that there were people of other faiths present, or that there was no indication of any demonstration of normalisation, also doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
Why else would he say that had he known who Duchman was, or what he represented, he wouldn’t have attended?
In other words, despite his defiance, Menk appears to have realised that Duchman’s presence alone at a state-sponsored event was harmful enough. And that he played a role in lending it some gravitas.
Hours after the event, he saw how Israeli government social media accounts promoted the photos as a kind of proof that it held no animosity towards Muslims even as it attacked Palestinian worshippers at Al-Aqsa. He saw, too, how the UAE used his interaction with the Rabbi as evidence of its purported tolerance.
Unfortunately, he just can’t seem to bring himself to admit it.
And that’s a pity. Because if Muslim leaders aren’t willing to invest time into understanding the plight of their people, they don’t merely become complicit in their oppression, they normalise ignorance, too.