Attacks on congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, as well as Linda Sarsour, Omar Suleiman, Marc Lamont Hill and countless other Muslims in America and across Europe raise philosophical and political questions on whether Muslims can speak and do so where it counts the most. The problem is not in the ability to produce sounds and noises that might qualify them as members of the human race but the “right” to speak on the critical political, economic and foreign policy issues confronting society, which include the meaning of being Muslim and political at the same time.
Here, I am not concerned with the “yes, boss” Muslim, who can speak only to repeat and amplify the voices and words of others rather than speaking for themselves.
Language is the defining characteristic of humankind, allowing for communication and relations to occur between people from diverse backgrounds and making it possible to transmit meaning over time and space. Language and recorded speech, be it in books or the contemporary electronic medium, are central to the development and emergence of civilization itself.
The demonization list
The Muslims listed above have all been subject to a systematic and structured demonization campaign and efforts to silence their voices. What makes them all a target is their readiness to speak on Israel, the influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and Zionism, which is considered an off-limits topic in Washington D.C.’s political circles. The effort to silence them is part of a broader strategy, which I will get to later on and why it is so crucial that Muslims speak and more so at this critical time.
As Islamophobia and racialization intensify in Western societies, the space for freedom of speech and the scope of the content is continuously shrinking for Muslims. Can Muslims speak in the current period and is society at large ready to listen and engage the ideas that are being introduced or is the only option to parrot back what is deemed acceptable by an already discredited establishment? Indeed, democratic societies are founded on the ability of participants to speak and debate all issues confronting society, offer an array of opinions and to do so freely in order to arrive at the best possible outcome. Can Muslims speak on Israel, AIPAC and Zionism or is it off-limits? And if it is, then who defines what is acceptable and what is not?
In today’s Western societies, Muslims are subject to censorship on Israel and Zionism, and their voices are harangued or edited to fit the dominant narrative. Muslims are invited into civil society circles and hoisted as trophies to illustrate the diversity and symbolic inclusion but immediately scolded if they dare to speak out and offer their opinion on matters that impact them and their communities. Israel is an apartheid state, a statement that can be published and debated in Israel itself but not in the U.S. Congress and for sure not by two of its elected Muslim congresswomen.
On a daily basis and ad nauseam, Muslims are expected to sit down and listen to a barrage of Islamophobic comments, the polite and the obnoxious, heed calls for reforming their faith to meet someone else’s imaginary Islam, and watch buffoons speak freely using militaristic jingoism, the type masquerading as patriotism, while demanding another attack on a Muslim person or country.
The same obnoxious crowd demanding apologies and refrain from public speaking from Muslims are constantly acoustic to Muslims, minorities, immigrants, women and never miss an opportunity to outdo Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in encouraging and celebrating violence against the Palestinians. The mantra “Israel has the right to defend itself” is uttered by a long line of political leaders while not stopping once to consider that fact that this apartheid state is pummeling a defenseless civilian population with a government committed to expanding settlements and declaring itself legally to be a state that does not belong to all its citizens. Muslims cannot speak on these issues, and if they dare to do so, then it is a 24/7 demonization and silencing campaign.
Free speech for Muslims is continuously subject to contestation by an ever-expanding Islamophobic organizational base that is supported by extensive financial resources and a political elite that benefits at the ballot box. From a longer historical lens, the question may be asked whether Muslims are testing the limits in Western society of John Locke’s “Letter Concerning Toleration,” or John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” since their rights to contest and speak freely is not permitted.
The limits and contestation imposed on Muslims in public discourses are part of well-developed political strategies that posit them as a threat to Western societies and the need to formulate a multilayered defense that begins with security and immigration reforms. Indeed, the strategy has been developed with the participation of many pro-Israel individuals and organizations, which was put into effect as early as the mid-1990s but became more invasive in the post 9/11 period. Muslim participation and emergence into “mainstream” society challenge the crafted strategies and open vistas for alternative possibilities that will bring forth if permitted to take hold, more inclusive and just society for all.
Here, more than any single person on the national stage, Ilhan Omar is being targeted and shaped into the new “ground zero mosque” symbol to stoke fear and rally the Republican and evangelical voter base for the 2020 elections. Besides, attacking Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Linda Sarsour, Omar Suleiman, and others on supposed remarks that are critical of Israel is utilized to limit contestation of existing unconditional support for the apartheid state.
Thus, Trump and the Republicans are trying to make the 2020 elections focused on anti-Semitism to erase and shield themselves from their strong embrace of white nationalism and white supremacy. On the other hand, the Democratic Party leadership is not speaking out because they see and relate everything to supporting Israel and Zionism, which makes them sitting targets and causes the success of the Republican strategy. They are opting to stay out of defending Muslims who speak out on Israel, AIPAC and Zionism, which ends up giving breathing room and oxygen for Islamophobia and assist in isolating Muslims from the higher circles of civil society.
The specific target
The question “can Muslims speak?” is at the heart of the current political and constitutional debates in the country. The attacks on Muslim leaders are part of a strategy, focus groups and talking points, which must be understood and countered by breaking down the doors of censorship and the limits imposed on full participation. Muslims will speak on all issues, be it domestic or foreign, and are supportive of the government when it works to uplift and address the needs of society, but equally will dissent and organize when those in power abuse the trust, sew corruption, hand massive tax breaks to corporations and the rich, and launch military interventions across the globe.
The speech from Muslim communities has always been transformative, inclusive of all, peace and justice based and uncomfortable to those who are in power. Just look back at Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, who spoke truth to power when it mattered most and in doing so shaped and changed society for the better. Speaking truth to power is a prophetic calling and Muslims, like other faith-based communities in the past, are well-acquainted with using their voices and diverse platforms to uplift society and strive to improve the human condition.
At this moment, myself, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Linda Sarsour, Omar Suleiman, Marc Lamont Hill and countless other Muslims chose to dissent on the despicable treatment of immigrants and refugees in a land that prides itself on being a haven for all and calls on the world to “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Muslims choose to oppose the ongoing massive destruction of the environment, the rolling back of health care protection, the slow unmaking and defunding of the education system and the increased securitization and massive incarceration of black and brown people in our society. Muslims must speak and never allow anyone to constitute the limits when the questions at hand are ones that are centered on fairness, compassion, dignity, justice, equality, and freedom; both domestically and across the globe.