Debates on how to best navigate the engagement in America’s complex and rapidly evolving political, social, cultural, religious and economic landscape are a major preoccupation for members of the diverse American Muslim community. At the core, the debates can be narrowed down to two main ideas:
1. We should focus on the rights of Muslims in America and build alliances with those that share our interests without getting entangled in external or transnational issues.
2. We should engage in Muslim rights domestically while connecting them to transnational and global issues, which the U.S. is constantly involved in. While these two main ideas have numerous variations and some expressions of concern or a spectrum of opinions, the core difference nevertheless is that one side thinks that the engagement of the community is best served by civil rights and local focus, while the other sees these as being interconnected and not two separate spheres.
Interestingly, the African American community faced the same dynamics during various periods, especially in the 1960s, with the distinctive engagements of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in advancing the struggle for freedom and justice in the U.S. In the early 1960s, the civil rights movement led by King focused exclusively on the internal affairs and the push toward gaining the support for the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act and the Immigration Reform Act, which were the major building blocks needed to challenge the endemic racism. On the other hand, Malcolm X represented the local-transnational point of view and maintained that a civil rights approach that does not account for America’s wars abroad and expresses support for the anti-colonial struggles is immoral and doomed.
Interestingly, King and Malcolm X converged toward an almost identical point of view that fused the local with the transnational and maintained that addressing the local is impossible without challenging U.S. foreign policy, militarism and materialism. The convergence was summed-up by King himself in the “Three Evils of Society” speech, which he delivered a few months before his assassination.
In the early 1960s, King did not want to take on the U.S. war in Vietnam, fearing the loss of African American middle class and white liberal supporters needed to pass the legislation. However, after the passage of the critical legislation, it became apparent to King that the new laws are meaningless if the needed resources are not marshalled to address the effects of racism and poverty. Precisely on this point, the economic links between the local and the global helped move King’s position in opposition to the Vietnam War and in a more profound critique of the U.S. – a critique that still stands the test of time some 50 years later. The military expenditures, the materialism that favors the arms industry, corporations and racism at home and abroad are structurally linked and one cannot address the local manifestation without challenging the transnational aspects of it.
The post-civil rights Malcolm X-King period witnessed a clear orientation of African American grassroots and leadership alike, infusing their local political engagement with a constant commitment to transnational alliances. Here, the culmination of this infusion was a critical building block for the anti-Apartheid and central America solidarity movements, which benefited greatly from the dedicated work of many African American activists and religious leaders. Let’s just reflect on the major role played by Reverend Jesse Jackson in the 1970s and 1980s and his contributions in leading the Rainbow Coalition which had a local-transnational worldview and worked on the South African anti-Apartheid and Central America struggles, as well as being a leading voice in domestically supporting the United Farm Workers, universal healthcare and labor unions.
Coming back to American Muslims and the tension between local versus transnational that is, directly and indirectly, being debated in mosques, community centers and civil society organizations across the country. The fact that Muslims are facing a very pernicious and toxic civil rights environment and a highly Islamophobic social imaginary is a point of agreement among an overwhelming majority in the community. The differences exist on how to identify the root causes and how best to counter them. The local versus transnational becomes a major point of demarcation and a source of internal disputations on the one hand and, on the other hand, a source of external exploitation by government agencies and interest groups that seek to advance their agenda through a well-controlled engagement with selected members of the American Muslim community.
Local engagement is regulated by a desire to join or be part of the mainstream, a euphemism for embracing the status quo and becoming a “partner” in shaping the political, social, and religious domestic agenda. I use the term “partner” very loosely since even prisoners and prison guards have some type of partnership in keeping the “peace” in the confines of the prison walls. What we have here is an unequal partnership that regulates the content of engagement, who and when is permitted to speak, and what subjects and words are to be completely erased from one’s vocabulary.
The local discourse also embraces a neutered type of transnationalism that gives the appearance of critical engagement while overall is vacuous, ceremonial and at the core directed toward strengthening militarism, materialism and racism. American Muslims are asked to partner in furthering the strategic priorities of the U.S. in exchange for limited privilege and access to circles of power. This type of the transnational engagement for American Muslims gets focused on a catch-all countering violent extremism, a push to “reforming” Islam and Muslims in the social, gender and political fields, training programs for civil society organizations and the ever-fashionable push for technology adoption and innovation. Here, transnationality becomes a function of the U.S.’ soft power deployed to rationalize the use of hard power and the American Muslim engagement is posited to reduce or possibly limit the severity of the military force deployed across the globe in fighting against “terrorism” or, more accurately, “Muslim terrorism” since the whole focus of the “War on Terrorism” is the Muslim aspect of it, excluding anything else.
More problematic is the setting of a superior-inferior dynamic between American-Muslims and Muslims in the regions that are experiencing direct U.S. military, economic, social, religious and political interventions. Just as America’s history, politics, economy, religion and social dynamics are considered an exception in world history, the transnational engagement of American Muslims is shaped to imbibe this exceptionalism and is projected in relations with the impacted Muslim-majority societies that are at the receiving end of U.S.’ interventionism. Here, Muslim-majority societies become the site of imperial intervention directed at civilizing the barbarians at the gate of civilization, while American Muslims become a tool of soft power intervention. Far from being transnational in seeking indivisible justice, the American Muslims are recruited to be an extension of an expansionist foreign policy design, with some of them accepting the role of native informants in exchange for privilege and access to circles of power in the U.S.
A similar dynamic is readily observable at the local levels whereby American Muslims – with exceptions of course – engage in forms of political discourse that does not confront the racial structure causing their marginalization as a class. The content of the internal engagement focuses, on the one hand, on ceremonial inclusion on cultural and religious terms, while on the other on participating in the securitization initiatives led by various agencies of the state, public and private. Here, American Muslims undertake a performative trajectory that seeks affirmation of their worthiness to society at large. This performative trajectory ends up in the structural commodification of the inequality of the community since its membership or the quality of citizenship is contingent on an external and non-constitutional set of factors to be fulfilled by each Muslim in society.
The local trajectory also embraces a multi-faith approach, mainly with white churches and mainstream Zionist-Jewish organizations, which insists on a narrow and safe arena of engagement while avoiding challenging power, racism, economic and social inequalities. American Muslims are urged to enlist in an internal- and local-based interfaith ecumenical deal through which they can have access to circles of power. However, this deal is conditional on committing themselves to assist in the domestic securitization by directly or indirectly embracing the Countering Violent Extremism programs and distancing the community from critiquing U.S.’ deployment of unrestrained violence in Muslim-majority societies or the logic behind it. More alarmingly, the propensity of American Muslims is to posit themselves as the reformers of Islam and situate themselves within the interfaith and governmental relations as the good internal Muslims taking on the bad Muslims. The bad Muslims include all those who opt not to join America’s exceptionalism and critical of the ecumenical deal that operates to affirm and celebrate proximity to power.
American Muslims should internalize the lessons of the civil rights movement to shape a discourse that infuses the local to the transnational. They must undertake a serious and sustained critique of the re-emergence of white supremacy, police violence, expansion of prison and military industrial complexes, the obliteration of the social safety net for the poor and middle class, as well as the commodification of education and healthcare, the open-ended wars in Muslim-majority states, and the massive expansion of materialism and global corporatization. What is being asked of American Muslims is to possess a deeper understanding of the U.S. as a superpower and forge a moral and ethical critique coupled with a new justice and mercy-filled horizon. The distinction between local and transnational is a nonexistent epistemic and fictitiously constructed as a mode of regulating the scope of American Muslim citizenship and belonging.