The recent debate ignited by Professor Tariq Ramadan’s letter announcing his decision not to attend the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), and Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS) annual conventions raised a number of critical issues, but also highlighted a growing tension that has been previously kept under control up to this point.
Immediately after the letter went live on Facebook and social media, a firestorm of responses, name-calling, and both useful and un-useful comments erupted, which are still ongoing at the time of writing this article. What was it in the letter that generated the need for thousands to respond? More critically for me at this time is the considerable focus on Palestine and Gaza in many postings including ISNA’s President Imam Magid , Professor Sherman Jackson and others
I have been attending and speaking at ISNA for a period of 20 years and through it all I have witnessed many high and low points, but this is not the time for a comprehensive analysis despite it being badly needed. The organization is 50 years young and countless individuals have spent time and effort to build it from the ground-up and it is not in the best interest of American Muslims to weaken or destroy it but constructive criticism is a must for the long run.
In this article, I would like to direct my attention solely on Palestine and broadly on the American Muslim leadership entanglement, or more accurately, the attempt to disentangle or run-away from a ‘problem’ in the mind of some, while others doing so from a strategic assimilationist math. In both views Palestine might cause government, civil society, funding opportunities and interfaith doors to be closed.
As early as the mid 1990s, American Muslim leadership following the first Gulf War, the signing of the Oslo agreement, and 1995 Clinton’s Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act began to orient itself away from entanglement with Palestine and toward a strictly accommodationist engagement with Zionist organizations in America. This period also witnessed the government’s structured approach to criminalizing pro-Palestine activists through utilization of Clinton’s 1996, Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act to pursue individuals and groups and to preemptively neutralize their constitutionally protected work. One can also point to even to an earlier attempt at criminalizing pro-Palestine work in the US when the government arrested seven Palestinians and a Kenyan in 1987 and what came to be known as the LA-8 case that made its way to the Supreme Court and lasted over 20 years.
For the American Muslim community, the process set in motion in the mid-90s took off to the races post 9/11 and American Muslim leadership en masse dumped Palestine off-board and jumped head first into an arranged marriage with local, regional and national pro-Israel Jewish organizations. This took the form of dialogues, joint projects, Ramadan iftar activities with the Israeli Embassy and regional Counsel Generals, mosque-synagogue twining, co-sponsored trip to Occupied Palestine funded mainly by Zionist groups, partnerships for grants in art and music festivals, summer camps and study groups. Most of the activities if not all were carried out with committed Zionist groups and individuals and very few with progressive or non-Zionist Jews. Furthermore, no similar dialogue initiatives were directed at Black Churches or leaders, Asian Americans, Naive Americans and Latinos, which raises the question whether these Zionist focused projects are but a marriage to the powerful and away from the meek of the earth.
For many, the logic is that American Muslims needed political protection and cover post 9/11 and Zionist Jewish Americans are allies in this cause since they are well-connected and have been making overtures toward Muslims for sometime. However, the price of protection, explicitly spoken or understood implicitly, was Palestine and the ‘problem’ it presents in forging positive relations. Also, some argued that since many Zionist Jewish organizations have been engaged in Islamophobic discourses then developing relations might be a good way to reduce the tension and develop lines of communication to prevent bigger problems. This worked in few small cases but hardly made a dent in the commitment and proclivity of the Zionist organization continued engagement, funding the demonization and facilitating the Islamophobic campaigns directed at the Muslim community.
In a rather short period of time, it became the vogue for American Muslim leaders and organizations to frame their work away from Palestine and forge a closer affinity with pro-Israel Zionist individuals and organizations. As if this was not itself a problem, the American Muslim leadership made sure that the national stage was emptied of Palestinians or those who are strongly allied with them so as to make the engagement with America’s Zionist less prone to critique. In reality the national Muslim leadership was de-Palestinized and only voices committed to this strategy were projected and given the stage. For a number of years you could not have a Palestine related event in most mosques and organizations ran away from the issue faster than the Ebola virus today.
I can recall many conversations with individual leaders and organizations heads who seriously wanted to convince us that this is the sign of Muslim maturity and that the Palestinian, Arabs and their allies do not understand America and what it takes for ‘us’ to make it in this country.
The framing in this context wanted to push forth the split between indigenous and immigrant communities; however many who were speaking and leading the groups are immigrants themselves wanting to find a way to dump Palestine utilizing this ill- conceived approach. In post 9/11, we did witness a wholesale abandonment of Palestine and to a lesser extent other foreign policy related issues or causes.
While, on the one hand, I can understand the dynamics of the period; nevertheless the argument or rationalization for it was lazy at best and deceitful at worst. Why did Malcolm feel the need to take on Palestine in the middle of the most intense period in the civil rights movement? Was Malcolm unaware and lacked understanding of America? Indeed, some who are quick to quote Malcolm at every turn constantly remove his transnational perspective and anti-imperial worldview, which included a strong and unwavering commitment to Palestine.
I can deal with a position that says we are weak, unable to defend ourselves in this country and we are incapable of dealing with anything other than getting our truncated virtual internment American dream protected in the face of a massive security structure directed at American Muslim communities. I can respect this because at least it is honest, direct and does not attempt to develop internal divisions that will have a lasting effect, which are not in the best interest of the community. One could have said, I love and care for Palestine but would not be able to do much until I feel safe in this country. Yet, it was the flimsiest argument that was put forth, which did not serve the community harmony or bring unity and if anything left a painful residue among Palestine’s activists in the US.
One leader went as far as to argue that we have too much focus on Palestine and that more attention has to be placed upon the African American inner cities so as to solve their crisis. Furthermore, the person spent even more time to convince me that the inner city problems are directly connected to Arab and Palestinian liquor storeowners in the African American community, and no support for Palestine should be forthcoming considering the damage done in America’s inner cities.
The person who spoke directly to me was somehow implying that either I represented these liquor storeowners or that all Arabs/Palestinians are in this business, which is not the case on both counts, but it does make for a quick escape from dealing with Palestine. Once again, I am the wrong person to bring this issue upon since I have worked on inner city issues, protested, wrote about and given khutbas about Arab owned liquor stores to the degree that some mosques would not invite me again because of it. Furthermore, I don’t work on these issues because of some strategic math; rather for me justice is indivisible as the inner cities of Oakland and Gaza are only separated geographically but not in epistemology: African Americans are the internally colonial subjects while the Palestinians are the external.
However, even if one assumes that all Palestinians and Arabs are in the liquor business does that define the position taken in relations to Palestine and the injustice underway in the blessed Holy Land? Since when do we take the sinful acts of an individual/s in close proximity to us as the determining factor for an Islamic ruling about an injustice at a holy and blessed land like Palestine? These are the arguments presented to facilitate an escape route away from confronting the critical issue of Palestine and its impact on American Muslim leaders and organizations as it pertains to inclusion and assimilation.
More critically, the setting of a binary between support for Palestine and support for African American inner city commits American Muslims to a doubly racist strategy. On the one hand the pre-occupation is to mainly dialogue with the pro-Israel Zionist organizations and individuals and not with the African American communities, Muslim or otherwise. However, when the criticism is made of the Palestine strategy the American Muslim leadership hides behind an imaginary and rhetorical commitment to African American empowerment and engagement. Thus, African American and Palestinians are set against one another so as to rescue a most ethically and morally bankrupt strategy focused on appeasing the perceived or real gate keepers to America’s political elites and power.
To be precise, American Muslim leadership abandoned Palestine based on a strategic and narrowly crafted self-interested calculation since the price of maintaining a forthright position on the issue meant headaches, entanglement with security agencies, isolation and to be kept outside the halls of power.
Yet another problematic aspect is related to the broader issues coming from the War on Terrorism. The US government’s constant involvement in the Muslim world and Palestine/Israel conflict necessitates a modicum of engagement with American Muslim leadership in such a way to lend support for the administration’s efforts. American Muslim leaders were asked to partner with America’s elite in the soft imperial power project directed at the Muslim world. Even though the soft power is anything but soft with drones used at will and bombing campaigns every so often, Muslim leaders engaged public diplomacy and became America’s soft power faces across the Muslim world and in return the government provided access to grants, resources and status for the participants. Winning the hearts and minds through public diplomacy while bombing campaigns never stopped.
Yet, what is sad and funny is that most if not all American Muslim leaders who travel for the purpose of soft power and public diplomacy are subject to secondary screening upon return, treated like terror suspects and are kept on the government watch list themselves. In this way they are treated like prisoners, which creates a psychological pressure to continue to participate so as to demonstrate they are ‘good’ people having nothing to hide and have no ill-feelings toward America. Thus, when one reads American Muslim organizational statements on Palestine and tracks it with administration language, one finds that the difference is minor because they have accepted the role of being in-bed with Washington and its policies toward the Muslim world.
Let’s make a clear link to the local issues since Palestine represents the global and I would like to be consistent in how we view and act upon an Islamic moral and ethical basis at all times. The murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson is a clear case of racism that has a long standing and national Muslim organizations have correctly responded by putting the blame on the police for its actions. Should we have been more ‘neutral’ so as not to offend or impinge on relations with the dominant ‘white’ power structure! I am sure that no one on the progressive side of the political landscape will accept this as a starting position and indeed as an organization representing the Palestine cause in this country our immediate response is to identify with the victim and the context in which this murder occurred.
One begins with understanding the historical context of slavery, structural racism and Jim Crow Laws as well as the post-civil rights conditions then bring all this to bear to situate the murder of Michael Brown and countless other African Americans including those put away to slow death in America’s prison industrial complex.
The murder of Michael Brown represents the normative experiences and the structural positioning of African Americans in contemporary America: a country deeply seeped in racism yet blinded by a self-promoting narrative of color blindness and progress. This narrative, in essence, assigns blame to African Americans for the contemporary conditions they find themselves in and asserts they are incapable of lifting the community out of these self-inflicted wounds of violence, drug use and crime. What America does in this context is take the symptoms of structural racism and makes it into the disease that needs to be eradicated. In this ‘logic’ the problem is located in African Americans themselves and the offered remedy is more police, prison and rehabilitation programs intended to ‘civilize’ the savage. We must locate and understand this murder correctly otherwise we go back to the same starting point of blaming the victim one more time by misunderstanding the condition that brought about their murder in the first place. The police officer shot Michael, but America’s racism is the guilty party that reloads the gun on a daily basis and directs it at African Americans and communities of color at home and abroad.
It is identical to the approach employed by Israel against the Palestinians in Gaza and the Occupied Territories whereby the victim is held responsible for the continued deployment of structured colonial violence and dispossession. In this regard, murdering Palestinians, bombing their homes, schools, hospitals and imprisoning as many of them as possible is deemed as an endeavor to ‘civilize’ the barbarians at the ‘civilizational’ Apartheid Walls of Israel.
What response should come from ethical and moral people is not neutrality in the face of colonialism and 68 years of dispossession; rather an immediate affirmation of justice and not ‘just-us’ worries about access or fearing to identify with the meek of the earth. Neutrality is not leadership and Palestinians demand a clear ethical and moral Muslim voice from American Muslim leadership.
Let me direct my attention to the second issue in the raging debate and that of Sufism/Salafism/Ikhwani/political versus spiritual etc. and the current profound divisions that exists not only among American Muslims but as well across the world. On Palestine, I have met and worked with great people representing each and every Muslim group and from across the world. Individuals and organizations who work for justice, peace and fulfillment of human potential need no pushing to embrace Palestine as it comes natural and reflects both an inward and outward state of being.
What must be made clear is that the ongoing Muslim civil war is being fomented by interests near and far with all the sects, trends and approaches to Islam thrown into the mix with the hope of giving birth to a “Civil Democratic Islam” that views and accepts Zionism, coloniality and neoliberal economic order as the pinnacle of human achievement. Furthermore, this hoped for order is searching for a group that is Muslim in body type and physical DNA but totally align to Islam as a lived and living tradition with all its parts and diversity. What is sought is a continuation of the colonially constructed Muslim living in the shadows of a distorted and inhumane modernity. All Muslims groups, sects, trends and ideologies are on the chessboard as pawns in a game where they are its moving parts.
Muslims are divided into so many different groups and sects with each believing they are alone absolutely correct while all others are absolutely in error. Furthermore, they are not content with being absolutely correct but they take the next step of wanting to eliminate, diminish, isolate, speak-ill, distance oneself and plan against all in the hope that this will lead to the actual affirmation of the veracity of their approach, method and strategy. We have not been able to find the formula to work with each other on the basis of difference! This reminds me of the old Arab proverb, “Verily, I was eaten when the white bull was eaten.” We all are working to authenticate our perspective by sheer elimination of our designated internal other. Let me say, that winning by means of diminishing our collective self is a loss and a travesty. Even if one wins, it deprives us of the ability to build and see the Muslim world with difference and diversity.
The problem for me is one centered on sharp divisions that are utilized to further the collapsing of our collective Islam, making all of us a laughing stock to our known and unknown enemies. The amount of ink and social media space spent over the past weeks by defenders of their ‘I’ group or trend should have been directed at building solidarity, true brotherhood, tolerance and intra-faith dialogue among Muslims, which is badly needed. Palestine needs unity, not conformity but it all calls for people to step-up and call out injustice whenever they see it.
Finally, in speaking out and being on the side of justice we are not doing any favor to the Palestinians for they can take care of their situation on the ground and they are blessed for being in that land; rather it is to answer for our own responsibility when witnessing a wrong and not having the faith to speak about it when we are most able to do so and have all the resources at our disposal. Palestinians are free and we are the occupied: by the world, possession, status, position and perceived importance. A free Palestine ethos will help liberate us from the virtual internment we imposed on ourselves in America, Europe and the Muslim World.