Monday, January 19, 2009

Takbir! - The Struggle Comes From Within

This is from my friend A reflecting on the same Gaza solidarity rallies we've beeen discussing on here the past few weeks. She originally sent it as a comment on the post below, but it definately deserves its own post.

Two days ago I called "Takbir!" at a rally and the crowd responded enthusiastically. It was exhilarating. I spent my youth in a masjid feeling alienated because I couldn't make announcements after prayer, my male friends would enter the prayer hall and leave the masjid without saying hi because they didnt see me in the back, and I secretly dreamed about being able to lead the call to prayer.

Because of these rallies, I have been seen by my Muslim community and have been supported in leading chants. I, as a twenty something activist, only got up the courage to call Takbir after a woman in her teens did it first. I had supported her in taking the bullhorn, and she had supported me in taking visibly religious leadership at this rally.

And rather than accept the timidity instilled in me by my patriarchal upbringing, I got in several arguments with uncles over the right to express our political connections to Palestine in ways that were authentic to us; as Muslims, as queer people, as women, as youth, as people of color engaged in various anti-colonial struggles, and as men who embrace the leadership young women in the community.

Allahu Akbar holds no patriarchal resonance for me whatsoever. It is part of my journey to forge queer leftist radical mystical Islam as my spiritual path. Rather, it was the male leadership of the rally yelling "stop killing women now, stop killing children now" that made it clear that they see youth and women as passive victims in the struggle. They feed into the duplicity of the death tolls, which count any male adult in gaza as a militant, not a civilian. This includes the many male paramedics who have been targeted while trying to evacuate injured folks to hospitals.

My response to the leadership is this:

"Women, girls, boys, men
The struggle comes from within.
Our communities will fight back
We will not accept attack!"

Echoes of the Intifada

As I mentioned in previous posts, the Middle East solidarity organization I'm a part of wrote a reflection on the Gaza solidarity rallies we've been attending these past 3 weeks. We've been circulating this piece among local organizers and it's posted over at BlakOrchid: A Blog by Asian rebels

As I've been arguing, there is an ethos of Islamic liberation theology at these rallies that has been very inspiring. In his comments on my previous post, my friend Eli pointed out that at the rallies he's been to it's mostly been Muslim men chanting Takbir-Allahu Akbar (God is Great). He warned that such religious chants could reinforce patriarchy. But in our group's experience this hasn't been the case. Recent rallies have been energized by a dynamic group of youth and the most consistent leaders of this crew have been young women from local high schools. As our group reflection describes, this is similar to the first Intifada where women and youth played a central role in the democratic resistance.

At the most recent rally (yesterday), we brought a banner that read "Youth for Palestine" and it was mostly young hijabi women who carried it and got on the megaphone to energize the crowd. At points when they were shy about leading, women from our group shared the mic with them and encouraged them, which worked well. We got a nice cypher going with other groups behind us echoing their chants.

At several points the young women shouted Takbir- Allahu Akbar. Some of the uncles did seem puzzled at first to hear women leading this, but once a few enthusiastically responded more were won over. One middle aged man in particular seemed ecstatic that they were chanting it, and he responded vigorously.

One of the young women also started chanting La Allah Ila Allah - There is no God but God. At that point, a man presumably from the group leading the march came over to complain that we were being disruptive. He said "there are Jewish and American people here supporting us and we don't want to alienate them, this is not a Muslim event." By "American" he must have meant white Christians - as if all of the South Asian, East African, Southeast Asian, and Arab Muslims there are somehow not real "Americans." In any case, I told him straight up, "look man, I'm a Christian, I'm obviously not offended by this or I wouldn't be holding the megaphone for the folks chanting it." I also think it was ironic that he was saying we're being disruptive and alienating since it was a speaker from the group organizing the rally who had earlier said some b.s. about how the "Jews control the media" and even suggested that the Holocaust wasn't as bad as people say- at which point our group shouted "down with anti-Semitism!" In any case, K. El Bathy, who wrote the piece below, pointed out that if the movement is going to be democratic then folks should be able to do Muslim chants if they want. Needless to say, we didn't stop and the organizer went away disappointed.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Islam and American Radicalism

This is an excellent note from my friend K. El Bathy. We organize together as part of the same Middle East solidarity group, and he is reflecting on one of the local Gaza solidarity protests I mentioned in my previous post.

I attended what was one of the most beautiful and powerful rallies for Palestine in my lifetime. Across the world hundreds of thousands if not millions poured into the street to protest the Israeli massacre of Palestinians in Gaza, and the 60 years of occupation and apartheid. In Seattle there were anywhere from dozens to 2000 of us (news sources clearly cannot agree, or count for that matter, but most folks think around 1000).

What was great about this crowd was the multi-racial and multi-generational make-up of the protesters. It seems as though most of the Muslim people in the Seattle area showed up to march through the downtown area, some driving as long as 3 hours just to be a part of it. There were whole families; young kids, youth, adults and even the older generation.

I think what struck me the most about this rally were the chants at the beginning. All the speakers got up and said their piece, but none of them resonated with the crowd. Most were white and most were in their 40s if not older. While they bemoaned the humanitarian aspect of the slaughter, me, my friends and a number of young Palestinian folks around me yelled and chanted "Free Free Palestine" and "Fight, fight the tide! End Israeli apartheid!"

Even more amazing were the continuous rounds of Allahuakbar's that were made in between each speech. The MC, one of the few Arab folks on stage, encouraged everyone to take part whether they were Muslim or not. He explained for those not in the know that Palestinians are chanting this when they are living, when they are dying and when they are fighting.

What was beautiful about yesterday was that chanting Allahuakbar was opened up to everyone in solidarity with Palestine. All at once the particular became so universal, and the universal so particular. Although it was a Muslim practice, it also became a practice and expression of multi-racial solidarity against white-supremacy.

There were a lot of folks who were put off by this; "white" folks, and even parts of the so-called progressive Left. There was even a guy holding a sign that called for a "Free and Secular Palestine" (note the "secular" part).

On one end, this opposition to Islamic politics is just straight-up racism. The Right talks about a clash of civilizations and values whenever Arab and Muslim people fight back, while the revolutionary Left maintains this backwards, dogmatic opposition to all religion, playing into the hands of the Right.

Islamic politics is just the most recent political expression of the Muslim world. Arab liberalism failed to deliver us from the jaws of colonialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, while Arab nationalism and authoritarian Marxism failed to deliver on the promises of liberation after European colonialism collapsed. So Brown folks started looking for a new way to understand the world, and fight back. Religion became a search for liberation; not automatically authoritarian.

I remember an imam I knew telling me that many Muslim immigrant didn't "find" religion until they came to the US. Identities shift. Thousands from Muslim families have identified as nationalists, Marxists and now Islamists. Thousands more imagined a new Black community during the era of Black Power, some even dressing as Chinese peasants in solidarity with the Chinese anti-colonial movement.

Probably the only thing I will agree with the Christian Right about is that religion -- though not only Christianity -- is a big part of American civilization. Many of the early European settlers were were Reformation rejects from Europe. While the Puritans could be said to represent the right wing of this movement, there were also Anabaptists who threw their lot in with the resistance of indigenous people, and also run-away slaves.

The Abolition movement is one example of this radical Christianity, but it's important to note that this early American Christianity fused with Native American and African spirituality that formed the backbone of the radicalism behind the Civil Rights movement.

Islamic politics and Muslims today, much like the Reformation Christians of three or four hundred years ago, are breaking with the status quo of Islam. Islam of the state is complicit in Palestine, whether right here in the US or in Mecca itself.

What I saw that Saturday was an Islam from below that rejected US empire, that rejected Arab-centrism, and became a call for all people in solidarity with Palestine to defend a democratic umma, and defeat white-supremacy. Islam is firmly rooted among the tradition of American radicalism creating a multi-racial -- and multi-religious -- democratic movement.

So let's do it one more time:
Free-Free Palestine!
Takbir - Allahu Akbar!

***some ideas on religion and American radicalism are taken from Loren Goldner's "Afro-Anabaptist-Indian Fusion: The Roots of American Radicalism" at

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Allahu Akbar: Gaza and the God-fearing

This past week massive protests against Israel's massacres in the Gaza strip have erupted around the world, with street clashes in European cities between far-right pro-Israel supporters and Arab and Muslim youth. In the Middle East, workers and students are taking to the streets to support the Palestinians while cowardly, collaborationist Arab leaders like Mubarak in Egypt try to keep things under control. An Egyptian guy I met at the local Arabic restaurant put it well: "Egypt is a volcano."

Seattle is not quite a volcano but things are heating up here too. My friends and I have been to three Gaza solidarity demonstrations this week and the crowd has gotten progressively more courageous and confrontational. At the second two demonstrations, the moderate leaders of the organizations who called them lost control over the crowds and people began to act independently, feeling their own strength and power.

At the demonstration yesterday, this energy was initiated by youth of color from the ages 5 to 17. They were getting bored with listening to dry speeches so they organized themselves into an unpermitted march around the downtown city blocks. My friends and I joined them and gave them our megaphone. We tried to support some of the young sisters who were nervous about getting on the mic for the first time. When they got on there they gave the crowd some real talk: "Hey Obama, why the silence, speak out against this violence!" and "Long live Palestine, Long Live the Intifada!"

This march looped back through the crowd at the rally and the youth pulled their friends and in many cases their families into it and the vast majority of the rally turned into a spontaneous mass march through downtown Seattle. This inspired many onlookers who responded with fists in the air and car horns.

The cops were pissed. They tried to corner some of my Muslim friends who helped with the megaphone and accused them of "inciting a riot" and threatened to arrest them if it happens again. It wasn't anything near a riot. It was courageous youth inspiring their elders to break the deadlock of politics as usual. As Jesus put it, "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like these little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:2).

One of the chants the Muslim youth initiated was Takbir . Someone shouts "Takbir" and eveyrone else responds "Allahu Akbar." It is sort of like when Christians yell out "testify!" or "can I get an Amen?" In Arabic Allahu Akbar means "God is Greater." In this context, it was very powerful to see 10 year old kids facing down disapproving uncles, the cops, the Zionist counter-protestors, and there in the background the whole machinery of US Empire and Israeli military power. In the face of all of this they were saying "God is Greater."

At a rally earlier in the week, Muslim folks in the crowd also wanted to chant Allahu Akbar but the leaders of the demonstration kept trying to stop them, saying "we need to keep it secular!" They kept asking my friends and I to try and help them stop it. Their rationale was this isn't just a Muslim issue and we don't want to disrespect or alienate non-Muslim supporters.

First of all, as a Christian it is not my place to tell Muslims to stop saying "God is Greater." I will not be a missionary for secularism just like I will not be a missionary for imperial Christendom. Secondly, as a Christian I was not alienated by the chants, I was actually inspired by them. In fact, at an earlier rally Muslim leaders had encouraged non-Muslims to join in saying "Allahu Akbar" if we wanted. They pointed out that it's a chant they use in Palestine and the people of Gaza would be happy to hear us saying it.

So rather than trying to stop the Muslim folks in the crowd, I chanted right along. Lord knows it's not against my Christian faith to chant "God is Greater" in Arabic. In fact, it's pretty consistent with what Jesus taught. In the Middle East, Arab Christians call God Allah and I'm sure that many Palestinian Christians are praying to Allah right now to give them heart to survive this genocidal onslaught.

What has always inspired me about Islam is that sense that God is above all earthly powers, so we should fear God and not the state, the cops, the imperialists, or the patriarchs. It reminds me of Acts 10: 34-35: "Now I hear the truth, that God does not respect persons, but in every nation whoever fears him and does right is acceptable to him." God judges us not by earthly status but by the quality and dynamism of our submission to Him.

This morning, for my sabbath spiritual reading I reflected on some themes of Anabaptist spirituality that echo this sensibility. Anabaptist Christians were the radical wing of the Reformation. They were influential in the German peasant uprisings and aspects of their theology inspired some of the first international working class and anti-slavery movements. In the 1600s, calling someone an Anabaptist was like calling someone a terrorist today - it could send that person to prison, or worse.

Not surprisingly, the Anabaptists had prayers very similar to the Takbir. They also believed that God is Greater. As they put it, we should become a Godfearing people.... a people who fear the One and are consequently fearless before any other power. The Anabaptist political prisoner Endres Keller wrote the following with broken, bloody hands that had been destroyed through torture: "the secret of God is not in outward appearance of a person, whether he be king or emperor, prince or count, noble or common, burger or farmer, herdsman or still lower..... for David says in Psalm 25 [:14]: 'The secret of the Lord is with them who fear him, and he will make his covenant known to them.'"

The chants of Allahu Akbar at the demonstrations this week did not alienate me. Instead, they opened up possibilities of interfaith solidarity and dialogue that I haven't seen for years now.

I was also impressed with how the Takbir was so universal - it made the issue larger, not just a Palestinian nationalist but a pan-Islamic issue where Somali, South Asian, and other Muslim folks at the rallies could express their solidarity. As one uncle at the protest told me, "the best hope to prevent genocide in Palestine is that there are a billion Muslims who will rise up if Israel tries to do it." I just hope the Christians will rise up too, especially againt the nutcase Christian Zionists who fund Israeli terror.

If anything, these demonstrations reminded me what of what Christians have lost since our churches veered to the right in the 80s and suppressed liberation theology. I caught a glimpse of what it must have been like to be an anti-imperialist Christian militant during the height of the Central America solidarity movement, where Christian liberation theology gave folks heart to fight against US backed genocidal attacks in Guatemala and right wing regimes across Latin America. Back then we were called terrorists for expressing our faith in these ways. I thought to myself, when will we as Christians rebuild the kind of public witness and testimony against injustice that Muslim youth are repping today?

So next time, when folks shout Takbir I hope that other Christians in the crowd reply Allahu Akbar! And if you're one of them, come find me, we gotta talk.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Palestinian Pieta

I've been meaning to blog about the brutal, racist Israeli massacres in Gaza but I've been too busy organizing against them. The local protests have been inspiring moments of interfaith solidarity. More on this shortly.

In the meantime, I'm posting this image from Dubito Ergo Cogito, a Palestinian Pieta. I'll meditate on this during this week's actions.
The Palestinians are what liberation theologians call a Crucified People - a people suffering under organized systems of sin, a people who cry out to God for justice . In this case those systems of sin are U.S. Empire, white supremacy, and Zionism.
It wasn't the Jews who crucified Jesus, it was Roman imperialism, but the U.S. is imitating Roman imperialism today in its global domination, and Israel is the frontline of American Empire in the Middle East. Our leaders, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, are to blame for the ongoing crucifixion of Palestine because they are all acting like Pontious Pilates (or at least like cowardly, collaborationist Herods).
But the Palestinian people, like Jesus, rise again and again, affirming life against all obstacles.

Free, Free Palestine!

Long Live Palestine!