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.