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 http://home.earthlink.net/~lrgoldner/