Sunday, November 29, 2009

Discussions on Islam and Liberation Theology

Gathering Forces has posted a series of articles on Islam, politics, and resistance to US Empire. The first is about Nidal Hasan, the Arab American soldier who shot other soldiers at Fort Hood. The second and the third cover different dimensions of the US occupation of Afghanistan and Pakistan and the historic role of Islamic politics in both anti-imperialist movements and pro-US puppet regimes there.

All of these articles lay out the need for an anti-racist, anti-patriarchal, anti-capitalist Islamic theology of liberation. They subtly chide folks on the Left in both the US and the Middle East for their inability to envision, organize for, and support such a vision.

For example, Will from GF argues:
“Treating Islam as a backward or as false consciousness is only going to leave the field open to liberals and Wahhabists. The revolutionary left has to throw its dog in the fight. Concretely, this means that Islam is a religion and ideology, which must be engaged with. It means that there is a political spectrum and the left should help develop the most democratic, anti-racist, and anti-patriarchal interpretations of Islam. If Christian Liberation Theology is legitimate then why cannot the same be said of an Islamic liberation theology."

Below is a perspective that seems to expand on what Will is arguing, from a discussion on the Three Way Fight blog.

I generally agree with the points that Matthew makes on 3WayFight, I just think that some of these points are framed in a somewhat clunky way that makes it seem like the author is calling for “supporting” Muslim and Christian revolutionaries rather than organizing alongside them in the same organization. Also, he fails to take up the point that Will and mlove raise on Gathering Forces, that US Imperialism has actively supported authoritarian versions of Islamism, not just Napoleonic secular chauvinism. In any case, hope this is helpful:

“This is a fascinating and timely discussion. I agree with the Three Way Fight folks that sometimes anti-imperialist forces can take on an insurgent Right wing or fascist character, and that there are some Islamic versions of that in the Middle East today.

But it seems to me that Three Way Fight tends to overemphasize the influence of these right-wingers. Do the Al Qaeda networks and the Taliban really have that much clout internationally? How many everyday Muslims actually support them?

People like David Horowitz and the organizers of Islamofascism week at campuses across the country next week claim that most Muslims support these fools. But that is just witch-hunting and imperial propaganda. Obviously the 3-Way Fight folks aren’t coming from the same angle as Horowitz and it seems they would be equally as opposed to his white supremacy.

But could they also be overemphasizing the power of the Islamic right? I would argue that Al Qeda and the Taliban are relatively marginal in terms of the politics of the world’s several billion Muslims. It seems there is much more international grassroots support for groups like Hizb’Allah and Hamas because they are the most prominent forces currently on the ground mounting mass struggles against Israeli apartheid and for social reconstruction. But are these groups really fascist or on the Right? In many ways they have more in common with authoritarian Leftism: their program is a kind of revolutionary cultural nationalism with a state capitalist/ social democratic emphasis on social justice and aid from above.

In this, they are no doubt oppressive forces poised to betray the workers, women, queer folks, and other everyday Muslims who have at times expressed very militant aspirations for democratic self-government (for example the popular committees of the Intifada). But this betrayal is not a result of Hamas or Hizb’Allah’s Islamic character. After all, plenty of secular nationalist and socialist parties in the Middle East performed similar betrayals in earlier stages of anti-colonial struggles, and that’s at least one of the reasons why so many folks have turned to Islamic politics as a supposed alternative.

Secular populist, Leftist, and state capitalist regimes have also launched brutal campaigns against women, queer folks, indigenous peoples, and others, (as Matthew recognized with Chavez and Ortega). Reinventing an earlier secular nationalism or Communism is not viable considering these historical failures. Whether Islamic or not, something new is desperately needed. The key question is, where will folks go once they see the new Hizb’Allah and Hamas “Islamic” versions of state capitalism betray them once again?

I would argue that this will not automatically be in a secular direction. It could also be a different type of Islamic politics, a more libertarian or direct-democratic vision from below. This is of course not guaranteed but it is one viable possibility worth fighting for.

It is good to see some activists in the US working to critique both US imperialist attacks on Arabs and Muslims and also the patriarchal and authoritarian aspects of right-wing Islamic movements today. These are important first steps. But when are we going to actually propose alternatives that engage with religious thought seriously in its own vocabulary, language, etc.? When will revolutionaries throw their full support behind Muslims who are attempting to articulate libertarian Islamic theologies of liberation? Are they despairing that such folks do not exist in the Muslim community? In my experiences, they do exist, but are often boxed out and squeezed between the secular chauvinism and racism of the Left, the conservatives of the mosque and Muslim Students Association leadership, and the authoritarianism of insurgent Islamic tendencies. What types of political organization will open up space for new Muslim possibilities? I would argue that the largely atheist forms the Left has taken historically are inadequate for this task.

Many young folks are slowly but surely becoming fed up with the bootlicking leadership of groups like the MSA who constantly try to prove to whitey that they are the “Good Muslims” unlike the “Bad Muslims over there.” Many of these young Muslims will see no alternative in authoritarian Islamic insurgents and will turn instead to some version of secular Arab or Muslim power politics. Others will similarly see no alternative in authoritarian Islamic insurgents and will turn instead to some vision of Islamic liberation theology. Revolutionaries of all religious and non-religious backgrounds in the US need to be prepared to respect, support, and understand, and further BOTH potential developments and cannot subordinate either one to the other. These tendencies will only be vibrant if they cross fertilize each other.

Incidentally, I would argue a similar orientation is needed to deal with Christian imperialism and fundamentalism in the US. This is not the place to articulate a full vision on this front, but preliminarily, we need to recognize that a) liberal, multicultural and “interfaith” oriented Christian theologies generally serve as smoke-screens for US Empire because they argue that the US is a progressive force in the world because God ordained America (manifest destiny) to spread separation of church and state, dialogue, and tolerance in order to uplift backwards Third World cultures, especially Islamic ones. b) this liberal theological consensus is fracturing domestically because it cannot contain the frustrations of class tensions, de-industrialization, people loosing their jobs, etc. c) one response to this is an insurgent, populist Christian right that has definite fascist groupings within it that function as vanguards with influence beyond their numbers. d) we need to combat both the liberal imperial theology as well as this insurgent Christian right (we need a 3 way fight), e) it is not enough to simply make a secular critique of both theologies and encourage people to leave Christianity; we need to actively develop Christian liberation theologies that pose insurgent alternatives to both. A top priority in this should be to articulate, in uncompromising and militant Christian prophetic language, why it is crucial for Christians to stand in solidarity with everyday Muslims against imperialism, white supremacy, and fascist attacks.

I’m glad you pointed out some of the legacies that such a liberation theology could draw from, ranging from the late medieval peasant uprisings to the militant abolitionism of John Brown and David Walker. This whole history needs to be retrieved and reconsidered. Again, I can’t go into sufficient depth here, but in many ways it wasn’t capitalism that waged an assault on feudalism in Europe but rather a whole range of insurgent Christian heretic groups, as Sylvia Federici has documented. Capitalism was a middle class counter-revolution that attempted to co-opt this anti-feudal movement and establish a new ruling class. As a result, the middle class’s secularism is not unambiguously progressive. Enlightenment liberals struggled against the Church hierarchy and its feudal ties, but they also struggled against direct-democratic Christian visions from below and attempted to contain the self-activity of peasant, artisan, and early workers who were becoming Christian revolutionaries. Nowadays this middle class secularism takes its most destructive form in the NeoConservatives who act like Napoleon, attempting to shove the Liberal revolution down Muslim peoples’ throats from above and secularize them whether they like it or not. Revolutionaries must distinguish ourselves from this imperial project at all costs, while still mounting our own struggles against religious authorities whether these be conservative, liberal, or insurgent Rightists.

What is missing in the mix are revolutionary religious forces from a direct democratic perspective who can jump into the 3 way fight without subordinating their distinctive religious content and vision. These urgently need to be articulated and organized.”

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Death and Resurrection of In Soo Chun

A year ago, In Soo Chun, a Korean-American custodian at the University of Washington poured gasoline over his body and lit himself on fire in front of the office of the university's president. Several students rushed to try to put out the fire in vain. In Soo Chun soon passed away.

The media dismissed him as deeply troubled, following the lead of UW public relations rep Norm Arkans. There was no effort to ask why he chose such a public way to die. There was no effort to ask whether it had to do with the poor working conditions many UW custodians face. There was no effort to ask whether In Soo Chun was attempting to carry on a tradition of self-immolation that has been a central part of the Korean labor movement.

I work closely with an organization called International Workers and Students for Justice, a group of rank and file UW custodians and tradespeople. IWSJ held a memorial on the one year anniversary of In Soo Chun's death at which they asked these difficult questions. A video of the memorial can be found here. A publication of workers' writings dedicated to In Soo Chun's memory can be found here and here.

This memorial came soon before All Souls Day and the beginning of November, a month of remembrance for the dead in the Christian tradition. Sitting here on a dark and brooding Sunday afternoon in Seattle, and thinking about In Soo Chun, I'm flooded with memories of past encounters with death and ressurection.

In the fall of 2006 , my grandfather passed away in New Jersey. I remember flying into New York for the funeral and feeling like he was present, alongside all of my ancestors whose blood and sweat went into building the gray buildings and gritty streets. I remember feeling like their faith was a narrow opening, a crack like a small stained glass window in a dark cathedral, shining the perpetual light of God's remembrance into this ancient city of exhausted hearts and bodies. I remember writing and reciting the Prayers of the Faithful for the funeral, reminding my family that my grandfather would live on because God will re-member him in the Kingdom, because God never forgets his creations. I said we need to come together in remembrance so that he can rise again with us in the Church.

Over the years, I have practiced this month of remembrance by attending the School of the Americas protest at the gates of Fort Benning Georgia where we remember those who have ben killed in Latin America by counterinsurgency forced trained at the US Army School of the Americas. This protest involves a very powerful act of mourning and resistance where the names of all those killed are read out and the crowd raises white crosses and chants "Presente", Spanish for "I am here." This embodies the spirit of Oscar Romero, a liberation theologian and social movement leader in El Salvador. He said: " "I have frequently been threatened with death. I must tell you that, as a Christian, I do not believe in death but in resurrection. If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people."

Last year after a young Black man named Oscar Grant was shot in the back by a cop in Oakland, CA, people took to the streets chanting "we are all Oscar Grant."

Last year at a protest against speed up and overwork, custodians started chanting In Soo Chun's name. At the memorial this fall, referencing that event and the Oscar Grant protests, we chanted "we are all In Soo Chun; we will struggle together as one."

Will In Soo Chun rise again in the Church, or among his coworkers, or among youth in streets, like I am sure my grandfather, Oscar Romero, and Oscar Grant have already?

The difference is that he took his own life, he was not murdered and he did not die of natural causes. He was a devout Christian. Why would a Christian choose an act of suicide, which is considered a mortal sin in the Christian tradition?

My Christian friend Shin Gu has a good reflection on this over on Exile from Pyongyang blog. He writes:

"Evaluating the meaning of In Soo Chun's actions is not exactly an easy thing to do. As the UW Daily pointed out, ritual suicide is a fairly common practice in Korean labor and was also a big part of the democracy movements during the 70s and 80s. The act of self immolation publicly also has a political history about it, rooting with Chun Tae-Il's self immolation back in 1970. Chun Tae-il quickly became a martyr for both the labor and democracy movements and many activists chose similar routes during their lifetimes.

The question remains is exactly HOW this act became so rampant throughout the movement. Unlike Japan, there isn't any sort of tradition ritual suicide in Korean history. To make things even more complicated many people who committed political suicide were also devoted Christians (Chun Tae-il was as devout as you can get) which condemns suicide as murder and a one-way ticket to hell. By Christian logic, Chun Tae-il paid the ultimate price with his soul for his sacrifice. Prof. Nam at the University of Washington told her class that there seems to be no known source for Chun's actions. None of his writings warn about this and he did not seem well aware of the Buddhists in Vietnam who performed self immolation to protest the Diem government.

Is the action just a symbolic "FU" as one commenter posted? Is it just an example of how the human mind and soul can only be pushed too far? Or is there something we are all missing? Its stuff like these that make mankind a creature of great mystery no matter how hard we try to "rationalize" things.

One of the custodians who spoke at the memorial for In Soo Chun is a devout Christian and a good friend of mine. He shed light on the situation when he said: "In Soo Chun did not want to DIE here, but was trying to send a message which the people in the building behind me did not want to hear." Was In Soo Chun crying out in desperation, and in hope that someone would stop him and spare his life? Was he hoping to continue his life seared by fire but living to see positive changes in working conditions for his coworkers?

A year after his death some workers were afraid to come out to his memorial because of management harassment and retaliation. One manager scheduled a mandatory meeting during the middle of the memorial (which was planned during the day shift break) preventing many from attending. Some union officials almost divided the workforce by calling their own separate memorial because they were worried that asking difficult questions about In Soo Chun's death might anger management. When only about 10 people showed up they walked over and joined us anyway. My Christian friend told me he prayed and prayed over the course of the week that the memorial would come together. When many workers came despite these challenges, he told me that he is sure In Soo Chun was watching over us from heaven.

I am certainly not advocating ritual suicide. God's creation is a beautiful thing and our bodies ultimately belong to the Creator, not to ourselves, so we ought not to sacrifice them. I think ritual suicide is a tragic way to protest and I want workers to live on and enjoy the fruits of their resistance. But I also do not think it is helpful to conclude that In Soo Chun is therefore a sinner and that he will never rise again. In Soo Chun's act was not a selfish one, it was not an act of isolating pride. You can judge a tree by its fruits, and the fruits of his action, a year after the fact, is a greater sense of solidarity, compassion, and courage where many workers are now willing to take risks and to stand up for their coworkers, families, and communities in his memory.

The core message of In Soo Chun's memorial was that never again should a worker feel so isolated that he resorts to such drastic measures. We must come together and struggle collectively to make sure that we are all In Soo Chun. Only then will he be able to rise again among the people.

In Soo Chun: may perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace.