The Personal, the Pious, the Political
December 10, 2017
Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,
I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, integrity, and Iman.
The modern sentiment toward religion limits its role to private human practice with limited public affectation. The idea is that secularism -- a non-religion that has a value system as much as many religions -- dominates public space, with the backing of a bureaucratic structure. Part of the success of the American experiment is that its form of secularism allows for and protects -- through Free Speech -- the extensive personal expression of religion. Still, in Islam, we speak of Islam informing every aspect of life from the private to the public, from the individual to the social, political, and economic. We have obligations of justice toward everyone, regardless of their beliefs.
A lot has been said about the recent announcement that the US is recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and that it is moving our embassy to Jerusalem. Israel itself announced Jerusalem (at least East Jerusalem) as its capital nearly three decades ago.
The most preposterous criticism of the move is the same as the most preposterous praise of the move: it is either hurting or helping the Peace Process. The problem with this rhetoric is that it assumes that there is a peace process in place. Evaluate all the various attempts, from UN 242, to Oslo, to the Quartet, to the various talks of the past decade, and see which, if any, is in place as settlements continue to expand. I have numerous Palestinian students whose relatives in the “bilad” cannot find jobs except as construction workers in those settlements that are taking away their own land.
Let us not think that this language is another example of the continued recklessness of the current incumbent in the White House. His predecessors -- Presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama -- made similar comments. In 1995, Congress passed the “Jerusalem Embassy Act,” which called for the move to be completed by 1999, though none of the presidents until Trump followed through on it.
The next point to consider is the myth that this is a religious conflict. Indeed, it seems that in containing some of the most sacred precincts on the planet, Jerusalem and the regions surrounding it seems to be one of the planet’s largest graveyards. While religion is a part of the conflict and inflames the conflict, we should not lose sight that the fundamental problem is the Occupation of Palestinian lives and lands. Al-Aqsa is the third most sacred space in Islam, and even then, a human life is more valuable than al-Aqsa.
It is the responsibility of people of religion to be the social conscience of society. A large obstacle that prevents people of religion from standing for justice is not lack of faith, as much as it is tribalism: where we focus only on injustices against our own co-religionists. In constructing a Muslim Ummah, the Prophet, may peace be upon him, not only worked to end the tribal structures of Arabia and beyond, but he also shifted the discourse from tribal vengeance to uniform justice for all. Thus, if I only critiqued Israel for its subjugations of the Palestinians, especially knowing that nearly all other Arab heads of state have used the Palestinians as bargaining chips, I would be guilty of tribalism disguised as justice.
As you know, the vast majority of my political comments address violence, hunger, and corruption in Chicago. Nevertheless, we must understand that in our era, everything is linked. Obama made this point in his “A New Beginning” speech in Cairo after his historic election as president. Angela Davis makes this point in her award-winning, “Freedom is a Constant Struggle.”
An example is the American attempts at prohibitions against the BDS movement. There are moves in various parts of our society working to outlaw BDS and any other criticisms of the State of Israel. Regardless of what your stance on BDS may be, it should be understood that it is preposterous that our Free Speech should be challenged, especially the Free Speech to criticize a foreign government, especially a government that we arm, especially an ally responsible for numerous human rights violations.
Another example is the ongoing debate over the acceptance of Syrian refugees. If the catastrophe in Syria is not mind-boggling enough, I am troubled that Syrians have had to flee literally across the world to the United States to find safety, and are turned away.
Thus, my critique applies as much to Israel -- which is not a secular state -- and its treatment of the Palestinians as it does to Saudi Arabia -- which is not a secular state -- and its treatment of Saudi Shias and Yemenis. There has been much American press praising the recent anti-corruption moves in Saudi Arabia while also speaking of the destruction of Yemen, without connecting the two; the destruction of Yemen comes directly from the Saudi regime. Likewise, the head of state of Turkey -- which is no longer a secular state -- has been receiving great praise from many Muslim populations for his defense of the Palestinians and criticisms of Israel, while the same populations turn a blind eye to his witch hunt of Turkish Muslim activists and academics, accusing them of insurrection. On that note, I find it fascinating that some Muslim scholars and preachers will in one moment speak with force against mixtures of Islam and politics, yet in the next moment praise Muslim imperial legacies such as those of the Ottomans and Mughals.
We cannot speak about violence, hunger, and corruption in Chicago without speaking about violence, hunger, and corruption across the country, without speaking about the same abroad, because the common elements in all of these cases are overlapping ideologies, policies, and techniques. Whether we speak of hunger in Chicago or Somalia, is not the result of lack of food, but of obstructive policy. A friend who invests his almost every waking minute in local and global social service told me that in Somalia there are plenty of distribution channels for the sale of guns, and there is plenty of food that could be delivered through those channels, yet there is a famine: that is policy, not drought. On a side note, if we consider the policies of a recent Chicago mayor, we would note how much he seemed to work like an Arab dictator.
A police officer who worked in Ferguson at the time of the unrest told me that even though we blame cops for the murders of unarmed Black American men and women, there are other parts to the problem, at the very least because the courts are acquitting the officers. The most important is that the local politicians support police officers only when expedient. Further, Black and White gang and militia members are coming back from service as American soldiers overseas having been trained by the US military. Further, because of right-wing rhetoric suggesting that “Obama is coming for your guns,” there has been a decade-long buying frenzy of weapons compounded by an increase smuggling of weapons, allowing for the gangs and militias to be more armed and skilled than ever. Further still, Davis mentions in her book that during the protests in Ferguson, Palestinian participants discovered that the same tear gas used overseas was being used there.
The point of all this is that many students -- especially Palestinians students who are directly affected -- have come to me disappointed and upset over the recent announcements by President Trump regarding Jerusalem. We used to say, “think globally, act locally.” Now, I am telling you to think locally and globally and act globally and locally. Now that you are completing finals and will have time off from school, let us invest time to think about how. Let us think about how our Islam compels us to stand for justice locally and globally, with consistency for all. I don’t have any answers in all of this, but you and I have plenty of obligations.
And Allah knows best.