Park51 Raises Urgent Questions for Muslims

2010 September 20

The struggle over the Park51 project — the Islamic center that will be known as the Cordoba House — in New York has presented a series of challenges to both Muslim organizers and the broader Left, but these challenges need to be understood as the culmination of deeper political and strategic questions that have so far gone unresolved.

Responding to white populism

In a period of growing white populism, it’s important to ask what strategies are necessary for the defense of our communities, and the defeat of both white supremacy and US imperialism.

The murder of Oscar Grant is only one of the most recent and better known cases of the ongoing police campaign to control and repress the Black community.  Since the death of Oscar Grant, at least seven more young Black men have been murdered in northern California alone.  Bloodshed at the hands of white violence — whether by slave drivers, lynch mobs, or the police — has been a consistent feature of the Black experience in the U.S.

In Arizona, Latin@ and undocumented peoples have been on the front lines of the fight against draconian forms of immigration control.  Sheriff Arpaio — who openly associates with neo-fascists — has become a national figure of the anti-immigrant movement conducting raids on immigrant neighborhoods, and holding many immigrant and undocumented people in tent cities that differ little from concentration camps.  This struggle, of course, has deeper roots in NAFTA and other imperial incursions by the U.S. in Latin America.

The passage of SB 1070 in Arizona needs to be understood as part of the success of a resurgent Right, that has been circling around the Tea Party, to capture state power in AZ.  While the ideological make-up around the Tea Party nation-wide is still being contested, fascist elements have entered the fray, and are attempting to both win individuals to their program, and influence the political direction of this milieu.

In this context, Park51 takes on new meaning and greater urgency.  Deepa Kumar has argued that anti-Muslim racism in the U.S. is in the process of changing.  While in the past, the U.S. ruling class treated the “Muslim terrorist threat” as a task to be tackled in the international arena, we have seen an increase in attacks on Muslim peoples inside the U.S.

Time Magazine has gone so far as to ask if America has a “Muslim Problem” — accepting the notion that our mere presence offends an American (read: white) sensibility.  In New York, cab driver Ahmed Sharif was stabbed after affirming to a passenger that he was Muslim.  Afterwards, the local press tried to excuse this attack because the culprit had been drinking.

The Park51 project is also not an isolated incident of Muslims fighting for the right to build a masjid.  The same struggle has been waged in Tennessee, Georgia, California, and elsewhere.

While the violence of white supremacy continues to permeate American society and destroy the lives of people of color; while the far Right makes inroads into state power in Arizona and wages similar campaigns in other parts of the country; and while fascists seek begin to infiltrate and gain footing in mass politics; we are only just now seeing the beginnings of masjid defense campaigns.

What can we learn from organizations like the Black Panther Party and figures like Robert F. Williams?  What will it take to both grow and sustain these organizations, and deepen their political content?  Are there other organizational forms or campaigns that can be taken up in this period?  What have been people’s experiences developing Muslim leadership and a Muslim Left?

Islamic politics

A resurgent white populism is only one part of the widening attacks on Muslims in the US. In her articles, Kumar points to the growing amount of so-called domestic terrorism cases in the U.S. as another factor. While white supremacists have for a long time called any and all forms of Muslim resistance to empire and white supremacist violence terrorism, a deeper question remains unanswered: what has been the engagement by the Left with Islamic politics?

Some on the Left have gone so far as to label Islamic politics as a form of fascism.  Others have been unable to transcend that stale argument that religion is either a form of false consciousness, or is something that is inherently authoritarian. Too often such arguments hide a de facto forms of white chauvinism.  They resemble far too much the logic of the “white man’s burden.”

Confusion on these questions has allowed an opening for some to frame the struggle around the Park51 project as an issue of religious freedom. This, however, sterilizes the issue, and robs it of its deeper political content.

Independent of specific organizations and political formations, the emergence of Islamic politics and the embracing of a Muslim identity on a mass level over the last 30 years needs to be understood in at least a couple of ways.

First, as the reconfiguration of racial consciousness.  This is especially true for the experience of Muslims in Europe and in the United States.  In Europe this process has been more concentrated given the much greater social weight of the Muslim working classes there.  In the U.S., given the larger role of the middle class, this process has not been as sharp or distinct, but is, nevertheless, occurring.  In response to growing white populism from the Right and white chauvinism on the Left, the development of Muslim politics cannot be separated from the overall dialectic of white supremacy and racial consciousness to combat it.

Second, it is necessary to consider the historical demise of the Left in the Muslim world, and the inability of a libertarian Muslim theology of liberation to gain any footing.  This is a complicated process that should be investigated carefully, and is one more urgent task facing a Muslim liberation movement.

By and large, the role of the Left during the era of national liberation movements was to support the development of independent state capitalism.  Statist segments of the Left and national bourgeoisies built a vision of national liberation that took a form of state socialist projects.  As such, these projects became part of the overall logic of state capitalism, and were dominated by the two poles of world accumulation: the Soviet Union and the U.S.the welfare state.

During the era of neoliberalism, the gains made by the working class were opened up to attack in the international arena of capitalist competition. While in the past these newly independent national ruling classes could claim the mantle of liberation and progress, they then found themselves enforcing and facilitating these attacks.

As much of the imagination of the Left was a product of these state capitalist projects and the so-called “golden age of capitalism,” they were unprepared to struggle on the new terrain of neo-liberalism. Ironically, much of the Left in recent decades has sided with the authoritarian neo-liberal state in the name of fighting the threat of Islamic populism, becoming discredited in the eyes of peasants, the working classes and sections of the middle class.

Islamic politics has stepped into this vacuum in the last thirty years, revealing its appeal and its failures. The class composition of Islamic political projects reveals these dimensions. Many of these projects are lead by middle classes that have experienced the downward attack on wages and employment, or encountered at times severe political repression by U.S. imperialism and Israeli apartheid. But the mass base of many Islamic movements are former peasants who are now the unemployed, and wageless or semi-wageless occupants of massive urban ghettoes.

This cross class alliance has locked the content of these struggles in the Islamic politics into a form of populism. Working class struggle politics has so far been underdeveloped, and has lead to the failure and cooptation of most Islamist groups.

In Lebanon, Hizbullah has joined the state apparatus, and instead of breaking down confessional politics as a necessary part of the national liberation movement, it now supports it; in Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr has vacillated from taking part in the national liberation movement to the U.S. occupation, to joining the comprador government, reproducing reactionary sectarian politics;. Meanwhile, in Palestine, Hamas has been unable to move beyond the stalemate between the apartheid state of Israel and the Palestinian national resistance movement; by winning the elections of the Palestinian Authority it has legitimized this bantustan government, which is little more than a tool of the U.S. and the Israeli government to manage apartheid and occupation.  Finally, in Iran the Khomeni counter-revolution destroyed one of the most important revolutions in the 20th century.

Islamic politics in these forms have come to end, unable to resolve its own contradictions.

As Muslims we should be asking ourselves what traditions can we begin to draw from to develop a libertarian form of Islamic politics. Where do we need to supplement our Muslim and Islamic traditions in order to overcome these contradictions?

Race and class struggle

What’s needed today is a struggle on the terms of both race and class.  We need to be combating the white supremacist attacks against Muslims.  At the same time this defense will only be successful if we wage a class struggle against the Muslim middle class that continue to compromise and undermine our movements.

While the Left has produced a wide range of theories on the relationship between race and class, many Muslims today have transcended these debates, and have taken up the task of class struggle between Muslims.  The Park51 project is a prime example.  The Right is on the warpath against the proposal to build this Islamic center, and are using it as an opportunity to advance the attack on Muslims.  Most Muslims, however, understand the broader political scope of this particular struggle, and are defending the right of Muslims to build the Cordoba House.

Park51, however, is being spearheaded by Feisal Abdul Rauf who is a known Zionist, State Department propagandist, and supporter of U.S. Empire imperialism and Israeli apartheid.  This is common knowledge, and the Cordoba House may, also, become an official mouthpiece for U.S. imperialism, but many have not refrained from unleashing political attacks on Abdul Rauf. And while the debate over building the masjid is also occurring between the white populists and the right wing of the Republican Party on the one hand, and the liberal wing of U.S. foreign policy in the state department on the other, Muslims cannot get trapped into allowing a defense of the masjid or our rights be used as means to support U.S. imperialism.

Others have provided a window into the important racial tensions within the American Muslim community. Thanks to PMUNA Debate for reposting a comment by an imam in New York that succinctly describes these tensions:

“The way that this whole issue (Park 51) is playing out is the result of what I call a failed strategy on the part of Arab and southern Asian Muslims to be accepted into American society or assimilated into American society and a successful strategy on the part of the status quo [and] ruling class on the other hand.” Abdur-Rashid believes that the failed strategy of Arab and southern Asian Muslims was in not promoting a dialogue with African-American Muslims once they arrived in America, especially after the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and the Immigration Act of 1965.

“An important part of their assimilation strategy has been to put an immigrant face on Islam in America,” said Abdur-Rashid. “Many of the immigrants who have come here have been financially well off. This has enabled them to found influential national organizations as they pursue a strategy of empowerment. All immigrants want to be empowered; all immigrants want to be part of American society. They’ve worked to put an immigrant face on Islam in America.

“As these immigrants have come here, two things have happened. One is that their goal has been to assimilate into White America, since we all know there are two Americas. And the America that these southern Asian and Arab immigrants have strived to assimilate to is not the America you and I are sitting in right now,” said Abdur-Rashid. “In doing this, the fact is that they came to this country and, for the most part, ignored the presence of African-American Muslims. [They] made no attempt to link with us, work with us, dialogue with us.

“Up until the past couple of decades, when you said Islam and Muslims in America, people have always thought about African-Americans. All of the famous Muslims in America up until this decade have been African-Americans who have had a tremendous impact on American society. Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar. The list goes on.

“It’s failed not because these same Muslims had ill intent towards African-Americans; it was because they didn’t know the territory,” Abdur-Rashid continued. “They underestimated the underbelly of American society and the role that racism toward people of color has always played in American society. After Sept. 11, their artificial white privilege was revoked and they just became another kind of nigger in America. And the status quo started treating them like that.”

These divisions need to be tackled if a Muslim freedom struggle in the U.S. is to be successful.

Questions for this fight

As many of us know the political credentials of Abdul Rauf, and are aware of the probable use of the Cordoba House by the U.S. state and ruling class, the question before us is: should we still fight for the Park51 project?

This has been a very polarizing issue, but despite elements such as Abdul Rauf, many Muslims have still defended the Park51 project in the terms of the broader attacks on Muslims.

Can we attack the House Arabs behind the project, and at the same time fight for the right to build the Cordoba House?  Can we fight for control of the political orientation of the center, and make it an anti-imperialist Islamic center?

  • http://www.gatheringforces.org Will

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/24/business/24muslim.html?_r=1&hp

    In light of what has been posted, this is an important article.

    Will

  • http://gatheringforces.org fatima

    Hey all. jubayr, very nice post. You have summed up concisely and accessibly a lot of ideas around Islamic politics that have been floating around U&S members and our work in Palestine solidarity campaigns.

    I think it is so critical to look at the state of Islamic politics historically. Something I had not considered was the point you raise about Islamic politics in the imagination of the (white) Left being shaped by state capitalist projects… against whom Islamic politics rose.

    One question I have is that Islamic politics (or particular forms of it, I’m not sure) in this post is being characterized as populism. I am not totally clear on the meaning of populism and so if someone could clarify that, as well as talk about some historical examples, that would be helpful.

    But while Islamic politics in the middle east and south asia are an inspiration and hold lessons for Muslims in the US, we have to understand our experience as being increasingly racialized, and look to how people have fought white supremacy in the US in the past. Abdur-Rashid is soooooo on point- our immigrant parents didnt necessarily know to whom to look for lessons on how to struggle. The class composition of our communities are in some ways distinct with class struggle and other times complicated. But we have and are breaking out of that. It might seem petty, but my parents and other South Asian Muslims were very into the Malcolm X movie when it came out 15 years ago. In the podunk town I lived in, we were the only people in the movie theater when we went to watch it. From the age of 10 to 15 I probably read Malcolm’s autobiography 100 times. I am not sure what I made of it then and the impacts on me these days,

    At the same time, Abdur-Rashid misses something about the nature of being an immigrant in the US. He is right that the rhetoric of the US being a nation of immigrants has been used by Muslims in order to assimilate into white society. But looking around us today, we see how damn contentious immigration issues are. For the white populism that is emerging, immigration in terms of the US-Mexico border as taking precedent just as anti-Muslim attacks have been. We need black and brown solidarity among all poc communities.

    This is how a Muslim Left/leadership is going to emerge. I dont really think we should fight concretely for the Cordoba House. I dont see what benefit it has for working class Muslims in this country and I am not sure it is worth the time and energy trying to wrest the project away from a Zionist, US empire loving House Muslim. But…this debate is sharpening the political and class fault lines in our communities. So even if we dont struggle for this mosque to be built, we have to engage with the debates, and once we convince folks of the problems with it, we have to have an alternative outlined and be ready to act on it. I’d ask young Muslims to go out, look at whats happening on their streets, talk to people in their community, and from there identify whats important for them to struggle around. For me, in the past it was Palestine and fighting the repression of American Muslims, these days it is the attacks on public education and the struggle for immigrants’ rights, because I see my community’s fate wrapped up very tightly in those.

  • JOMO

    Thanks for a very insightful post. I am interested to keep talking about the points that fatima raises, as well as breaking down this division between immigrants and Black folks that white supremacy and capitalism institutionalizes. I am constantly reminded of “No No Boy” by John Okawa which delves into the tensions b/w first and second generation Japanese immigrants in the US during the time of WW2. I think the mentality that many immigrant communities have, of having left home, but acting like we never have and wanting to recreate an enclave that encloses us in our memory of home, and assimilating in superficial ways (to white supremacy) as opposed to the deep cultures of multiracial resistance and history of this country which involve hella poc and internationalism, is something I want to keep talking about on this blog.

    Jubayr, in your post it comes across as if Islamic politics have not conceded to capitalism, and have emerged as a resistance to leftist secularism and state capitalist projects. I am not sure if it is what you intended, so please clarify if I am misunderstanding it. When I think about Malaysia, which is also where I grew up for some time, I remember how Islam was being used also as a ruling ideology and religion. I think your post leaves out countries such as Malaysia where Islam is a state-enforced religion, which emerged out of a defeat of multi0religious and multi-ethnic class struggle politics during the 1950s.. The defeat of the multiracial class struggle left, through the support of the British, brought about a government that found it possible to merge a state capitalist project and Islam, together under the rubric of nationalism and cultural revivalism. Later on, with the emergence of neo-liberalism, parts of the Malaysian ruling class also experimented with a form of Islamic exceptionalism that tried to show how Islam is compatible with free market ideology, with limited success. I dont know the details of how they did it, except that Malaysia was constantly being touted as an exceptional Islamic country where you can find modernity and tourism by “western standards.” Of course, there are divisions within the community around this, and in the absence of an articulation of Islamic politics that are not authoritarian, Muslims I know have resorted to human rights arguments to talk about multi-ethnic unity to challenge a Muslim-centric and capitalist society.

    I dont think this process is specific to Islam or Malaysia. In fact it has happened many times over in neo-colonial countries that substitute religion/culture for class struggle/revolutionary politics. I do think though that it is an important piece of the history puzzle for thinking about a class struggle, libertarian Islamic politics

  • http://gatheringforces.org jubayr

    @fatima:
    my understanding of populism is that it is, broadly, cross class alliances that fight for certain gains or reforms but subordinate the working class, peasants, unemployed and other subordinated groups to middle class and/or state leadership.

    the Morales government’s relationship to the indigenous movement in Bolivia is another example. he claimed to represent their interest against sections of the bourgeoisie and big land owners, but he’ll never call for democratic popular councils, and instead seeks to preserve his own hold on state power.

    others can correct me and/or elaborate on my definition of populism.

    in regards to Abdur-Rashid’s statement… i don’t think he’s completely off. i think he’s referring to the specific dynamic of Arab and South Asian immigrants to the U.S. that have a generally different class dynamic than Latin@ immigrants; i.e. a significantly large portion of Arabs and South Asians are middle class professionals.

    part of how this class dynamic plays out in the U.S. is related to the size of the Arab, South Asian, and Latin@ populations in the U.S. the latter is significantly larger, and which provides a base for there being a larger number of working class Latin@ folks. a shorter way of saying this is that undocumented, immigrant, and/or working class Arabs and South Asians do not make up as significant a portion of the work force in the same way undocumented, immigrant and/or working class Latin@s do.

    also, the geographic proximity of Latin America as compared to the Middle East and South Asia is a lot closer, which undocumented immigration to the U.S. more feasible for working class Latin@ folks.

    what i’m trying to summarize is that there are different internal and external dynamics that make the immigration experience of Arab and South Asians in the U.S. qualitatively different from that of Latin@s.

    i think you’re right, though, that as the political the political terrain in the U.S. continues to shift, possibly polarize, and if white populism continues to grow and gain traction the method of assimilation by some Arabs and South Asians could be less and less possible forcing them into the immigrant rights movement.

  • http://gatheringforces.org jubayr

    @JOMO:
    in regards to the first part of your comment: Islamic politics conceding to or opposing capitalism…

    i was trying to say that the ruling state capitalist projects to come out of the era of national liberation eventually began attacking the gains of the previous national liberation movements.

    this, of course, is rooted in the logic of a global capitalist system, and the failure of working class revolutions in the developing world.

    because these state capitalist projects did not historically solve the contradictions of imperialism and capitalism, Islamic politics emerged on a mass scale as a response to this. so this is not to say that Islamic politics is automatically and explicitly anti-capitalist, but rather anti-capitalist politics exist within these formations as a possibility.

    this idea of “populism” explained through the class composition of many Islamist formations that was mentioned in the post points towards the limitations of these political formations.

    i want to be clear, though, that i don’t think Islamist projects with working class struggle politics are out of the realm of possibility. in fact, i think they are part of what is needed.

    one response to your point on Malaysia is that there are many different national conditions shaping the direction that Islamic politics take. i agree that the Islamic chauvinism of the Malaysian state needs to be challenged, but the relationship of this state project to U.S. imperialism is more cooperative than the examples i mentioned in the post. i’m able to speculate at this point, but i would hazard to say that Muslim identity at the time of its incorporation into the state in Malaysia was not an opposition to imperialism the way it was in places like Palestine and Iraq.

  • Seneca Thug

    I am a Native American and I am by all means against oppression and I am against how the U.S. government treats Muslims as far as constantly harrasing them. I guess I just have a question regarding Islam and women within Islam.

    Now first off I will say that some answers are better discovered by visiting a mosque which I am planning to do on Friday.

    I seek to learn about it despite being brought up as a Christian.

    I no longer go to church due to a lot of what they preach. A church is the people not a building. I also feel like its BS to have a collection plate because the original Christians were out in the street, not in a building to take collection would have been like taking a bribe.

    So anyway I was watching this video on women in Islam called Hijab, Niqrab or nothing. Basically a lot of Muslim women have the view that it isn’t sexist to wear the hijab or covering because they choose to.

    That’s fair enough. However, there had been some women saying that the two women in the video who wore coverings were real Muslims while the one without a veil was not.

    Now I know what the Koran says about Hijab. It is not just a look but also a way of acting right?

    It said, “Cover your bosoms and your private parts lower your gaze.”

    Now to me, teh part about lowering your gaze sounds more like an action rather than in apperance. A way of being modest.

    The part about covering the breasts was pretty clear on that so I don’t see any part that says they have to wear the veil. I think that verse just like the bible or any religious text was misread and was used to justify patriarchy just like the story of Ham was used to justify black slavery in America.

    I guess my question is, what do people think about that? Im asking the Muslims on here. Because while a woman should have the rights to wear a covering and should by no means be forbidden do so, i.e. the French goverment.
    I still think that a oman should be able to also choose not to wear the hijab. Because there is a big difference betwee what was said in the Koran and what people think they have to cover.

    I know that many Arab women in Dubai don’t wear them. & the truth is, they can go withoutt a head covering and still dress modestly. The hijab concept does apply but I think it needs to be redefined.

    However despite this concern, I respect a lot about Islam. Malcolm X is the man who got me interested. Now I even know that the Koran’s version of the Adam and Eve story is more gender equal than the Bible. In the bible it says that women came from man but the Koran says they were created at the same time.

    I also have another question. Is it true that Muslims believe Chrstians and Jews go to hell? I have heard reference to non believers. Kaffirs as we are called. Which is the same word the dutch used in Africa as a way of using a racist term for black africans.

    I ask because I have heard both yes and no. Some would say you are damned if you accept another religion. Yet there was an Imam in California that said even those who go to hell are not damnned forever. The hellfire is meant to purge the sin from your soul.

    This Imam said that eternal hell is only meant for the most evil of people. Adolf Hitler for example.

    A guy like that has evil that damn near rivals the devil himself.

    Also as a Christian I would like to correct Muslims about one thing. The concept of the trinty is not an implication that we believe in three Gods. This is not true.

    We just believe that the father, son and the holy spirit, are the same being. So it shouldn’t be thought of as a trinity with three gods. Its one God but with three different titles.

    Kind of like, to put it inperspective, God has three jobs.

    A lot of the good messages of Christianity has been ruined by westernized christianity.

    Anyway I hope somebody will reply to this.

    Salaam Aliekum

  • http://spiritualdesert.blogspot.com Mamos

    here is a perfect example of a House Arab:

    a Lebanese government minister basically gave Israel advice about how to invade and bomb Lebanon in order to eliminate Hizballah.

    this was released in the most recent Wikileaks posts of the US diplomatic cables:

    http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2010/12/20101246144971381.html

    the minister said to avoid bombing Christian areas and made it clear the Lebanese army would offer no protection to people living in Shiite areas.

    This, plus the revelations that several Arab governments were encouraging the US to invade Iran must be having some serious affects in terms of popular discontent with these governments among the Middle Eastern working classes.