Muslim Students Take the Lead at UC Irvine

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written with Will

This past February students in the Muslim Student Union (MSU) at UC Irvine deliberately disrupted a talk by Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the US, as he attempted to justify the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2008/2009.

The 11 students who disrupted Oren by shouting him down were arrested.  Afterwards, Muslim students and other Palestine solidarity activists attending the event walked out and held a protest outside.

Recently, Lisa Cornish, the Senior Executive Director of Student Housing, and other university officials at UC Irvine have recommended the 1-year suspension of the MSU.  In addition, MSU members must complete 50 hours of community, no MSU officers will be allowed to be an “authorized signer” for any other student groups, and if the MSU is allowed to re-register for official status in 2011, it will be placed under a one-year probation.

There is currently a debate over at Kabobfest where some in the Muslim community are arguing that the MSU should not have been involved in organizing the disruption.  They argue that MSAs and MSUs have no business taking leadership in this struggle.

One argument goes that it invites retaliation on the whole Muslim community threatening their religious freedom.  The problem with this argument is that it places the sins of white supremacy and empire squarely in the laps of Muslims and solidarity activists who choose to resist.  There is a faulty assumption here that the occupations of Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the racist attacks on Muslims in the US are a result of organized resistance on our part.  This is completely backwards.  Oppression doesn’t result from our resistance; we resist because we are oppressed.

When the university bureaucracy engages in “collective punishment” it’s tipping it’s hand, and revealing which side of the struggle it falls on.  All pretensions of ‘objectivity’ fade away, as we’ve seen in the persecution of activists and academics who express solidarity with Palestine on university campuses.  Colleges and universities are institutions that are used to propagate the ruling ideas of official society, which includes the demonization of Muslims, as well as political and economic support for Israeli apartheid.

They do not distinguish between their attacks on Palestine and Iraq, on the one hand, and Muslims and Islam on the other; we should not distinguish in our defense.  While the MSU is currently denying any official involvement in organizing the disruption, Muslim students and the MSU should stand behind these actions and the 11 who were arrested.  It would be foolish to think we can escape these attacks by keeping our heads down.

Another assumption to this argument is that Islam and Muslim identity have absolutely no relationship to the occupation of Palestine, Iraq and other hot spots of US Empire and resistance.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The oppression of Palestine, Iraq or Afghanistan is intricately tied to the development of Islamic thought and practice.  It is a singular process, and we cannot separate the two.

One the one hand, the notion of the ‘clash of civilizations’ — popularized by Samuel Huntington’s book of the same title — has been used as the main social ideology by both the Right and liberals to justify US Empire’s ‘war on terror,’ and the occupations and carpet bombing of majority-Muslim countries.  Academia and the press have used a forest worth of paper to expound how Islam is primitive and inherently antagonistic to bourgeois notions of democracy and modernity, why the US must embark on the contemporary journey of the ‘white man’s burden’ to civilize us and teach us democracy.

On the other hand, we have, no doubt, been living through what some have called an Islamic revival .  With the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Islamic politics gained major traction on the world stage as a viable alternative for anti-colonial and anti-imperial movements.  In tandem with this, the failure of Communism and nationalist projects to fulfill their promises of national liberation have prompted many to emphasize and explore the Muslim aspects of their identity over others.

As Islam and Muslim identity has become a voice of anti-imperial and anti-colonial resistance, it contains within it kernels of class struggle.  Just like Black Power, Islamic politics have tensions  of gender, race, and class which must be contested.  But just as Black Power was needed as the re-assertion of Black people, so to the defense and articulation of a revolutionary Islamic politics is needed now.  What it looks like is being fought over in Lebanon, Egypt, Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  This same struggle must occur in the US, as well.  This is an urgent task.

Our Muslim identity and politics cannot be separated from this reality.  Many of us have turned to Islam and Islamic politics in order to understand reasons behind the whole sale murder of our people, the daily humiliation we face as Muslims, and what we can do to fight back and resist.  While this, of course, has occurred to varying degrees, it explains the success of national liberation groups such as Hamas and Hizbullah.

Some, however, argue that all nationalism is sectarian.  While we’re certainly familiar with these forms in Lebanon, and now Iraq, nationalism — just like every other revolutionary tradition —  has a range of authoritarian and libertarian tendencies within it.  Ali Shari’ati is just one example of a revolutionary who advanced Islamic thought and practice with a blend of existentialism and Marxism.

In the United States, however, Islam has been successfully assimilated into American Empire.  The only reason for its existence is to coopt the independent resistance of American Muslims, and provide a tool of cover for imperial management.  The other specter in the US is the threat of al-Qaeda, which benefits liberal Islamic politics and American Empire.  It reduces the choice between either being a loyal opposition to US imperialism, or embracing the reactionary politics and strategies of the right wing of Islamism (of which Hamas and Hizbullah are NOT a part) — strategies that offer no possibility of emancipation.

The revolutionary tradition of the Prophet (PBUH), and other figures like Shari’ati are completely ignored.  The richer development of Islam has crashed on the rocks of liberalism and reactionary Islamism.  A higher development based on class struggle, anti-patriarchy, etc. has stagnated because of this tension.  There needs to be the development of a history and praxis based on such an analysis.

And where have the best of our generation gone out of these frustrations?  They have enrolled in law school or med-school and fight on the terrain of liberal democracy.  This strategy is unwinnable.  The braver have fled to Pakistan or Afghanistan to fight US occupations, but reach a dead end in philosophy and practice.

It’s a question of how should Muslims go about to change our circumstances; the politics of Arab and Muslim social movements need to be based on our self-conception and practical activity in the terms of strategy and organizational forms.  Marx brilliantly wrote that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”  The Theses on Feuerbach is a good place to begin thinking about this question.

It’s also important to note that the nationalism of the 60s and 70s provided the basis for international linkages between the Black struggle in the US, China, Cuba, Tanzania, Ghana, and elsewhere.  However, the task is not to mimic them.  The forms and content of one struggle cannot simply be repeated.

At the same time, US Empire’s war in Iraq and Afghanistan have guaranteed that such historical dilemmas will not go away.  The victories of the national liberation era are have provided that the overwhelming majority of nations in the world would no longer face the question of kicking a classic colonizer out of their country who are from Europe or the United States.  And yet the lives of billions of de-colonized peoples are hardly better.  What is the next course of struggle then?

What appears as fragmentary problems have to be reconciled in a globalized capitalist world which would have been hardly recognizable in the national liberation era.  Islam, as a social ideology Muslims use to navigate these forces, is intricately tied to this story.  How else can we explain millions of Muslims scattered across the advanced capitalist world as “legal immigrants,” undocumented workers, or parts of the diaspora due to continued apartheid or colonialism?  How else can we begin to explain what the Muslim people of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, etc are going through?

As MSUs and MSAs are often the only Muslim student organizations on campus, not only do they have a right to be leading the Palestine solidarity movement, but they have a responsibility.  Religious education and building community are important work that MSU/As should be involved in, but they must also address these other aspects of the Muslim experience.  If the membership of these organizations chooses not to get involved, then Arab and Muslim students should start alternative organizations in order to take up the task of Palestine.

Another argument is that the tactic of disruption is un-Islamic or unbecoming of a Muslim.  I’m sure we’ve heard many times the story of the Prophet (PBUH) and the woman who would throw garbage on him as he used to walk home.  She did this for a few days, but one day she wasn’t there to do this.  The Prophet (PBUH) visited her because he thought something must have been wrong.  In turns out she was sick, so the Prophet (PBUH) stayed with her and prayed for her.

This story is used to champion an advanced moral spirit and character that Muslims should hold themselves to.  But it is also used — along with other false claims that Islam means peaceful tolerance of oppression and that jihad can be totally reduced to a personal struggle — to argue that Muslims should not organize for Palestine, or resist war and occupation.  It’s a conservative argument that relegates Islam to the realm of ideas, instead of recognizing that Islam is a material force that engages with the material forces of apartheid and empire.  If Islam is going to be more than an idea, then it needs to engage with these things in a concrete way.

To reduce Islam or Muslim identity to this one story is equivalent to throwing the rest of our tradition into the dustbin.  Jihad is another aspect of Islam, and has many meanings.  It may mean waging a meaning of personal struggle, but it also at times means going to war against our oppressors.  Muslims cannot ignore the tradition of struggle within Islam.  We must engage with it.  The liberation of our communities is a task Islam demanded of its adherents.

There are other political arguments made against the tactic of disruption.  The UC official, for instance, charged the disruptors with violating free speech rights.  Many Palestine solidarity organizers have accept these terms of engagement and fallen into this trap.

The problem with this conception is that it pretends that the rights of the speaker — in this case an Israeli state official — and the disruptors — Muslims — are the same.  They are not.  The MSU does not have billions of dollars, bombs, tanks, and a university administration at their disposal to fight for the liberation of Palestine.

Would the UC Irvine administration allow a speaker from Hamas, Hizbullah or any other Muslim/Arab national liberation organization to speak?  Probably not.  It’s free speech for white supremacy, and carpet bombs for the rest of us.

Was the MSU or other Palestine solidarity organizers allowed a mic and equal time to address the audience?  A formalized debate would have been equal terms, but the university administration, because they support Zionism and white supremacy, would never allow this.

Our first foot forward should be, as the first disruptor put it, “Propagating murder is not an expression of free speech!”  It’s an attempt to rally support for the continued murder of people of color in general and Muslims & Palestinians in particular.  This is exactly what Zionists are doing on their speaking tours.  They need to be opposed and shut down.

And yet another argument is that disruption and similar tactics make Zionists like Oren look like the victim.

Yeah right… to who?

Certainly not to other Muslims.  Racists are constantly painting themselves as the oppressed.  We need to be consistently putting our own perspectives out there that debunk this. We can’t fall into this trap.

The line of thought behind this argument is that if we act peaceful and civil enough, we will convince the US and Israeli ruling classes of our humanity, as if they simply forgot what apartheid and occupation does to a people.  The logic behind this also assumes that our liberation is going to come from some ‘white savior’ as if we don’t have the capabilities to free ourselves.

We should keep in mind that while Obama was twiddling his thumbs for over a year, Israel didn’t begin to ease the blockade on Gaza until after solidarity activists in the Gaza Flotilla attempted to break the siege.

We need consistent organizers, organizations and campaigns.  This becomes more dire in light of the fact that the university administration used the all to common tactic of waiting until the summer, when most of the students are gone from campus, before releasing this information about the suspension.  They tend to do that when it comes to actions that invite student protest and resistance.

This disruption at UC Irvine was a good first step, but it was only a first step.  Only sit-ins, occupations and strikes by students and workers will forge a successful solidarity movement in this country.  As Arabs and Muslims find ourselves at the center of these attacks by white supremacy and empire, resistance becomes a task that no one can do for us.

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One thought on “Muslim Students Take the Lead at UC Irvine”

  1. Excellent post ya’ll!

    I was thinking about the story of Muhammad and the woman throwing trash on him. Perhaps he responded with such grace, humility, and forgiveness because she was an oppressed person, and he tried to win her over through compassion instead of force? He certainly responded differently (confrontation, jihad, including armed struggle) to the elites of Mecca who tried to shut him up. That’s the part that the conservatives tend to miss. But there is a deeper point here about ethics and being a well-rounded person. We need forgiveness and self-defense, politeness and audacity, passion and reflection, anger and inner calm, arms and words – you can’t overemphasize one side of these things at the expense of the other without warping yourself and the struggle.

    In terms of the debate going on in the MSAs, I agree with the strategy ya’ll outline. I remember when you put this into practice a few years ago, when the white supremacists came to speak on campus for “Islamo-Fascist Awareness Week” and the MSA leadership was trying to keep us all from confronting them. Ya’ll got up and said that the leadership doesn’t represent all Muslims and some Muslims recognize the Prophet (PBUH) stood up against injustice and that we need to do that today.

    I remember how some folks very powerfully combined the religious and political aspects of Muslim practice by doing the evening prayer right outside the room where the racists were speaking, loud enough for them to hear. We stopped our aggressive chanting for a second and then there was quiet and then the call to prayer and when the prayers we over we started chanting again. It sent the message loud and clear that Muslims are not going anywhere so ya’ll better get used to it.

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