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.
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?
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?