It's a true tragedy to say that most Americans, especially those within ethnic communities that have historically experienced diverse forms of discrimination and oppression, have little to no idea of Palestine outside of it being a violent place. This actually touches on something far more sinister, that Arabs themselves and their various rich cultures, histories, literatures, and world contributions are unknown save for a vague understanding of them as a violent people. What we have here, then, is an absence of real knowledge about Palestine, its history, its contributions, and its people, substituted with images and stories of violence divorced from logical cause and shored up with political propaganda that smacks of European programs of White supremacy, eugenics, social Darwinism, and Manifest Destiny. Beginning to sound a little familiar? People have compared the situation of Palestinians right now to the Jim Crow segregated South and to Apartheid South Africa; having lived in the South amongst the relics of its shameful history and ongoing practices, I have to agree with Alice Walker and Bishop Desmond Tutu- it is similar to these, but far, far worse. And while there is still several lifetimes of work that must be done within our own communities in the United States to reverse the aftereffects of such a horrible history as ours, part of that process is in also educating ourselves about how our government helps support not just our continued subjugation, but also the violent eradication on their own land of the Palestinians and others.
It's quite a strange topic for me to start on, seeing as how I wear a scarf that distinctly marks me as Muslim- and not just Muslim, mind you, but one that carries the connotation of a special brand of "religious practicing" Muslim- but I strongly feel and believe that religion is something worn on the inside, not the outside.
Let me explain.
Religious beliefs are, as any philosophy is, a set of internal beliefs that guide and direct one's behaviors, mentality, attitude, actions and, ultimately, life choices. Following this line of thinking, then, religion as an expression of religious beliefs is something internal and personal but communally shared through similar beliefs in theology, behaviors, and attitudes. Religion is not found in how consistent someone is in greeting people with "Assalaamu 'aleykum," "Shalom 'aleichum," "Namaste," or "Peace be with you," but in how this wish translates into even their casual everyday greetings and how they interact with others. Religion is not in a scarf or a thaub or a yamaka or a necklace, nor is it in how often you intersperse your daily speech with phrases like "hamdulillah!" or "God is great, yes, praise the Lord!" These things are beautiful as spontaneous expressions of faith or as reminders of one's place in the world, yes, but they are not signifiers of religiosity or piety per se, any more than their implementation defines who is or is not pious.
Religion is a set of internal guiding principles and beliefs that really, at its core, pushes human beings to attain their most positive manifestation. A belief in this, at least, is what drives me when I say that within my religious community specifically there must be a movement beyond mere superficial expressions of religiosity to a true internalization of those ideals in creating lasting bonds with others who experience oppression. What the Muslim community is currently experiencing in America- and really, has been experiencing since the Gulf War, only now it would seem to a more exaggerated degree- is an experience shared across diverse communities in the United States not privileged as the "norm" or as part of what constitutes "American." In reality, what Muslims are now going through is far broader than specific religious affiliation- Arabs of diverse religious backgrounds are all included in the recent political and media-based efforts to ostracize, indict, and scapegoat an easily-identifiable "Other," as well as many Sikhs and some Hindus who are mistakenly identified as Muslim. Additionally, a vast range of American communities experience different kinds of discrimination whose roots share similarities with the oppression now being experienced by Muslims and those identified with them. For example, the historical experiences of Japanese-heritage, Philipino-heritage, and Chinese-heritage Americans have a great amount in common with the current experiences of Arab-heritage and Persian-heritage Americans, be they Muslim or otherwise. The role of impoverished Irish, Italian, Russian, and Polish immigrants in assimilation are often touted as prime examples of the association of physical features with success in the United States, but what is overlooked frequently is that within these communities there were simultaneous lateral movements and bonding amongst similarly discriminated immigrants and communities even as there was affiliation with "white" American racist ideals and socially upward aspirations. The former is what I would like to highlight most here, namely, that there is a successful- albeit small and less widely accepted- history of cross-community interactions and bonding around experiences of similar oppressions that helped form solidarity amongst people in the face of harsh public policies striving to eliminate them.
When looked at individually and then as a whole, the experiences of discrimination amongst so-called "communities of color" within the United States reveal similar structures and expressions against diverse groups of people. These various practices of discrimination and oppression borrow from each other, articulate with each other, and interconnect with each other to form a network of interrelated stops and divisions intended to maintain social stratification. The effects of current political and social pressures on Muslims and those identified as Muslim cannot be understood completely without an understanding of how hierarchical Black-White power dynamics affect social and institutional dynamics within the States, nor without an understanding of the economic impetus at home and abroad behind Orientalism, xenophobia, Eurocentrism, and European-American colonial efforts. Understanding these historical interconnections gives insight into how these specific oppressions are reproduced and perpetuated- and it is in growing a base of knowledge and support outside the created confines of one's own community and outside the aforementioned institutions of oppression that they can be undermined and, ultimately, subverted.
It is imperative- and here the call goes out not just to the American Muslim community, but to members of other communities unofficially classified as "not-quite citizens" by social practices and policies- to use this moment in time to reach across constructed boundaries of race, religion, ethnicity, class, and gender to build a self-sustaining network external to the systems of oppression that have been confining us up until now. It is imperative also in this instance to recognize how an internalization of one's religious philosophies- or, in the case of those who do not affiliate with a religion, personal philosophies- aimed at fulfilling the full positive potential of humanity can allow this networking to occur. Breaking the figurative chains that keep people "in their place" will never be achieved by struggling to live up to or contest in a reactionary manner how we are defined by hegemony; it will not be achieved by hiding those beliefs and practices integral to ourselves in order to overcome what we are taught by the dominant discourse is wrong and better align ourselves with what is "white"/"right"; it can never be achieved by chasing after beliefs in the bourgeois American Dream and meritocracy that will never include us in their formulations because they are founded on the reality of our exclusion. Instead, we need to begin circumventing these structures of oppression by re-evaluating where and why we stand within them and reaching instead for the links between similar narratives of exclusion found outside them. We must begin to look to ourselves, our families, our friends and our neighbors for examples of strength and support to carry on, not official standards based on division and exploitation or media images based on racism and hate. Our differences are very important- they make us who we are and generate life, creativity, and change- but it is in accepting and utilizing our similarities that we can bond and create cohesion for a healthier revision of our society. For, as Audre Lorde so famously predicted, the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.