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A few words from an Arab-Muslim

By Nasser Sahah  – When we look at the world today, we see a world on fire.

When we look at the Muslim ummah, we see an ummah on fire.
Palestine on fire.   Iraq on fire.   Syria on fire.   Pakistan on fire.   Myanmar on fire. Egypt on fire. Nigeria on fire.

The gap of wealth inequality wider than ever in America, rising tide of prejudice against Hispanic immigrants, women’s rights being rolled back, a planet environmentally being destroyed, an American Empire crumbling, Islamophobia on the rise.
And when we look inside our own hearts, we see fire and rage inside our own hearts.
We aspire for peace, and for justice.
How hard to find peace, when there is little peace outward, and little peace inward.
And yet strive we must.

Like many of us, I have been following the discussion over the recent visit of a few American Muslim leaders who visited Palestine and Israel to engage in interfaith dialogue with the Jewish leaders from the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.     This program, led by Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University, brought together some prominent American Muslims. Imam Antepli has passionately articulated his reasons for engaging in this difficult program.

The response, and critique, towards this has been swift, personal, and at times, vicious.   There was the piece from Sana Saeed (whom I don’t have the pleasure of knowing personally) here and discussed the by Abdullah Al-Arian (whom I have known for a long time) here.  In the social media (Twitter and Facebook) follow-up to those articles, words like “House Muslim,” “traitor,” “sell out,” “betraying the promise of BDS” have been used early and often. In some ways, this type of intra-group tension and fighting is not at all uncommon among all wounded people, colonized people, victimized people.   But we are not bound to remain wounded forever. Our God is a God of healing. The One who sends the pain also sends the remedy.   May there be healing, may there be remedy for us now.

It is Ramadan, and it is Gaza.   It is a sacred time, and it is a time of profound sorrow and outrage as we see Baraka and pain mingling.   Let me hope that there may be something of healing in these few words I have to share here.   Bismillah.

It’s about Palestine.
Of course there are raw emotions.

Palestine is and remains an open bleeding wound for many Muslims and Global South citizens.   Let us not mince any words here.   Palestine is al-Nakba, ethnic cleansing since 1948, where half of the indigenous Palestinian population, Muslims and Christians, were made homeless and stateless, replaced by Jewish immigrants as part of the creation of the modern nation-state of Israel.

This is Palestine, under occupation from 1967. This is Palestine, which in the West Bank now sees a level of occupation, humiliation, dispossession, and segregation that leads South Africans like the Nobel peace prizewinner Desmond Tutu to observe many similarities with apartheid-era South Africa.

This is Palestine, with Gaza being a place under siege, under-employed, under bombs, under-nourished, thirsty, poor, and suffering. This is Palestine, a symbol of Muslim impotence and failure, a symbol of colonial power and Zionist success. Yes, there are raw emotions.   On all sides, the urgency to act, and the despair and anger are all real.

It’s also about America.

It’s about those of us who are here, born here or moved here, raising our children here, and wanting to have a foothold in the American dream.   It’s about the as of yet unfinished American Dream, with a noble but flawed past filled with racism and sexism, genocide against Native Americans and trans-Atlantic slavery—yet it is the place and the dream that we now inhabit. It’s about redemption of a republic that is today an Empire, with a democracy that is now broken and dysfunctional.   It’s about what relationship we are going to have with the corridors of power in this America. It’s about whether we are going to change the system from within through presence, engagement, and influence, or whether we are going to change the system from without through protest, solidarity, and dissent.    And change the system we must.

There’s no question that the system is broke, and needs redemption, needs radical change.

Here is one place where the participants in this program and their critics actually have so much in common—though without perhaps articulating it more openly.   It is the painful realization that the tensions in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which is currently depicted as a zero-sum game, has led many Jewish American organizations to fan the fuels of Islamophobia in the political arena, in corporate media, in the entertainment industry, in national security, and in interfaith relations.   We all realize that Palestine/Israel is the elephant in the room.   Part of the desire to seek engagement over there has been to bring about change over here. The desire is noble, the need urgent.   Is it likely to be effective? That remains to be seen, insha’allah.

Which brings us back to the conversation—no, let’s call it what it is, shouting match—regarding the Muslim Leadership Initiative.

We all care.   And we are all wounded. We are, to use Desmond Tutu’s words, trying to be “wounded healers.”   And our wounds and our woundedness keep on showing.

Here is what I do know, and stand by.   I know the people who have gone on this program to Jerusalem. I’ll start with Abdullah.   He is a dear brother of my own soul. I love him, and adore him. I am in awe of his energy, his generous heart, his deep faith, his open-heartedness.  I trust him. Which doesn’t mean I always agree with him.   We do disagree often about Palestine/Israel.   I even see some concerns in approaching Palestine/Israel as a theological issue, a religious issue.   The reason I care about Palestine is not because it is an Arab issue, or a Muslim issue, but because it is a human rights catastrophe. As the Lord of all the Worlds is my witness, were it Palestinians who were using F-16 planes to blow up Jewish families, were it Palestinians ethnically cleansing Jews, I would be standing exactly where I am calling out its injustice.

Yes, Abdullah and I do disagree about the effectiveness of this program.   But there is something I don’t disagree with him about: his intention.   His goodness. His hopes.   His faith. I am not persuaded, personally, that engaging the interfaith Jewish in that context is going to work, that it will in any meaningful way alleviate the suffering of Palestinians. But though I am not persuaded, I am willing to say that perhaps my brother sees something that I do not, perhaps he has an intuition that I am not given, and perhaps goodness will come where I cannot see it. After all, we are told to be people who have faith in the unseen.

I would say the same thing about the other friends who have gone on this program, in spite of and through the many profound reservations that they had. I know the participants who have gone with Imam Antepli.   I know them, I love them, and I trust the purity of their conviction, their iman, the depth of their love for the ummah, and the depth of their love for humanity.   Come the Day of Judgment, I would want to stand where they stand. May God increase them in their proximity to Him.

And I also know many of the most vociferous voices that have critiqued the MLI participants.  I also know of their iman, the depth of their love for the ummah, and their anguished demand for justice now. In their anger, I hear the frustration of 66 years of ethnic cleansing, the pain of 47 years of occupation. I too know this pain and frustration, for I share it.  And I know that many of the friends who went on the trip share this pain.  And let us be truthful with one another here:  the decision of some American Muslims to go on this program has caused great suffering for other American Muslims, and as importantly, for some Palestinians.  These all have to be acknowledged.  Where we differ is how to go about, with God’s grace, bringing an end to this suffering.

I know, and I love the Al-Arian family members, whose suffering has been a daily companion of my prayers for years.   I admire their courage, their conviction, and their sabr.   May God increase them in their proximity to Him.

We are all trying to change this broken dysfunctional American system (without which the Israeli system of oppression against the Palestinians wouldn’t stand).   And I think we need to pause, breathe, and learn from the struggle of those who have come before us, on whose shoulders we stand.

My dear friend and mentor, Vincent Harding, who passed away in May, used to remind me that he and Dr. King did not speak of a “civil rights” movement, but simply of the Freedom Movement. And that the African American-led Freedom Movement was not a monolithic movement. There was always a spectrum from W. E. Dubois to King and Malcolm, from Niagara Movement and NAACP to SNCC, SCLC and Black Panthers. It consisted of people and institutions that operated within the system, such as the NAACP, with a relentless series of court cases.   It included the iconic King, who famously went to the White House in 1964 as President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill.   And it consisted of people and institutions that operated largely outside of the system, such as SNCC and the later Dr. King, who paid a great price as he rightly came to see the connection between American racism and militarism, between the suffering of African Americans at home and Vietnamese abroad.

And so it is for us.
We need all of us—those willing to work within the system to change it, and those pushing from the outside to change it.

Yes, we need Muslims in the State Department. We need Muslims to meet with the FBI, to make sure that their work is done in a way that is legally sound.   We need Muslims to engage the White House.   We might even need people to go to White House/State Department iftars someday (after drones, after Guantanamo, after surveillance…).  And we need Muslims, like Imam Antepli, to give the opening prayers for the US Congress.   And we need Muslim lawyers to take case after case to the US Supreme court, to challenge unlawful practices. And we need Muslims outside the White House and outside the Israeli embassy protesting drones, surveillance, Guantanamo, unfair tax brackets, fracking, and more.   We need all of us. It really does take all of us.

We all want to see an America that’s on the right side of a worldwide revolution of values.   We want to see an American who stands on the right side of history on issues of justice and injustice.   It takes all of us to get there.   And no doubt, we have radically different ideas about how to get there, and whether it is even possible to do so.

If we want to see unity in the world, we need to have unity in our hearts, we need to have unity in our community. I am mindful of the fact that a call for unity can often be a way of silencing legitimate critique.   That is not my intention.   I am asking for political maturity and spiritual maturity. To realize that God’s plan, and redeeming a broken political system and our place in it, requires an awareness that each of us is a small piece of the puzzle, that at best we are each one of the invisible threads that together make up the spider web covering the entrance to the Prophet’s cave.

We need unity.   We need respect and love for each other.     We need acknowledgement of the intentions, even the efficacy of one another’s work.

We need to remember what used to be the norm of our “adab” in our exchanges, that if even if see ourselves as “scholars and experts”, there is a mercy in the difference of opinion among scholars and experts—as the Blessed Prophet (S) reminded us.     We need to speak with one another by saying: “I think I am right, with the possibility of being wrong. I think you’re wrong, with the possibility of being right. And God knows better than we do.” And God knows better than I do, here and now.

It’s actually quite simple: we gotta have love for one another.   We can’t ask the world to love us if we don’t have love for each other.   I said love, not like.   I don’t like all of my Muslim ummah.   And I certainly don’t love everything my Muslim ummah does.   But love.   Love one another because we are all God’s creation, all connected together by the Baraka of the Blessed Prophet (s).

If we keep chopping and slicing one another, we don’t even have to wait for an American Empire or Zionist AIPAC to descend down upon us.

We all argue about positions.   We need to be solidly grounded in ethical principles, in spiritual relations. Beyond identity politics, beyond suspicion there has to be a “husn al-zann” realm that we begin by assuming what’s lovely about one another. We all want to save the Ummah, we all want to save the world.   We have to also save our own selves.   We have to transform and redeem our relationships with one another.   I don’t mean “those” folks over there have to. We all do. I do. We do.  We need to save, redeem, and heal our relationships with one another as Muslims.

Part of the problem is spiritual.   There is a poisonous anger in many of our hearts that festers.   I don’t mean “those” folks are angry.   I mean there is anger inside each and every one of us.     There is room for righteous indignation in face of injustice, but all too often we have an anger that transforms not. And we are lashing out at one another through this anger, rather than through love, through mercy, through generosity.

That’s the magical reality about love. Love is divine. Love is God, and love is of God.   When we love each other—didn’t say like, I said love—we place ourselves in the same cosmic current that is unleashed from God, washes through us, and insha’allah will deliver us back to God.   We gotta love one another, even when we don’t like each other.     I am not talking about love as a sentiment, but as a doing, as a being, as a cosmic and existential mode of relating heart-to-heart to one another as creations of God facing each other, fallen, stumbling, imperfect, ugliness mingling with beauty beings facing each other.

Part of the problem is institutional.   We as American Muslims are about 50 years behind where we need to be in terms of institution building.   There is nothing per se wrong with going to have weeks of meaningful interfaith dialogue with Jews, with Christians, with Hindus, with Buddhists.   Those may or may not be worthwhile projects, depending on the time, place, context, and conversation partner.   What we need to heal are spaces to have meaningful, challenging, difficult, honest, open, hard conversations with one another. We need places to bring the many, many brilliant, charismatic, gifted Muslims who are all pulled in different directions, who are all blogging and speaking here and there, together.   We need to get to know each other face-to-face.   We need to eat together, pray together, love together, do dhikr together, laugh together, cry together, argue together, learn-to-trust together. We need to heal together.   We need to be together.

We all see Muslims on individual platforms, blogs, lecture circuits speaking passionately and eloquently. Think about this: when was the last time we had a model of Muslims who disagree with one other, yet have a public, visible platform to have a civil and firm discussion with one another? When was the last time, in either Muslim society or American society, that we had models for what this civil but firm exchange should look like? We as Muslims should be leading this, not lagging behind.   We need these spaces.   Since we don’t have these face-to-face relationships, we lash out through blogs, Twitter and Facebook accounts, 140-count character snipes.   These are twitter bullets that we ourselves are launching at our own selves.

We cannot withdraw from civic engagement, from interfaith work, of course.   Our obligations as citizens preclude us from doing that.   But we need a massive amount of intra-faith work.

We need to heal.   May it begin with us.   May we become a people who are a principled people, a people whose anguished hearts’ cry for justice matches our capacity for love.   May our love and our justice always mingle together.   May we be people who are the embodiments of “God commands you to justice (‘adl) and beauty/love/mercy (ihsan).”

There is something tragic when love and justice are divorced from one another.   Love without Power, we were told, is anemic and sentimental.   Power without Love is reckless and abusive. I see so many of us concerned about power, political power and influence, even crying out for justice.   But we need to be able to reach out to one another through love.   Justice empowered through love will become a mighty force, insha’allah, that will heal us, heal our communities, and God-willing, actually be an efficacious, Baraka-filled tool of transformation for this world.

There has been real suffering in our community. There is real and legitimate pain associated with Palestine, all the more real these days as the savage Israeli regime rains down 800 tons (and counting) of bombs upon the civilian population of Gaza.   The news of the MLI program itself has brought real suffering for many.  The conversation about MLI has caused us to revisit these deep and still open wounds in our community. The response to the MLI program, through online pieces and twitter blasts, have further caused serious suffering for the participants.   Let us be people who can stare into the suffering of fellow human beings and recognize our own suffering. Let us connect together our suffering and our humanity with one another.

And yet as we are told by our great sages, the wound is also where the light and the healing enters us.     May we be a people who are capable of seeing the wound, healing the wound, and emerging stronger.

Let us end with a reminder from the beautiful Qur’an, which we are told to immerse ourselves in during Ramadan.
The Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) was thrown into the flames by his own community, where God commanded the fire to be cool to him.   Then, and only then, did he emerge as a Khalil (an intimate friend of God).

We as Muslims are today in a fire.
May we too emerge like Khalil, all of us intimate friends of God.
May all those who care about Palestine emerge like Khalil.
May all those who dare to dream of a peace mingling with justice in Palestine and Israel emerge like Khalil.
May the citizens of occupied Khalil (Hebron) emerge like Khalil.
May all the children of Abraham emerge like Khalil.
“And we ordered the fire to be cool, and peace upon Ibrahim.”  [Qur’an 21:69]



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