Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Another Protest Faux Pas

Benjamin Wachs identified another faux pas in protests: protesting the uber-system of oppression.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Thoughts on Muslims’ Protests against Israeli Aggression in Gaza

On January 10, 2009, I attended a protest in Atlanta, GA, USA. The Facebook title for this protest was “CHILDREN MARCH AGAINST GENOCIDE IN PALESTINE,” but upon arrival I did not find any real central, identifiable leadership.

Overall, the protest was a positive event. Many people attended and marched. The police guided the protesters through the streets from Woodruff Park to Centennial Park to the CNN Building and then back to Woodruff Park. I witnessed no arrests or injuries. There was energy and enthusiasm.

Some of the chants disturbed me, and some of the signs horrified me. One chant from a person with a bullhorn was:


Stop the killing, stop the war!


Israel is a terrorist state!

Another chant that some people in the crowd, not people with bullhorns, tried to start was:

From the river to the sea

Palestine will be free!

In ascending order of disapproval, here are some features on some of the signs:

1. Use of the word genocide.

2. Use of the word holocaust.

3. Use of the word Nazi.

4. Use of the swastika symbol.

One particularly offensive sign had “Israhell: The Real Racist Nazis” on one side and the Israeli flag on the other, with the Star of David replaced by a light blue swastika.

I approached two people carrying this last sign and asked them if they made it themselves. Each told me no. Instead, each had grabbed the sign from a stack of available signs for marchers to take. I then asked each if he knew what the sign meant. Both said, “No.”

I believe the swastika is in a whole other category than everything else I’ve mentioned, so let us start talking about it. There are certain symbols that produce the most reptilian, visceral response in a person, and the swastika, in modern times, for Jews worldwide and for victims of Nazi Germany in Europe and for those who fought Nazi Germany (like the United States), it is at the top of this list of symbols. Furthermore, contemporary U.S. and European hate groups vandalize minority religions’ buildings, including mosques, with the swastika. In my mind, the only effect the use of this symbol can possibly have is to provoke the worst reaction in people who see it.

One young woman did have a sign which had a Star of David, then an equal sign and then a swastika with a question mark. I asked her about it, and she told me that she hoped to provoke thought. I did not press the issue with her, but I would ask her if the caricatures of the Messenger Muhammad published in the Danish right-wing newspaper Jyllands-Posten “provoked thought.”

And while we are on the subject of symbols, I believe Muslims should not desecrate or abuse the Star of David. The number one reason I believe this is that Muslims should desecrate or abuse anything because that is incompatible with the ethos of a humble believer. In particular, however, the Star of David, despite its appropriation by the state of Israel, remains a symbol of Judaism, which we Muslims regard to be a revealed religion in its origin and a source of guidance for people. Lastly, I don’t know if the symbol has any real relationship to God’s Messenger David (Dawud in Arabic) , but anything tied with a messenger’s name should have some sanctity for us. The number two reason is it makes reduces our credibility with rational people.

Regarding the chants, I did not have a problem with most of the “bullhorned” chants, with the exception of “Israel is a terrorist state.” The Israeli state does do some terroristic things. But it also has an educational system, a health care system, public transportation, etc. Just like Hamas, the Palestine National Authority, Egypt and the United States. In fact, some libertarians would say that every state is a terrorist state. Aside from the fact that the claim is either wrong or a truism, my most relevant objection to this statement is that it is an unnecessary claim that does not advance our objectives at all, while it may cause people to doubt the marchers’ rationality.

There is a principle in sales and persuasion known as “less is more.” Have you ever gone to buy a car and the salesman starts rattling off features, ignoring what you told him you were looking for? Even if the car would meet your needs, you’re turned off and not listening. The majority of objective people, when they learn basic facts of the situation in Palestine, will come to believe that U.S. policy should change. You don’t need to pile on additional facts or outlandish claims.

So this brings me to what I think is the crux of the matter: why do we demonstrate?

I believe there is a group of demonstrators whose sole purpose is “shifaa’ al-suduur.” I would translate “shifaa’ al-suduur” in this context to mean “blowing off steam.” They feel bad, like all of us, and marching and shouting insulting slogans and carrying provocative signs makes them feel better. To this group, I say, “Indulge some of us in our delusion that we can actually improve U.S. policy towards the Palestinians. Indulge us by not undermining us in that work. If you must blow off steam, have a separate direct action. Or travel abroad and fight. Or, better, fast the day and pray at night that Allah relieves the Palestinians and forgives the rest of us for betraying them.”

The organizers of these events must make it clear why they want people to come, and then they should take measures to prevent or limit behaviors which undermine this purpose.

In my mind, the most important purpose of the demonstration is the networks we build organizing and promoting them, the universalization of our conscience and practice as we begin to modify our thinking and behavior in order to attract as many people as possible to our cause and the encouragement we give to each other to attend the next organizational meeting and work to monitor and educate our societies. Demonstrations without the organizational and educational and self-reflection between them will die out without an impact.

I want to end by elaborating on the concept of universalization of conscience and practice. All human beings begin their adult lives with a parochial conscience (substance, meaning) and practice, meaning we believe that what people have taught us and the behavior they’ve modeled for us is the correct norm. We go out in life, and we meet people who have a different norm than we do. We can either dismiss them as abnormal and deviant, or we can make an effort to learn about the other’s norm. We may find one of the possible situations:

  1. The other’s norm is in fact incompatible with mine in both form and substance. Further, after comparing the two, I believe my norm is superior, and I choose to retain it with little or no change.
  2. The other’s norm is in fact incompatible with mine in both form and substance. However, after comparing the two, I now see my norm is defective to some degree, and I choose to modify it (I don’t believe people wholly adopt another norm overnight).
  3. The other’s norm, while different in form, is in fact similar in substance to my norm. In this case, I may begin to include the other’s form in my practice as a reflection of my unaltered conscience (substance).
  4. The other’s substance is better or worse than mine even though our forms are similar. This results in either my trying to understand how to improve my substance or a sharpening in my understanding of my substance for the next “Other” I encounter.

I think a key to improving Muslim advocacy is to put ourselves in the position of working with “Others.” For me, I have committed myself to working with the School of the Americas Watch ( and the Georgia Peace and Justice Coalition ( and other non-sectarian advocacy groups. When I see how U.S.-trained paramilitary forces are used to suppress labor unions and indigenous peoples in South and Central America, it helps my ability to advocate on behalf of the necessity of Iraqi government control of its oil resources and the rights of the indigenous people of Palestine. I quickly learn that the Israeli government is not the only government in the world suppressing indigenous peoples, so I don’t say stupid things like “the Israelis are the worst people in the world” and worse. When I learn that Muslims in Sudan killed hundreds of thousands in Dar Fur and forced millions to flee their villages for refugee camps, I know that adherents of no single religion has a monopoly on morality (and immorality), and thus I will not believe that Jews must inherently plot and scheme against (Palestinian) Muslims. When I learn about the Nazi-orchestrated slavery and industrial murder of millions of Jews and others in Europe and the killing of 800,000 in Rwanda in 100 days, I don’t casually use words like “Nazi”, “genocide” and “holocaust.”

I urge Muslim organizers of these protests against the Israeli war in Gaza to expand their encounters with others through participation in a wide variety of organizations, from women’s rights, social welfare, environmental protection and foreign policy advocacy in places where Muslims are a small minority. I believe this will improve the effectiveness in advocating for “Muslim” causes (IMO, if they can’t be called universal, they are not worth supporting) in the years to come.