In a political climate that is growing increasingly hostile, foreboding, and dangerous for so many in the United States, we have seen some of the most striking moments of solidarity, unity, and hope in recent American history. These include protests that overtook major airports after the issuing of Donald Trump’s travel ban against people from seven Muslim-majority countries, the translators and lawyers who worked tirelessly to fight for those being targeted by the ban, the millions of dollars donated to the ACLU in response to the ban, and the rally in support of Yemeni bodega owners in New York City who went on strike in response to the ban.
As Brooklyn College professor and award-winning author Moustafa Bayoumi pointed out during Muftah’s recent panel in New York, “The Muslim Ban: How We Got Here & Where We Go Next,” these moments are extraordinary. At the event, which was held in collaboration with leftist publishing house, Verso Books, Bayoumi spoke about the reasons why these developments are so unique:
Muslims are probably 1% of the US population, we’re a small population – the discourse that surrounds Muslims in this country far exceeds the number of Muslims being able to even respond to the discourse. But to my mind, what’s enormously exciting and gratifying about this moment right now, is I think people really understand that when they’re fighting for the rights of Muslims in this country or because of this Muslim ban, they’re not fighting for Muslims – they’re fighting for the soul of the country, they’re fighting for the principles of this country, the professed values of the country. And I think that any fight against Trumpism, is a fight in favor of Muslims, insofar as its a fight in favor of justice…
I remember exactly what it was like in 2002 when special registration, or NSEERS, was first rolled out and people didn’t even know that it was happening (who weren’t affected by it), they just went about their daily lives. Meanwhile, within Muslim communities in NYC it was panic, and all over the country. People fled to Canada…it was a very alienating and lonesome time. And now, look at what we have!…It’s really, really amazing to see social movements galvanizing around this issue that I felt really alone with, and I think many people have.
The panel, which was held on February 10, was moderated by Muftah’s Editor-in-Chief Maryam Jamshidi, and featured Bayoumi, alongside journalist Mehreen Kasana, scholar and author Arun Kundnani, and Executive Director of Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), Fahd Ahmed, for a conversation about the post-9/11 climate of anti-Muslim sentiment, the policies and practices that led to the ban, and how to organize moving forward.
A Nation of Natives, Settlers, and Slaves
The conversation began with important and sobering reflection on administrations past and, in particular, how both Democrats and Republicans have contributed to an environment of increased scrutiny and targeting of Muslim communities in the United States. Mehreen Kasana reminded the crowd that, while many believe Islamophobia is a product of far-right bigotry, anti-Muslim sentiment comes from the center-left as well. She mentioned that it was, in fact, Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark who was the first to propose the idea of internment camps for Muslims. She also spoke about the role Presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton played in bringing us to this moment:
The kind of ban that we’re talking about here has its roots in Obama’s own list…this isn’t something that happened spontaneously, it’s happened over time. Another example of that kind of thing we’re hearing about a Muslim registry, and if that ever happens, it would be an extension of the Bush-initiated and Obama-expanded NSEERS program, which also has its root in Bill Clinton’s terrorism bill in 1996.
When it comes to Islamophobia, its a sentiment shared by both sides. And until we start honestly evaluating that we’re never going to have an honest conversation about Islamophobia; by putting all the blame on one side, you’re not looking at the complicity of the other… It wasn’t Trump’s administration that dropped 26,171 bombs last year, it was Obama’s. That’s 72 bombs per day, averaging 3 bombs per hour. Pakistanis never understood why Obama was so amazing to Americans here, because they saw the side of drone strikes…to them, this man did not represent democracy.
Fahd Ahmed noted that it was crucial to “separate rhetoric from actual policies and material impact.” A focus solely on words, language, and narrative tends to obscure the actual material realities on the ground. “If you use the lens of rhetoric, it’s easy to hone in on the far right…but when those policies of war and militarism are the same across parties, when lives are being taken, that’s an important way to qualify and quantify what is the extent of Islamophobia,” Ahmed said.
Arun Kundnani, author of The Muslims Are Coming!, a book about Islamophobia, surveillance and the domestic War on Terror, made sure to situate the current struggle in history, emphasizing that Islamophobia is a form of racism connected to other racisms in this country:
Islamophobia is a kind of recycling and reworking of these longer histories of racisms. Racisms never stay the same, they always have to reinvent themselves the better to preserve themselves, and that’s what we’ve seen over the last few years. So the reason this propaganda and these special interests with their propaganda – the reason that resonates is because it’s speaking to these longer histories of what this society is about. When people say America is a nation of immigrants, to argue against the Muslim ban – actually the reality is, America is a nation of natives, settlers and slaves. It’s coming out of this history. I don’t think we start 16 years ago. I think we start all the way back.
It is not just on the domestic front, however, that Islamophobia manifests itself. Kundnani also spoke about the centrality of foreign policy to understanding Islamophobia’s utility:
So long as we have a system that depends on inflicting violence around the world, there will always be that temptation to reach for something like Islamophobia to explain why that violence happens. We always want to tell ourselves a story that the reason we are supporting violence around the world is because those people over there are just naturally violent. We have to react to their violence with our own violence. When you say they’re “naturally violent” you’re talking about a kind of radicalization – saying it’s their culture, it’s not our politics, it’s not our system, it’s theirs.
The Way Forward
After discussing the histories of racism, imperialism, Islamophobia, and the War on Terror, as well as the role of the media and pop culture in perpetuating these narratives, panelists discussed concrete steps to grapple with the realities we face now. The panelists spoke about the striking outpouring of support after the election and the ban, and how to capitalize on the incredible momentum of the past few weeks.
“There is a moment, there is an opening that is happening in the aftermath of the election, and it’s a very beautiful thing to see that people are becoming open and engaged. I think the two questions that we continue to want to hold are: how do we consolidate people that are newly mobilized into the ongoing efforts and movements? And secondly, being mindful of what we are responding to and what we’re not responding to,” Fahd Ahmed said. His organization, DRUM, was one of the first to call for protests at JFK airport in New York City, the day the ban went into effect.
The panel provided the audience with solid, tangible action items – a refreshing departure from the atmosphere of despair and helplessness many of us have been experiencing. Ahmed said his organization had been framing the struggle as “Cede no ground. Not an inch. We don’t negotiate with proto-fascists. We do need to have an orientation of ceding no ground, which requires a lot of commitment and a lot of endurance.” Ahmed insisted that leftist groups must open up, engage new people, meet them where they are, and bring them into the movement. As he reiterated multiple times, people have to join organizations, because there is power in the collective.
This should be the starting point, Ahmed said – learning about the issues that various communities are facing and understanding what their vision is for a better society and a just economy. “Those conversations open up an orientation to being able to think differently,” he said. In order to combat indifference and apathy, Ahmed said, “we just need to get out, talk to people, engage people, pull together conversations, having those conversations and engagements being a way to meet people where they’re at…we have to start people from their own struggles. It’s only when that groundwork has been done that we can start to engage them on other issues. I think as movements, we’ve de-emphasized that work.”
The message from all panelists was one of returning to authentic grassroots organizing – becoming so invested in one another’s struggles that we fight as ferociously for others as we do for ourselves. This is a message of tremendous solidarity and hope that, for the first time this year, gave me a true sense of conviction, possibility, and optimism.
As my cousin, Egyptian activist Sara Abdelghany, wrote after Trump’s election, this is not so much an apocalyptic moment, as a revolutionary one.
Watch the full video (seriously, watch it) here: