There is an expression in Egyptian Arabic that I heard often while growing up: Emshy gamb el-heit. It literally translates to “walk next to the wall,” and essentially means lay low, don’t rock the boat, don’t stir up trouble. My parents often used the phrase to warn me against being too politically active or excessively controversial and loud in my point of view.
I suspect many children of immigrants and people of color have their own versions of emshy gamb el-heit. This likely has something to do with our parents’ experiences back home, where political activism and speaking one’s mind often meant risking one’s life.
Here, in the United States, this attitude probably also has something to do with an understanding among immigrants and people of color that freedom of speech and expression do not always operate in the same way for everyone. Members of these communities know all too well that a white person criticizing Israeli policies or fighting for Palestinian rights is unlikely to face the same consequences as an Arab, or a black person protesting mass incarceration and police brutality, a Latino person fighting inhumane immigration policies, or a Muslim speaking out against U.S. foreign policies and surveillance.
For those of us who have been raised with these realities, it can be difficult to undo these lessons and stand up for our rights to free speech and assembly. But this is why we must at least try to do so, especially now.
At this moment in U.S. history, we are confronted with a presidential candidate who has openly insulted, mocked, and vilified Latinos, Muslims, women, African Americans, and the disabled; who has encouraged and even glorified violent behavior at his rallies; who has gained more support with every outrageous and morally reprehensible thing he has said; and who is inching closer and closer to the highest political office in this country.
We are watching as increasingly incendiary rhetoric turns “otherwise rational people,” as explained by the Trump protester in the video below, into “weapons,” driven by fear and prejudice. Fear is a powerful emotion, and an easy one to capitalize on for political power and control.
Donald J. Trump called this protester fat and kicked him out of a rally. The protester told us that wasn’t the worst part.
Posted by INSIDER on Tuesday, November 24, 2015
According to Dr. James Waller, author of Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing, history has shown us that ordinary individuals, subject to the perfect combination of ideological influence, groupthink, xenophobia, and allegiance to charismatic authoritarian figures, can commit horrific crimes.
In his book Raids on the Unspeakable, the Christian mystic and peace activist Thomas Merton wrote of the Nazi general Adolf Eichmann, observing that “[o]ne of the most disturbing facts that came out in the Eichmann trial was that a psychiatrist examined him and pronounced him perfectly sane. I do not doubt it at all, and that is precisely why I find it disturbing. If all the Nazis had been psychotics . . . their appalling cruelty would have been in some sense easier to understand.”
As Waller explains, group dynamics can not only lead to a capacity for extraordinary evil, but also extraordinary good. Just as it takes a mass of people to spread hateful rhetoric, bigotry, and violence, it also takes a similarly committed group of individuals to shut it down. This much has been exemplified by the thousands of protesters in Chicago whose nonviolent actions and organizing succeeded, first, in cancelling a Trump rally and, second, in voting out state attorney Anita Alvarez, who came under fire for her failure to prosecute Chicago police officers responsible for the 2012 shooting of Rekia Boyd and the 2014 shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in a timely manner.
Which brings me back to why we have a duty to stand up and speak out, despite a tendency for self-preservation that tells us to “lay low.”
Last week, I attended a dinner organized by the Muslim Students Association at MIT. It featured civil rights activist and Executive Director of the Arab American Association of New York, Linda Sarsour.
Sarsour spoke to the young, educated, predominantly Muslim crowd about the importance of learning about the history of Muslims in America and how it informs our duty to fight for social justice and stand for all marginalized groups – a duty that is also inscribed in the Islamic tradition. “This country was built on the backs of Muslims, black people and immigrants,” Sarsour said, adding that nobody has the right tell these communities that they do not belong here.
Perhaps most significantly, Sarsour spoke about the impact we can have when we come together and organize. It is easy to feel a sense of hopelessness and despair in a political climate that is increasingly hostile and exclusionary. However, she urged the audience to focus on the victories, and celebrate, for example, how young Arab and Muslim-American voters in Michigan helped secure Bernie Sanders’ win in that state’s Democratic primary, as well as the extraordinary effort of Muslim parents who managed to convince the New York City public school system to recognize the two most important Islamic holy days as official holidays.
Rather than working to be accepted and merely tolerated, Sarsour urged the crowd to focus on being respected. Malcolm X, she reminded us, was one of the most hated men in America. But he was also one of the most respected. “I want you to leave here today with the understanding that you are worthy of respect. We don’t just want tolerance.” She continued:
I don’t want you to tolerate me. I want you to see me in my wholeness, accept everything that I bring to the table – my passions, my anger, my happiness, my religion, my identity, my national origin. Everything that I bring, you need to take it all, or don’t take me at all. This is the place that we work from.
So here’s to stepping out of the shadows and into the spotlight, regardless of how scary it might be. And to never again telling our children to emshy gamb el-heit, to be apologetic or to be “tolerated,” but instead to work tirelessly toward respect and dignity.