This conversation focuses on political pluralism and multiple pathways to social change within the American-Muslim Community. As the American-Muslim community becomes more active and visible in our political commitments, a range of viewpoints has emerged on how best to understand and bring about social change.
To outline the challenges and opportunities in these different approaches, our speakers include: Madinah Wilson-Anton (representing the 26th district in Delaware’s state legislature), Nazia Kazi (Author, Islamophobia, Race, and Global Politics), and Maha Hilal (Co-Director, Justice for Muslims Collaborative).
This conversation is the first in our Empowering Difference series, that honors diversity of opinion and action as a virtue in the American-Muslim community. Understanding difference as a catalyst for change, we foreground the many different ways in which American-Muslim changemakers seek to impact community health and belonging. This series is brought to you by Critical Connections, the Program in Islamic Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and The Commons.
Below the video conversation are two responses from Olga Segura and Maddie Ulanow.
With Madinah Wilson-Anton, Nazia Kazi, and Maha Hilal
Moderated by Mehlaqa Samdani & Homayra Ziad
A Catholic View on Solidarity and Common Ground
Imperialism is a system that, under capitalism, forces states and governments worldwide into constant competition with one another. Under our current economic system, this competitive process means that imperialist nations like England and the United States pay disproportionate attention to the strength of their military, economy, and workforce. Imperialism and capitalism prioritize and promote profit over people, view workers as disposable, and create the violent inequities we see worldwide, from housing and healthcare disparities in the United States to police brutality in Brazil and settler colonialist violence in Palestine. Every day, governments around the world fight to control the most people, the most land, the most resources. In short, the only goal under imperialism is empire.
Sumaya Awad and brian bean’s Palestine: A Socialist Introduction analyzes how U.S. imperialism is maintained worldwide, and how it is directly connected to the oppression of the Palestinian people and all oppressed peoples around the world. Palestine urges readers to understand that the United States, like other imperialist nations, invests trillions of dollars a year into its military industrial complex, which includes more than 800 military bases in over 70 countries, to maintain its empire. “While military might and conquest are the sharpest edge and most visible expression of this competition and subjectation, imperialism is not only carried out through the barrel of a gun,” write the editors. Economic institutions like the IMF and World Bank, and economic policies like trade deals and tariffs, can be even more effective tools of economic and political domination. Imperialist nations will use whatever tools they have available to exert control.
How can this knowledge challenge Catholics and all Christians to actively and consistently work to change the material conditions of oppressed peoples, here and abroad? What actions does this conscientizing require from us, and how can I, and other Catholics like me, use this knowledge to begin to build community power? If we are called to be anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, and to use whatever resources we can allocate to ease the suffering of others, to better center our Muslim brothers and sisters, in the United States, the Arab world, and worldwide, what does this look like practically?
Like many this past year, I am using such questions to shape my faith and politics because I am radicalized by the various violent inequities happening worldwide. More than two million people have died since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Protestors fighting against state violence are being surveilled, harassed, assaulted, and even killed, including organizers in Brazil, Colombia, and the United Kingdom. Settler colonialist violence by Israeli forces killed more than 200 Palestinians in May alone. In the United States, the rich and powerful used the pandemic to further hoard wealth and resources while the rest of society continues to struggle to pay for food, housing, and healthcare.
For the first time in my life, I understand that imperialism and capitalism succeed because they do not prioritize workers and oppressed peoples. Awad and bean remind us that the only way to achieve liberation from all kinds of oppression is to reject imperialism and capitalism and fight for internationalism, a policy which calls for greater cooperation and solidarity rather than profit-driven competition between states and governments worldwide: “This means doing away with all the false rhetoric about fighting ‘terrorism,’ defeating dictators, or defending democracy. And, importantly, this means fighting against Islamophobia and right-wing attacks on immigrants and refugees.”
In the conversation, “Political Pluralisms,” a panel of Muslim experts offer non-Muslims a way to think about how to create a world that devalues profit and centers workers and oppressed peoples everywhere.
Dr. Nazia Kazi, Dr. Maha Hilal, and Madinah Wilson-Anton, discuss their experience as Muslim women in the United States and what it means to do coalition building that centers their experiences. Rep. Wilson-Anton, an organizer before joining politics, describes the need for those in office to develop relationships with Muslim organizers, adding that democracy must be centered around community building. Dr. Hilal discusse the varieties of Muslim experience and how the community is not a monolith. She also adds that immigration organizing in the United States must not be exclusive to the Latinx community. “If we’re talking about immigration as it impacts multiple communities,” she says, then “it’s important to talk about the Muslim ban.”
Dr. Kazi discusses how a bi-partisan commitment to empire, supported by the neo-liberal politics of our educational institutions, prevents Americans from truly understanding how the inequities we face daily are directly tied to imperialism. An uninformed peoples can be easily dominated; consequently, we are not taught to define and understand imperialism and capitalism as oppressive systems, nor empowered to connect the dots between imperialism and the everyday material conditions it creates in our lives. Dr. Kazi describes how the commitment to imperialism affects everything from our housing, education, and water, to the very ways we define and quantify terms like racism and white supremacy.
The first time I learned about the Muslim community was twenty years ago following the attacks on September 11, 2001. An entire faith tradition and community unfamiliar to me but with centuries of cultural and religious history, was introduced to my young mind—thanks to Hollywood, mainstream media, politicians—as terrorists, “evil” others to be feared. The xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric I internalized was perpetuated throughout the years by an American, Catholic educational system and media landscape unwilling to fully center Muslim histories and stories and how our different faith traditions intersect. It took me years to unlearn my own biases and understand the connection between American imperialism and racism against Muslims in the U.S. and abroad; how the latter is perpetuated in the neo-liberal spaces Dr. Kazi describes, and how these spaces condition us to rationalize our government’s bombing of Black and brown countries worldwide, from Bush to Obama to Trump.
In spite of this, Dr. Kazi adds, there are opportunities to develop ideas about liberation and community building in neo-liberal spaces. “We need to create that kind of consciousness about the material struggles as connected to our understanding of Islamophobia and Muslim identities,” she says.
Pope Francis calls for similar conscientizing in Fratelli Tutti, the third encyclical published under his papacy.
In the document, Francis calls on Catholics to acknowledge that every human being is deserving of dignity, and as such, every single one of us must work to build a world that reflects this belief. This begins by centering people over capital. He describes how the powerful get richer by exploiting our differences rather than encouraging us to authentically center and learn from another’s experiences. Each of us is conditioned to care more about ourselves and capitalists and imperialists exploit this; the rich get richer while simultaneously dividing us. Francis argues that the suffering of oppressed peoples everywhere persists because of our current economic system. “War, terrorist attacks, racial or religious persecution, and many other affronts to human dignity are judged differently, depending on how convenient it proves for certain, primarily economic, interests,” Francis writes. “What is true as long as it is convenient for someone in power stops being true once it becomes inconvenient.”
Francis, like Dr. Kazi, urges Catholics to think about the links between racism and empire, race and capital. Racism and xenophobia are born out of the very imperialism and capitalism that created every inequality we see in the world today. In order to truly understand the power of anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist community building, we must understand how and why these systems of oppression impede self-determination and liberation. This means understanding how the powerful treat the rest of us as disposable; why they appropriate and profit off of Black culture; why they perpetuate xenophobia against and surveil Muslim communities.
In Fratelli Tutti Francis calls on Catholics to push back against oppressive systems and reimagine what it means to be a Christian community. He urges us to focus on community, solidarity, and a shared vision of the common good and to be people who “identify with the vulnerability of others, who reject the creation of a society of exclusion, and act instead as neighbours, lifting up and rehabilitating the fallen for the sake of the common good.”
How can Catholics take seriously the challenges of Fratelli Tutti and adopt an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist lens as Catholics? How can we, as Dr. Kazi describes, find the “liberating potential in neoliberal spaces”?
We must continue to develop our historical lens and understand that American imperialism benefits from and actively participates in the hyper-surveillance of and violence against Muslim communities. U.S. empire uses neo-liberal institutions to condition us to rationalize violence and surveillance against Muslims as essential to the preservation of American freedom and democracy. We must actively and consistently reject this. This includes but is not limited to Catholic institutions refusing money from wealthy, Islamophobic donors; high schools and universities featuring curriculum on Islam in their syllabi that represents Muslim communities equitably and accurately; and parishes hosting interreligious events featuring a diversity of Muslim experts, such as organizer and writer, Asad Dandia and Nerdeen Kiswani, the founder of the organization, Within Our Lifetime: United For Palestine. These spaces, our media, our schools, and our parishes, can serve as resources to help Catholics more fully reflect on and understand the role of U.S. imperialism in how non-Muslim religious communities are taught to view Islam and how Christians perpetuate Islamophobia.
Catholics must continue to learn, every day, new ways to center and uplift our Muslim brothers and sisters in the powerful spaces many of us inhabit, from our academia to our media. We must learn about Islam and how its principles can teach us to better care for our planet and ourselves. We must unlearn the revisionist history we are taught about Muslims and continue to help others become conscientized. We must support Muslim organizers, here and abroad, who are placing their bodies on the line to fight against oppressive states and governments often propped up by our own; who are fighting against the military industrial complex; who are fighting to have religious liberty; who are fighting for the right to their ancestral lands.
We must support Muslims standing up to oppression everywhere, because no Catholic is liberated until all are liberated.
Jewish Perspectives on Making Choices and Standing Together
Listening to the panelists and moderators in conversation, I was struck by the recurring discussion of change inside and outside of governments and systems. I have been thinking about this question a lot lately, especially in light of current events. On this 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, those of us who are invested in dismantling white supremacy and other systems of oppression must ask ourselves: Is our advocacy most impactful in communities that look like us? Maybe in activist communities and movements, as Dr. Kazi suggests? Or perhaps within our own communities of faith?
This question is not unique to systemic racism. A thoughtful activist will ask these questions over and over again in every aspect of their advocacy. Where we position ourselves vis-à-vis our identities, resources, and passions matters a great deal, but the answers are seldom clear. On the one hand, working within existing systems of power can move the needle in incremental but important ways. Allies in high places can pull the right strings or put in the right word for our causes, and building trust with such people is crucial. In Jewish tradition we learn to be grateful for small victories, hence the Passover refrain dayenu – “it [every step toward liberation] would have been enough for us.”
On the other hand, I would be lying if I said my naïve, activist heart was not pulled towards louder, less compromising advocacy. I resonate deeply with Rep. Anton-Wilson’s fear that systems corrupt those who work within them. Working outside the system, meanwhile, is easier to align with idealistic values. Activist work also comes without constraints that force advocates to self-censor or compromise on their ideals. Jewish tradition offers a cautionary word here as well: “Be cautious with authorities, for they offer service only for their own purpose,” the sages say. “They appear as friends when they stand to profit, but do not stand by one at his time of need” (Pirkei Avot 2:3).
How do we decide whether to position ourselves within or without a system or a policy we wish to change? What are the dangers to working within the system? What about the pitfalls of working outside it? Do we even have a choice?
This past year my graduate program required a case-based course in political ethics. Among several leaders we juxtaposed were U.S. labor leader Frances Perkins and Indian social activist Aruna Roy. As the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet, Perkins was instrumental in shaping the New Deal as well as social security, unemployment insurance, and federal laws regulating child labor. Roy, meanwhile, eschewed a comfortable job in the Indian Administrative Service to become a groundbreaking organizer in poor and marginalized communities. She is credited with the passage of several milestone labor and food security laws in India, including the Right to Information Act.
In class we debated: Are you a Frances Perkins or an Aruna Roy? Do you believe in change within the government, or organizing outside it? If you were offered a position in the administration, would you take it? If you had to take a vow of poverty, like Roy, to achieve your goals, would you? Could you?
This a conversation I have had many times and in many versions in organizing spaces. I am reminded of a conversation I had in fall 2019 with a group of Jewish activists in New York as we debated a rapid response to the Trump administration’s arrests of our undocumented neighbors. Unsurprisingly, we had no friends or allies inside Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), so any insider knowledge of ICE’s plans or positions was a nonstarter. I wondered what it would look like for someone like me to work for ICE. I am White, studied political science, and I have a bachelor’s degree; it’s not completely outside the realm of possibility. What sacrifices would I have to make to my values and ideals? Would those sacrifices be worth it to one day be able to save lives? How long would that take? Or would such sacrifices be inherently immoral within an immoral system?
Choosing to change ICE from within would be a privilege, one I have as a White woman. That day in 2019, though, we had no one on the inside, so we chose to work on the outside. We staged a protest outside an ICE detention center in Elizabeth, NJ, in which 36 of my friends were arrested for blocking the entrance to the facility. That too was a privilege: as non-violent White protestors, most of those arrested were released within 24 hours and with minimal fines.
Activists of color, of course, do not have the luxury of making these choices. Nor do those who are tied to the system by class, geography, or other factors outside their control. “Some people are insiders and have to struggle for change because their lives depend on it,” Dr. Ziad wrote me after I listened to the panel, and “others aren’t even allowed on the inside unless they let go of everything that matters to them.”
This week’s Torah portion is the story of Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32). A version of Korach’s character exists in the Quran as well. In both tellings, Korach is a wealthy, disgruntled elite, and in Torah this manifests in a rebellion against Moses’s leadership in the desert. He organizes 250 other community leaders to formally challenge Moses, and as a reward for his trouble, the Lord swallows him and his followers into a hole in the Earth.
I never quite knew what to make of this. If challenging the status quo meant getting swallowed up into a divine sinkhole, I probably would not do it. On the other hand, one could argue that in organizing for change, Korach was doing something very fundamentally Jewish. I wonder what he could have done differently. Should he have worked more closely with Moses, on the inside? Or left the Israelites altogether, on the outside? Should he have organized more followers? Or was it the intention behind his actions that the Lord found wanting?
My graduate school classmates are changemakers. Many of them have worked in government, and we all have horror stories about bureaucracy, red tape, and gross political ineptitude. I used to work for the United Nations, so I certainly see where they are coming from, and have several stories of my own. Working on the inside can be astonishingly, painfully, mind-numbingly slow.
Meanwhile, we are learning in class about entrepreneurial CEOs who “disrupt” and “get things done.” Working outside established but broken systems means quicker, nimbler social change. By this logic, if you wanted to impact immigration reform, instead of joining ICE you would launch a start-up. Some people are already doing this. The same logic could be applied to a range of issues. If you want to make a difference, work outside the broken systems. Come up with your own bigger, brighter, better idea. When compared to the inefficiencies of bureaucracy, it hardly seems like a choice. Or in the words of Mark Zuckerberg: “Move fast and break things.”
I did not move fast, break things, or get arrested in Elizabeth. I watched and prayed with other activists on the sidewalk as my friends were arrested in the street. I wondered what it would have taken for me to walk into the road. Getting arrested was a privilege, but choosing not to was also a privilege. In the end, it seemed, the real privilege wasn’t my existence on the inside or the outside, but the ability to choose. The choice, and the intention behind it.
The sages teach us (Numbers Rabbah 18:7) that among Korach’s descendants is the prophet Samuel, one of the Jewish tradition’s greatest leaders and champion of institutions. Before Frances Perkins was Secretary of Labor, she was a firebrand workers-rights advocate. Before Aruna Roy was a world-renowned anti-poverty advocate, she was a bureaucrat in the Indian civil service. Before Rep. Wilson-Anton was a representative, she was an activist. And she may be one again. She may be one still.
That is all to say that insider and outsider change both have their pros and cons, but the t-chart in my notebook is muddy. People can have a foot in each world, or can jump rope back and forth between them. There are also worlds within these worlds. Dr. Kazi notes, rightly, that the Muslim community is not a monolith, and neither are outsider or activist groups. There are social movements that are vastly different from one another in their character, goals, and raison d’etre. Similarly, just as institutional power corrupts, there are places inside the system which are productive and important for social change. And not everyone can choose where inside or outside the system they fall. For some, these distinctions are a matter of life and death.
The biblical story that comes to mind here is the midrash of Nachshon son of Amminadab. When the Israelites fled from Egypt, they found themselves trapped between the Sea of Reeds and Pharaoh’s army hot in pursuit. In their panic, some of the Israelites wailed they wanted to go back to Egypt. In their fear, they perhaps wished for the comfort of a system, even one of oppression, that they understood. Some wanted to fight, but stood no chance against the Pharaoh’s army. One young man, Nachshon, made a different choice: he started walking out to sea, with faith that the Lord would provide. He waded deep, neither inside nor outside, but on his own, and was up to his head before the sea parted, allowing the Israelites to cross to safety.
There is privilege, of course, in Nachshon’s faith, with God at his back. But he could not have known that for sure at the time. He could not have known for sure even as the water filled his mouth and even as he drowned. Choices, even those borne of privilege, are not always simple. I myself have often felt like I am drowning in them. But as our traditions teach us and our present reality implores us, they are choices we must make. I am honored to stand with the Jewish, Muslim, and interfaith communities to make those choices, inside and out, together.
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
Representative Madinah Wilson-Anton grew up in the Muslim community of Newark, Delaware, where she lives with her husband, mother, and sisters. She is an alumna of the University of Delaware and holds a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Asian Studies. She has formally studied Arabic, Chinese, French, and Spanish. While at the University of Delaware, Rep. Wilson-Anton was actively involved in several campus organizations where she held leadership positions, including the Muslim Student Association, Students for Justice in Palestine, and her sorority Latinas Promoviendo Comunidad/Lambda Pi Chi Sorority, Inc.
She worked for two years as a legislative fellow in the state legislature, and an additional year as a legislative aide. In these capacities, she researched legislation, staffed committee meetings, communicated with residents, and helped them with a variety of issues. This experience gave her first-hand exposure to the issues and concerns of her fellow community members.
As a state representative, Rep. Wilson-Anton is fighting for social, economic, and racial justice for all Delawareans.
Legislative profile on the Delaware General Assembly website: https://legis.delaware.gov/AssemblyMember/151/WilsonAnton
Conversations with Rep. Madinah Wilson-Anton, hosted by Philadelphia CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations) https://pa.cair.com/events/repmadinahconvos/
Dr. Nazia Kazi is an anthropologist and educator based in Philadelphia. Her work explores the role of Islamophobia and racism in the context of global politics. She has lived in Dubai, New York City, and the Chicagoland area. She is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Stockton University in New Jersey, where she teaches courses on race, ethnicity, immigration, and Islam in the U.S. She is the author of Islamophobia, Race, and Global Politics, out now from Rowman & Littlefield.
Dr. Maha Hilal is an expert on institutionalized Islamophobia and has spent her career researching, writing on, and advocating and organizing against it. She is cofounder of Justice for Muslims Collective. Dr. Hilal holds a PhD in Justice, Law, and Society from American University and has received many awards, including the Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship, the Kathryn Davis Fellowship for Peace, and a Reebok Human Rights Fellowship. Her writings have been published in Al Jazeera, The Daily Beast, Vox, and US News, among others. She is the author of Innocent Until Proven Muslim: Islamophobia, the War on Terror, and the Muslim Experience Since 9/11 (Broadleaf Books, 2021)
Olga Marina Segura is the author of Birth of A Movement: Black Lives Matter and the Catholic Church. She is the opinion and culture editor at the National Catholic Reporter. Her writing has appeared in publications like The Revealer, The Guardian, Refinery29, BITCH Media, and Latino Rebels.
Maddie Ulanow is a Masters in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and co-editor at the Faith & Politics Project. A graduate of the Washington, D.C. area’s Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School and Habonim Dror, she has also taught in UNRWA schools as a Fulbright fellow in Jordan and is active in both Jewish and interfaith social justice movements. She has written for the Women’s Policy Journal.