Saturday, September 30, 2006

Jihad and Martin Luther King

The violent clash between extremist Islam and Western Culture makes me appreciate Martin Luther King.

The movement that he spearheaded sought for black Americans the rights, recognition, and sense of identity that mainstream America refused to give them. Today, Muslims in Western Europe live in a similar paradigm. When you consider most of today’s real* terrorists, you notice that almost all of them come from disaffected Muslim communities in England, France, Germany, or the United States (and other Western-influenced, modernizing countries such as India and Indonesia). These communities suffer from similar forms of discrimination, inequality, neglect, and racism that black Americans endured leading up to the Civil Rights Movement. These Muslim communities lack many of the advantages their societies offer. Although there are many exceptions, many Muslims are not seen as equals to their white Western countrymen. Overt racism has created hate, fear, and misunderstanding. These sentiments have been institutionalized, creating social barriers that prevent or seriously hamper social mobility, economic progress, social welfare, and equality for these minorities. Indeed, the Islamic struggle in the West closely mirrors the historical plight of many black Americans.

Now, I realize there are several flaws with this comparison and that it runs the risk of oversimplifying and generalizing more complex realities. I understand that the Muslim struggles in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon involve or involved forces that were not at work during the American Civil Rights Movement. I recognize that my comparison is mostly limited to Western Europe. I concede that jihad is about power , religion, and competing worldviews as much as it is about rights and identity. And I acknowledge that Muslim communities in Europe are largely immigrant populations rather than first-generation citizens like African-Americans in the US. Yet, despite these distinctions, there are still significant parallels between the struggles of black Americans and modern Muslims. Thus, in many ways, today’s Islamic struggle is a modern day movement for civil rights.

As black Americans did in the 1950s and 60s, Muslim communities are speaking out, standing up, and attempting to change the status quo. But the means of change are vastly different.

Whereas King and his followers sought to eliminate injustice with civil disobedience, the leaders of the Muslim civil rights struggle embrace violent jihad. While the Southern Christian Leadership Conference sought inspiration from the writings of Henry David Thoreau, today’s jihadists seek it from rogue Muslim clerics’ interpretations of the Koran. In short, the Muslim civil rights struggle eschews the King doctrine in favor of violent retribution.** Civil rights activists worked within the confines of a system that oppressed them. Terrorists seek to destroy the system altogether.

Given the violent and fearful nature of today’s struggle, my appreciation for Martin Luther King’s doctrine of non-violent direct action grows stronger by the day.

To be sure, the struggle of American blacks exhibited similar violent tendencies. Imagine if Martin Luther King had not risen to power. What if the pre-Hajj rhetoric of Malcolm X had dominated the movement? What if the Black Panther Party had won the hearts and minds of mainstream black society instead? The Civil Rights Movement could have easily deteriorated into the racial-equivalent of today’s jihad. In many ways, after King’s assassination, it did. Remember, he US saw its fair share of riots, bombings, and assassinations too.

But the violent side of the Movement never dominated. It lurked on the fringe, failing ever to dominate the mainstream. Why? Because violence was not effective. Rational sentiments prevailed.***

Thus, we can learn two valuable lessons from the Civil Rights Movement.

First, the Muslim communities must produce a leader or group of leaders with the strength to challenge the status quo without violence. Where is the Muslim Gandhi? Where is the Islamic Mandela? Indeed, today’s Islamic struggle lacks a forceful spokesman for non-violence. Its only leaders are warriors in jihad, fundamentalist Wahabi Muslims that proseletyze violence, holding war and destruction up as the only ways to achieve their goals.

In making this suggestion, we run the risk of over-simplifying Muslim communities by inferring they are all the same. This is a risky generalization. Nevertheless, their struggles are similar enough to unite them. If global leadership is unfeasible, then at the very least, local non-violent leaders must emerge.

The second lesson is equally important. Western societies must continue (or begin for the first time) to pursue multicultural initiatives. We must continue to integrate our communities. Doing so will require extreme patience. Multiculturalism exacerbates racism, xenophobia, and competition among ethnic and racial groups. While token integration might occur quickly, real assimilation and incorporation takes time. Western societies must be able to constantly assess themselves, re-establish their priorities when needed, and continue their commitments to multicultural progress.

Indeed, disaffection will never cease. Individuals and groups will always feel cast out, unrepresented, frustrated, and even oppressed. These sentiments are natural characteristics of human societies. These same sentiments existed before, during, and after the Civil Rights Movement. Despite the successes of the American Civil Rights Movement, many of the same issues of injustice still exist. In fact, some of the progress the Movement brought about is slowly reverting back to pre-1964 social conditions. We must be aware of this and continue addressing it. The Civil Rights Movement will never end.

Injustice has existed since the dawn of humanity – yet it hasn’t always led to violence. Despite natural feelings of alienation, communities resort to violence only when they sense that no progress is being made, only when there’s seemingly no hope for change.

The United States continues to make just enough progress to preserve a sense of hope. Things will change for the better, indeed.

The Civil Rights Movement continues to progress because it is non-violent. Faith in improvement endures few leaders from within the Movement have embraced brutality, war, or murder. To do so is ineffective. Martin Luther King knew this. So did Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Muslims in the West must follow their leads. Western societies must help.

(*NOTE: By real terrorists, I don’t mean the lumped-together group of “turrorists” we hear about in Republican rhetoric and neoconservative policy papers. And I don’t mean the insurgents confined to Middle Eastern theatres of war. By real terrorists, I mean the ones who actually attacked or planned to attack innocent civilians in Western cities like Madrid, London, New York.)

(**NOTE: A comparison of jihad and the Civil Rights Movement can only go so far, though. It is important to acknowledge that jihad is a religious phenomenon whereas the Movement was not. It is also important to acknowledge that jihad is a global struggle whereas the Movement was limited to the United States.)

(***NOTE: Lee Harris addresses the conflict between Reason and violence in a brilliant analysis of Pope Benedict’s recent controversial speech.)

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The scope of this article is broad – maybe too broad. I generalize and ramble too much. Do you agree? Disagree? Can you follow this argument? What do I need to change? Please, dear readers – all 10 of you – GIVE ME FEEDBACK. That includes you, Mom.]


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