Our Solidarity Must Be Built From the Ground Up

Thursday, March 9, 2017 - 12:30 pm

Our Solidarity Must Be Built From the Ground Up

In the last few months, there have been some amazing and beautiful projects of solidarity that have sought to reach out to beleaguered communities, such as Muslims, Hispanics, refugees, Jews, gays/lesbians, and others. One of them that has gotten a great deal of attention is the series of solidarity projects whereby allies of different backgrounds show their solidarity with the Muslim community by declaring, “I am a Muslim, too.”

If you are one of the people who has taken part in these acts, thank you. I thank you humbly for standing up for my community.
You give me and people in my community hope for all of us having partners in building this new America that we all want to belong to. Thank you.

And I am writing here to ask you to not stop there.

One of the first high-profile voices to speak out with “I am Muslim, too” was the former secretary of state Madeline Albright. Albright famously went on record to state that, should there be a registry for Muslims, which Trump has said he would “absolutely” require, she too would sign up as a Muslim. Her words were all the more poignant in light of her own discovery of her family’s Jewish heritage in Europe. We know, and we remember, what can happen when a minority community is hated upon and then placed under a special registry.

Here is what Albright said:

Albright went on to connect that solidarity, beautifully, to our own loftiest ideals of being a welcoming place for immigrants:

There was a publicized rally in New York City, in which the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, made a passionate appeal.

“An attack on anybody’s faith is an attack on all people of faith… I’m proud to say today, I am a Muslim, too… This is about defending everything the country has always been about. We have to dispel the stereotypes. [America is] a country founded to protect all faiths and all beliefs…

Regardless of your faith or your background or where you were born, this is your city. And to everybody, this is your country too. And think about the origins of this country — a country founded by people fleeing religious persecution. A country founded to respect all faiths and all beliefs. This is who we are as Americans, and this must be protected.”

New York City and the surrounding areas are home to close to a million Muslims. One of the other speakers in the rally was the powerful Brooklyn-Palestinian Muslim leader Linda Sarsour, who was one of the main organizers of the Women’s March in D.C.

We are called to welcome the good and the beautiful. No doubt, these expressions of solidarity are so well intentioned. We need solidarity, starting with groups that find themselves vulnerable.

And yet, we have to ask for more.

Albright’s statements and de Blasio’s statements echoed those made by many other celebrities and political figures, including the famed feminist Gloria Steinem. During the Women’s March, Steinem said: “If you force Muslims to register, we will all register as Muslims.”

Lovely, great statements. Love the solidarity, and welcome it with open hearts.

Unfortunately, that’s not how the system of registering Muslims works, and not how it will work if Trump is successful in his nefarious plan. If we are going to be effective allies, we have to be open-eyed about how it operates, and how it has operated over the last few decades.

Let us be clear about how surveillance of Muslims in the Trump era works.
It is not a listserv.
It is not something that one “opts into.”
You don’t sign up for it.
You don’t go to a mosque and put your email on a list.

You do not volunteer to be profiled. Any more than white Americans could volunteer to be targeted for the “stop-and-frisk” policies that targeted African Americans and Hispanics 90 percent of the time.

The way that surveillance on Muslims operates is not individual. It is a systematic and structural process that goes back well before Trump. It was intensified under President Obama, but its roots are far older than President Obama. We know about some 15,000 undercover Homeland Security informants, with a budget of 3 billion dollars, many of whom infiltrate mosques, seeking to radicalize individuals and then arrest them — using those arrests as a way of justifying the system of surveillance. The roots of the current phase of this system of surveillance go back to President Bush, putting the whole Muslim community under watch.

And there are even older, and more nefarious origins. The origins of these surveillance programs go back to the 1960s, with plots to do surveillance on African Americans, pacifists, socialists, intellectuals, and communists. Both Muslim groups like Nation of Islam and Christian leaders — most famously Martin Luther King himself — were subject to government-sanctioned wiretaps. So was Muhammad Ali. This is the fruit of a 50-year war on black communities and communities that were deemed to oppose America’s militaristic foreign policies. A new book called The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security Before and After 9/11 tracks the long legacy of these policies. We have to look at these policies in the long perspective, and recognize the system and structure that they belong to, if we are to effectively oppose them.

Today there are even greater technological tools to extend these systems of surveillance: Amnesty International has released a report about how easy it is for big data companies to compile information on Muslims and people with Muslim-sounding names.

What does this have to do with us today?

It signals that if we want to protect all of us, we have to do more than polite interfaith dialogue. I like interfaith dialogue, but in and by itself, it is not enough.

It takes more than signing petitions and venting on social media. Social media can be a tool for raising awareness, but in and by itself, it is not enough.

Ultimately, we have to recognize, as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali did, that the racism at home is inextricably linked with militarism abroad. The dehumanization of black and brown bodies is linked to war-mongering abroad. It takes more than declaring “I am a Muslim, too,” though that is a beautiful gesture.

What is required ultimately is to become participants in creating a different America, an America that does not yet exist. That will be a just and beautiful America, one in which we are not an empire, and do not seek to dominate the world, but take a humble place alongside other nations.

Here is what is needed: building solidarity from the ground up. We need solidarity among our communities and movements. We have to link up together the various movements against racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, the “war on terror,” the prison industrial complex, environmental exploitation, the assault on indigenous populations, etc.

None of us can be free until we are all free.

You do you.
You be the best, the kindest, the gentlest, the fiercest you that you can be.
I don’t need for you to become Muslim, or even to state that you are Muslim, too, unless that’s what you are led to.
I love the love. Love the solidarity.
You be you. And let’s reach out together to keep working on this great unfinished dream that is America.

Share Post


is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads educational tours every year to Turkey, Morocco, or other countries, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trips are open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

Share Your Reflection


  • Gabby

    “It signals that if we want to protect all of us, we have to do more than polite interfaith dialogue. I like interfaith dialogue, but in and by itself, it is not enough.

    It takes more than signing petitions and venting on social media. Social media can be a tool for raising awareness, but in and by itself, it is not enough.”

    I appreciate your reminding us that these easy things are not enough.

    I would have said that being “the kindest and gentlest,” though, is not enough either- that “you be you” will in some cases be enough, but depending on what a person is actually doing, a more active approach might be of better service.

    I hope in the days and weeks to come you will be as concrete as you can be about what in your opinion would be useful for any of us to do.

  • Judy Montel

    “You do not volunteer to be profiled. Any more than white Americans could volunteer to be targeted for the “stop-and-frisk” policies that targeted African Americans and Hispanics 90 percent of the time.”
    This is really important to point out. This is the genuine dynamic, not declarations about what the administration will or won’t do. Though I do wonder about what protests to “sign up” for stop-and-frisk might have looked like, and whether lots of public noise about that policy at any point might have saved some lives.
    I suspect that responses have to be various, suited to different people. And there will be many difficulties and obstacles that come up in the course of engaging with this kind of problem, but also that there is a lot to learn from them and from the process. I also think that some of the time, what is needed is not “doing” something, but attempting to be present to the pain of the realities we encounter. Sometimes that is so hard we can’t do more.