Those who have been following the developments in Palestine over the past few months would have noted that the reaction from the global Muslim community has been a strong and vocal one. From Morocco to Indonesia, the Muslim response to the conflict between Israel and Palestine has been powerful, bordering on the explosive in some cases.
But apart from the reaction of Muslims worldwide, another, equally important development has appeared. In scores of cases all over the world, we have also seen how the Palestinian cause has been taken up by non-Muslim actors and agents. In Tokyo, Japanese students were seen demonstrating on their campuses in support of the Palestinians. In Thailand, Buddhist pacifist organizations have taken to the streets, calling for an end to violence and openly condemning the excesses of the Israeli army. Even in the United States of America (a country often thought of as being pro-Israeli and hostile to Islam and Muslim interests by many hardline Islamist movements), thousands of students, activists and intellectuals have entered the domestic political arena, protesting against Israeli aggression as well as the neglect shown by their own government over the thorny Palestinian issue.
In all these cases, a common thread appears: These are non-Muslims who have taken up the cause of the Palestinians. That such a development could occur at all should convince us of the fact that the Palestinian issue has transcended the boundaries of faith and dogma. The suffering of the Palestinians has been turned into a universal symbol of the suffering of the oppressed, and in a sense, the Palestinians themselves have become an emblem for the inequalities and injustices of our times. The predicament of Palestine shows up the contradictions in the so-called ‘new world order’ we have created around us, and it sums up the political and moral dilemmas that we face today.
The suffering of Palestine should provide us with the opportunity to highlight the contradictions of the current global order, that is permeated with all forms of institutionalized inequalities that have become the norm. It should also underscore the fact that the Muslim world today is the real third world, and highlight the powerlessness and insecurity of Muslims the world over who have been rendered weak and vulnerable thanks to the unjust global system.
Yet this is a lesson that we in the Muslim world still seem unable to digest properly. For what Muslim activists, organizations and governments have yet to learn is how to communicated our needs, fears, anxieties and longings in broad-based universal terms that include rather than exclude others. We have failed to show how and why our concerns should be thought of as universal concerns as well.
One of the reasons for this is because the political concerns of Muslims have been translated into religious ones. Rather than presenting the Palestinian issue as a universal humanitarian concern, some Islamist movements like HAMAS and Hizbullah have turned it into a religious issue instead. But lest it be forgotten, the dream of Palestine was the dream of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democratic and independent state. The dream of the PLO, for instance, was not to challenge Israeli-Zionist domination with another form of Arab-Muslim domination, but instead to pave the way for the creation of a democratic and inclusive state that would represent the rights of all citizens, regardless of their ethnic and religious identity. The Muslims of the world today can still learn a lesson or two from this simple political message.
Coming at a time when Muslims have been reduced to the status of germs or vermin to be wiped out or ‘cleansed’ (reminiscent of the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of unwanted minority groups by the Fascists and Nazis in Europe in the 1930s and 40s), Muslims need to learn how to communicate our concerns to a broader, global audience in terms that emphasize and strengthen the common bonds of humanity that bind us.
This, in effect, means the need to think in strategic as well as diplomatic terms. It means having to form broad-based coalitions and alliances with other ethnic and religious communities that can only be achieved if and when we focus on the values and goals that are common to the human race as a whole rather to one faith community only.
It is only by emphasizing the common humanity that we share with others that we can begin to construct an ethics of inter-communal relations which would force others to see us as they see themselves. Simple though this may sound, to achieve it in practical terms is something far more difficult and challenging. For we have come to such a low point in our history that even our agony and suffering has been diminished and under-valued, as if the pain of a Muslim is worth less than that of someone else.
To work towards a universalist discourse of rights and entitlements would be a major challenge for Muslim activists, organizations and governments today. The goal would be to restore to the Muslim subject his/her full status as a human being, endowed with reason, rights and identity.
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