Wednesday, August 25, 2010

If not me, who? If not now, when?

This is one of those moments when a great and terrible storm is gathering--only, unlike actual meteorological storms, because this one is political it can be turned back. It can be stopped. In fact, it must be stopped.

This can only happen, however, if every person steps forward to join together and together we form a solid wall beyond which this storm of anti-Muslim racism will be unable to proceed.

How? United. When? Now. Where? Here.

The vicious, outrageous, racist campaign against an Islamic community center planned for lower Manhattan has now claimed its first victim. Last night in midtown, Ahmed H. Sharif, a cab driver, was attacked with a knife, slashed and stabbed repeatedly by a white passenger after he answered in the affirmative when the passenger asked if he was Muslim. Brother Sharif, thank goodness, survived. But we can expect, in fact, are already being treated to, all kinds of defenses and hand-wringing explanations about what accounts for the assault. The attacker was drunk, we hear. He's not really like that, we're told. The fact is that he unleashed a violent rage against a worker who is Muslim.

And that, a racist rage toward all Muslims, in fact toward everyone who has actual or imputed Middle Eastern or South Asian nationality or ancestry, is exactly the point of this whole repugnant war against what the reactionaries have dubbed "the ground zero mosque." To sow division, to foment racist rage, to scapegoat and isolate the Muslim communities--all of it a handy diversion from the real problems facing the workers of all nationalities, problems like soaring unemployment, endless wars and occupations, cutbacks in needed services, hospital closings, unfunded schools, etc. For none of which are Muslims in any way to blame. But hey, the bosses are past masters at deflecting attention from their own very real assaults on the masses of people, working hard to instead whip up racism and division and thereby block the unity necessary for an effective fightback against their assaults.
Here. Now. We must stand against this vile, transparent racist campaign.

Here, in New York City, and I'm talking to everyone who lives in the tri-state metropolitan area.

Now. Tomorrow, if at all possible, join brother Sharif and the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, immigrant and Muslim organizations to call for an end to this vicious campaign. Gather at Third Avenue and 40th Street, the site of Tuesday's attack, at 2:00 p.m. Thursday, August 26. On Saturday, September 11, also at 2:00, demonstrate in support of the Muslim communities and against the Tea Party, whose shock troops have announced plans for an openly racist anti-Muslim gathering at the World Trade Center construction site on that date.

Wherever else you live--for these racist winds are blowing throughout the country, with attacks on mosques and Muslims reported in many places--take your own actions, demonstrate your own solidarity with a community under siege.

Many well-meaning people who have expressed horror at the current anti-Muslim barrage say things like, "This is not the America I knew, " or "This is not what this country is all about." In fact,  this country has always been riddled with racism; its riches were built on the genocide of the Native population and the chattel slavery of African people; its ruling class has always used the tactic of whipping up racism to divide the working class and divert it away from unity and struggle against the oppressors and exploiters.

In this, "America" is no different than other capitalist countries. The statement announcing the September 11 demonstration puts it this way: "Like Hitler before them, the anti-Muslim bigots are seeking to whip up hatred against a religious minority in the midst of an economic crisis."

It's rare that I have occasion to quote a religious figure, but there are two whose words resonate here. The first is Pastor Martin Niemoller, whose famous 1946 statement was not originally an exhortation to correct action, although now we reasonably read it as such. It was actually a confession of his very incorrect action, how his bigotry, complacency and reluctance to rock the boat led him to side with Nazism, at least initially.
They came first for the communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up.
This is not metaphor. This is precisely what happened, and indeed when they came for Niemoller, they took him, in the end, to Dachau. His confession came after the camp was liberated.

The other religious figure whose words ring loud and clear in this moment is more ancient. Rabbi Hillel, who lived in Jerusalem in the first century BC. Hillel said: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?"

I recently read a book that takes part of Hillel's saying for its title. If I Am Not for Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew by Mike Marqusee. I haven't had a chance yet to write about it and don't know when I will, but Marqusee's interpretation of the first part of the Hillel quote takes it to a less literal plane than the obvious. He writes, in one of the closing passages in the book: "'If I am not for myself...', then others will claim to be 'for me.' In the current climate, Zionists and Jewish leaders will claim to be for me, and in so doing will thwart and destroy what is precious to me."

Similarly, for me, the first part of this saying contains not only its most obvious meaning but a call to be true to your higher self. In a moment like this, especially here in New York but also throughout the country, there are perfidious forces at work trying to scare you, confuse you, entice you away from what you know to be true. What you know to be true is that solidarity with, not enmity toward, Muslims is the right thing to do. Those others, the Muslim bashers, the Tea Partiers, they are not for you--you must be for you, and for your brothers and sisters. We must all be for each other.

For, as Hillel also knew, it does no one any good to be only for yourself. Least of all to wait. If not now, when? Stand up for the Muslim communities.