THE BLOG

Gaza and the Need for Muslim Activism in America

11/20/2012 03:57 pm 15:57:30 | Updated Jan 20, 2013

Galveston, Texas - I'd rather be telling you about my driving trip around America and promoting my next book, Home Free: A Real American Road Trip, but I feel compelled to say something about the appalling, and tiresomely predictable, subject of Gaza. Or rather, not Gaza per se but the baleful effect that the decades-long festering sore that is Israel-Palestine has on public life here in the United States.

(Right) American Muslims demonstrating against the Taliban attack on Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai in Orlando, Florida, November 12, 2012.

I've written about this before, never eagerly but willingly, because, as a non-Jewish, non-Muslim American, I don't appreciate the way my country's politics is distorted, and its public discussion muffled and wrapped in euphemism, whenever the matter at hand is Israel's behavior in the Palestinian territories. My previous expressed views are on record in a June 2010 article with the candid title "Israel and the Distortion of American Politics." After publishing a more recent article I lost a friend (I thought he was a friend) for making the obvious point that, far from being victims, Jewish Americans are an affluent, privileged, and influential community.

Whether those are good or bad things for a community to be depends on the uses such a community makes of its affluence, privilege, and influence. But part of the problem is that too many non-Jews in America say nothing rather than risk being branded, as I essentially was by my ex-friend, tantamount to a Holocaust denier.

All this is prelude to my real point: that both the situation in the Middle East and the quality of American public life will improve when American Muslims become more audible and visible. I do know, because they're friends of mine, that many of them are trying hard to be heard. At a dinner party attended by privileged white people recently in South Carolina, I was made to answer the myopic or tendentious question, "Why don't Muslims object when Muslims commit terrorist attack and atrocities?" The answer I gave was that they do; we just don't hear them. Less than two weeks later I was asked to speak at a public demonstration organized by Muslims in Orlando, Florida against the Taliban attack on Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old girl who had become an outspoken advocate for girls' education in Pakistan. In my remarks I got applause for saying that, if Malala can do what she has done, at real risk to her personal safety, such a rally is the least that we in America can do.

The point is not that we should be pleased with ourselves for holding a rally, but that that really is the very least that we can do. We need to do much more. Applause is gratifying, but it's the merest baby step toward the much more assertive activism that I believe is urgently called for. The Muslims who attended the Orlando rally, and others like them all around America, are affluent and privileged. What they're not is publicly influential, for two reasons. One is that, understandably though unfairly, they've been stigmatized and forced onto the defensive ever since 2001. But the other side of the same coin is that they've acquiesced in their own marginalization. In America, communities get attention and respect when they step forward and make noise, nonviolently to be sure but by all means assertively and politically. If you don't toot your own horn, you can't expect anyone else to toot it for you.

I've written before that the civil rights movement offers a model. Another model is the remarkable success that gay Americans have enjoyed in advancing their concerns and aspirations in recent years. The point is that such success doesn't just happen. Gay people have a dedicated day every July when they descend on Disney World en masse, all wearing red t-shirts. The statement they're making is: We're here among you, we have money and influence, and we respectfully require you to deal with it.

There's a lot of confusion and overlap, but the issues are essentially not religious but political. To my Muslim friends, I respectfully suggest that life will improve for Muslims in Palestine and Pakistan, and for all of us in America, the day that thousands of American Muslim families show up at Disney World all wearing green t-shirts.