On January 10, 2009, I attended a protest in Atlanta, Georgia titled “Children March Against Genocide in Palestine.” Overall, the protest was a positive event, with police guiding the many protesters through the streets from Woodruff Park to Centennial Park to the CNN Building and back again. There was plenty of energy and enthusiasm, and I witnessed no arrests or injuries.
However, there was a phenomenon in place at this event – something I had witnessed at similar protests in the past – namely some disturbing chants and a few horrifying signs used to express outrage at the ongoing suffering of the people of Gaza. Shakespeare famously illustrated the overextension of an otherwise credible view which leads people to believe its opposite when his Queen Gertrude argued that “the lady doth protest too much” in Hamlet. We are in danger of doing the same with regards to Palestine.
One chant from a person with a bullhorn referred to Israel as a “terrorist state,” while others in the crowd started chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” In ascending order of disapproval features on some of the signs included the use of the words “genocide,” “Holocaust,” “Nazi,” and the swastika symbol. One particularly offensive sign had “Israhell: The Real Racist Nazis” on one side and the Israeli flag on the other, with the Star of David replaced by a light blue swastika.
I approached two people carrying this last sign and asked them if they made it themselves. Each told me no. Instead, each had grabbed the sign from a stack of available signs for marchers to take. I then asked each if he knew what the sign meant. Both said, “No.”
There are symbols that produce the most reptilian, visceral response in people. For Jews worldwide, for victims of Nazi Germany, and for those who fought Nazi Germany (like the United States), the swastika is at the top of this list. Contemporary U.S. and European hate groups vandalize minority religions’ buildings, including mosques, with this symbol. In my mind, the only effect the use of this symbol can possibly have is to provoke the worst reaction in people who see it.
One young woman had a sign equating the Star of David with a swastika, followed by a question mark. I asked her about it, and she told me that she hoped to provoke thought. I did not press the issue with her, but I would ask her if the caricatures of the Messenger Muhammad ﷺ published in the Danish right-wing newspaper Jyllands-Posten “provoked thought.”
The desecration and abuse of these symbols is incompatible with the ethos of a humble believer. The Star of David, despite its appropriation by the state of Israel, remains a symbol of Judaism, which Muslims regard to be a revealed religion in its origin and a source of guidance. Regardless of whether the symbol has any real relationship to God’s Messenger David (Dawud in Arabic) ﷺ, anything tied with a messenger’s name should have some sanctity.
Regarding the chants, the Israeli state does do some terroristic things. But it also has an educational system, a health care system, public transportation, and more, just as Hamas, the Palestine National Authority, Egypt and the United States do (or wish to). In fact, some libertarians would say that every state is a terrorist state. Aside from the fact that the claim is either wrong or a truism, it is an unnecessary claim that does not advance our objectives at all. Instead, it causes people to doubt the marchers’ rationality.
There is a principle in sales and persuasion known as “less is more.” If a car salesman starts rattling off features, ignoring what a customer has told him he was looking for, all communication breaks down. The majority of objective people, when they learn basic facts of the situation in Palestine, will come to believe that U.S. policy should change. Overstating the case or making outlandish claims only causes the advocate to lose credibility.
I believe there is a group of demonstrators whose sole purpose is “shifaa’ al-suduur,” an Arabic phrase which I would roughly translate in this context as “blowing off steam.” They feel bad, like all of us, and marching and shouting insulting slogans and carrying provocative signs makes them feel better. Those in this group should indulge the rest of us in our delusion that we can actually improve U.S. policy towards the Palestinians. Indulge us by not undermining us in that work. If you must blow off steam, have a separate direct action. Or travel abroad and fight. Or, better, fast the day and pray at night that Allah ﷻ relieves the Palestinians and forgives us for betraying them. Organizers of these events must make it clear why they want people to come and take measures to prevent or limit behaviors that undermine this purpose.
The most important benefits of demonstrations is the development of networks of people, the internal transformations in the individuals who organize and those who attend and the encouragement we give to each other to continue the struggle. Demonstrations without the organizational and educational efforts and self-reflection in between will die out without an impact.
A key to improving Muslim advocacy is to put ourselves in the position of working with “others.” I like supporting the School of the Americas Watch (soaw.org), the Georgia Peace and Justice Coalition (gpjc.org) and other non-sectarian advocacy groups, and I’m sure most Muslims could local find groups whose causes, when they learn about them, they could support. When I see how U.S.-trained paramilitary forces have suppressed labor unions and indigenous peoples in South and Central America, it helps my ability to advocate for Iraqi government control of oil resources and the rights of the indigenous people of Palestine.
I quickly learned that the Israeli government is not the only government in the world suppressing indigenous peoples, so I don’t say stupid things like “the Israelis are the worst people in the world” and worse. When I learn that Muslims in Sudan killed hundreds of thousands in Darfur and forced millions to flee their villages for refugee camps, I know that adherents of no single religion have a monopoly on morality (and immorality). When I learn about the Nazi-orchestrated slavery and industrial murder of Jews and others in Europe and the killing of 800,000 in Rwanda in 100 days, I don’t casually use words like “Nazi”, “genocide” and “Holocaust.”
Muslim organizers of these protests against the Israeli war in Gaza should expand their encounters with others through participation in a wide variety of organizations, from women’s rights, social welfare, environment protection and foreign policy advocacy, particularly where Muslims are underrepresented. By framing our issues in a manner consistent with more widely accepted norms, we can avoid ineffective and inaccurate “protesting too much.” By connecting our just causes to those of others, we can improve our effectiveness in advocating for them in the years to come.
(Photo: Andrew Partain via flickr by permission)
Ayman Fadel lives in Augusta, Georgia. In between authoring the Muslim Media Review blog and participating in various advocacy organizations and confusing the local Muslim kids teaching at the weekend Muslim school, he owns a company producing software for nursing homes.