Friday, February 29, 2008

A Salute to African American-and Islamic-History

From the Desk of Ibrahim Abdil-Mu’id Ramey, MAS Freedom Civil and Human Rights Director

WASHINGTON, D.C. (MASNET) February 29, 2008 - Today marks the culmination of African-American History Month. Founded by the great scholar Carter G. Woodson in the early 1930's, this month commemorates the celebration of the history and achievements of people of African ancestry in the United States.

But to an increasing community, it is also a recognition of the fact that the history of Black people in America has a significant Islamic component.

A few days ago, I attended an event at the U.S. Capitol that hosted a museum display called 'Collections and Stories of American Muslims'. The curator of this dazzling visual historical display, Brother Amir Muhammad, explained that the chronology of the Muslim presence in the "New World" did not begin with the trans-Atlantic slave trade, where some 25 percent of enslaved Africans were Muslim captives. Indeed, African explorers, from as early as 1312 C.E., established contact with indigenous American (Indian) communities.

One such African Muslim explorer, named Estebanico, is believed to be have set foot on what is now called New Mexico and Arizona in the year 1527.

The millions of captured African Muslims in America also have a rich and compelling historical narrative. The 'Collections and Stories of American Muslims' exhibit also features the names of Muslims included in the first U.S. census in 1790, and copies of the manuscript of a Holy Qur’an from early 18th century America.

African-American Muslims fought in both the American Revolution and the Civil War.

And numerous graveyards from early America feature tombstones embellished with the one raised finger, signifying the declaration of faith in the one deity (Allah).

One enslaved Muslim, a Fulani African prince and military commander named Abdul Rahman Ibrahima born in 1762, is featured in the remarkable documentary movie called "Prince Among Slaves". Abdul Rahman, who was literate in the Arabic language, was captured by slave traders and transported to Natchez, Mississippi, where he was forced to labor on a cotton plantation. But never abandoning his faith, he was able (by Allah’s mercy) to eventually secure his freedom from bondage. He and his Christian wife were able to return to Africa before his death in 1829.

Historical developments in American Islamic communities and movements of the late 19 and early 20th centuries are also included in the collection.

The facts and nuances of Muslim history in America are numerous, and profound. But as more historical data and artifacts become known to the public, it is clear that the Muslim presence in the United States predates the establishment of the American republic itself.

The Muslim community in America is heir to a deep, complex, and fascinating history. It is certainly a history worth exploring, and one that we should be thinking about in the other eleven months of the year as well.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Is "Blind Allegiance" Blinding the Democratic Party?

From the Desk of Ibrahim Abdil-Mu’id Ramey
MAS Freedom Civil and Human Rights Director

WASHINGTON, D.C. (MASNET) February 27, 2008 - The recent Democratic debate between Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama was advertised as the last slugfest before the critical primary elections in Texas and Ohio, and to some extent, it was exactly that. Both candidates came out swinging, with Senator Clinton clearly being the aggressor, taking shots at Obama on issues ranging from health care, to international trade, to their relative qualifications on issues of national security and international relations.

However, many Muslims probably took special notice of their exchange on the related topics of Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, and their uncritical support for the policies of the state of Israel.

Obama took a question from the debate moderator, one related to Minister Farrakhan's recent endorsement of the Obama candidacy. The junior senator from Illinois was quick to utter his repudiation of the Muslim leader, noting Minister Farrakhan's statements (from more than a decade ago), that were highly critical of Jews.

Obama went on to praise the support that his campaign receives from the Jewish community. He spoke of his denunciation of anti-Semitism in the African-American community, as well as his appreciation of Jewish contributions to the civil rights movement and his desire to revive the Black-Jewish alliance of the civil rights. He also declared that the security of Israel was "sacrosanct".

But this was not enough for Senator Clinton. She pushed Obama to go even further in his excoriation of the Minister, and demanded that he reject the Farrakhan "endorsement" out of hand. The segment then turned to Israel - with both candidates pledging their uncritical support for Jewish state.

It was a script that could have been written by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). And that is troubling.

My issue is certainly not the condemnation of anti-Semitism in any of its manifestations, whether in Europe, the American heartland, or in African-American or Muslim communities. The hatred of Jews, or any people is morally repugnant. And apparently by evoking the words and political endorsement of Louis Farrakhan, anti-Semitism, or the perception of it, became the "tar baby" of the debate, that the Obama candidacy was all too eager to distance itself from.

But the question about the Farrakhan endorsement of Senator Obama raises two issues: first, the suggestion that there is some linkage between Obama and Islam (a myth which Obama haters would love to hype), and the even bigger, and more insidious, implication that any implied criticism of the current U.S. political relationship with Israel is a disqualifier as far as the American presidency is concerned.

On the first point, it's absolutely true that Mr. Farrakhan is not exactly in the running for a humanitarian award from the Anti-Defamation League. Some of his past rhetoric regarding Jews has been thoroughly vetted and vehemently criticized by the Jewish community, and many others. But that does not mean that his preference for Senator Obama indicates that he has even the smallest influence on the Obama candidacy.

The second and more significant point, however, is the fact that both Clinton and Obama demonstrated, in this debate, their mutual towing of the policy line laid down by the one special interest that nobody talks about - namely, the American-Israeli lobby. This lobby, in the opinion of many, dominates the national political discourse related to the U.S. relationship with Israel, and in the final analysis, the policies that America chooses to pursue in the Middle East.

That is why, in my opinion, the personality of Minister Farrakhan, and his opinions about the American Jewish community, are presented to be more significant in a national debate than, say, the Israeli economic blockade of Gaza, or the continuous violations of international law committed by Israel in the Palestinian Territories.

The United Nations and the International Court of Justice routinely condemn these actions by Israel. But for all major party candidates, the people of Palestine are virtually invisible, and their human rights, are almost totally ignored.

This is the essence of "blind allegiance" to the dictates of Israel. It materially supports the continued occupation of the Palestinian Territory and the racial apartheid and discrimination that exists within Israel itself. But this blind allegiance is incompatible with the values of fairness, compassion, and respect for international law that America claims to believe in.

As Muslims participate in the political process in greater numbers that ever, we should recognize the importance of a plethora of important national questions, and not just the ones concerning U.S. policy in the Middle East. We must not judge candidates solely on this issue. But Senators Obama and Clinton must also recognize that their mutually blind allegiance to the dictates of the Jewish lobby is not, in the final analysis, good for the people of Palestine, Israel, or the United States of America.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Whose "Change" Glass Has More Water?

Observations from the Democratic Party Primary Elections

From the Desk of Ibrahim Abdil-Mu’id Ramey
MAS Freedom Civil and Human Rights Director

WASHINGTON, D.C. (MASNET) February 20, 2008 - I’ll start with the obvious: she's a superbly intelligent woman, phenomenally driven to succeed, extremely aggressive, and politically savvy to the maximum. She knows the issues. She's been elected twice to the United States Senate.

Hillary Clinton is a serious woman who wants to be elected president - in a serious way.

However, and this is just my opinion, her ambition has turned into more than a little desperation, and even belligerence, in the face of the electoral tidal wave that is on the verge of capsizing her presidential dream boat.

That wave, of course, is Barack Obama.

As I write this short essay, Senator Obama, on February 19, won the Democratic primary elections in Wisconsin and his native state of Hawaii. That makes ten straight primary election victories for him, with the huge battleground states of Texas and Pennsylvania looming in the immediate future.

Most political pundits now openly say that Senator Clinton must win one, if not both, of these primary elections if she expects to win her party's nomination for the presidency.

Clearly, huge numbers of new voters have been energized by this heavyweight political slugfest between two worthy opponents. That, for me, is all good.

But what is not all good is the rhetoric from Senator Clinton, and her surrogates, suggesting that she is tested and true, and that Obama is devoid of political substance and somehow "over his head' in this race leading up to, arguably, the most important American presidential election in the last 50 years.

Does Senator Clinton bring many decades of elected public service to the contest? Has she served in a presidential cabinet? Has she directed a significant corporation or not-for-profit organization?

No. What she brings to this contest is the same thing that her rival brings; namely, loads of intelligence, confidence, relentless ambition, and tons of campaign contributions.

But I suspect that, with all of her acumen and attributes, if her name were Hillary Rodham Smith, and she did not happen to be the highly visible spouse of a popular, two-term former president, her race for the Democratic party nomination would be non-existent.

Senator Obama, a relative newcomer to the cauldron of national politics, has offered promises of change on the campaign trail. And while he might lack decades of experience in elected office, he brings an apparent willingness to challenge the old social class configuration and policies that form the bedrock of the mess that currently calls itself a national government.

Like Senator Clinton, if he is elected, his initiatives will be challenged by the powers that be. But also, like Senator Clinton, he will surround himself with smart, able people who just might help him engineer the political changes that many people in America seem to be demaning.

If Hillary had arrived on stage with loads of personal political success or experience, independent of her family relationship with Bill Clinton's administration, then her derisive dismissal of Obama’s "empty rhetoric" for change might have struck a more responsive chord within me.

But she runs an almost imperial campaign, supported by the illusion that she served as a former co-president of the United States of America.

It might be wise for Senator Clinton to stop throwing stones at the glass house of Obama's relative lack of experience, or the rhetorical emptiness of his promise to "change" America. Her own record of public service might suggest that she really doesn't have the rocks, or the slingshot, for that kind of personal assault against her rival.

* This essay should not be construed as an endorsement of any candidate by the writer or by MAS Freedom.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Fidel Walks Away

From the Desk of Ibrahim Abdil-Mu’id Ramey
MAS Freedom Civil and Human Rights Director

WASHINGTON, D.C. (MASNET) February 19, 2008 - An essay about Fidel Castro on a Muslim website? Absolutely.

Say what you will about this man. Certainly, among Marxists and revolutionaries throughout the world, he epitomizes the zeal of anti-imperialism and defiance of the "Yanqui" giant to his North. And for the conservative, free-enterprise crowd, Fidel was, for nearly a half-century, anathema to every value they espouse.

But now, after decades of being the undisputed helmsman of the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro has, at last, stepped away from the Presidency of his nation. And while he may no longer be the "Maximum Leader", he is, and will be for the rest of his time on earth, a towering figure for many, and an utterly despised one for others.

What did Fidel accomplish in his years as the leader of Cuba? The answer depends on the political orientation of the person who answers.

He led a small, tattered guerilla force that overthrew the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista and rode triumphantly into Havana on New Year’s Day of 1959. Then, to the dismay of the Cuban exiles, the American government, business monopolies and the CIA, Fidel and his comrades established a one-party Marxist state, closely alighed with the (then) Soviet Union. The initial crisis of this nexus involved a near-nuclear showdown between the US and the USSR which, in 1962, culminated with the removal of Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba.

Thus began more than four decades of a continued economic embargo by the U.S. (and hardly any one else) against the island nation of 10 million people. This embargo, and the effects of it, continue to this day.

It is certainly true things in Cuba are far from perfect, and that many of the faults there might be located in the limited freedoms afforded to its citizens and institutions under a one-party state.

There are credible accounts of persons imprisoned for nothing more than their political beliefs, and the proscription of freedom of religion (especially for Jehovah’s witnesses and Evangelical Christians). Defenders of the Cuban revolution, in response, point out the countless North American plots to destabilize and undermine the Cuban state, including countless documented assassination attempts directed against Fidel himself.

But through al of this, Cuba sustained a remarkable commitment to the development and well-being of countless peoples in the Third World, sharing technology and human resources, especially with the developing nations of the African world.

Now, the octogenarian leader is being replaced by his younger (at age 76) brother, Raul.

But as Fidel leaves this part of the world stage, we should be aware that powerful forces calling for "democracy" in the nation have, as a real agenda, the privatization of the Cuban economy and a return to the rule of Capital that characterized the days of Batista. They want the heavy hand of the state to go away; they also, in all likelihood, want to do away with free education, socialized medicine and housing, and the numerous other benefits won, with great sacrifice, by the Cuban working class. They envision a Cuba to become like the African-American population of the District of Columbia: free to vote, free to enjoy limited sovereignty, free to shop, and free to live in disproportionate poverty, dictated by the forces of the market.

But I suspect that, in the sunset of his years (or months), Fidel will live to see a Cuba that is changing to be more plural in it’'s political leadership (and younger), and more economically abundant in a post-embargo environment.

These future possibilities will be engineered by the Cuban people themselves, and not, I trust, by politicians in Washington or business interests in Miami.

The lion may be retiring from the stage of political leadership. But the lion - and his people - will continue to roar.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Much Ado About Something Old

From the Desk of Ibrahim Abdil-Mu’id Ramey
MAS Freedom Civil and Human Rights Director

WASHINGTON, D.C. (MASNET) February 18, 2008 - A new round of controversy and incendiary violence is sweeping both Europe and the Muslim world. The subject being, once again, the publication of cartoon images of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) that are regarded by many in the Muslim community as blasphemous.

None of this, of course, is new. We experienced the same thing, and literally the same images, two years ago - but the renewed episode of image-bashing came into play by the exposure of what has been characterized as death threats made against a Danish editor, presumably by Muslims of "extremists" who reacted to the first cartoon episode.

European publications, including an evangelical Christian paper in Denmark, launched the new visual salvo against Islam as an apparent act of solidarity with the editor, and with what is generally understood to be a free press and the right of freedom of expression.

In retaliation, Muslim youth have torched cars and neighborhoods in Copenhagen, and a firestorm of protests in the Muslim world is calling for renewed boycotts of Danish products and the dismissal of the Danish Ambassador to Pakistan. Reportedly, both Saudi Arabia and Libya have also recalled their ambassadors from Denmark.

Here we go again.

So what, are the lessons to be (re)-learned from the latest round of cartoon publications?

Here are my thoughts:

The first lesson, quite literally, is that there are many people who actually love to throw rocks at Muslims, and who revel in the blanket mischaracterization of Muslims as being violent, treacherous, and evil - misrepresentations that won't disappear because we dislike and revile them.

The second lesson, and a corollary to the first truth, is that, by pouring gasoline on this fire, we (as Muslims) only succeed in burning ourselves - while adding legitimacy to the notion that Muslims are incapable of responding to injury or controversy without taking up the sword of revenge. (This is, of course, the calculated effect of publicizing these provocations to begin with - make an inflammatory public image of Prophet Muhammad, let Muslims riot in response, and watch them demonstrate for all to see, just how incorrigibly violent and extreme the world of Islam really is.)

But the third lesson is a lesson on the opportunity we miss to respond to these vile images in a different way.

We don't need to burn cars or neighborhoods in Europe, or retaliate by publishing our own versions of racialized stereotypes aimed at Europeans, or often-times, Jews. The better response to this would be to join with Muslims and numerous interfaith allies in demanding an end to all derogatory and inflammatory religious images - not because people are not free to display or publish them, but because it is not morally justified to do so.

In 2007, MAS Freedom stood with leaders of the Catholic League, a conservative Catholic organization in America, in their denunciation of the public display of a chocolate sculpture that depicted - and some say, ridiculed - the image of Jesus. We did not demand the burning of museums to protest the display, rather, we recognized the constitutional protection given to free speech and artistic freedom of expression and called for a greater public understanding, and respect, for religious images.

The Prophet Muhammad, may peace be unto him, faced similar scorn and rebuke during his lifetime. Even his mosque was defiled by someone who urinated in it. But instead of demanding that the offender be assaulted, or killed, the Prophet used the incident to educate the man about the nature of better sanitation, and respect for the house of Allah.

Our detractors and haters are guided by a passionate aversion to Islam, laced with deep ignorance about the diversity of Muslim life and culture, and violent responses within the Muslim community will not deter them from what they say, draw, or publish.

But our organized, and nonviolent, responses to them might well demonstrate that Muslims, when guided by the Qur'an and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad, can claim a moral high-ground that is a better, more reasonable, and strategically more effective place from which we can - with our allies in the interfaith community - defend the integrity of our faith.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

On Gaza, The Presidential Candidates Are Silent. Why?

From the Desk of Ibrahim Abdil-Mu’id Ramey
MAS Freedom Civil and Human Rights Director

WASHINGTON, D.C. (MASNET) Feb. 7, 2008 - This urgent bulletin goes out to our esteemed presidential candidates in the Democratic and Republican party primary elections: There is a Palestine. There is a Gaza.

And innocent people in Gaza are dying because of an economic blockade imposed on them by Israel.

Of course, each of the candidates, Senators Clinton and Obama of the Democratic party, and Senator McCain, former Governor Huckabee, and former Governor Romney, from the Republican party, are all aware that there is a place called Israel - being that they are open and enthusiastic backers of the export of U.S. tax dollars to America's premier ally in the Middle East.

U.S. Dollars - more than three billion of them each year - that are used, in part, to buy the American military hardware that enables their ally to occupy huge chunks of the West Bank, while keeping the 1.4 million Palestinians in Gaza on permanent economic life support.

The world, or at least the part of the planet not dominated by the U.S. State Department and the Israel lobby, is very aware of the conditions in Gaza.

The economic strangulation of the Gaza territory by Israel is a source of deep condemnation and outrage expressed by virtually every respected human rights organization world-wide, including one of Israel's leading human rights groups, B'Teshelem.

Lets also not forget those little documents otherwise referred to as the "Geneva Convention" and the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights", which say, in essence, that it's illegal and immoral to punish an entire civilian population in the course of waging war against a relatively small group of insurgents.

In this case, the "war" is an embargo of fuel and other necessities that has resulted in the virtual collapse of health care and sanitation in the most densely crowded piece of real estate on planet earth.

Senators Obama and Clinton are both attorneys who, presumably, know that the Israeli blockade of Gaza is illegal under the terms of the international covenants that the United States has signed.

And all of the presidential contenders, I would imagine, have seen at least some of the video footage showing the hordes of Palestinians who recently broke through the barrier separating Gaza from Egypt, in search of food, fuel and other life sustaining necessities, otherwise unavailable to them due to the blockade.

Two weeks ago, eleven intrepid members of the House of Representatives, led by former presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), wrote to our Secretary of State imploring that she use her office to help end the deadly embargo of Gaza.

The letter honorably pled for the right of the Palestinian people of Gaza to survive, and called for the U.S. government's respect for the rule of international law in assuring that the illegal economic embargo threatening that survival must end. However, sadly, the letter failed to challenge the U.S. political alliance with Israel, or call for an end to the massive material and military assistance sent by America to the Jewish state.

The failure to question our government's political alliance with Israel, or to demand an end to the massive material and military support it receives - which directly contributes to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza on a daily basis - is exacerbated by the fact that our current line-up of Presidential hopefuls remain silent on the issue of Gaza.

And their silence is deafening.

And their silence is more than politics as usual.

It is a silence that is morally reprehensible.

Gaza militants allied with Hamas have engaged in periodic rocket attacks on Jewish settlements in southern Israel. For the record, I want to state again my opinion that Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli civilian populations are militarily ineffective, and morally unjustified. They should end. Period.

But these attacks should not, and must not, justify the blanket economic retaliation from Israel that characterizes the Gaza shut-down. Ordinary Palestinians who are not involved in armed attacks against the settlements should not be punished for the actions of others.

In this case, as in virtually all cases, two wrongs certainly don't make a right.

And the voices of the men (and the woman) seeking the highest office of the land should be sending this message to the world.

From my perspective, this is not a call for some shift in current U.S. policy vis-à-vis Israel, certainly, in the real political world, that is not likely to happen in the foreseeable future (although that, for some of us, would be a welcomed change).

But this is a call for the 2008 presidential candidates to demand that the blockade of Gaza be lifted, in a demonstration of respect for the rule of international law.

Only the United States can exert the necessary leverage on Israeli leadership that could possibly bring an end to the blockade against Gaza and the subsequent humanitarian crisis it has created.

The people of Gaza have clearly heard from the world, its condemnation of the suffering inflicted on 1.4 million human beings living in the territory.

Now, it's time for the people of Gaza to hear from the American politicians who claim to respect the rule of law, and who proclaim respect for human rights - not only for some people, but for all people.

Including, in this sad case, the people of Gaza and all of Palestine.