Back in August, Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, the first two Muslim women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, were denied entry to the Palestinian territories by the Israeli government. Both women embody much of what the right as well as the Democratic leadership seem to take issue with: they are Muslim women who are strongly invested in grassroots left politics. More importantly, they are the loudest voices who refuse the myth of American exceptionalism and challenge the bipartisan consensus that has ruled in Washington for too long, particularly on the issue of Palestine. In an official statement Rep. Omar wrote: “Trump’s Muslim ban is what Israel is implementing, this time against two duly elected Members of Congress.” She added: “Sadly, this is not a surprise given the public positions of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has consistently resisted peace efforts, restrained the freedom of movement of Palestinians, limited public knowledge of brutal realities of the occupation and aligned himself with Islamophobes like Donald Trump.” This sentiment was echoed by a few other Democrats such as Sen. Tim Kaine who tweeted “PM Netanyahu — Drop your Muslim ban.” This is not the first time Israel’s alliance with Trump has been invoked.
In her statement Rep. Omar is drawing attention to the important ways that the Muslim movement and mobility in the post -9/11 era is impacted by US foreign policy in the Middle East. Namely, the Palestinian question is symptomatic of a larger problem, because it is a critical intersection of colonial legacies, regional alliances, and empire. Palestine is the nexus where many conflicts rooted in colonial histories were fused, manifested, and now reemerging at the heart of the American empire.
On the one hand, the issue of Palestine exposes the fault lines of U.S. foreign policy in relation to U.S. economic interests and geopolitical alliances in the region that are predicated on interests such as Saudi Arabia as the largest exporter of oil, Turkey as a strategic ally, and Iran as the main threat. On the other hand, Palestinian liberation and ending Israeli occupation throws into sharp relief the internal contradictions of a deeply-flawed U.S. foreign policy establishment, which has never been held accountable for its bloody past, from the massacres of El Salvador to the Iran-Contra scandal, and the crimes of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. An establishment whose members bear responsibility for reproducing a system in which accusations can be deployed as facts, information obtained from questionable sources can be used as legitimate intelligence and where there are no checks and balances to qualify expertise or make self-proclaimed policy experts reveal their conflicts of interest.
More importantly, though, Palestine raises the question of the capacity and potential for transnational solidarities. To the extent that a mass movement for left politics is to emerge advancing an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist U.S. foreign policy, what would a focus on transnational solidarities in general, and solidarity with the Palestinian cause in particular, offer in the way of combating post-9/11 Muslim surveillance and repression regimes? If solidarity is a call to action and the capacity to enact change collectively, then what does solidarity with Palestinians look like politically, and why and when does it matter? Lastly, how does solidarity with Palestinians speak to issues of Muslim mobility and mobilization in the United States for left politics today?
Muslims and shifting immigration regimes
The global war on terror had a profound lasting impact on the ways Muslim communities have been seen and governed worldwide. There has been much debate over the contradictions of neoliberal multiculturalism in relation to the governing of Muslim immigrant communities in Europe and the United States. There is also an ongoing debate about the different ways that neoliberal states govern the incorporation of minorities in the national imaginary. Yet, neoliberal states with growing Muslim minorities are still under-explored. Scholars and activists have increasingly begun to unpack the category of “Muslim.” Studies on immigration have specifically drawn attention to the experiences of Muslim and Sikh South Asian, Middle Eastern, and African subjects, who have been publicly pictured as “terrorists” and thus deemed legitimate targets of policing by the security state in the aftermath of 9/11. Even though the immigrant communities from the Middle East and North Africa are composed of ethnically and religiously diverse groups of people, the U.S. government has reduced these immigrants to a single, dangerous Muslim typology, absolutely ignoring the complexities of what a Muslim identity means for these subjects. Regardless of how individual immigrants from MENA countries specifically identify or categorize themselves, the state perceives them as a cohesive community under one label: “national security threat” or “potential terrorist.”
Scholars of Islam informed by postcolonial studies and religious studies, have challenged Western liberal assumptions and misconceptions about Islam, exploring the condition of Muslims not only in different national contexts but also in the transnational public sphere. However, theorizing Islam has proven to be a difficult task, mostly due to the fact that there is no consensus among scholars on what Islam signifies. Scholars have treated Islam as either, “a distinctive social structure” or “a heterogeneous collection of beliefs, artifacts, customs, and morals.” Per Edward Said, the figure of the Muslim Other is historically rooted in the invention of “the Orient.” Conceptions of the “other,” the “oppressed other,” or the “dangerous other” have been widely debated in various scholarly fields. Orientalism has produced an inaccurate, oppressive, and overall biased view of “the Orient” and its people. Acknowledging the difficulties of defining a single entity Islam, Talal Asad calls for scholarship on Islam to be attentive to relations of power in the ways knowledge about Islam and Muslims is produced and transmitted, especially so in the post-9/11 context.
Addressing the issue of anti-Muslim racism in the United States requires a deeper understanding of Islam, of course. But anti-Muslim bigotry is not always rooted in race and racial politics in the United States. Muslims are not targeted exclusively because of their perceived racial otherness, but also for perceptions of the faith itself (e.g. notions such as Shari’ah, fatwa, or taqiyya). The difficulty of theoretically defining what is Islam and who is a Muslim highlights the problem of individually relating to an issue that is rooted in structural processes. It erases the longer history of U.S. empire and how race and religion overlap as a product of structural inequality which has become an everyday reality. A close examination of the political-economic dimensions of the global war on terror and the invasion of Afghanistan and later Iraq by the U.S. forces under the pretext of saving Muslim women or liberating Iraqi people and “helping Iraqis build a free nation” (George W. Bush), reveals deeper entanglements between race and capital.
A line of thinkers from Rosa Luxemburg, Fredrick Douglass, and W.E.B. Du Bois to David Harvey and Jason W. Moore, have argued that processes of racialization go beyond the making of exploitable labor, as they make clear whose life matters and whose does not. The historical production of racial stigma, colonialism, and systemic racism go hand in hand with systems of capitalist accumulation and expansion. Race is central, and not tangential, to the formation of global capitalism, rise of nationalism, and empire. The geopolitical expansion of empire is facilitated by the demands of racial subordination, as such hierarchies make claims about who is or is not fully human and therefore whose lives are expendable. The new global financialized order was not meant to be a world without nation states or borders, but rather a world where bordered nation states would be forced into compliance by a superior economic order.
The United States exemplifies this co-constitution of global capitalism and racism, whereby race and ethnicity function as relations to the means of production because the divisions in labor forces have been historically organized in a way to distinguish between natives and aliens. The racial politics of immigration and the controlling of populations, cocooned in immigration policy, is played out against this backdrop of global capitalism. Immigrants, ethnically and racially grouped, are included in the fabric of U.S. society but subordinated and discriminated against as not-fully-citizen. The groupings of immigrant populations through immigration policy heavily relies not just on racialized conceptions of legal versus illegal, but also in terms of innocence versus culpability, or risk and threat.
The counter-terror state has been increasingly wrapped in neoliberal processes of racial governance, hinged on market-driven logics. Crisis management in neoliberalism entails a framework in which the rule of law could be temporarily suspended as a result of national security threats. Such threats could be extended to encompass a range of crises—namely economic, political, and social. Correspondingly, framings of U.S. military interventions and the never-ending war on terror as crisis by policy experts are, to a large extent, informed by the corporate interests of U.S. military industrial complex, as well as geopolitical relations predicated on such interests.
In this light, framing anti-Muslim racism in the U.S. as a problem of cultural misunderstandings and misgivings about Islam or personal bias is neither strategically sound nor analytically productive. Anti-Muslim racism is not a theoretical problem with theoretical solutions. From a classic Marxist standpoint, it is a geopolitical problem whose solutions lie in movement building and organizing. Emphasizing the issue of Palestine takes us in that direction. As I mentioned earlier, Reps. Omar and Tlaib are great examples. They have been targeted because they are women of color and Muslim, but in fact they are publicly breaking with U.S. orthodoxy, particularly on the issue of Palestine.
Why does Palestine matter?
How Muslims were seen, marked and racialized post-9/11 has been closely entwined with the Palestinian cause. While the War on Terror has sparked several other regional conflicts, the Israeli-Palestine conflict is unique, in that it is crucial not just to the adversaries, but to so many other regional relations as well, such as Egypt, Iran, Turkey, and the Gulf states. The U.S. foreign policy establishment’s strong support of Israel has created a polarizing effect among other regional Arab and Muslim nations, to the extent that there cannot be a neutral position anymore. As a result, Arab and Muslim solidarities have severely suffered over the plight of the Palestinians, as well as America’s support for Israel. Moreover, there are allegations of Al Qaeda and ISIS seeking to exploit these feelings to consolidate their foothold in the region, even though Islamic radical movements appear to play no direct role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But ironically, it is the unwavering support of Israel by the U.S. that is to blame for enabling Islamic radicalism in Palestine and beyond throughout the region. The Oslo peace process led to the formation of the Palestinian Authority. While it was not an independent state, it made Israel transfer much administrative control of the occupied territories to Fatah. In 2000, the Clinton administration almost achieved a peace settlement resulting in a two-state solution. The differences, however, proved rather irreconcilable. Ever since, Fatah which is the secular nationalist party with more moderate positions has lost support among Palestinians to its radical Islamist rival, Hamas. There are several reasons contributing to Hamas’s popularity among Palestinians. However, the United States’ unrelenting support of Israel has been the defining feature that tilted the balance of power in favor of Hamas as Palestinians lost all faith in more moderate positions. Hamas, a Sunni Islamist group that won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, is calling for the destruction of Israel and has been engaged in a long power struggle. On the one hand, it is struggling with Fatah over control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It is also struggling with other regional Islamist groups affiliated with the Palestinian cause that are seeking to form larger anti-U.S. and anti-Israel coalitions, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Quds brigade (an extension of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards geared towards carrying out unconventional warfare backed by hardliners within the Iranian government).
US concerns over the Arab-Israeli conflict, of course, have their roots in Cold War anxieties as the Soviet Union played a significant role in the conflict. In the post-9/11 world, however, the threat has been detached from a particular nation state and has morphed into a typology of stateless dangerous people marked and perceived as “Muslim”—one sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, at that. The World Trade Center suicide bombers allegedly had taken Palestinian guerilla tactics or the intifada and raised them to heinous scales. The heightened tensions ever since have been escalating further, extinguishing all hope to reach a negotiated settlement.
Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and more recent campaign of “maximum pressure” on Iran including the imposition of more economic sanctions was purportedly aimed at stopping Iran’s military aid to Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon. In effect though, they “have gutted Iran’s middle class and created poverty unseen for decades.” Tehran, on the other hand, has responded by targeting U.S.’s allies and economic interests in the region—the recent bombing of ExxonMobil site in Iraq and the Aramco attack in Saudi Arabia. Trump’s Iran strategy is pushing the Middle East towards a war on an unimaginable scale. The failure to achieve a negotiated settlement with Palestinians impacts all parties involved and means that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could get more deeply entrenched in the global War on Terror, and other regional conflicts, further complicating militarism in the region and perpetuating the never ending war.
Transnational solidarities: Muslims and the Jewish question
Earlier this year Rep. Omar criticized AIPAC in a series of tweets which incited massive fury and backlash from the right and the Democratic leadership accusing her of anti-Semitism. Equating Rep. Omar’s critique of Israel with anti-Semitism happened at a time when there has been heightened anti-Semitic violence across the United States including two deadly mass shootings at synagogues in Pittsburgh and Chabad of Poway, California. The man who carried out the massacre in Pittsburgh was motivated by conspiracy theories that consider Jewish people an enemy of the white race, plotting to flood white European territories through mass migration. Such conspiracy theories are rooted in white power movement with a long history in the U.S. dating back to the American Civil War (see Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America).
The shooter who killed one woman and injured three others in Poway posted on 8chan before committing this crime, saying that he was inspired by the shooter who murdered fifty people in two Christchurch, New Zealand mosques. The reprehensible analogy draws attention to the global nature of the white power movement and also highlights the way white supremacy marks Muslims and Jews in similar ways. As Noura Erakat points out during the post-World War II Jewish refugee crisis, the United States supported the establishment of a Jewish state in the wake of the war not out of empathy for the Jewish refugees. The solution to the Jewish refugee crisis was driven by anti-Semitic motives to keep Jewish people out of white European territories, affirming the white European Christian hegemony.
Horrific incidents such as these, nonetheless, only seem to reinforce the taboo of criticizing Israel and intensify accusations of anti-Semitism within the establishment instead of focusing attention on the threat of the far right extremism. But Sarah Jaffe reminds us: “That is exactly why this is a moment for solidarity—a moment to proclaim unity with the victims of violence and the enemies of white supremacy the world over.” The rise of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim violence and racism in Trump’s America once again reminds us that “whiteness can shift, and that groups that had felt relatively safe can find themselves quickly on the wrong side of those borders.” So long as the establishment ensures no serious debate on Palestine and Palestinian people’s rights will take place, there will not be any serious debate on global capitalism, US nationalism and exceptionalism and their entanglements with settler colonialism, anti-Black racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim racism, and imperialism.
Questions of Muslim immigration, surveillance, and repression in the post-9/11 world are closely related to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly U.S.’s role in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Of course, the Palestinian question is not the principal factor that impacts U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. There are many determinants such as the U.S.’s economic interests, the Gulf states’ oil resources, Turkey as a strategic ally, and Iran as a threat.
Nevertheless, the issue of Palestine offers an unparalleled site of capacity and potential for the left to build transnational networks of solidarity. It is crucially important to parse out the linkages between immigration regimes and U.S. foreign policy. How Muslims in the post-9/11 era have been marked by the security state and publicly portrayed as “terrorists” is closely connected to the way Palestinians have been pictured as a typology of stateless, dangerous people since the inception of the Israeli state.
What this means in practical terms for socialists organizing in the U.S. is not simply calling for third party solutions such as boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS). Moreover, solutions such as pushing for U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East are not as responsible or candid on the ground as they sound in rhetoric. The sudden U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria, which has exposed the Kurds to a ferocious Turkish offensive aimed at Rojava bears witness to this. Stopping military aid to Israel is a short-term goal, even though issues such as military aid fall mostly under the purview of Congress rather than the executive branch.
For the most part, the executive branch of the U.S. government has more of a say on matters of foreign policy influence. Yet, there has been very little conversation about foreign policy during the 2020 Democratic primaries so far. Acknowledging the U.S. government’s responsibility in the ongoing humanitarian crisis unfolding in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip means calling for a radically different approach not only to the issue of Palestine, but to U.S. Middle East foreign policy in general. This could start with refusing the bipartisan consensus and the mandates of the counterterror state as an organizing principle for the left.
There have been good faith critiques of Rep. Omar pointing out the pervasive anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racism and the strategic deployment of false accusations of anti-Semitism by the far right as well as the establishment democrats. Such critiques, coming from a place of genuine concern for Ilhan Omar, assume a certain kind of naiveté on her part in making herself vulnerable for no good reason. Such critiques completely ignore her choices, beliefs and the fact that she is willfully setting a new precedent as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Rep. Omar officially endorsed Bernie Sanders, a candidate whose foreign policy positions are by far more transparent and better informed than the rest of the Democratic primary contenders. She has set an important example through her words and actions and the left should follow.