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"To defend immigrants is a revolutionary act"


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In Viewpoint Magazine, Asad Haider has a fierce and beautiful reportback from the protests again Trump’s Muslim ban at San Francisco International Airport last weekend. Haider discusses his own family’s experience of immigrating to the US, as well as “the joy of disobedience, the love of the stranger, and the hope for the new.” Here’s an excerpt:

Therefore to defend immigrants is a revolutionary act. The beauty of the airport crowd, which overwhelmed me, was the decision of so many with no personal stake to defend the rights of every immigrant. Those who had nothing to lose but their own comfort and security were there alongside the children of refugees, shouting just as loudly. They brought into being what Alain Badiou calls an “egalitarian maxim proper to any politics of emancipation,” one which will need to be repeated every single day that follows. It is a maxim which calls unconditionally for the freedom of those who are not like us. And as any immigrant knows, everyone is not like us, and we are not even like ourselves.

This seeming paradox was illustrated by a sign one protester held that read “Jews Stand With Muslims.” The slogan draws on what Judith Butler describes as “Jewish resources for the criticism of state violence, the colonial subjugation of populations, expulsion and dispossession” as well as “Jewish values of cohabitation with the non-Jew that are part of the very ethical substance of diasporic Jewishness.” Support for Muslim refugees can claim a foundation in an ethical tradition that is central to Jewish history. Yet advancing a critique of Israeli colonialism, Butler argues, requires rejecting the claim of “the exceptional ethical resources of Jewishness.” It is the “significant Jewish tradition affirming modes of justice and equality” in which Butler bases her critique of Zionism. But in doing so, the idea of any one tradition’s exceptionality is called into question. To criticize Zionism and affirm justice and equality means going beyond every kind of exceptionalism — it thus “requires the departure from Jewishness as an exclusionary framework for thinking both ethics and politics.”

Those of us of Muslim lineage will have to claim our own ambivalence. We might begin by recalling the Pakistani Marxist poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, who wrote his famous poem “Hum Dekhenge” (“We Shall See”) in 1979, in protest of the Islamic dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq. In the tradition of Urdu poetry, Faiz adopted the language of Islam, attacking Zia as an idolator and offering a revolutionary prophecy:

When the cry rings out
“I am the Truth”
The truth that I am
And that you are too
All of God’s creation will rule
Which I am
And you are too

Moving through Islamic language, Faiz was able to point to a politics beyond exceptionalism, a possibility which his Marxism provided. We put these politics into practice when we stand alongside others and act according to the egalitarian maxim. I fight for my own liberation precisely because it is the right of the stranger.

Strangers abound in the airports, as they did the weekend after the inauguration. After so many evenings spent in meetings with three or four of the usual suspects, we may find ourselves bemused by the appearance of new faces. For years we have agonized over how to impart to our neighbors the urgency and necessity of building a new society, and with a stroke of his pen Donald Trump has stirred them into anger and indignation. They now begin to realize what we have always known — that oppression is no aberration in our world, and that no politician can be trusted to correct it.

Image: Protest again Donald Trump’s Muslim ban at San Francisco International Airport. Via Viewpoint Magazine.