By Adil James, MMNS
Dearborn–March 31–This yearâ€™s CAIR banquet really was special. Every year, CAIR Michigan and many other organizations have gala awards and fundraising banquets, but typically in the past Michiganâ€™s Muslim organizations have been less connected to the political landscape than some ethnic organizations which have in the Southeast Michigan region managed over several decades to establish long term ties with all levels of the political landscape, from the local to the federal level.
The Muslim organizations however, from the mosque level up to the level of national organizations, have not opened strong and lasting relations with any political groups (other than coordinated discussion groups and organized means of complaining to politicians and mainstream media about perceived and real injustices), other than an occasional speech by a political celebrity.
Perhaps a stronger movement has been the involvement of individuals in politics, such as for instance Farhan Bhatti, Deputy Campaign Manager at Virg Bernero for Michigan. There are Muslims who have been elected to individual office, such as Rashida Tlaib in the Michigan legislature, and Keith Ellison in the US congress.
This yearâ€™s CAIR gala, with about 1,000 attendees including many powerful audience members from the business, media, and political community, on the other hand, seemed to offer the potential of a long-term conflation of interests between the Muslim community and Americaâ€™s established civil rights aristocracy. Present at this yearâ€™s fundraiser was Nihad Awad, who founded CAIR and set it up as a not-for-profit franchise operation of sorts, with now branch offices across the country to advocate for Muslims. Mr. Awad is not always able to attend all of these gala events, but it seemed that he sensed the importance of this particular one.
But the real jewels in the crown of the 2010 CAIR Michigan fundraiser were the civil rights workers who for sixty years have been deeply involved at their own personal peril with the struggle for civil rights in the USA.
Jesse Jackson Sr., the keynote speaker, was one of those. But there was also Rep. John Conyers (D-MI-14), whom Jackson described as â€œperhaps the only man who was ever endorsed by Martin Luther King.â€ There was Rep. John Dingell (D-MI-15). There were many others, including the strong gubernatorial candidate Virg Bernero (currently Lansingâ€™s mayor).
But famous people frequently collect together–many famous politicians have given stilted practiced speeches before Muslims, hoping to say what pleases their audience and earns their political support, but rarely does the politician seem to be present in deference to his or her own inner principles–and this is perhaps the characteristic of Sunday afternoonâ€™s banquet that was uncommon. Famous people with shared bonds of suffering coalescing in defense of a group they perhaps had not previously thought of as being within their shared interests.
The feeling wasnâ€™t just from their presence in the same room; rather the feeling was in the mutual love between those famous people, and their expression of that love in the context of the protection of Muslims against injustice from government interference. Jackson and Conyers both spoke of the famous people they had met and worked with through the years, including King, and Rosa Parks (who worked for Conyers for many years), and their describing the debts of gratitude they owed one to another–for example Jacksonâ€™s mentioning of MLKâ€™s endorsement of Conyers, and Conyers mentioning publicly his gratitude to John Dingell for supporting him in his early days in the US House of Representatives.
What was different this year was that CAIR did not just bring politicians to speak for their own interests, rather CAIR Michigan bought into a movement, a movement that has been intrinsically and vitally important to the American landscape for the better part of a century, carrying with them the ghosts and spirits of men who gave their lives in that journey.
Nihad Awad offered his goal, a vision of a seemingly impossible world, post-911, in which Muslims face no discrimination–he argued that CAIR is working toward that goal from where we are now.
Jesse Jackson is a famous man, and in consideration of his famous personal failings it is sometimes surprising to see him still on the national stage–but in seeing him speak you understand the source of his sway across the American public–his voice carries so strongly and he has a magic in his delivery that is present in person but that is not felt through the television. He speaks with vivid images and polished phrases and a very powerful and loud delivery, almost more like a musician or conductor than a politician, but he speaks logically and intelligently also, intimately conversant with the big picture of American politics, even if sometimes the details he cites are not precisely accurate (accidentally he cited the total number of coalition KIA in Iraq and Afghanistan together as Americans KIA in Iraq).
But on the broad points he has very sharp insight. For example he stated that what is vital in the civil rights movement is to â€œchange the frame. Once you change the frame, you can change the furniture around whenever you want.â€
Thus, he argued that after the recent health care legislation, eventually there must be a public option, although the public option was compromised away in the course of the bill being passed.
The theme of his speech was an argument to get Muslims to buy into a broader political agenda.
He argued that Muslims have to engage in issues beyond Muslim issues, offering the analogy that if one is in a burning house, he must try to put out the fire for the entire house–if the house is saved his room will be saved but it is impossible to save his room without saving the house.
He cited as examples labor union issues and health care issues.
Perhaps the most inspiring thing he said was that â€œwe are not the left, we are the moral center,â€ thus dismissing the arguments from reactionaries who term his agenda a leftist agenda. And this connected to another powerful theme from his speech, that â€œwe are winningâ€ in this struggle by the grace of God, and it is because God supports us because we are right. He cited the achievements of abolition and civil rights, labor, and, at length, health care.
He said not to worry about government informants, arguing the view that the solution is to be completely above board and transparent and above reproach. He said that several informants were intimately connected with the civil rights movement, saying that â€œour controller who signed all of our checks was a government informant.â€
â€œYes it does get dark,â€ he said, â€œinnocent people get hurt, there is pain, but there is joy in the morning.â€
â€œThrough it all, keep marching, fighting, pursue excellence, donâ€™t have time to hate.â€
The involvement of the civil rights community with Muslims seems to have begun Sunday evening, and the person likely responsible is CAIR Michiganâ€™s Executive Director Dawud Walid, who had the vision to pursue this goal, and who also has worked to bridge gaps between African Americans and other Muslims, and Sunni and Shiâ€™a.
It remains to be seen whether the large-scale involvement of Muslims as players on the political (and not religious) landscape is healthy or potentially dangerous, and it remains to be seen whether non-Muslims from the civil rights community will be good partners in working toward civil rights for Muslims; also it remains to be seen to what extent Muslims can endorse the agenda of a civil rights community that too often supports for example abortion services and homosexual issues; but perhaps these are the details, the furniture. What is important is that the frame may have changed–to one where a Muslim organization has built a bridge or harmony and good will to an entire movement that is intrinsic to the American political landscape–this seems to be an important move in a good direction.