Finding a Middle Ground?
When president Obama was still running for office, leftists almost completely aligned themselves with his campaign. The left’s support for Obama was so strong that it reached the point of being virtually uncritical. Anti-war groups stood behind Obama even though there was nothing on his agenda regarding how exactly he planned to deal with Iraq and Afghanistan in a way that differed from the previous administration. Their reason for this: that McCain would be a lot worse, so we have to focus our energies on getting Obama into office, and then once he’s won we can worry about what he’s actually going to do there. In the meantime, publicly questioning him would surely be a blow to our cause.
(This short interview with Naomi Klein during the Obama campaign shows her discussing this issue)
In a way, it’s hard to argue with that. Their reasoning is compelling, and I admit I used the same logic. During the campaign, I never believed that Obama would cause any significant change in American foreign policy, but I just could not deal with another Republican in office, and Obama seemed like such a breath of fresh air. Surely Obama, if nothing else, is better than McCain. But is that really true? If the democrats and the republicans are essentially adopting the same policies, then wouldn’t we be better served by the candidate whose rhetoric matches those policies? Even if I don’t like it, at least it’s harder for us to be fooled by all the smooth talking. The democratic party, especially with a candidate like Obama with his unique (and seemingly Muslim-friendly) background, makes it much harder.
But let’s assume for the sake of argument that having Obama in office is actually much better for the leftist cause than a republican president. Does that give us free license to temporarily suspend our critical thinking? Does deciding to temporarily forgo certain principles that we have believed in and abided by and advocated make us sell-outs or people willing to compromise for the greater good? As Muslims, should we follow a similar strategy? Should we align ourselves with something we don’t totally believe in because we believe that this strengthens our cause?
Muslims are in a particularly interesting position regarding this issue because while many of our goals are ones we share with the left (e.g. welfare, pro-poor policies, anti-war agendas), many of our values are actually more aligned with the Christian right (regarding, for example, abortion and gay marriage). This is in addition to the fact that the American leftist movement has historically been more supportive of freedom and equal treatment for Muslim in America as well as justice for the many Muslim around the world who are affected by America’s neo-liberal policies and war machine. But we must take care not to equate democrats with American leftists, as the former is often only a prettified version of the neo-liberal right — or in the oh-so-eloquent words of Sarah Palin, like lipstick on a pig.
During the campaign days I read an article by an American Muslim titled “why Muslim should support gay marriage”. It argued that because this was a cause dear to American leftists, who are the same people who support American Muslims on a regular basis, then we should adopt this cause as well. Support it not because you believe in it, but because it serves your cause. As if it’s impossible to support certain elements of the leftist movement while leaving out others. That seems extremely dishonest to me, but it highlights this strategy of suspending your principles in pursuit of the greater good — a strategy used by leftists, rightists, Muslims, anyone in politics really. This blogpost by Imam Zaid Shakir is a good example of this debate within the American Muslim community. He received a letter from a Muslim accusing him of supporting Obama, and he responded by pointing out that while uncritical support is unacceptable, there is nothing wrong with supporting someone while pointing out your disagreements.
Prophet Muhammad (peace by upon him) when trying to come to a peace treaty with the hostile Quraish tribe faced pressure from many of the Muslim companions regarding the terms of the treaty. The Muslims expressed their dissatisfaction with the Hudaibeya treaty as they felt it was not fair but rather tilted strongly in favour of Quraish.
It is true that the Prophet had compromised on several points in favour of peace between the two groups, but the points on which he compromised were small ones that would not substantially affect the Muslims and their cause. Aside from that, the Prophet’s principles, beliefs, actions, and rhetoric all remained unchanged. It is one thing to give up something you want, without changing your beliefs or principles if you believe it is for the greater good. But what many American leftist groups (and admittedly many of us around the world) did during the Obama campaign is entirely different.
Leading anti-war groups joined the Obama campaign, and refused to admit to their own members that he did not actually have a plan to end the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Environmentalists supported him and wouldn’t admit out loud that he did not have a plan to curb global warming. And many Muslims supported him because the democrats always seem more Muslim-friendly than the republicans, and because Obama had once upon a time lived in a Muslim country, and because we were sick of Bush and McCain seemed too Bush-like. But we did not critically assess his policies regarding the Muslim world or American Muslims. (Although I should point out that the bulk of the Egyptian leftists I know were very critical of Obama during his campaign).
In this aspect, extreme right-wing movements such as the Tea Party movement in America are a lot smarter than we are. These people do not settle, and they do not compromise. These people have attacked McCain claiming he leaned too much towards the centre during his campaign! This kind of discipline has been subject to criticism by some (see, for example this article in the Economist) but let’s not forget that fascism spread without ever changing its founding principles or extremist rhetoric.
It is a scary thought that it is extremists around the world that seem the most diligent when fighting for a cause, whereas everybody else seems willing to settle.