It Is a Racial-Religious War: Organizing and a 1492 Transnational Movement Framing

The so-called global Left, especially within the settlercolonial US-Canadian scene, is discombobulated. “End the Occupation” and “From the River to the Sea,” like Tahrir Square’s 2011 Orientalized so-called Arab Spring chant “Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice,” have turned into prophetic Orwellian liberal-progressive slogans hollowed out of significance and meaning. I value rhetoric and direct action, and I have participated in protests for over two decades—but catchwords alone do not liberate. Mobilizing is not the same as organizing.  This is a message I tried to convey in my talk “Turtle Island and Palestine,” which I presented alongside Anishinaabe-Ukrainian writer and activist Patty Krawec during the Socialism 2023 gathering in Chicago, and more recently in an episode of Guerrilla History podcast with Lower Brule Sioux historian and activist Nick Estes. In attempting to reach a broader audience when describing the differences between organizing and mobilizing and when arguing for why and how we must understand Palestine as a religious struggle, I also organized a roundtable event with my kin, Maya anarchist Linda Quiquivix and Black anarchist William C. Anderson, titled “1492 Palestine.” In our collective state of urgency and emergency, as pro-Palestinian mobilizations were in full swing in December 2023, I felt compelled to publish in an article in Al-Jazeera addressing, yet again, what I know to be a monumental gap in organizing in relation to Palestine’s historical framing in the context of 1492. As I have been insisting in a range of venues recently, and now more than ever, a 1492 framing of Palestine and the question of how Islam fits into the narrative are the missing elephants in the room—absent in both the ongoing protests themselves and movement organizing conversations, much to our collective detriment. I am, admittedly, livid.

The movement for Palestine has already been co-opted, as happened to what Robyn D. G. Kelley refers to in his book Freedom Dreams as the “Black Spring,” and before that the appropriation of the No Dakota Pipeline and Idle No More protests in so-called America and Canada respectively. Movement cooptation also occurred during Occupy Wall Street (and even the movement’s name reified colonial occupation of already colonized Indigenous land and during the Tahrir Square uprisings. Our movements are diseased on account of activist egos, celebrity and armchair activism, our internalized inner-micro fascisms that affect who gets platformed, as well as the absence of an “ethics of conflict resolution and a politics of hospitality,” which is a necessary practice if we are to talk through our misconceptions of one another and gain each other’s trust. The absence of organizing skills and framing mean that our coalitional politics (whether in campus-student organizing or broader social movements) are too often flakey, superficial, and weak—built on foundations that are at best artificial, at worst nonexistent.

My first complaint is that by reneging on our responsibilities to Indigenous peoples, as immigrant Muslim and non-Muslim settlers living in the settlercolonial contexts of the US and Canada, we become Zionists on stolen Indigenous land. Indigenous genocide here is ongoing, and so is what Saidiya Hartman refers to as the “after-life to slavery projects.” While majority settler protestors rightfully scream “End the Occupation,” they overarchingly fail at interrogating the very legitimacy of the US’s and Canada’s “right to exist.” Palestine will never be freed in these hypocritical fantasies that denote an incomplete insurrectionary equation.

Euro-America is leading this war and Israel is but a settler-outpost instrument in the former’s white supremacist, crusading hand.

Mobilizing creates a vibrant opportunity for public rage, mourning, the raising of mainstream conscious amidst the cognitive dissonance, as well as necessary collective displays of outrage in the face of injustice, including confrontations with trigger happy police. However, as pan-Africanist revolutionary Kwame Ture stated: “Mobilization…mobilizes people around issues” but organizing is “concerned with the system.” Often enough, mobilization is tethered to reformist action—though that is not inherently the case either, if mobilization is translated into organizing towards revolutionary action on the land with Indigenous peoples who are centered, as opposed to tacked-on as a unit of “intersectional” analyses.

Organizing on stolen Indigenous Land (which is what the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and arguably even “post-apartheid” South Africa are to this day) means going beyond artificial tokenistic displays of land acknowledgements. Unangax̂ scholar-activist Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang noted this in their 2012 article “Decolonization Is Not A Metaphor.” Land acknowledgements must be accompanied by intent, purpose, and action, as opposed to being reduced to the cooptation of Indigenous peoples’ struggles through abstract lip service that erases the necessity of their land’s rematriation. Land Back on Turtle Island demands face-to-face building with Indigenous peoples on the land. Not an object but a spiritual subject, land is something that many pro-Palestinian immigrant-settlers are historically-materially and spiritually disconnected from, having bought into the allure of  the urbanized “American Dream” (which Malcolm X referred to as an “American Nightmare”). Most people of color do not know how to grow our own food to sustain ourselves, let alone our families or our larger communities. The irony of many of us calling ourselves “anti-capitalists” who rightfully denounce racial capitalism is our own Achilles heel in the absence of      organizing in relation to land. In our severance from land, we are undermining Indigenous sovereignty, which is the only true potential threat to the very foundation of US empire in exchange for what we trade in and purchase for cheap of white settler “American sovereignty.” Who controls the land base and rural areas in the Rust Belt corridors in the case of “America”? It is white farmers who feed the metropolitan cities and who are armed to the teeth with stamped decrees ready to defend “their” land. Street mobilizations need to translate to necessary solidarity beyond just symbolic protest.

I see Pro-Palestinian crowds in which queerphobic Muslims who despise critical race and feminist theories standing alongside queer Muslims, anti-Zionist Hasidic Jews, and Islamophobic socialists of all strands, and endless more diverse crowds, with rare discussion as to what a “Free Palestine” even means in Turtle Island much less in occupied Palestine. Mobilizations are concerned with the short-term management of crises in a state of emergency against, yes, a genocide (“there” but also an ongoing one “here”). Had more people been focused more on organizing and been concerned with the trajectory of a lot of anarchistic (not necessarily anarchist) currents in the “new social movements”(as in horizontal anti-statist “non-universalizing, non-hierarchical, non-coercive relationships based on mutual aid, and shared ethical commitments” that emerged after Seattle ’99) we would not be scrambling as we are now to stop the gushing wounds of our peoples’ slaughter. Organizing involves the construction of alternative land-based social, political, and economic organization to states and corporations that we ought to divest from. The most effective way to stop the genocide is through trajectories laid down by militant movements like the Black Panthers and more recently the Zapatista, who focused on the inception of revolutionary alternatives (free schools, hospitals, breakfast programs, and abolitionist and decolonial forms of knowledge production) to racial capitalism and settler-states. What seeming (im)possibilites exist if we extended the spiritual and ethical-political, indeed new societies, and ways of living, being and becoming, that our youth dreamed of at the Columbia University encampment elsewhere to our factories, neighborhoods homes, schools and lands? What would happen if immigrant-settlers relationally invested and built alongside Indigenous nations and Black peoples in land-based projects and subscribed to non-statist Indigenous forms of governance that challenged settler-sovereignty? We are all on board different boats steering for the icebergs—full steam ahead—while we face the same storm, and some will not even acknowledge that icebergs exist.

Organization is not a matter of numbers. Millions mobilized during the protests against wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the Tahrir Square uprisings, and as part of Black Lives Matter, far superseding numbers at the pro-Palestinian rallies. Organizing is not concerned with weakness or strength in numbers. Organization is concerned with the dedicated and humble revolutionary few who embody in every sense revolutionary ideals. The Quran teaches: “If there are twenty steadfast among you, they will defeat two hundred, and one hundred among you will defeat one-thousand of those who disbelieve” (8:65).

Revolutions are about practical questions, and they require that people radically change themselves, indeed that they become different people (in the way we eat, sleep, conceive of intimacy, and so forth).  And they require as well as our willingness to partake in the individual/collective idea of a greater struggle (al-jihād al-akbar) against our inner micro-fascisms.

Land Back in Palestine must mean land back in the US and Canada—first if not in tandem. Palestinians in occupied Palestine are doing their part. The question is what are immigrant settlers in the US and Canada doing to confront the snake serpent here staring them squarely in the mirror?

Neither a 1917 nor a 1948 Palestinian narrative provide sufficient framing for Palestine. 1492 is year zero, as in, where it all began, and is the framing that sets the stage for 1918 and 1948.

1492 is the starting point from which a lot of us in our local university chapters of Students for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) in the “Canadian movement scene” in the early 2000s framed our organizing. While so-called Canada commences its history from 1492, it pays superficial lip service to the original and ongoing sin of genocide. Nonetheless, as many of us understood and have written about, a genealogy of solidarity should be premised on a comparative settlercolonial analysis between Palestine and Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island. Steven Salaita, Sarah Ihmoud, Scott Morgensen, Mike Krebbs, Harsha Walia, Beenish Jafri, Shaista Patel, and others have written about the ways that “racialized peoples become linked to settler colonialism and must become responsible to Indigenous decolonization.”  While this solidarity in the “Canadian scene” exists as a premise, it sadly lacks consistency and constancy in relationship to land, which is the challenge.

The so-called “American movement scene” is overarchingly premised on the Black-Palestinian solidarities that Sophia Azeb, Robin D. G. Kelley, Nadine Naber, Ahmed Abuznaid, and others have discussed. Generally dismissed, however, are 1492 US’s original sin as a crusading white settler supremacist project and its transnational connections across the Atlantic, given religious doctrines of Manifest Destiny, Doctrine of Discovery and Terra Nullius, Protestant conceptualizations of property, and Victorian notions of gender and sexuality. And while there were Palestinians in Standing Rock alongside other allies, by and large this still represents mobilization, not organization on the land. As Palestinian scholar and activist Dana Olwan writes:

efforts by pro-Palestinian student and activist organizations to involve Indigenous people in pro-Palestinian work taking place on Indigenous lands often [tokenizes them]…This tokenism includes incidences where Indigenous activists are invited to provide opening ceremonies for pro-Palestinian events that sometimes do not integrate a critique and explicit challenge of Canadian and United States settler coloniality and thus normalize the violence of such states.

In turn, my second complaint is the dismissal of this struggle as a religious war. Not a war between Muslims and Jews, but rather a war that Islam and Judaism have been conscripted into via white supremacist projections and imprints of Christianity on both that conjured Zionism and Wahhabism. Palestine is an extension of a 1492 racial-religious struggle, and Al-Aqsa is not just a so-called pile of rocks. Al-Aqsa is the first qibla (or direction in which Muslims prayed prior to their orientation towards Mecca), and it bears spiritual-historical-material and symbolic significance. Yet very few reflect on or center transnational links between the fifteenth-century Muslim and Jewish murders, forced conversions, and expulsions in Andalusia at the behest of Ferdinand and Isabel, which coincided with the Columbian invasion of the Americas. The US is a religious-racial settler project as Kanaka Maoli scholar J. Kēhaulani Kauanui and others have long argued.

Muslims and Jews were racially and religiously regarded as “savages” and “heathens”—”savages” being the racial casting, and “heathens” being the religious othering. In this respect it is impossible to analyze race without religion. This “savage-heathen” or racial-religious lens was then projected onto Indigenous peoples in Turtle Island.

As Alan Mikhail writes in his book God’s Shadow, Columbus described the weapons used by the Indigenous Taíno people of the Caribbean as “alfanjes, the Spanish name for the scimitars used by Muslim soldiers,” while Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés identified four hundred Aztec temples in Mexico as “mosques,” described “Aztec women” as “Moorish women,” and referred to Montezuma, the Aztec leader, as a “sultan.” The old pre-modern world represents a war between Islam and Christendom through a white supremacist Christianity that Constantine appropriated and weaponized—on his death bed—toward imperialist conquest. Even the orientalist term “berdache” used to describe Two-Spirit siblings was first ascribed by Europeans to gender non-conforming Muslims.

The sixteenth century also saw the rise of the transatlantic slave trade, during which  Africans–20 to 30 percent of whom were Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula and the West Coast of Africa–would become the new “infidels” and “savages.”

Religion has everything to do with Palestine and social movement struggles, but it seems many are adamant about sustaining an internalized “secular culture of whiteness” analysis and refuse to contend with their internalized Islamophobia to suit their philosophical debates, fragile egos, guilt, and comfort as well as the empty darkness of their own conceits. Most settler-immigrant Muslims have complicated relations to Islam, having been exposed to neoconservative and neoliberal progressive strains of it, and that is why I wrote my book Islam and Anarchism, which vies for an abolitionist, decolonial, anti-authoritarian, and anti-capitalist Islam. Most leftist circles on Turtle Island are composed of white settlers and ostracize BIPOC folx. They fetishize Indigenous peoples and think that spirituality is about hearing flutes and drums in a political context of exploitative, extractive New Ageism. Many fail to recognize, as An Yountau notes (drawing on the work of Édouard Glissant, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Sylvia Wynter, and Enrique Dussel), that “secularism is a colonial crusading construct.”

Failure to address Islam means that ahistorical false analogies that “Arab slavery” is akin to “white slavery” will persist. Failure to address Islam means that the myth that Muslims are exceptionally anti-feminist and queerphobic will persist, via what Jasbir K. Puar, Maya Mikdashi, and Lisa Duggan have referred to as “homonationalism and pinkwashing,” despite pre-modern Muslim literature that addresses same-sex practices, like twelfth-century poet Farid al-Din al-‘Attar’s Conference of the Birds, the fifteenth-century writer Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Nafzawi’s The Perfumed Garden (an Arabic sex manual), the writings of Abbasid scholar Al-Jahiz (800 A.D.) on the ways of young men and women, ʻAlī ibn Naṣr Kātib’s tenth-century Encyclopedia of Pleasure, the Seljuk Empire’s Assemblies of al-Hariri about same-sex attractions, or the thirteenth-century polymath Nasireddin Tusi’s The Sultan’s Sex Potions on sexual stimulants and erotic sex positions.

Land is a spiritual subject, not an anthropomorphized object of utility. How can we relate to it—much less free it—without spirituality, given how land regenerates unparalleled labor for us every day, from the food we eat to the very air our lungs breathe? This highlights the very need for distinguishing between the interrelated, yet distinct, Islamic concepts of spirituality (rūḥāniyya), faith (īmān), and (un)organized interpretations of them. My choices as a Muslim will not be confined to an overly simplistic binary worldview, between a Crusading-Wahhabi-Zionist alliance on the one hand and an aspiring totalitarian multipolar Chinese-Russian axis on the other, especially when many states mobilize gendered Islamophobia: Hindutva India (against Kashmiris, Dalits, Sikhs and Malayali peoples, all cast in the shadow of Islam), Sri Lanka (against Tamils), Myanmar (against the Rohingya), China (against the Uyghur), Russia (against Chechens), and Israel (against Palestinians) mobilize Islamophobia too.

Claims that this isn’t a spiritual war hollow out the religious content in Hamas spokesman Abu Obeida’s videos, let alone Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasarallah and Yemen’s Ansar Allah’s Abdul Malik al-Houthis’ speeches. One can be supportive of the right to armed defense, indeed Palestine, while being critical of the fact that while Hamas is anti-colonial, it is not exactly anti-capitalist. 1492 and Islam are the elephants in the room, and without their being addressed we will never be able to address religious concepts such as “shahada” (“to witness” and “to become martyred”) and “Allah akbar” (“God is the greatest”) yelled at protests. Without addressing Islam, we will never be able to address how prominent Palestinian settler scholars like Omar Suleiman can sign onto statements like “Navigating Differences,” which condemned queer Muslims, and the fact that he is platformed for his Palestinian advocacy.

As I have written elsewhere:

Aligned appropriately, and as a quintessential signifier in whose global Orientalist shadow others are cast (as with Indigenous water protectors who are compared by U.S. mercenary firms like TigerSwan to ‘Jihadi movements’ and Black Lives Matter activists who are designated by the FBI as ‘Black Identity Extremists’), Islam is ideally positioned to geopolitically demystify the intimate intersections between settlercolonialism in Palestine and Turtle Island.

Without accounting for Islam’s spiritual role in this struggle and its usurpation by neoliberal and neoconservative interpretations we will never be able to address how the Zionist-Gulf-American aim of this war is to destroy the possibility of an anti-imperial and decolonial Islam. As pan-Africanist revolutionary Kwame Ture noted: “Our people who have never seen religion as the opium of the masses. That of course coming directly out of the European culture…[for Africans] religion & revolution go hand in hand…If one is truly religious, one must be revolutionary!”

In this framing, there is no one-state or two-state solution to Palestine or Turtle Island. There is only an interconnected relearning required by BIPOC globally on how we can redream dangerously towards unearthing traditional modes of non-statist governing and economic ethical-political principles. There is no going back to 1492 any more than there is a return to 1948 or 1918 or even a romanticized, sterilized, and sanitized bygone pre-modern, post-Prophetic golden era of Islam. Pre-modern, hegemonic Muslim empires and Muslims have long lost sight of fundamental anti-authoritarian Quranic tenets that stagnated and ossified dynamic, revolutionary social justice horizons in Islam that are designed to be constantly aspired to in relation to, say, abolition and challenging patriarchy. Becoming lax has led to the contemporary metastasizing of Arab, Sunni, and Shiite supremacy, anti-Blackness, and false notions of caliphates and so-called Islamic states as ideal governing models—despite, as I argued elsewhere, that these are antithetical to Quranic socio-economic governing precepts.  What is demanded here is the extracting of spiritual ethical-political principles from our spiritual and cultural traditions and histories towards a local and global project of world-making anew. Nothing about the rage is genuinely productive in the absence of created alternatives, and in so many ways our rage obscures the fact that the sense of a shift in public opinion is both manufactured and limited in its accomplishments in the absence of organization. Most people are scrolling through images of genocide on social media platforms via cell phones made of cobalt and copper—materials mined from a genocide in the Congo. Most people are participating in a consumerist culture of selling keffiyeh hijabs and tote bags for performative fashion statements as a form of liberal catharsis.

The question, now, is what are we going to do about it?

Mohamed Abdou

Mohamed Abdou is a North African-Egyptian Muslim anarchist interdisciplinary activist-scholar of Indigenous, Black, critical race, and Islamic studies, as well as gender, sexuality, abolition, and decolonization, with extensive fieldwork experience in the Middle East-North Africa, Asia, and Turtle Island. He is the Arcapita visiting assistant professor of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African studies (MESAAS) at Columbia University. He is a former assistant professor of sociology at the American University of Cairo and recently completed his postdoctoral fellowship at Cornell University. He has also taught at the University of Toronto and Queen's University. His research stems from his involvement with the anti-globalization post-Seattle 1999 movements, organizing for Palestinian liberation, the Tyendinaga Mohawks and the sister territories of Kahnawake, Akwesasne, and Kanehsatake, during the standoff over the Culbertson tract, as well as the anti-war protests of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Indigenous Zapatista movement in Chiapas, and the 2011 Egyptian uprisings. He is author of Islam & Anarchism: Relationships & Resonances (Pluto Press, 2022). His transnational ethnographic and historical-archival doctoral manuscript due for publication is “Islam & Queer-Muslims: Identity & Sexuality in the Contemporary” (2019). His twitter handle is @minuetinGmajor.