When the Cry Rings Out

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As Ronald Rea­gan was ush­er­ing in the era of neolib­er­al­ism, my par­ents immi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States from Karachi, Pak­istan. Hop­ing to pur­sue aca­d­e­mic careers in an envi­ron­ment of intel­lec­tu­al free­dom and mate­ri­al abun­dance, they set­tled in a small uni­ver­si­ty town in the mid­dle of rural Penn­syl­va­nia, where there were no man­gos in the super­mar­ket.

In a large crowd of demon­stra­tors at San Fran­cis­co Inter­na­tion­al Air­port, I imag­ined their arrival. As you would expect at an air­port, the crowd was diverse, a glob­al array of nation­al­i­ties, ages, and dis­po­si­tions. But in the place of exhaus­tion and anx­i­ety, this crowd dis­played ener­gy and out­rage. They shout­ed loud­ly, again­st Trump and his Mus­lim ban, that refugees are wel­come here. By sheer num­bers they man­aged to shut down all depart­ing flights. See­ing a young boy there who had fash­ioned a sign for him­self read­ing, “son of a refugee,” I thought of how much my own life had been shaped by the flight that brought my par­ents to this coun­try. I was remind­ed of every­thing the Mus­lim ban threat­ens to tear apart – not just fam­i­lies, but the lives and dreams of those who have trav­eled across an ocean in search of a new life.

Many desires spur immi­grants to trav­el, but they are unit­ed by what San­dro Mez­zadra calls “the right to escape.” To escape from pover­ty and per­se­cu­tion, to dis­cov­er new geo­gra­phies, and to speak in new lan­guages. The desire of the immi­grant is a world with no bor­ders, a world with no deten­tion, a world in which humans move freely and wel­come every stranger. It is the recog­ni­tion that it is pos­si­ble to think, speak, and live oth­er­wise.

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.

The­se strangers are right to leave their homes to join us, and it is our priv­i­lege to wel­come them. Sim­ply by show­ing up to their first demon­stra­tion — at some of the high­est risk, high­est secu­ri­ty sites in the coun­try — they dis­cov­er the joy of dis­obe­di­ence. It is the joy which comes in learn­ing that this ter­ri­ble machine is fueled by our par­tic­i­pa­tion, and that we have the pow­er, when we act togeth­er, to make oth­er worlds real.

There will be Chris­tians who remem­ber that Jesus Christ was a Mid­dle East­ern refugee. There will be lib­er­als who are trau­ma­tized by the devo­lu­tion of cap­i­tal­ist democ­ra­cy towards the old, ugly ghost of fas­cism. There will be those with a dis­taste for pol­i­tics who are sim­ply shocked by the decline of kind­ness and decen­cy. The prin­ci­ple their activ­i­ty has gen­er­at­ed is indif­fer­ent to their ori­gins, to their con­scious­ness. What they have cre­at­ed is new — what it requires is a gen­er­al­iza­tion. And this will hap­pen not when they are con­vert­ed to anyone’s pet ide­ol­o­gy. It will hap­pen when their activ­i­ty is com­posed into the form of new orga­ni­za­tions that will change not the pres­i­dent, but the world.

This is our respon­si­bil­i­ty. To be faith­ful to what every new activist has cre­at­ed — to have the courage to speak out loud about the neces­si­ty of con­fronting the whole social struc­ture, and to provide the forms of prac­ti­cal activ­i­ty that will make such an under­stand­ing viable. To make it pos­si­ble to think the rev­o­lu­tion.

If the pop­u­lar con­scious­ness behind the rebel­lions is that “Love Trumps Hate,” then the nec­es­sary respon­se is that love must fur­nish itself with means of self-defense — it must evade the fate of the prophet with­out an army. If indig­nant Amer­i­cans recall Obama’s “hope” with nos­tal­gia, then let us demon­strate what else hope can mean. A remark of Anto­nio Negri gives a pre­cise descrip­tion of the process:

Lessen the anger again­st injus­tice by means of the analy­sis of its struc­tural caus­es, and through this build a high­er lev­el of hate again­st exploita­tion and dom­i­na­tion. Many peo­ple tell me that, like Marx, I too am a corpse — but I don’t see humour in their eyes, only fear. The advan­tage of my hatred is that it is artic­u­lat­ed on, and medi­at­ed by, hope.

So there is a hatred to affirm: the hatred of the exist­ing regime, a class hatred. Only a con­sis­tent antag­o­nism to the sys­tem makes gen­uine love pos­si­ble. With­out it, there is no hope.

In the air­ports, we have formed our itin­er­ary. Begin with the joy of dis­obe­di­ence, the love of the stranger, and the hope for the new. Move onward to class hatred and the sci­ence of struc­tural analy­sis. Con­tin­ue to trav­el, nev­er sat­is­fied, to arrive at the pow­er that is con­sti­tut­ed by orga­ni­za­tion.

Author of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint.