by Vanessa Haugh, Online Organizing Fellow, Energy Action Coalition
It’s not easy to get through an election season without hearing political rhetoric about foreign policy that portrays the U.S. as either a savior or a victim. It’s also nearly impossible to get through without hearing that the United States is the greatest nation on Earth, even from progressive politicians. This kind of nationalistic rhetoric, which most Americans accept as perfectly reasonable, reveals the mentality of moral superiority that’s still pervasive in the U.S. The language I’ve heard repeatedly from both parties has caused me to think about the consequences of upholding these messages--the perpetuation of imperialism and the obstacle that imperialist foreign policy creates in enacting solutions to our pressing problems that require international cooperation.
When I hear similar sentiments from both sides, I feel the need to seek out the words of people who offer a drastically different worldview. Reading (and re-reading) their work is truly refreshing. This week I’ve been reflecting on the words of Tarek Mahenna, an Egyptian-American Muslim who was under surveillance by the FBI for being a Muslim community leader expressing support for Mujahidin (often defined as Muslims who engage in the defense of Muslim lands) fighting against U.S. occupation around the world. Tarek was approached by the FBI several times and pressured into being a government informant. They even tried, with no luck, to trick him into participating in a fabricated "terror plot". Tarek refused the FBI's offer to become an informant. He was arrested in 2009 and faced with charges of “conspiracy” and “material support for terrorism” without being involved in any illegal activity (his prosecutors are only able to bring forth things Tarek has stated and translated in support of Mujahidin). Tarek has been denied bail twice, has spent over two years in 23-hour solitary confinement, and faces a possible life sentence.
In a very powerful statement, delivered to a judge during his trial in April 2012, Tarek chose to tell his story and explain his beliefs. He said:
"So, this trial was not about my position on Muslims killing American civilians. It was about my position on Americans killing Muslim civilians, which is that Muslims should defend their lands from foreign invaders – whether they are Soviets, Americans, or Martians...This is not terrorism, and it’s not extremism. It’s the simple logic of self-defense. It’s what the arrows on that seal above your head represent: defense of the homeland. So, I disagree with my lawyers when they say that you don’t have to agree with my beliefs – no. Anyone with common sense and humanity has no choice but to agree with me. If someone breaks into your home to rob you and harm your family, logic dictates that you do whatever it takes to expel that invader from your home. But when that home is a Muslim land, and that invader is the US military, for some reason the standards suddenly change. Common sense is renamed “terrorism” and the people defending themselves against those who came to kill them from across the ocean become “the terrorists” who are “killing Americans.” The mentality that America was victimized by when British soldiers walked these streets 2 ½ centuries ago is the same mentality Muslims are victimized by as American soldiers walk their streets today. It’s the mentality of colonialism. When Sgt. Bales shot those Afghans to death last month, I followed the discussion in the media just to see what people were saying and what I noticed was that all of the focus was on him – his life, his stress, his PTSD, the mortgage on his home – as if he was the victim. I didn’t see anyone talking about the people he actually killed, as if they’re not real, they’re not humans. Unfortunately, this mentality trickles down to everyone in society, whether they realize it or not."
Tarek’s statement is a call for Americans to examine foreign policy outside the box created by plutocrats and politicians that make these major decisions, and the media that sustains the victimization of the U.S. in the storyline of the “war on terror”. What Tarek said reminds me of what Martin Luther King Jr. expressed when he spoke out against the war in Vietnam, despite the critical responses he was receiving from some of his peers. He explained that what the United States needed most was “a radical revolution of values” that would cause fellow Americans to clearly see the injustices in our past and present policies- those policies that put us on the wrong side of the world’s revolutionary movements. He emphasized the need to shift from being a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society, saying that we needed to “develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in [our] individual societies.”
We can’t gloss over the kind of nationalist sentiments we hear in the news and in our daily lives and accept them as harmless fixtures in American political culture. Conscious rejection of ignorant language is important because words play a big part in shaping our reality. We've also got to amplify alternative voices. As long as the U.S. is trapped in this mindset of moral superiority, political prisoners like Tarek Mahenna will continue to be oppressed by the greed and xenophobia inherent in imperialism. And as long as we can't collectively think outside the box, we won’t be able to do the globally collaborative work that all of us desperately need.