#UnitedforOmar: What UK activists can learn from their US allies

#UnitedforOmar: What UK activists can learn from their US allies
Comment: The outpouring of support for smeared Imam Omar Suleiman is an inspiration for grassroots action in the UK, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
16 May, 2019
'Smear campaigns are often met with silence in the UK' writes Bouattia [Getty]
In the latest right-wing smear campaign to target outspoken Muslim public figures in the US, Omar Suleiman - a prominent Palestinian-American imam - has been attacked for being "radical" and "anti-Semitic".

Following a prayer that Suleiman was invited to give in Congress by Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin of New York City took to attacking the imam on social media.

tweeted that it was, "Totally unacceptable that Nancy Pelosi had Omar Suleiman give the opening prayer yesterday in the House. He compares Israel to the Nazis & calls them terrorists, supports Muslim Brotherhood, incites violence calling for a Palestinian intifada & the end of Zionism, etc. Bad call."

Within no time, The Jereusalem Post and Breitbart weighed in with similar accusations of anti-Semitism levelled against the 33-year old imam.

Contrary to what we have come to accept in relation to such attacks in the UK, Suleiman was showered with support from across communities and institutions who were set on defending his record as an active social justice campaigner, but also a respected figure by all those who have met and worked with him.   

Texas Congressman Colin Allred said: "Suleiman's message of peace, unity, and support for our fellow Americans is needed now, more than ever. I thank him dearly for stopping by my office and always representing the best of North Texas."

The conviction and strength in the counter-attack, left me feeling inspired, but also worried about the lack of such responses on our own doorstep

Activist and community organiser Linda Sarsour, has been vocal in her solidarity since the attack, tweeting:

"We got your back Imam Omar. They can't stand to see a prolific, dynamic, young, powerful Palestinian American Muslim leading figure preaching justice, unity, and equality. Here you are. You will not be silenced. #UnitedForOmar"

Representative E.B. Johnson also took to social media to support the imam:

"In his prayer yesterday, Imam @omarsuleiman504, as he has time and again, used his voice to call for peace & justice — especially in times of struggle."

It doesn't seem to bother his accusers - namely Republican policy makers and their allies - that this continued use of Islamophobic tropes towards Muslim public figures only highlights the hypocrisy of their attacks, given their own party's history of anti-racism and state violence.

Donald Trump's visit this week with Victor Orban - the fascist and openly anti-Semitic Hungarian leader who showered him with praise, is a but another reminder of this. 

Perhaps more worryingly, these attacks are also undermining the urgent need to mobilise against racist hate towards Jewish, Muslim, migrant and POC communities. Indeed, barely a week goes by without more news of a mosque or a synagogue being targeted by the rising far right in the United States. The need for practical, organised and united resistance could not be more pressing.

The imam said that the attempted character assassination was likely to have been coordinated, given the synchronicity of all the media attacks. 

One thing is clear, the relentless defence and counter-campaign to the abuse targeting Suleiman, has demonstrated the strength in a grassroots anti-racist movement in the US, which understands the historical, ideological and institutional nature of oppression, its roots and its targets.

Furthermore, Suleiman is a religious figure who has literally been arrested for his refusal to allow institutionalised xenophobia and racism to be practiced unchallenged.

The image of Suleiman being taken away alongside #MuslimsforDream activists who occupied the corridor outside the office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, was incredibly powerful.

UK-based institutions are not only absent in times of need but, worse, often actively part of the problem

The imam stood by his participation in the direct action which was intended to protect the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme, and further called on people to, "stay focused on the issue. Hundreds of thousands of families are being ripped apart and we need to come to a permanent solution for them. Until we do, we must keep the pressure up on this racist regime."

On 9 May, when the Texas-based imam spoke of peace, unity and justice in congress, he simply echoed what he had been preaching throughout his career, and communities across the US - those suffering and mobilising against hate - knew this.

The conviction and strength in the counter-attack, left me feeling inspired, but also incredibly worried about the lack of such responses on our own doorstep.

Read more: Inspirational US #MuslimsforDream: A community empowered by its faith

When organisations suchas the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) call on people to support social justice advocates who are being targeted, it restores confidence on the ground. 

The Dallas CAIR chapter for example called on "people of conscience, including members of Congress, to stand in solidarity with Imam Omar Suleiman".

This adds weight to what hundreds of thousands of activists know to be true, and it strengthens much needed collective fight back.

When I think about our UK equivalent of Muslim institutions, including the Muslim Council of Britain, I think of all the political compromises that have been made in the name of the 4 million Muslims who reside in this country.

I think of the silence each time we are witness to a similar smear campaign against Muslim public figures

I think of the silence each time we are witness to a similar smear campaign against Muslim public figures, and I worry that such UK-based institutions are not only absent in times of need but, worse, often actively part of the problem.

That's not to say the US movements "have it all figured out", or that Muslim-American institutions don't have their flaws, but I do see a much larger space for cross-generational input into organisations which may otherwise be forced by the state into the centre at best, and right a worst.

Here in the UK, we should learn lessons from the struggles of our Brothers, Sisters and non-binary siblings across the Atlantic.

It is not through cosying up to power and allowing those who target and criminalise us, to draw the boundaries of respectability and acceptability. Nor is it in throwing our own activists and organisers to the dogs in exchange for an ever-elusive seat at the table, that we will get closer to achieving our goals.

It is instead only through grassroots organising, collective mobilisations, and principled political opposition that we can stand our ground and fight for our freedom.

In the words of Imam Omar Suleiman himself, "Let us be for truth, no matter who is for or against it."

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.