On American Muslims and civic engagement

The following was a conversation with Glenn Greenwald (GG) of First Look Media and Amina Chaudary of The Islamic Monthly (TIM) in August 2014.


TIM:               The American Muslim community is reeling from a very difficult few weeks. Gaza, NSA revelations on the widespread targeting Muslims, efforts to boycott The White House iftar, divisions over the issue of BDS. What’s become clear from watching social media is that American Muslims are struggling to find ways and modes of civic engagement they are comfortable with given how American policy plays out in the world. Where do you see the American Muslim community to be right now politically?

GG:                 It has been a complicated month but I see some serious improvements with regards to the political position of the American Muslim Community, at least in comparison to say the last 13 years since 9/11. For the article that we published about the targeting of the American Muslim leaders, we reported in a way that the people who we were identified as NSA targets were willing to be so identified. We didn’t want to be dragging people into the public realm as NSA targets if they felt like the stigma could be intolerable or undesirable. At first pretty much everybody’s reaction was just kind of reluctant.  That if they were identified there will be an assumption that they were targeted for valid reasons, as Muslims who were under the microscope of the U.S. government and presumed to be guilty of terrorism or something bad even though there is no evidence for it. We tried to make the case to them that the dialogue around Muslims in the United States was very different than it was certainly in 2002, or 2005, or even 2009, and that people would be open to the idea that this surveillance was improper.  They were convinced that they could stand up and be identified with the confidence that they could make the case. And there would be a few Peter Kings and Frank Gaffneys who would try to demonize them but that by and large they would get a fair hearing. I don’t think they would have thought that five years ago or ten years ago.

I think you see the same thing with Gaza. There is a fair reflection of the reality of what’s taken place in the American media for a lot of different reasons, then there was with the Israeli invasion in to Gaza in 2008 and 2009. In general, Americans are starting to break out of the kind of deranged fever that took hold after 9/11, the brunt of which was born by American Muslims.  As the American Muslim community gets a little bit freer in terms of not being under the thumb of that kind of oppressive mentality, there is going to be some internal dissent.  When you are consciously oppressed, you tend to sort of band together and unite because there’s a necessity to do so. And that as that proceeds, some of those difference get more into the fore and I think that’s the reason you are seeing some internal dissension as a byproduct of the fact that there is not this kind of immediate urgency to unify against this kind of onslaught because that onslaught is refuted.

Washington DC, Lafayette Park in front of the White House, August 2, 2014. Tens of thousands peacefully gathered here today for a rally and march in support of the people of Gaza who are under occupation and siege by Israeli armed forces. Over 1,600 overwhelmingly civilian Palestinian Gazans including over 300 childen have lost their lives in this most recent Israeli invasion. There was virtually no US corporate media coverage of this important and unexpectedly large event.  Stephen Melkisethian/ Flikr
Washington DC, Lafayette Park in front of the White House, August 2, 2014. Tens of thousands peacefully gathered here today for a rally and march in support of the people of Gaza who are under occupation and siege by Israeli armed forces. Over 1,600 overwhelmingly civilian Palestinian Gazans including over 300 childen have lost their lives in this most recent Israeli invasion. There was virtually no US corporate media coverage of this important and unexpectedly large event. Stephen Melkisethian/ Flikr

At the same time even as considering African-Americans, immigrants and other groups who may be marginalized in different ways, American Muslims are still one of the most marginalized groups. Overt prejudice is probably more acceptable toward American Muslims than any other single group in the U.S. There is still a lot of policies in place that are incredibly effective that don’t show any signs of eroding.  So, I don’t want to overstate the optimism but I think things are headed gradually in the right direction. Just because of the distance between us and 9/11.

TIM:               Perceptions of Muslims in America are worse now then they were before, if you look at polling data. From the community’s perspective, what do we make of that despite the fact that Muslims are probably far more visible in the public space in terms of participation in civic discourse?


GG:                 One should be weary of drawing too many inferences from a single poll.   You can find wildly disparate results with two different polls. There is no question that American Muslims remain one of the most marginalized and demonized groups in United States.  There has been a sustained propaganda campaign against Muslims for over a decade and it doesn’t disappear over night. Those attitudes are hardened. But one of the things that polling often doesn’t measure is the intensity of opinions.  Whereas before say in 2002 or 2003, where there was a view of Muslims that wasn’t as negative but was very intense, the priority was battling against the Muslim menace. I think the priority list has changed dramatically with more time after 9/11, and I don’t think people think that the threat is nearly as acute as it once was. And on top of that, you have a collective sense that post 9/11 America went too far with a lot of these security measures. The Snowden reporting helps.  That has opened a dialogue: the kind of grave threat that we were trained to think of as exaggerated and overstated for a various reasons. People are much more open to the latter view, than they were before.

TIM:               President Obama invited American Muslims to The White House as a celebratory gesture of their community, only to then follow with comments about Israel having the right to defend itself.  The Israeli ambassador Dermer was invited.  Many on social media spoke out against it and stated they were insulted.  What’s going on here and what does this say to you about American Muslims in terms of our ability to effectively politic within the system?

Sign held during an anti-war protest outside of the White House. Flikr.
Sign held during an anti-war protest outside of the White House. Flikr.

GG:                 Every community goes through the same dilemma, where at first, you are just so happy that there are these symbolic gestures of acceptance. I think gay organizations went through this, African-Americans organizations went through this, a lot of immigrant groups.  You’ve been marginalized for so long and then finally you are getting these symbolic measures: you get to come to The White House and we are going to publicly embrace you, to talk about how you are part of our community. And at first you are really happy.  It is like water in the desert. You take anything that you can get and it seems like it’s an important gateway into becoming equal partners in the society.  But after a while, you realize that these gestures are empty because they are unaccompanied by any meaningful action. Obama is inviting some leaders to the White House, but at the same time, he is justifying the spying on American Muslim leaders, he is cheering on the Israelis while they massacre civilians in Gaza and supporting Israelis as steadfastly as ever. There is this huge disparate gap between the symbolism and the reality, which makes the symbolism much less attractive. There is a further realization that is not just that the symbolism is empty, but that is exploitative and counterproductive. That somehow Obama is relieved of that the obligation to actually live up to his values with actions because these rituals let him have the appearance that he’s doing something positive, even though he isn’t really. Not only are these meaningless rituals but they are actually destructive. I think that’s been the realization. What’s happening in Gaza is so severe that you cannot with any minimal amount of rationality watch Obama support it, endorse it, and enable it, and at the same time get yourself to believe that these dinners and these celebrations are anything other than completely illusory rituals that have no meaning, and then it’s really hard to get yourself participate in them with any dignity.

The White House Iftar.  whitehouse.gov
The White House Iftar. whitehouse.gov

TIM:               Right. Okay. Well, let’s assume that meaningful political change is the ultimate goal, where is the balance between engaging with the government or attending these types of events, regardless of what policies you may find problematic, versus protesting or taking yourself out of the system?

GG:                 I think the word that use is the right one, which is balance.  And the evaluation has to be: are my goals promoted by participating in these events or they subverted by participating in these events or conversely are my goals further subverted by protesting them. Yes, there is a benefit theoretically to participating in this process because that then gets you into the door and then theoretically, once you are in the door, you can use your entrance to your influence. But that’s only true if that admission is really a meaningful one. I mean, how much have American Muslim leaders been able to affect the change over the last decade by virtue of attending White House dinners. I would argue not very much. I think it becomes counterproductive because I think people like Obama get to tell the grassroots American Muslim voters, who do not have some concern because they are not negligible in numbers and growing economically, “I know you don’t like drones and I know you don’t like Guantanamo and I know you don’t like our support for Israel but you know what? Look at, we are giving you American Muslim leaders this really important dinner and so you should continue to think good about us and continue to vote for us and continue to write checks to our party during election time, even though we are not actually doing anything on policy.”  And I think it is a real danger that these rituals become exploitative in that way and relieve the pressure to take any actual action on policy changes and I think the more you protest, the more pressure you put on politicians to take concrete steps, not symbolic ones, to address the concerns that you have.

TIM:               Must they be in opposition to each other or is there a complimentary component? Some cooperation?

GG:                 I think the gay movement actually is a good model that has used both of those components really well and compliment one another. You have groups that are consummate insider groups that have raised tons of money for the Democrats. They go to all the White House dinners, cheers for the Democrats, help get them elected, while applying some subtle pressure, using their insider status for policy change. And then at the same time you have people marching outside The White House holding up signs, attacking Obama personally for opposition to policy on marriage equality. This outsider-insider strategy is a really good one. But there is a danger that insider strategy can actually become counterproductive and there is no objective formula for understanding why that happens. Sometimes groups that have been so marginalized for so long will trade away their dignity a little bit too cheaply, which is understandable psychologically because if you are an American Muslim and you really only hear for ten years that you are a terrorist to your own country, the opportunity to get invited to The White House by a president who is going to say good things about you is really enticing. But leaders have the responsibility to resist that if the calculus is there, that it’s actually doing more harm than good.

 TIM:              How can Muslims communicate their situation with respect to all the issues they face in a way that speaks more broadly to civil liberties and other policy matters in the U.S., i.e. that “Muslim” issues are ones that America as a whole faces?

GG:               Historically that lesson has been learned over and over.  Every single time I talk about civil liberties I focus on that point: on the idea of beginning with some kind of marginalized or easily demonized group in order to justify civil liberties abridgement in the first instance and induce acquiescence or even support, only to then legitimize that abuse and then having it spread to larger and larger groups. It is just the most common tactic, not just in United States but everywhere for how some governments abuse power. And a problem of course is that if you stand up and cheer for this in the first instance because it is being applied to a group that isn’t you, then you will have no ground, no basis to object when it starts being applied to other groups whose applications you don’t approve including perhaps your own. There are so many

President Bush signs the patriot act.  whitehouse.gov
President Bush signs the patriot act. whitehouse.gov

instances like this.  It is how we know that we are supposed to defend the right of free speech when it is being abridged against the ideas that we find reprehensible, not just because we want to make sure that those reprehensible ideas are heard but because we want to combat the general abstract principle that the government has the right to make list of ideas that are permissible and ideas that aren’t. When the Patriot Act was introduced, it was justified on the grounds that it was necessary to stop the terrorism threat, meaning that it was necessary to use against American Muslims inside the United States. And if you look at how the Patriot Act has been used since then, it has been used in terrorism in cases I think eight to nine percent of the time only, and then used in non-terrorism cases, like fraud or drug cases, overwhelmingly because it just expanded beyond the original application.  People understand that and that’s the reason to object to it in the first influence, even if they don’t feel personally implicated.

TIM:              Shifting gears towards independent media, could you give some insight into your personal decisions for why you left the different places you wrote at before, and what kind of freedoms or restrictions you may have had, in comparison to establishing your own independent media organization at the Intercept?  Is it possible to do the kind of journalism that you are doing in the present day elsewhere? How does that relate to the American Muslim community in relation to independent media?

GG:                 I have been lucky and that I never really had any dissatisfaction. The primary motive to leave was to pursue something that I thought would be better for my journalism. So, I went from my own blog to Salon because I thought it would be a higher visibility platform.  And the same reason I left Salon to go to the Guardian.  And then I left the Guardian mostly because I have this opportunity to build a brand new media platform that could do completely innovative things 20080602_internet_twith huge amounts of resources. I always made sure to negotiate my working conditions, so that I have full absolute editorial independence and journalistic freedom. I would never accept anything other than that or anything to interfere with that and that was by and large honored. And the reason why I really wanted to build a new media outlet is because I do think existing media institutions are constructed to be fear driven and risk averse in ways that are really harmful to fearless adversarial journalism. This is an opportunity to build new media that had essentially infinite resources, so that we didn’t have to worry about ad revenue, or getting advertisers or getting involved in big litigations with large corporations or the government.  The main attribute of the digital age or journalism in the age of the internet is that it is incredibly liberating. You no longer have to go and work for The New York Times or NBC News or The Washington Post if you want to reach a large audience.  You can do what I did and what so many people have done.  Just start your own blog one day and offer the kind of journalism that people want and you will attract your own audience and be able to reach a huge group of people. One of the things I find most encouraging is, if you look at Twitter, there are all these internet commentators who have 10,000 followers or 50,000 followers or a 120,000 followers, even though they have never once worked for a large scale media, but they have been able to remain completely independent.  A lot of them are Muslims or people who write really freely and insightfully about the Middle East or other issues. I think figuring out how to maximize your talent and tapping into that freedom on the internet is one of the most crucial things that any young journalist or any journalist who just wants to be journalistically free can do. You really see the effects of that in Gaza.  The reason why the reality of the Israeli massacre has not been able to be hidden is because there are so many people in Gaza, Palestinians, who have cell phones and access to internet and can upload video and pictures on Twitter.  It has put pressure on western journalist as well who are covering it not hide what is really happening because they can’t hide it, so now they are competing with it. And I think you see this kind of journalistic independence that the internet has enabled, having a very positive and a very substantial effect on how the war in Gaza is being conveyed and understood.  That’s why I find it so encouraging.

TIM:               This trend that you identified; is it reclaiming freedom in journalism or is it a totally new phenomenon?

GG:                 If you look at how journalism functions, when the U.S. Constitution protected and guaranteed a free press, there was no sense at all that there was going to be this professional class called journalist, who worked for big media organizations, who abided by all these rules and how journalism was going to be done. And then those were the only people who were journalist, like the class of professionals. Journalism was something that every citizen was supposed to use and have the right to use, as a means of achieving some political goal. That’s why I always find the debate that I am often at the center of, about whether or not journalists can be crusading, or about advocacy journalist and opinionate journalist or whether you have to be neutral or objective, so mystifying because there is this idea that journalism at its core is inherently about being objective and neutral and not having opinion, and not having political walls and agendas. And yet, journalism as it was originally conceived, was all about agenda journalism, crusading journalism. I do think the Internet in a lot of ways is a throwback to what journalism was supposed to be, which was not corporatized, institution-based activity.

TIM:               Your principles have been consistent in your writings with regards to what you speak about, particularly if they involve criticizing institutions and different power structures. But for the American Muslim community, many of these institutions are nascent, still figuring things out as the go along. What is our journalistic responsibility in being critical of what’s happening within the Muslim community, being cognizant and fair as the community is in its early stages of building out its civic infrastructure?

GG:                 All institutions benefit from transparency and from being checked and held accountable. Any kind of human power, no matter the form it takes, when it secretly operates without any monitoring or accountability or push back becomes inherently corrupted.  And not just corrupted but less efficient.  When human beings make decisions about a lot of dissent and debate, they tend to make bad decisions for all sorts of reasons. As a journalist, exposing bad choices and corrupt behavior or even trying to expand the range of debate is a really healthy thing to do. I think all organizations need that, I think it will help those organizations even if they may not appreciate as you are doing it.  When you want to hold institutions accountable, the dynamic that you are engaging in is adversarial, you don’t have exactly the same interest that they do.  Often times they want to hide the behavior that they are engaged in or they wanted to be perceived in a certain way that isn’t true.  Your goal as a journalist is different, to shine a light on things they want to keep secret or to help things they are doing understood in a way different then the way they are depicting them.  And so that difference of interest and of objective is sometimes going to produce some tense and even unfriendly actions and that’s good, you need that. It forms better decision making and healthier institutions.

TIM:               There is a piece going around from the last week that went viral.  It says that Edwards Snowden had released NSA documents showing that British and American intelligence had coordinated with Mossad to create ISIS, to protect –

GG:                 Where is this coming from? Like I have seen people alluding to this here and there but never with any concrete sources. What is the sourcing for this and what exactly is it?

TIM:               Well, actually we haven’t found the original source, yet, we are still digging into it. [Read to Glenn Greenwald]

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his first public appearance in Mosul.YouTube screenshot
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his first public appearance in Mosul.YouTube screenshot

GG:                 That’s all bullshit.  First of all where did he say this. I have never seen every single interview or every single speech by Snowden, but before I would even think about believing it, I would want to know where he said it so I can go hear him say it.  I keep hearing Snowden said this but no one ever points to where he did that.  Snowden releasing documents is also idiotic.  He hasn’t released any documents since last year, when he gave the reporters with whom he was working various archives and documents. So, he hasn’t released anything. The only people who can release Snowden documents are journalists, and I don’t know any of those journalists who ever claimed to see documents like that report that. But if there were Snowden documents released that says this, we should be able to go look at the Snowden documents and know who published them. I’ve never seen Snowden say that, I’ve never seen any documents that reference that and I’ve never seen any credible sources from the claim.

Read our previous interview with Greenwald here

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    Amina Chaudary - The Editor's Desk

    Amina Chaudary is the Editor in Chief of The Islamic Monthly

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