In 2009, the Chicago Muslim community was at the forefront of civic engagement and ahead of the national community curve in terms of interfaith dialogue, government advocacy, and mobilization. The time span directly after the 2008 Presidential elections was supposedly a threshold moment, with all of the Get Out The Vote energy and subsequent Muslim lobby days at our state capital (which included students, by the way) promising a momentum that would carry our community to the next level in terms of clout, integration, and impact within the Chicagoland area.
Look at me with a straight face and try to convince me that we did not in fact drop the ball and regress ever since the “Arab Spring” began in late 2010. Understandably, since a big part of the donor community and usual board members of the mosques and organizations were Arab, and since what happens in Muslim majority countries are of concern to Muslims in the United States, our attentions were diverted, and many pockets of the community, such as the Syrian American community got absorbed in the horrific Syrian crises– their money, time, and emotions were invested in humanitarian relief and political energies, and that looks to be a reality for a long time to come, seeing that the civil war is nowhere near its end as well as the fact that Syria will need all the help it can get from the diaspora community in rebuilding and development work. NOTE: I’d be the last person to shame someone for focusing on their parents’ country, seeing as I myself got intimately involved in Syria activism both in Washington, DC and Chicago– when what I was interested in beforehand was more centered on domestic issues and the Muslim community. And I think the powers that be (mainly Arab) in the community directed us as a collective into being an Arab Muslim community or a foreign community, rather than the trajectory we were once on– embracing our place as conscious, engaged American Muslim citizens.
All energies were exhausted (not necessarily in the most efficient ways) into trying to get the Obama administration to budge on Syria– there were many victories within Congress, the State Department, and the broader DC think tank and media community– but it is quite clear that there is only one person standing in the way of an effective strategy in Syria that possesses a set of teeth and long-term approach. From Secretary Hillary Clinton to Secretary Robert Gates to the recently retired U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford and other former high ranking administration officials (cutting across partisan lines), all recommendations for a more engaged Syria policy fell upon deaf ears– President Obama’s ears, that is. And here we are. Assad seems to be living quite comfortably with the Islamic State providing him with a thick smokescreen to hide behind. There are 191,369 deaths in Syria confirmed out of the 318,910 reported. Millions are displaced, the country’s infrastructure is in shambles, the war has spread to Iraq and Lebanon, and there is a reality called the Islamic State that isn’t planning on leaving any time soon. I think it is time for a change in approach on the Syrian American community’s behalf. Arming the Free Syrian Army and enacting a no-fly zone are policy asks we should continue to champion, but I strongly believe that we should focus primarily on relief and development, along with making sure that our government doesn’t hop into bed with Assad to fight IS. If President Obama approaches the Islamic State as an entity that emerged out of a vacuum (rather than the power vacuum he created) and doesn’t incorporate Syria and the remaining moderate rebels into his anti-ISIS strategy, then we can expect more deaf ears until this president’s term is over in 2016. The fight is nowhere near over, and we have a responsibility to continue informing our fellow citizens and holding our elected officials accountable.
In other words, let’s recalibrate, refocus. It might be cliché to repeat this, but sadly this seems to have eluded us for a while: my home is here, this is my country, America is where I’ll be raising my children, and my arena for inducing any sort of change or impact will be here, from here, for here. The day that I can help Syria is not today, and it’ll only come after I have the social, political, or financial capital to do so. The highest value that I– or we– can bring to the table— that’s what I’m interested in right now. I think in basketball terms sometimes, and to pull out a useful analogy– I’d take the efficient player who takes a reasonable number of shots for their skill level and makes them without forcing it or draining his team’s offensive capacity (Kevin Durant, Kenneth Faried, Carmelo Anthony, Goran Dragic), rather than the volume shooter who chucks up 15 shots or more (and misses most) on isolation attempts that crowd the floor (Rudy Gay, Josh Smith, Kyrie Irving, Deron Williams).
The highest value is probably not going to be in shouting in front of the White House, engaging in Twitter debates, and the myriad of “meetings” our leaders continue to hold in Washington or elsewhere. I’ve sat in on some of those meetings, by the way, and I think that while some members of Congress, Congressional staffers, think tank personalities, and your usual suspects in the media community may sympathize with us, and while others in the Muslim community kiss up and continue to shout about how “unified” the so-called “ummah” is and how we are all “one cause” (I missed the memo, guys)— our community could not have been more alone when it truly mattered.
From March 15, 2011, to the Houla Massacre, to the Ghouta Chemical Weapons Massacre, to every revolution anniversary event in March, to every bullet, barrel bomb, body, and tear that dropped since then– we found only hollow, shallow words. Thus is the reality of politics and the world. And the Syrians on the ground themselves learned this firsthand. The conclusion? We have truly no one but God. Moreover– we owe nothing to anybody but God, by helping to answer the prayers of those who are being oppressed, and standing in solidarity with them. “Solidarity”, however, is a frequently abused word. I find it hilarious that the pro-Palestine community (which did not support any of the necessary policy changes to save Syrian lives) requests of us to show “unity”– as if the horrors committed by Israel aren’t enough to induce outrage at the rallies on Michigan Avenue.
And the college-aged Syrian Americans and others in the SJPs and MSAs– far removed from the realities of power and politics, or far too absorbed in themselves– or who do in fact know better, but won’t miss an opportunity to display their sexy activist chops, buy into it wholesale. You don’t need to shame people into “unity” to get people to stand for basic human dignity and security, all of which is being denied for Palestinians by the Israeli government. Syrian Americans who stand against dictatorship and oppression should understand this best– don’t make me dial back the clocks, back to the days when Syrians showed up in full force to the Palestine rallies of the 1990s and 2000s. If you are asking me and the Syrian community to kiss someone’s ass for the sake of some superficial, delusional “unity”– you’re doing it wrong. And if you’re riding on the coattails of someone else’s cause (I’m aiming this directly at the pro-Raba’aa folks who put up Facebook profile pictures equating and tying the dreadful Raba’aa Massacre in Egypt to the Ghouta Chemical Weapon Massacre), especially when you do little to actually support the goals of that particular cause or community (in our case, U.S. intervention in Syria)– you need to rethink your notions of solidarity and your basic humanity (and just to be clear I am also calling you ‘basic‘).
To the Syrian Americans || This needs to be chewed a bit further: the reason why Syria matters to me and why I feel the need/relevance to do something about it is because I as an American of Syrian descent possess a unique vantage point that most Americans do not– I have “skin in the game”, therefore I can provide more nuance and commitment on this particular issue. But it’s not because I myself am a Syrian or that I have suffered anything aside from immense emotional pain in the past 4 years. I’m not a refugee, I’m not an opposition activist on the ground in Homs or Damascus (ahem, #chicagoGirl), and I don’t speak for the Syrian children. I can be an amplifier, a reminder, a supporter, and dreamer like others that Syria will one day be free, safe, and democratic. And the rest is up to God. Yes, some privilege checking and perspective is necessary, and I think it is when we recognize our boundaries and accept that we cannot speak for everyone and do *everything* that our work becomes more effective, organic, sincere, less forced, more grounded, and so on. I think the majority of Syrian American college students and young folks in my generation feel the same way or are starting to do so, and the community at large– the leaders and parents– should follow suit: building from within, starting at home, instilling a sense of citizenship beyond just attending rallies, practicing what we preach (there’s gun violence in Chicago too), learning from other communities and social justice movements’ triumphs and mistakes. These lessons should empower us, and our humanity should lift our heads up high and keep us going.
I visited Lebanon recently to see my grandparents from Homs for the first time in 4 years. When I hugged my grandfather (whom I’m named after), and smelled the scent of cigarettes on him and heard his laugh, and felt my grandmother’s wet kisses on my cheeks, and walked with them in the streets of Beirut, which, just like Homs, were draped in jasmine flowers– I felt like a kid again. I felt sharp, painful nostalgia, and seeing them after 4 years, when all I knew from Syria in that time period was death, death, and more death, seemed like I was witnessing a resurrection. It was truly a surreal experience that I still cannot seem to unpack and write about.
This nostalgia keeps me awake and can drive me mad at times (and I’m positive that this is worse for my parents who came from Syria or for those who have more memories from there), especially when the news headlines coming out of Syria get darker by the day. But what has kept me grounded was not the scents, sights, and feelings of the place I loved– the place where I climbed school walls and played soccer in the streets, played video games in sweaty internet parlors, drank orange soda out of ziploc bags, tried my first guilty hookah and felt like a total badass, got into my first street fight, waited in early morning bread lines because my father wanted me to learn, wrestled my way up to the front counter in the falafel shops while customers crowded to watch the FIFA World Cup or the climax of a Turkish soap opera episode, where I felt like for the first time in my life that I could be myself, just, Adham, where I cried every time we’d pack up to head to the airport at the end of summer, where I’d kiss the ground at the mosque before I left because I didn’t want to leave my best friend, that city—– on the contrary what kept me grounded, actually, was that smell of a McDonalds when I got home to O’Hare International Airport, the smell of my house after a long summer… suburbia, America, home, sweet home. What I was privileged to enjoy in Syria, in Homs in particular, was like reading and experiencing a book that few others were blessed to read.
That book ended in 2011– Homs, and Syria for that matter, will never be the same, and if we do get to go back, it’ll be drastically different. I say this all to make it very clear that I am not advocating for severing the proverbial umbilical cord. We mustn’t disengage. We should move on, in some ways, and grow, advance in others. The reality is that we don’t have barrel bombs raining down on us. Let’s stop acting like it. I still have my keys from Homs, by the way, in my drawer at home. But I won’t wear them around my neck like some chain shackling me down in perpetual bitterness, despair, and displacement. We’re a community that has been blessed with wealth, passion, and a proud heritage. We should start thinking that way and carrying ourselves as such. I remember the days when the Syrian American community was little more than a bunch of Mercedes-Benzes parked outside of banquet halls and houses in upscale neighborhoods– parties, banality, arguments about the most superficial crap, like we were the Arab version of Downton Abbey. I think we have been transformed, humbled, aged– drastically. We’ve been blessed with so much, and we owe it to this city to give back, and to help undo the wrongs around us and address injustice: starting in our own backyard.
To the broader Muslim community (most of which is not Syrian or even Arab, by the way): though there are some fantastic bright spots (IMAN and the good folks at CAIR-Chicago, each with a developed niche and outstanding leadership), for the most part, I smell burnout, displacement, outdatedness, and disconnect, rather than cohesive, pragmatic, “big picture”, American empowerment. The past few years has been something like a nightmare. Let’s wake up.