What Now? Our Redemption of the American Dream

The four-year Presidential campaign, at a cost of over 2 billion dollars, is over.   
Many of us are feeling not quite the ecstatic elation of the 2008 campaign, but almost a sense of relief that a candidate who had mocked and belittled the poor, women, gays/lesbians, Hispanics, Muslims, and others will not be elected to the highest office in the land.

So now what?

The mood at election night was actually surprisingly civil.     Romney showed a touch of human emotion, even tenderness.  President Obama and others promised to reach across the aisle, and work in a bipartisan fashion.

Call me not impressed.   And not satisfied.

Mind you, I have no fondness for bickering and fragmented politics.   The situation of the last four years brings no joy to my heart, as I see the President compromising on so many key aspects of the healthcare issue even before the negotiations had started.  I took no pleasure as I saw a candidate who had run on progressive ideals surround himself with an all-star economic advisor team who embodied Neoliberalism.

But my concern is actually deeper:  In the last few months of the elections, we have seen each candidate pander to the swing voters in the eight or nine states that would determine the outcome of the election.   That’s why we heard so much about coal (coal mine workers in some states), the automobile bail out, etc.  

As someone rooted in the prophetic tradition of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, my concern is always with what Christ referred to as “the least of these”:  those who are weak, marginalized, ostracized, and deprived of God-given rights.   According to the Bible and the tradition of Islam, it is up to the rest of us to become the voice for the voiceless, and to speak for the weak.

So part of my concern is with those that we did not hear about or hear from in the presidential campaign.   We didn’t hear about them, because they are often not organized, not mobilized, and lack the political infrastructure that the NRA lobby, the Israel lobby, the insurance and healthcare lobby, etc., have.   

Who am I talking about?  I am talking about the poor: poor whites, poor blacks, poor Hispanics, and other poor Americans.  Those who work and work and yet cannot meet even the poverty line.    In this election we heard a lot about the 1% and we heard about the challenges facing the middle class.    So if some are the super-rich (getting richer) and some are the middle class (struggling), who is below the middle class?  It is the poor, and by and large they were missing from our conversations this last election.

We didn’t have meaningful conversations about public education, because while Romney’s disdain for public education (in favor of private schools and charter schools) was evident, President Obama also weakened the public education.

We didn’t have a serious conversation about drones.     We did not talk about how the United States—that is to say, WE—has killed about a thousand civilians in Yemen and Pakistan through unmanned killing machines that drop bombs from the skies on unsuspecting civilians—all of them Muslims.    We killed women and children; we killed wedding parties; we classified all adult male victims of drones as potential terrorists.   Yet neither Obama nor Romney talked about these faceless victims.

Obama and Romney only argued about Palestine/Israel when it came to who loves Israel more, who loved Israel first, and who will pay Israel more.    There is no discussion of how the United States is the single biggest global obstacle to peace in the Holy Land by vetoing every measure that comes to the United Nations Security Council.   No one talks about the billions of dollars of military aid that is going to Israel, no one is talking about illegal and immoral settlements in the West Bank, and no one talks about a system of segregation walls and segregation roads that is creating a de facto apartheid in Israel.    There is no Palestine Lobby in the United States, and so the daily brutal suffering of Palestinians goes unheeded.  

Think about the suffering of people on the East Coast in the wake of Sandy:  homes destroyed, no food, no shelter, no electricity, no medicine. This is the reality that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians live with every day in Gaza, and neither Obama nor Romney, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats, seem inclined to act.

Think of the destruction of the environment, the continued release of millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the environment.   The gradual warming of the oceans will result in many more Sandy superstorms to come, and no one is inclined to act.

Think about our military spending.    The 680 billion dollars a year, not including the cost of wars, military spending. 
Years ago Dr. King told us:

  “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”  

What would Dr. King say to us today, what would Martin to Republicans and Democrats as they sit in their elections boasting that we outspend the next ten countries combined?       I suspect Martin would say that we are well on our way towards Spiritual Death unless we repent and turn away now.

I do not equate the Republicans and the Democrats.    There are fundamental differences between these two parties in areas like the environment, women’s rights, gays/lesbian rights, taxation structure, etc.   Yet there are far too many areas in which the positions of the parties is indistinguishable, never more so than in the area of how the United States is functioning as an Empire in the world today.    Who’s willing to stand up and say that we should not be an Empire, but a responsible citizen of this very small planet?

Noam Chomsky has a brilliant observation about how consent is manufactured in our society.    Chomsky notes that the range of acceptable dissent is narrowed and narrowed, and within that narrowed spectrum all manners of vigorous debate is allowed and fostered.   That is intended to distract everyone from the much broader realm in which there is unanimity.     I would like to see us expand the field yet again, and have meaningful conversations about issues like the poverty, the environment, and the role of America as an Empire.  These issues affect all of us, and indeed the whole world, but they don’t have a lobby organization to champion them.   So it is up to us, all of us, to champion them.

So no, I do not hope for a model of “civil bipartisanship” in this second term of the Obama presidency.   I would like to see him, and more importantly us, push for a redemption of the American Dream.    I would like to see us not reaching out to people who so openly despise women’s rights, Hispanics, Muslims, African-Americans, and the poor, but rather setting a higher and loftier ground for what We as a people can be.  

The American political system is broken:  beholden to an absurd two-party system that by definition fosters ideological polarization rather than the compromise that a vibrant multi-party system necessitates.     Our politics is beholden to the corrosive effect of Big Money, as reflected in the absurd 2 billion dollars spent on this election.

So what I wish for President Obama is not to give in to what Dr. King called the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism”, and not to settle for compromise with the bigots who hate a majority of Americans, but keep pushing forward and upward, to that majestic height of what love looks like in public: justice.

And as for us, the citizens of this nation, I hope that we can shatter the messianic dream of a one-man Hope and Change operation.    There are no messiahs.    No one person, not even one as brilliant, eloquent, and cosmopolitan as the President, will redeem the American Dream.  

That responsibility is up to all, each and every single one of us, all of us.  
We have to hold our leaders accountable if we wish to avoid the Spiritual Death of America that Dr. King prophesized, and if we wish to be participants in the Redemption of the American Dream.

The fierce urgency of now demands that we neither celebrate nor mourn the election, but commit ourselves to compassionate, globally aware, action here and now, starting today.

About the author

Omid Safi

Omid Safi is a Professor of Islamic Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, specializing in contemporary Islamic thought and classical Islam. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion, the largest international organization devoted to the academic study of religion.

In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume "Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism," which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works "Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam," dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and "Voices of Islam: Voices of Change" were published 2006.

His last book, "Memories of Muhammad," deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York Times, Newsweek, Washington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media.