After Obama’s reelection, I was one of those people who spent days staring at red and blue maps on the New York Times website, hoping to understand the full historical significance of what had happened. One map went beyond the state votes, breaking down each state by county, allowing me to see the blue islands in seas of red; these were the big cities. Another departed from the absolute red/blue binary to show a spectrum of gradation between them; the resulting purple struck me as better news for the blue than the red. Things were changing. It even seemed that perhaps a few election cycles down the road, Texas could be a purple battleground state.
I also read analysis of the communities from which Obama drew support. Obama won with support from the young, from African Americans and Latinos and Asians, from women, and from LGBT voters. He pulled together a coalition of everyone who was left out of the Christian White Man’s master narrative, and this was enough to win. With Obama’s capture of a second term, Bill O’Reilly announced the end of what he knew as America. But for some of us, it was a glimpse at the new America that we’ve been waiting for.
On the world stage, however, the clean new soul America appeared to have earned after the recent election means nothing. The US can't have a new soul when our President defines Israel's efforts to rain fire upon families and children as "self-defense." And there’s no reason for this to surprise anyone. Obama has consistently answered the whispered accusations of the Christian White Man by leaving no room to doubt his willingness to torch the bodies of Muslims, whether by state proxy in Gaza or remote control in Afghanistan.
It just so happens that as Israel slaughters the innocent, we are now in the start of Muharram, a month on the Islamic calendar in which Muslims are called to reflect on the suffering and injustice that permeate our lived reality. It was on the tenth day of Muharram, called Ashura (which is simply Arabic for the number ten), that Muslims, acting in the interests of the state, massacred the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, along with a number of his relatives and companions.
Husayn was the son of Fatima, Muhammad’s beloved daughter, the one of whom Muhammad said, “Anyone who harms her, harms me.” But Muslims in service of Yazid’s caliphate killed Fatima’s son and marched with his head on a spear across the desert. In Muharram, we remember not only the courageous stand of Husayn, who knowingly volunteered for this fate in a hopeless, unwinnable war against tyranny and oppression; we also remember the ones who shared in his fate simply because they were born into the losing side. This includes Husayn’s own son, Ali Asghar, who was only a baby when Husayn held him in his arms before the enemy camp, begging for water. The oppressors viewed this infant as a combatant, an insurgent against the state, and put an arrow through his neck.
The inhuman murders of Husayn and his people in the desert of Karbala—in what is now Iraq—became the definitive tragedy of Muslim history. Though this event can be seen as the moment the division of Muslims into what were later called Sunnis and Shi’as became irreconcilable, Sunnis and Shi’as often join in commemorating his sacrifice. Even non-Muslims honor Husayn, as can be observed in shared ritual spaces between Muslims and Hindus in South Asia. Likewise, many Muslim thinkers have extended the tragedy at Karbala to comment upon oppressions throughout world history. In 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Makhdum Muhiuddin honored Dr. King by calling his murder “the murder of Husayn.”
The universality of Husayn’s stand at Karbala is expressed in the statement of one of his descendents: “Every day is Ashura, and every land is Karbala.” The actions of unjust power upon one man and the men, women, elderly, and children around him are repeated everywhere in all times. The world is still filled with Husayns and Ali Asghars, the vast majority of them unknown and unreported. The world is also still burdened with its Yazids, who launch drone strikes on the innocent civillians but still received the Nobel Peace Prize. As we honor Husayn’s Ashura, another Ashura is happening right now in Gaza, and I have voted twice for a man who calls it self-defense. As it stands, I have voted for Yazid.
Michael Muhammad Knight is the author of nine books, including Journey to the End of Islam, the story of his pilgrimage to Mecca, for which he was called “one of the most necessary and, paradoxically enough, hopeful writers of Barack Obama’s America.”
Follow Michael Muhammad Knight on Twitter @MM_Knight
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