I am the 99 percent. Now what?

AltMuslimah Associate Editor, Nadia Mohammad has been following the Occupy ‘Wall Street’ (OWS) movement with regards to faith and gender. She will be publishing her findings and observations in a series of articles. This introduction piece includes her personal reflections and background on OWS. Subsequent installments will include commentary and in-depth interviews from several Muslim participants around the country, as well as coverage of faith and spirituality events occurring in conjunction with the movement and more.
I wanted to be on board with the Occupy ‘Wall Street’ (OWS) movement. Admittedly though, I have been flip-flopping in my views of the movement through its progression. The “We are the 99 percent” mantra of the participants resonated with me, early on. Unlike many of my generation, however, my struggle did not start with the recent economic recession and I do not view protesting as a healthy way to overcome these challenges.

Thirteen years ago my mother, my two siblings and I left my father’s abusive family in Pakistan to return to the United States. Our first nights of freedom were spent sleeping on the bathroom benches of Boston’s Logan Airport, and we survived the years that followed camped out in a friend’s basement. My former housewife mother worked hard to single-handedly provide for her three children, all the while battling a duel diagnosis of diabetes and breast cancer, diseases that left her unable to secure healthcare.

For my part, I tried to be the good Muslim daughter – I raised my younger siblings while my mother worked, graduated high school and college two years ahead of my peers, cared for my mother when she was sick, graduated law school, and committed myself to righting, as well as writing about, the injustices I saw in the world. Despite my industriousness and ambition, the recession left me, like many of my generation, overeducated, underemployed and burdened with student loan debt that my bailed out bank refuses to negotiate about. And though I am grateful to be in a more privileged position than I was thirteen years ago, I find myself, yet again, starting over from scratch.

So I get it. I get what it is like to work hard in spite of all that life throws your way, only to feel like the system is set up so that families like yours never win. As a Muslim, I believe a life lived for God is a life dedicated to serving humanity. In my heart, I know something is terribly wrong when the greatest country on earth prioritizes the accumulation of wealth and power for a few individuals over protecting basic human life and dignity. Those of us anchored by our faiths have come to this acute realization because it is our religious communities that are left to provide for those who fall behind as the gap between the have and the have-nots widens.

So how can a call from Adbusters for an experimental occupation of a symbolic location bring about the change we desire? Islam teaches its adherents to respect the law and seek social justice though constructive means. Emotionally charged gatherings lacking vision seem neither constructive nor strategic and have a great potential to turn chaotic. Based on the initial coverage it seemed the financial district of New York City had turned into a circus featuring all the fringe groups of my generation. Many were dismissing the protests as the inevitable radical leftist response to the Tea Party; in fact, some of the protestors themselves were purporting it to be so. As the movement grew exponentially across the United States, even more worrisome were the continuing reports of police abuses and arrests in cities such as New York, Boston and San Francisco.

So when I first visited the OWS site I expected to see rage and a Tyler Durdenesqe personality ranting in the middle of the park:

“I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. …”

Chuck Palahniuk would have been so proud.

Instead, I saw a quintessentially New York scene of mostly white man-boys with lost expressions and in need of hugs. It was tragically comical. They were gathered not on Wall Street itself, but a couple blocks away at Zuccotti Park. A makeshift information booth stood in the corner with a poster board schedule for the day, which included everything from a “slutwalk” to an anti-nuclear proliferation rally. Earnest intellectuals and the downright bizarre milled about. A few men stood off to the side discussing their latest Kickstarter project. One woman held a sign that read, “I remember the 90s.” Immigrant vendors, predominantly of Middle Eastern backgrounds, were parked in the area, eager to sell passersby bubble tea, gyros and “I Love NYC” t-shirts in an effort to achieve their own American dream. There was no apparent anger in the crowd, just despondent confusion. The protesters were not even inconveniencing the big businesses they claimed to hold grievances against, as mostly smaller retailers and restaurateurs owned businesses in the area. They were the ones being inconvenienced by the mess and crowds. As I walked away, I wondered with amusement if anyone in the crowd had noticed the dozens of “help wanted” signs hanging in store windows nearby.

Was this really what my generation had been reduced to – disenfranchised dreamers already nostalgic for their tween years, waiting around for their latest idea to pay off the debt their higher education gave them? The Arab Spring is supposed to be a source of their inspiration, but even with a rough year or two behind them, what did they know about decades of suffering and lost dreams endured by those in the Middle East, or people like my mother and the immigrant vendors around them?

There had to be something more to these protests, something that was not apparent to a mere passerby. I decided to reach out to Muslims who share my values but are in support of, and even actively involved in, the movement. I wanted to know what inspired them, what connected them to yet another seemingly “pale male” movement, and finally, what they hoped to achieve.

Overwhelmingly, the Muslims I spoke with felt strongly, as I did, about the duty of a Muslim to stand up for social justice. Many had found ways to integrate their faith into their activism and engage in meaningful interfaith and interracial dialogue. Interestingly, none identified the movement as a means to an end but rather, an initial step towards seeking those means. I will share more on their perspectives with the subsequent articles in this series.

Through these discussions, it dawned on me that perhaps it is a misnomer to refer to this solely as a protest and instead, we ought to see this as an open and public quest for answers that those in law, policy, academia, government and finance have grappled with for decades yet, are still unable to reach agreement. This search is turning into a social experiment in reviving American democracy from its core – the people – by calling on all people, even those who disagree with protesting and even those in finance and government, to meet and discuss our societal problems, find practical solutions and empower themselves. There are no visible leaders, but there is clearly a structure. There are no official demands, but there are strategies being developed, and only with active participant consensus. Furthermore, unlike the Tea Party, this movement is not operating under with any political affiliations and there are no special interest ideologies being pushed forth.

As this is an unprecedented form of organizing it is understandably unsettling for idealistic pragmatics like myself. As John Oliver of the Daily Show demonstrated, endearing as it is, the whole concept is a little weird, and it the tactics are, at times, frustrating. But it could turn into just the inspiration my restless generation has been searching for – a movement larger than ourselves.

Perhaps as the “American Fall’ turns into winter, the crowds will dissipate. The true test of this movement will be what happens after, when the ‘Occupy Something’ movement turns into the ‘Do Something’ movement and the participants move on to implement the skills learned. Ironically, this is exactly what our overpriced pedagogical institutions taught my generation to do with our corporate sponsored educations – believe we are worthy, think outside the box, start a movement and change the world. This is an awakening. This is not Palahniuk but, Rumi come to life:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about
ideas, language,
even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.

Nadia S. Mohammad is an Associate Editor at AltMuslimah.

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