Friday, February 16, 1996
Oppression is alive and well at home, afar
Quran offers ways to deal with tyranny
By Maryam Abdallah
"… Oppression is worse than death."
I must admit when I first read this statement, I was somewhat
taken aback by the notion that anything could be less desirable
than death. What surprised me more, however, was that this
statement was found not in political/revolutionary literature, but
in a religious text.
I’m not sure when oppression became just another buzzword. News
of oppression or hardship was taken seriously when societies were
smaller and individuals were presented only the information that
was relevant to their daily lives. Those who learned that kin or
tribe members were suffering injustice nearby would take measures
to relieve them.
As the human family became larger, news that didn’t seem to be
immediately relevant to individuals became a daily part of their
information intake. Someone in Norway would hear about a revolution
in Ethiopia and wouldn’t be sure how to process and deal with this
As information systems became more refined, individuals
everywhere gathered in front of the radio and television to find
out the latest horror stories happening somewhere in the world.
Because of distance and a sense of political alienation,
individuals were taught to be viewers of history rather than
participants; history became a finalized event stamped by CNN
rather than a process in which to be actively engaged.
It is against this background that we have gathered daily to
watch ongoing atrocities worldwide. Let’s pause to view some of the
1. In Bosnia, well over 250,000 Bosnian Muslims lie dead, and
nearly 90,000 women have been raped. The United Nations has stepped
in to enforce a peace treaty, but the bumbling implementation makes
clear the motives are far from humanitarian; promising markets in
the nearby former Soviet republics seem to be more of an impetus
for intervention than the innocent 4-year-old charred bodies.
2. In Cuba, almost 50,000 individuals are declared to have
perception complications – i.e. sporadic blindness – thanks to a
U.S.-led embargo against the country.
3. In Chiapas, the poorest state in Mexico, indigenous farmers
have been forced off their land by the government. Thousands have
been killed in what is now called "civil" war.
4. In Ethiopia, countless gallons of Ethiopian blood sent to
Israel for the humanitarian goal of blood transfusions have been
found dumped by the Israeli government. Outraged Ethiopians ask why
the Israeli government – whom they considered brothers and sisters
in faith – deemed their "black blood" less desirable than that of
the primarily European Jews who inhabit Israel.
5. In Burma, a 30-year-old dictatorship continues to maintain
6. In Peru, youth movements to overthrow the illegitimate
Fujimori government have been forcibly squelched. Dead bodies
7. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s brutal military regime has
slaughtered thousands of indigenous Kurds and anyone who tries to
speak out against the dictatorship.
We see the same type of murderous "silencing" throughout the
Middle East, Africa and Asia. The list can go on forever. It seems
that no corner of the world has freed itself from the grip of some
form of oppression.
Stepping back from these specific instantiations of injustice,
we can see certain patterns developing.
In a post-World War II environment, in which a "New World Order"
is declared the reigning motif, the blatant practices associated
with pre-World War II colonialism and imperialism seem out of
place. Instead, these isms have been replaced by other isms –
neocolonialism and Zionism – which accomplish the same goals as
their ideological ancestors by far subtler means.
In the case of neocolonialism, the United Nations, the World
Bank and the International Monetary Fund – officially representing
all nations, great and small, but in practice controlled by the
same Anglo/European nations that divided the world among themselves
– have served as a cover for international exploitation.
For example, in Cuba, the fact that the world community, minus
the United States, has reversed its position on the Cuban embargo
has not altered that policy.
In the case of the World Bank, money is loaned to poor nations
at exorbitant interest rates. When the loans can’t be paid back –
and the bank knows that they never will – it begins to demand the
implementation of certain policies that run counter to the interest
of the other 99 percent of that nation’s population.
Finally, it is no longer necessary to take over a country and
force upon it a particular policy if the same can be achieved with
puppet leaders. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Peru and Haiti all come to
In the case of Zionism, the simple goal to achieve a homeland
for a persecuted people has turned into a genocidal menace. The
illegitimate state of Israel, set up after World War II in the
midst of an already thriving Palestinian nation by an insensitive
coalition of world powers led by the United States, has caused
nothing but discord in a region on the verge of a third world
While South African policy toward blacks is properly called
apartheid, Israel’s policy toward Palestinians is euphemistically
called "security measures" thanks to amazing media spin doctors. No
other issue, including Israel’s yearly collection of $6.3 billion
from the United States, has been more hidden by a politically
When discussions of oppression reach this level of detail and
analysis, they usually come to a halt. It is somewhat acceptable to
discuss global oppression – regardless of the unsavory details – as
long as the realities remain at arm’s length.
The more threatening discussion about oppression involves
subtleties that occur daily in the United States. Here, with the
exception of isolated cases, military force is not the main
indicator of oppression. With cleaner techniques to keep citizens
in line, U.S. economic leaders and policy makers manage to maintain
power and economic clout while avoiding the bloodstains that
accompany blatant slaughter.
Instead of driving a tank, U.S. oppressors drive a BMW; instead
of wearing military uniforms, they wear business suits; instead of
holding a gun, they hold a pen: One signature by the CEO of IBM
sent 40,000 people out of the office and into the streets of
McDonnell Douglas, despite a 24 percent profit, continues to
fire thousands of employees. On the racial front, zoning for
minority-packed ghettos reveals long-term intentions of racist
policy makers: The typical ghetto corner alternates between
churches and liquor stores – church, liquor store, church, liquor
store. I haven’t noticed the same pattern in Bel Air, Brentwood or
Furthermore, the content inside these stores is more telling:
malt liquor, including the infamous Colt 45, is available primarily
in poorer neighborhoods; the Westside has probably never seen them.
Why? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that these malt liquors
contain resin – an unhealthy and potent compound.
In light of these endless examples of oppression, we might be
tempted to declare the situation hopeless; turn our backs and close
our eyes and ears to further incidents of slaughter and
However, as a Muslim who has been made aware through the
teachings of the Quran that oppression is indeed worse than death
(in the former, one dies daily; while in the latter, a form of rest
is available), desensitizing myself to the problem is not a viable
Islamic philosophy demands that if oppression is known to exist,
it be changed "with the hands" (i.e. directly by action and/or
If this isn’t immediately possible, then the Muslims must
challenge the oppression "with the tongue" (i.e. speak out against
Finally, if under particularly extreme circumstances, neither
option is feasible, the injustice must be confronted "with the
heart" (one must be cognizant of the oppression).
In the realities of modern-day politics, it is doubtful whether
the first duty can always be carried out. Covert and overt forms of
oppression take place daily, whether manifested in something as
blatant as genocide or as subtle as the repealing of affirmative
Until a direct link is re-established between the world’s
citizenry and its corresponding socioeconomic policy, perhaps the
latter two injunctions will serve as a starting point for global
Abdallah is a 1994 UCLA alumnus. There will be a demonstration
concerning domestic and global oppression in Westwood Plaza at noon
today. Among the supporting groups are the Muslim Students Union,
the African Student Union, MEChA and Samahang Pilipino. The event
is open to all who think.
The more threatening discussion about oppression involves
subtleties that occur daily in the United States. Here … military
force is not the main indicator of oppression.