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Rising with Standing Rock: A Muslim’s Perspective on the Struggle of Indigenous People

The terrible events that occurred in the immediate vicinity of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to the united Indigenous American movement and their allies, along with the global struggles of indigenous people throughout the globe should be a great concern to Muslims worldwide. Granted, we are not lacking in our fair share of pressing issues, it is my belief that we are religiously duty-bound to stand behind and fill the ranks of those who support Indigenous people’s right to defend their own rights, resources, and future generations.

It should be no mystery to many that the Indigenous people of the world have for centuries suffered at the hand of oppressors. Whether these oppressors happened to be Englishmen, Spaniards, corporate henchmen, Christian zealots, or even Zionist settler-colonists, the names, labels, and bodies differ but the systemic oppression is the same. Systemic denial of human rights and the prioritization of wealth and power acquisition by a few greedy and power hungry individuals over the basic inalienable rights of people, as we are well aware of, is not just a thing of the past or a figment of one’s wild imagination. Surprisingly, this unpleasant truth, to me an axiomatic, somehow cleverly eludes those pleasantly slumbering away as they go through their daily shuffles, dealing with the prosaic concerns of life. I am here to affirm that the struggle is alive and well and no amount of cleverly construed fabrications can alter it.

On the pristine banks of the Cannonball River gathered a group of indigenously led prayer-warriors who opened the eyes, minds, and hearts of the world to the destructive practices of state-backed corporations, practices that do not discriminate based on religion, creed, or ethnicity. Practices designed to maximize their enactors monetary gains at whatever cost. In this specific case, the victims suffered irreparable damage to their historically and religiously significant territory. Territory they rightfully argue was never ceded to their oppressors. Territory encompassing sacred sites, interred within them, the remains of noble ancestors, loved ones, forever effaced to make way for a pipeline, an inanimate metallic tube designed to shunt sweet crude oil to refineries elsewhere. A pipeline whose importance by its manufacturers and backers is touted as essential for the preservation of the country’s ability to stay economically competitive in a vicious unforgiving world. One that would arguably create jobs and bring about abundance and prosperity albeit with what in their eyes is an insignificant cost, the elimination of what little remains for the indigenous people who once roamed the entirety of this continent. They faced a police and military force that hurt instead of protected them, state representatives that violated their rights instead of upholding them, and a media machine that painted the victim as the oppressor and the oppressor as the victim. Standing Rock is a case study in classic oppression. Does this appear vaguely familiar to you?

I am not a religious scholar, economic expert, or environmental scientist, but the few kernels of truth I grasped through my Islamic tradition and experience in life, I believe, are enough for me to demarcate truth from falsehood. I encourage people to delve into the Islamic perspective on environmental stewardship, but all of us are familiar with where our faith puts us in relation to the defense of human rights, especially those humans who are facing oppression. The final prophet in a succession of many named and unnamed prophets, Prophet Muhammad (sawa) instructed us to stand in the face of oppression. He said that if we witness oppression, we should try to actively change it “with our arms,” and if we cannot do that then with our “wealth and families,” and if we cannot do that then with our “tongues,” and finally if we cannot do that, then to hate that oppression within ourselves, in our “hearts.” He further stated that if one hears a call from people beseeching us to come to their aid, then we wouldn’t be true to our faith if we ignored it – if we stood idly by, watching them endure, suffer, and sink under the weight of oppression. Sisters and brothers, I ask you, what have we done? In answering the call of the oppressed, our role models, our prophets, sages, imams, scholars have not specified who these oppressed people are, what skin-color they have or what belief system they adhere to. They are simply oppressed and on the Day of Judgement we will be asked about what we did within our capacity as Muslims to help.

The indigenous people, our brothers and sisters in humanity are shining a bright light on global system that has repeatedly violated the sanctity of life, that threatens our existence as race. Their oppressors are our oppressors. Their people are our people. Their children are our children. The price they pay is a price we all pay. Their pain is ultimately our pain. It may seem that they lost a battle at Standing Rock, but we know better that a battle seemingly lost may be the battle that forever awakens and rekindles thousands of other spirits and souls to fight on, to place a firm footstep in the ground, and to defiantly say no.

Every year, as a Shiite Muslim I walk into the confines of a Hussainiya to recount the wanton murder of the last remaining grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (sawa), Imam Husayn (a), who was slaughtered along with his 72 companions on the unforgiving desert plains of Karbala, Iraq, and every year his sacrifice, his memories rekindle my spirit, my soul. I attentively listen to the words “every day is Ashura, and every day is Karbala.” I listen to the poet recite that “if you hear of an oppressed person, then remember me,” and if “you hear of a thirsty person, then remember me.” I remember his heartbreaking cry to the world “is there anybody, any noble person out there, who will rise to defend me, my family, my women and children?” My eyes and heart swell up as I remember those heart-wrenching words as I imagine him in that predicament, that aching loneliness. Those words uttered by a lonely man who had just witnessed all his loved ones murdered, torn away from him, his friends, relatives and littlest of children swiftly taken away by a callous system that has no tolerance for human life and dignity, no matter how sacred. He was murdered, the battle was lost, his women and children fell into bondage, but his message of defiance, of resisting oppression, of sacrificing for the Sacred will forever remain. His blood overcame the brutality of the sword. His words ring true in our hearts and souls. Will we leave the Husayns, Abbases, Zaynabs, and orphans of this world alone in their own desolate Karbala, to make their final stands alone or will we in the spirit of answering that famous call to rise in defense of the Sacred, put ourselves, and our wealth and families on the line and proclaim as he did “hayhat mina-adhila,” we reject indignity for ourselves, and anyone and everyone!

The indigenous movement is alive and well. It is growing and they have invited the world, you too, to join. It is my desire and hope to see my Mohammadi, Haidari, Hussaini, Zaynabi, Jaafari, and Mahdawi Muslim sisters and brothers rise up and answer the call to join the ranks. Through prayer and action we will not let them down. Maybe we can be honored by title of “the greatest of friends” as Imam Husayn described his last faithful companions who stood with him, using their bodies to shield him and his loved ones from the piercing of arrows, jabs of spears, impact of rocks, and slashes of swords, until the very end. Maybe we can be like Zuhair son of Qayn who said he wouldn’t mind being chopped up a thousand times, burnt, and his ashes scattered and that repeated a thousand times for the sake of his love, Imam Husayn (a), the defender of the Sacred.

Rise brothers and sisters, rise in defense of the Sacred.

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About Mohammed Cherri