What if Rev Martin Luther King had quoted the Quran?
America’s famed civil rights leader, Rev. Martin Luther King, had a dream. So why can’t the leaders of Tunisia’s recently victorious and Islamist Ennahda Party have one, too?
Yes, this is an odd comparison. But I got to thinking about King and other leaders of America’s 1960s civil rights movement this week listening to an argument between two former lawmakers at the Atlantic Council’s Black Sea Energy and Economic Forum.
Former Justice and Development Party, or AKP, deputy Suat Kınıklıoğlu took the “Western media” to task for allegedly prejudging Arab political movements with religious roots, always looking first for Shariah-peddling fanaticism. In the authoritarian history of the Middle East, the mosque was the sole venue for political organization, he argued. It should be no surprise that the best-organized parties should thus have origins in Islam. And they are not all out to subvert democracy, he argued.
In turn, former U.S. Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler answered that Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon have amply demonstrated the use by Islamic movements of democratic means to gain power – only to then subvert it.
Don’t misunderstand. My personal preferences would have all politicians as secular as Sweden’s Olaf Palme and I’d love to take “In God We Trust” off America’s money. But fair is fair and I found myself silently agreeing with Kınıklıoğlu. I also found myself wondering how much attention Wexler has paid to the history of a very important wing of his own Democratic Party.
The civil rights movement which reached its peak in the 1960s secured access to education, transport, even restaurants for millions of African-Americans denied these basic rights. In many American states such as Mississippi they were effectively denied even the right to vote. Until the work of Rev. King. And Rev. Jesse Jackson. And Rev. Andrew Young. And Rev. Ralph Abernathy.
Yes, there were ardently secular leaders as well; scholar Julian Bond is just one who comes to mind. But the movement that brought justice to American political life, and inspired other movements around the world from Ireland to France, was born in the church.
Why? For the very same reasons Kınıklıoğlu cited in his defense of Islamic politics. Throughout the centuries of slavery and post-slavery repression, the church (and to a lesser degree the mosque as well) were among the few institutions where black Americans could organize.
Many recall the most famous line from King’s “Dream” speech of 1963: “… I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…”
Less recalled is the fact that speech was laced with religious imagery including reference from the Bible’s Book of Isaiah: “…I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
In King’s day a black U.S. president was unimaginable. Four decades later, one was elected. Wexler might ponder just how that happened.