The American public is in a free-fall debate on whether or not to bend the knee as a show of support against racism. It’s a question I have myself wondered over the last two weeks, each time through a different perspective.
In one conversation, I wonder if we would have ever gotten to this crisis point as a nation if we took seriously the pain and perspectives when, in 2016, footballer Colin Kaepernick quietly ignited the “take a knee” act of resistance against ongoing racism. If we invited a conversation then, could we have diffused the nuke by addressing that, while race is a biological fiction, that fiction has created numerous problems we need to sort out?
I observed the innocence with which many protesters recently took a knee, including an elderly man who, in his silver years, still felt like he belonged to this world enough to partake in it.
In trying to understand what he might be experiencing in that moment, I reflected on the idea of “submission” in Islam. A purely voluntary submission is not defeat; it’s humility. But was his submission voluntary or was it social pressure? Was it social pressure or was it behaviorly shaped by witnessing so many other people bending the knee?
This is how I navigate the world. I put pieces of it under the microscope of perspective. I rotate the dial through different experiences — magnifying, focusing and then de-focusing the pictures. Then I decide, better informed by putting myself into those different experiences and then (when necessary) separating myself from them.
I know that bending the knee doesn’t end racism, but if someone feels better about doing it, that is their choice and they have the right to it.
I also know that some of my colleagues in the preventing violent extremism sector don’t feel comfortable talking about extremism at this time and want to leave the spotlight focused on the protesters. I respect that, but I don’t agree with it.
As professionals in countering and preventing violent extremism, we have a duty not only to understand the extremist groups on the fringes of society but also to study and call out behavior of the mainstream when it begins to resemble that of the extremists:
Radicalism is the belief that there is only one way to live.
Extremism is forcing others to live by that way.
If someone wants to take the knee, they can. Forcing other people to bend the knee, through physical or psychological violence or coercion, falls into the realm of extremism.
Hysteria, especially generated by organized rage mobs and their intimidation tactics, threats of escalated violence if groups or individuals do not fall on their knees in submission, demands to imitate surrender, and other forms of public degradation and abuse in order to elevate one idea above others, is extremism.
Bending the knee under the social pressure of a mob will not address the bedrock brutality of the constructs and practices of generations of horrendous history and the way bigotry and hatred continue to manifest today.
As professionals in the field of preventing violent extremism, we have seen how identity politics began paving the way for radical rhetoric, and this rhetoric began justifying acts of extremism.
As a South Asian woman and a Muslim reformer, I know too well what social pressure looks like, what the mob looks like, what having your voice silenced and distorted feels like. I can’t possibly expect my experience to be widely understood by others, but I don’t need it to.
World renowned author of the Game of Thrones series, George R. R. Martin, did that. He gave us Daenerys Targaryen, which HBO turned into a winning TV series. That series pulled in 19.3 million viewers, who watched the story of an oppressed woman who, through good intentions and idealism, became a tyrant who literally set the world on fire. She leaned into her rage. She shifted from becoming the abused to the abuser. In short, she demanded people bend the knee to her.
We can learn the hard way what history teaches us — that one oppression never wipes out another. Or, we can let a TV show teach us the same powerful lesson. Either way, old paradigms of brutality and force will not birth a new world.
Only new paradigms of real listening and empathy can do that.