Protest or Perish: Lessons from The Ant Colony

The pervasive issue all around us, overwhelming our senses, is the student protests that are taking place all over the country and the suppression of these protests by brute force. Universities all over the country are declaring the protesters to be “trespassers” and calling in the police to forcibly remove these so-called “trespassers.” There is much to say and reflect on. Some points are rather obvious, others are not so obvious. But let us start with the most straightforward issue of all: what are these protests about, and what does the response of various universities and their administrations tell us?


It does not take a genius to see that the U.S. is not simply complicit in this genocide. Rather, this is an American genocide. The planes used in Israeli attacks on Gaza are American-made planes. The missiles fired on Gaza are American missiles. The entire war machine that Israel is leveraging against Gaza would not be possible without U.S. technology, weaponry, and support. Unlike the Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam wars, the U.S. is not using boots on the ground. We are not sending in actual marines. In every logistical sense, however, this is an American war anchored upon American taxpayer money. Without American taxpayer money, this war could not be.


It is a very important point that throughout history—even in medieval Baghdad, Cairo, and Damascus—social movement was always anchored in student movements. There is much to say about why. The student generation, by the nature of its psychological and social development, tends to reflect upon earlier generations and ask itself that eternal question: "Will our generation repeat the same mistakes? Are we going to be the same? Or will we be the generation that makes a difference?" It is because of that question that student movements have long agitated for change and carried the social energy to protest immoral and unethical policies.


An active student movement is, in fact, a sign of social and political health. The more active a nation’s student population, the more it is a sign that that nation exhibits creativity, innovation, and energy. In other words, the more it is a sign that this generation will not simply repeat patterns of previous misconduct. To one extent or another, an active student movement is a sign that a nation has a system of self-criticism and self-correction. A lively student movement is a sign of good health, sociologically and politically, and a dead social movement is a sign of ill health, sociologically and politically. It should not be a surprise, then, that a student movement should be scandalized and traumatized by the constant flow of atrocities in Gaza. That is, in fact, normal. 


It is normal to react in horror at the children, women, and elderly who are being murdered daily. For months now, the world has witnessed Israel killing civilians on live television. The world has seen mass graves where it is clear that Israel has carried out mass executions. The world has seen hospitals, schools, aid workers, U.N. personnel, and journalists attacked. The world has even seen Israel destroy Palestinian gravesites, attacking the dead. It is not a surprise, then, that students with any level of social consciousness should look at these atrocities and be scandalized by what they see.


These students intuitively know that we are paying for this genocide. It does not require a great deal of complexity, nor a great deal of nuance, to see that this is our money. It does not take a genius. It is clear that these are our planes, our missiles, and our weaponry. This genocide is carried out through our violence. Morally, it is not that the U.S. is simply aiding or complicit in this genocide. Rather, we are the genocide. 


What is abnormal and unnatural is not the response of students but rather the logic of Israeli exceptionalism. What warrants explanation is the fact that a powerful countermovement is telling these American students, "Do not worry if your tax money is being used to slaughter children and civilians halfway across the world." The pro-Israel movement argues that we should trust Israel when Israel decides in its own estimation that there is an existential threat to itself. Trust Israel when, using the same logic, Israel attacked its neighbors in 1967 and occupied vast swathes of land in the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and Sinai. Trust Israel in 1985 when Israel invaded Lebanon and killed thousands of civilians in Beirut. Trust and never question Israel, even when Israel is led by right-wing fanatical Zionists and openly racist politicians. Trust Israel and do not ask questions, for Israel has a special status. That is the very logic of the pro-Israeli movement.


We then come to the next point. Throughout history, whenever student movements agitated for change, those with a vested interest in the status-quo have sought to impeach the student movement by claiming the students have been influenced and “brainwashed” by agitators and troublemakers. In other words, they have denied students the pride, value, and honor of independent thinking and legitimate concern, claiming that it is all because of the influence of “outsiders." But who are these outsiders? Who are these shadows and ghosts? They are never identified.


It is the very nature of suppression to imagine shadows and ghosts in every corner. It is the very nature of political repression to claim there are hidden threats unknown to the average human being. It is not surprising, then, that the response to many of the student protests throughout the U.S. has been to say that they are “infiltrated by agitators.” That way, when the university and police repress our students, they can say that they are not actually silencing our students; rather, they are but silencing voices that have been influenced by outside, shadowy agitators.


Does anyone know who these shadowy agitators are? No. They were invoked in relation to the student protests against the Vietnam War. They are claimed by every imperial power when that power meets opposition, and this is precisely what we have seen all over the U.S. in response to student movements. University administrators convince themselves that a conspiracy of agitators, dark shadowy figures, are using the students as pawns. Whether they really believe it or not is immaterial. Once you reach that type of thinking, it becomes possible to do what we are seeing all over the country. It becomes possible to suppress and persecute our children.


There is a very important point here, and I often think of this point in rather unusual terms. Think of ant colonies. Ant colonies offer us a remarkable, intuitive lesson. Ant colonies have been created by God to educate and teach us. Ant colonies survive by a remarkable manifestation of the laws of complexity. There is a queen in the ant colony, but the queen does not micromanage the colony. The queen does not issue commands to every ant in the colony. For the colony to work, it relies on each individual in the colony to perform a specific role and have a function without having to wait for commands from above. Each ant is inspired by God to intuitively know what their role and function is.


The colony appears remarkably well-ordered and well-structured. It works like the discipline of a clock. Every member of the colony performs its role, and that role contributes to the collective good: the survival of the colony. But the survival of the colony relies on something that is most fascinating and most educational. It relies not just on the collectivity doing its job. It relies on the singular lone explorers, those ants who go off on their own, away from the mass of the colony, straying away from the general population that continues to work like clockwork. Those singular explorers go off on their own, searching for food. And once these explorers find food, they leave a trace of odor so that others in the colony can trace their footsteps and, having found the food, integrate the discovery for the benefit of all.


This is how an ant colony survives. Without these individual explorers, the colony dies. The colony will simply deplete whatever food source it relies on, so if no new food is found, the colony will die. It is these individuals that go off on their own, risking their lives, without knowing if they will find anything or ever return to the colony. It is these individuals—the pioneers, researchers, and discoverers—that discover food for the benefit of all. And that is what the collective relies on in order to survive.


Now imagine a collectivity that does not encourage these pioneers, these independent researchers, these risk-takers. Imagine a collectivity that suppresses all initiative, creativity, innovation, and declares, "No, stay within the lines. Do not dare think for yourself. Do not dare investigate and explore." What happens to this ant colony is that no new food will be found and, eventually, the colony will starve. 


Such is the case with social orders as well. When our students dissent, they are the explorers and pioneers. They are saying that the earlier generations of parents and grandparents, and politicians representing us, have strayed from the course. So, when universities suppress these students, it is like an ant colony shooting itself in the foot, for what the universities are telling these students is: "Our order is more important than your autonomous thinking." All over the U.S., universities are telling their students to color within the lines. “Express yourself within the time and place restrictions that we give you." In so doing, however, these administrators are killing the pioneers. They are teaching the pioneers that law and order is more important than creativity and innovation.


Those who love Israel, right and wrong, moral or immoral, do not care about the health of society. They do not care that American tax money, weaponry, and technology is being used to commit a genocide. They have another priority. If the U.S. acts immorally for the sake of Israel, so be it. The fact these students are displaying all what is essential for the health of a democracy—creative thinking, moral consciousness, and social ethics—is irrelevant for them. Israel is more important than any of that. What they are interested in is the supremacy of Israel, not for the moral and ethical health of this country.


What lesson are we sending our children? That is what is truly tragic. We are telling our children to “play within the rules.” We are demonstrating to them the power of immorality and the lack of social and political ethics. As pioneers, they need to color outside the lines. They need to work beyond the limits that we have given them. But this is not what we are teaching them. 


Do encampments really impede the educational mission of a university? People can continue to attend classes, but the encampment bothers the conscience of Israeli supremacists, so they want to send a message: "Do not dare have creative pioneers who could threaten Israel's supremacy and special status as a state beyond morality. There is no moral accountability when it comes to Israel. Israel is the exception to every moral thinking. Israel can occupy and dominate. Israel can repress and murder. Israel can torture. Israel can do whatever Israel wants. We do not want these stray ants who ask questions that have never been asked before. We do not want the moral discoverers. Stay within the lines."


If Israeli supremacists had their way, there would have been zero Vietnam protests and the Vietnam War would have continued until today. It is no coincidence that supporters of Israeli supremacy have been among the staunchest supporters of American immorality in the War on Terror because, again, their loyalty is not to an American moral order. Their loyalty is not to an ethical America. Their loyalty is to a supremacist Israel, and anything is worth that: even the price of the U.S. being marred by the immorality of imprisoning people without trial; even the immorality of “black sites” and the use of torture; even a racist, bigoted, and Islamophobic America. Everything is worth it for the sake of Israel.


If universities understood their mission, they would embrace and encourage these students for daring to think like pioneers and for refusing to repeat the mistakes of the past. They would actually aid and support students with a social consciousness; students who ask how their tax money is used; students who insist that, as a country, the U.S. should not be manufacturing weapons nor acting like an imperial power around the world. Instead, university administrators are acting like oppressors, not educators who care about the moral and ethical health of the collective. When they tell students, "Behave, accept, and be subservient; do not ask questions or challenge the rules; keep silent as you see the continuation of past mistakes," then educators themselves become part of a system of oppression. 


The example of the ant colony explains so much. It not only edifies and educates us about student protesters. It also educates us about us, as Muslims. Think of Muslim spaces and activity today. The survival of the colony relies on two equally important functions: structure and order, on the one hand, and daring and innovation, on the other. The survival of the colony relies on those who leave the collectivity and go out as explorers, risking their lives and well-being in order to benefit the collectivity. It is then the task of the collectivity to integrate and benefit from the discoveries of these explorers.


I therefore ask you: as Muslims, what do we do vis-a-vis our explorers? Why is it that we are in the shape we are in? It is because we are like an ant colony that raises our children on the idea that what God wants from us is to stick between the lines. But the health of an Ummah depends not on those who are mundane, unexceptional, and who stick within the lines. The health of the Ummah relies on those who can think outside the box, who can be creative and innovative, who are pioneers and explorers that risk everything. And the health of the Ummah relies on the ability of that Ummah to benefit from the discoveries of these explorers.


That is how an ant colony survives, and human society is exactly the same. Societies that are closed off, authoritarian and despotic, with no space for exploration, innovation, and creativity, threatened by what is different and new, will stall and eventually rot and die.

How is our educational system? How do we raise our children? How do we function? Do we, as Muslims, encourage the explorers, the pioneers, and the creative thinkers? Do we benefit from their explorations, or do we call them “Mu'tazili,” “Shi'i,” and “liberals” to marginalize and exclude them? Think of this when you try to understand why Muslim society has stalled and become so ineffective that over a billion people in the world are unable to do anything about a genocide happening before their very eyes. It is God’s Sunna. God creates in every social order intellects that go beyond the boundaries. These intellects are like these pioneer ants. But the difference between a society that progresses and a society that stalls and dies is that the former celebrates the discoveries and empowers its pioneers and explorers, while the latter is threatened by the pioneers and explorers and has no place for them. The latter society tells these pioneers: “If you go off on your own, then you are not welcome back, and whatever you discover, we are not interested in it, because we are settled in our ways.” 


A society like this will atrophy, rot, and die, and this is precisely what has happened to us as Muslims. Look around. See how much Muslim capital is dedicated to celebrate exploration, pioneering activity, and innovation. And see how much Muslim capital is cowardly and dedicated to simply maintaining the status quo. When you donate to build another mosque, for example, you are simply investing in the status quo.


But there is another critical point. It is something that I may have to elaborate upon in another khutbah. It relates to the standards of collectivities. These standards are created and maintained by what the collectivity considers to be the norm. If individuals within a Muslim collectivity have not benefited from the explorations and discoveries of the pioneers, of the creative, discovering minds, then those individuals will mirror the overall standard of the collectivity. Put bluntly, one of the greatest challenges within collectivities is what is considered the standard for what is “good” or “impressive” within that collectivity.


Put differently, if collective Muslim standards are low; if what counts for a reasonable discourse within Muslim spaces is low; then do not be surprised if that collectivity, because it does not benefit from pioneering work, never challenges itself, never moves forward, and simply stagnates and mirrors that low standard, time and again, in whatever institutions it builds. This is why Muslims create Muslim institutions but the actual product of these institutions is hardly remarkable, hardly pioneering, hardly creative, and hardly innovative. The institution simply regurgitates the dynamics of stagnation, because the collectivity has lost its ability to produce creative, novel, innovative discoveries and explorations.


I say all this to make an important point about student protests. For all my time in the U.S., for over 30 years, I have been pleading and begging wealthy Muslims to invest their money in educational institutions. These are the institutions that educate your children. These are the institutions that maintain the intellectual rigor of the societies in which we are a part. Money talks in educational institutions. The reason that administrators all over the U.S. have responded to the pressure to repress freedom of speech, to suppress pro-Palestinian demonstrators, to fight the pioneers and explorers, to oppress our own children, is quite simply because of the pressure exerted upon them by donors. In my institution, UCLA, I know a considerable amount about the pressure exerted by donors upon university administrators to suppress free speech, to call the police on our students and children, and to use the police to throw our children into prison. It is the existence of this money in educational institutions that is now being leveraged for political purposes. 


For thirty years, I have been begging Muslims. We now see our children being arrested, but because we have not invested in our educational institutions, we have no voice in our educational institutions. There is no multi-million Muslim donor who can call the chancellor of UCLA and say, "You know what, I will not donate another dime if you arrest my child and his friends." And because there is no such donor, we see what is unfolding on these campuses. For thirty years, I have asked myself, "Why is it that Muslims are so resistant to investing in the institutions that can produce these pioneers, these explorers, these ants that go off and make discoveries for the good of all?" 


The sad answer is that it is because of the collective intellectual climate in the Muslim world.


Put bluntly, the people I talk to do not have the intellectual awareness, the consciousness, to even understand the importance of creative thinking, innovation, and exploration. They are the product of colonized societies raised on despotism. They were weaned on autocracy, dictatorship, and despotism, so they value order and structure. “Women go to their place, and men go to their place.” They want to see things that are predictable, not unsettling, and certainly not challenging. They want to see what they are accustomed to seeing. So, when you try to tell them to invest in something different, in something exciting, innovative, and creative, to support what they have not been supporting for the past thirty years, their reaction is the exact reaction of people raised in despotism and autocracy: immediate suspicion, fear, and anxiety. If you are raised in despotism, then you are raised on anxiety.


Recently, with my own children, as I thought about my anxiety that they may get arrested at these demonstrations, I compared it to the anxiety I felt back home, in Egypt, when we would fear political repression. I chuckled to myself, because there is a world of difference between the two. Back home, the fear is indescribable. Back home, you know that political activism means you could die or be tortured for hours and hours. You know that you risk being destroyed as a human being simply for expressing your opinion. When I was thinking of my children, then, I realized how deeply embedded the fear is in me because I was raised in a despotic society. The anxiety that I feel is the anxiety of destruction, not the anxiety of a simple arrest and a release and a misdemeanor. When you try to tell rich Muslims to invest in what they do not know, autocracy has taught them to fear the unknown, to experience an anxiety that is crippling.


One final example. Recently, a report was published about how, in Saudi Arabia, people who expressed condemnation of Israel on social media—even saying things as mundane as "Israel has committed war crimes"—have been arrested. Let me remind you that in Saudi Arabia, committing a social media offense means you could go to prison for decades. Salma Shehab was sentenced to thirty-four years in prison for a simple tweet. Manal al-Gafiri was sentenced to eighteen years in prison for expressing views on social media. Another woman, Manahel al-Otaibi, in November 2022, was arrested and has disappeared to this very day. So, when Saudi Arabia arrests people for criticizing Israel online, we are talking about consequences that could lead to the destruction of these peoples’ lives. 


What do you expect from people raised in such a society? But I have an even larger point. What do you expect from Muslims in general when the very people who are the “Guardians of the Holy Sites” are responsible for such atrocious acts of injustice? My son can go to an encampment to protest against Israel, get arrested, and be released the next day. In Saudi Arabia, simply criticizing Israel on social media could land you in prison for thirty years.


The key to any change is understanding. Without understanding, there is no hope of reform or change. The key is to first understand the value of those who think beyond the lines, the value of exploration and innovation, the value of the dissenters in our midst. Not those who affirm the norm and offer nothing new. The key is to understand that growth means benefiting from the discoveries of these creative minds. It is to understand the extent to which authoritarianism and dictatorship has eaten away at our very soul. Gaza is teaching us that in the post-Gaza world, everything in the Muslim world must change. The very way we think about our relationship to God and to our religion must change.

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