By Amir Mohammad Esmaeili

Protests in U.S. signify changing the ‘paradigms of thought’ through youth activism and religion: American scholar

June 22, 2020 - 9:38

TEHRAN - A senior lecturer in African and African-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis tells the Tehran Times that widespread protests following George Floyd's death could be considered as “a sign of changing the paradigms of thought through youth activism and religion”.

On Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s letters to the youth in the West, El Hadji Samba Amadou Diallo also says, “I draw two important lessons from the first letter: young people must refuse to be confined to geographic and mental borders.” 

Diallo, who has a PhD in history and social anthropology, says he thinks that Ayatollah Khamenei’s first letter written on January 21, 2015 “speaks to all youths”.

Following is the text of the interview:

Question: Protests over police brutality and the death of George Floyd continue to rage across the United States. What is your view about the protests?

Answer: We might first place the killing of George Floyd by police in Minnesota in the global context of the current health crisis, I would say of general psychosis related to the Coronavirus pandemic. People around the world, including a large number of youth, were under stay at home orders. They were even more connected than ever to their electronic devices. In this atmosphere, any event becomes easily shared on social networks. That is the reason why the killing of George Floyd spread quickly in various countries and cities of the world.  This is what prompted people to leave their homes and go to the streets to express their sorrow. There have always been demonstrations, but the ongoing ones are unique in terms of their impact on the world. To someone such as me who lived in France for years before coming to the U.S., seeing these protests in a global context is very important. In France, it has reawakened the visible calls for justice for Adama Traoré.

In the U.S., from the end of slavery to the present day, the situation of Black people remains far removed from that of whites, who visibly enjoy enormous privileges in terms of education, job opportunities, healthcare, and housing. In the U.S., from the end of slavery to the present day, the situation of Black people remains far removed from that of whites, who visibly enjoy enormous privileges in terms of education, job opportunities, healthcare, and housing. This logic of exclusion from society is reproduced from one generation to another with changes that seemingly benefit only a few Blacks.

Now, placed in this context of a perpetual quest for resources and social equality and for a better life in a basically capitalist and unequal society, your question answers itself. Because not only will the protests continue in the future, they will gain momentum. You have seen the impressive number of non-Blacks on the streets calling for respect for others in a world where the issues of the times are more focused on human health. There will be further protests if Derek Chauvin’s trial is judged unfair by the people on the street. 

Q: Donald Trump talks about imposing law and order, and his hardline approach towards the protesters has been widely criticized for inciting violence. What is your take on his behavior?

A: There are times when a President must empathize with his citizens, or at least with the families of the victims. We saw former vice president Joe Biden went to Floyd’s home and meet with his family in Houston. The president did not show the same empathy.  In addition, by not denouncing this abuse of police violence in public, politicians promote a greater divide. In other words, to remain silent on these odious acts of killing is another form of violence (unreal, virtual, symbolic), which will one day turn into physical violence with more human deaths. For sure, violence breeds more violence.

Q: There is a statement that refers to the United States as a contradiction. Its founding principles embrace the ideals of freedom and equality, but it is a nation built on the systematic exclusion and suppression of communities of color. From the start, so many of this country’s laws and public policies, which should serve as the scaffolding that guides progress, were instead designed explicitly to prevent people of color from fully participating. What are the reasons behind this? And what is the possible solution?

A:  As I said earlier, the social and economic disparities between Blacks and whites are the result of an exclusive type of institutional, political, and social system. The classification of the few African slaves who arrived on the coast of Virginia and Maryland in 1619 was also based on their social origin and religion (non-Christian and pagan), rather than only on their skin pigmentation, their blackness. Later on, because of the growing number of Africans on the Eastern soil of America, European colonial masters from Britain, the Netherlands, France, and the Iberian Peninsula assigned them the qualificative “Negroes,” a derogatory term that was in their imagination for a long time. Those slaves became changeably Blacks, African-Americans, African-descended people, Black Americans, Black Natives, etc. What is important to learn from this story is the social construction of race, with the main objective of controlling the dominated groups and enforcing distance from them through multiple institutionalized laws and social norms. But how do those deemed inferior or oppressed perceive themselves? This is a tangential question.

The U.S. Constitution proclaims free and equal people, but everyone is aware this designation was not intended for enslaved Africans, but rather for the European settlers and their descendants.

The U.S. Constitution proclaims free and equal people, but everyone is aware this designation was not intended for enslaved Africans, but rather for the European settlers and their descendants. Many Blacks support the idea that individuals are not equal if there is a discrepancy in employment, food securitization, good schooling, housing, and healthcare. If we analyze the problem from the point of view of the one who suffers from ill treatment, then there is much to do in America. There is poverty in America, contrary to what I believed when I was in Senegal and saw the U.S. on TV, but I also heard about the so-called Black violence in America. 

The solution to this is that all levels of government in combination with civil society must invest in education. Concerned citizens must equally vote overwhelmingly for the candidates they think can help change institutions. Additionally, prison sentences are disproportionately heavy for many Blacks; it is necessary to revise the laws which incriminate them and ruin their future as full citizens. 

Q:  Have you ever heard about Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s letters to the youth in the West? 

A: Yes, I have read both of his letters.

Q:  What is your thought on them? What impact has these letters had on the youth in the West?

A: The first letter of Imam Ali Khamenei addressed youth in the Western world, especially in Europe and North America, but I think he speaks to all youths. It dates from January 21, 2015, ten days after the attack on Charlie Hebdo journalists by two young over-armed French brothers. I don’t know to what degree the letters have impacted youth in the West; I need to read more quantitative works on the subject. However, I draw two important lessons from the first letter: young people must refuse to be confined to geographic and mental borders, as he put it, and young Muslims, as well as young Blacks, may resort to violence to solve a problem, but they are not inherently violent. Briefly said, violence is not exclusive to any particular religion, race, or ethnicity. You see that his letter transcends Western youth and embraces the human. 

The second letter dated back to November 30, 2015. It is more sociological, in that it distinguishes different forms of violence, the most important one being state violence. States and their leaders organize various forms of violence, be it terrorist attacks—and Ayatollah Khamenei delved deeply into that matter—or the exclusion of certain categories of citizens from existing in the world. In this letter we sense hints of dialogues on the use of violence between the intellectual Ali Shariati and the postcolonial thinker Frantz Fanon, whose ideas Shariati spread in Iran by translating part of his work into Persian. I read Shariati’s letters to Fanon about whether religion can be an incentive for political revolution and social change. Fanon did not see how this could be possible, but predicted an Islamic awakening in the world and the rise of the question of minorities after decolonization.

Q: What will be the future of these movements?

A:  Recently, the world’s media have made extensive mention of Ferguson in 2014, when Michael Brown was killed by a police officer. There were protests in the city of St. Louis, where I live, but they faded away because of the weakness of spontaneity. Protests will also continue across the country and around the world more likely, if the police officer who killed George Floyd is found not guilty of murder. In general, protests happen from time to time, gathering hundreds or thousands of people, but true change lies in the hands of the decision-makers; institutions that make social injustice possible must change.  For example, people are talking more about defunding the police and investing in education and other forms of community. 
Q:  There are various claims about the effects of these protests on the result of the November presidential election in the U.S. Please tell us your opinion.

A:  Regarding the election in November, I think that Americans will vote en masse either to approve Donald Trump’s policies or to show that they aspire to change. I cannot tell what will happen, since things can change from one moment to another, and individuals are free in their choices. For sure, these protests will influence the ballot, either by the participation rate, especially that of Black voters, by high abstention on the part of minority groups, or the evangelical votes to boost the political ideals of Trump, who has already appealed to them by carrying a copy of the Bible in front of a church. The results will show America’s true face to the world. At the same time, they will provide another way of understanding American politics and reality on the ground. Let’s wait and see.
Q: How do you assess the mainstream media policies? What about social networks such as Twitter and Facebook?

A: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have relayed the news to a wider audience and exposed the protests. The new technologies of communication and social networks present an opportunity for the younger generations of protesters. Now, how to seize this opportunity and make a meaningful change in the lives of people is the greatest challenge they face. The Black Lives Matter movement is all over the world due to the role of those media outlets. Whether we want it or not, they can circumvent states’ censures and connect protesters of different nationalities and languages for the same cause. Used more as pedagogical tools than for entertainment, social media can be an agent for change in the world.  

Q: Could we consider these protests as an “awakening” among American people, especially the younger generation? 

A:  Even in America, the category of youth is changing at a rapid pace. Who are the protesters in American streets?  In America, the designation “youth” is assigned to those under 25, while it represents a more flexible group in some other countries, where it can go up to 45. Those who protested in America went beyond the “youth” age set, which means that protesting is trans-generational in the context of racial equality, or in a “supposed” post-racial society. The awakening is not exclusively for youngsters, it is for all people desirous of equality and social justice. 


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