Safi explains Martin Luther King’s unfinished dream of equality

By Eric Acre, staff writer ||

This week’s Common Hour featured Dr. Omid Safi, professor of religion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a leader of the modern progressive Muslim movement, who discussed the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the continual struggle for equal rights and opportunities around the world.

Safi completed his masters and earned a Ph.D in both religious and Islamic studies at Duke University in 2000. He commonly writes for national and international news sources such as The New York TimesNewsweek, PBS, NPR, and NBC. He is also the creator of the popular blog, “What Would Muhammad Do,” for the Religion News Service.

Safi began his Common Hour speech by thanking the audience for the gift of their time, a practice that is deeply rooted in the Islamic tradition.

“Time is the one finite commodity in life which, according to the Islamic tradition, is prescribed or written down in heaven,” Safi said.

In doing so Safi recognized that audience members were dedicating an hour of their lives to him, and in return, he said he hoped the audience would leave the talk kinder, gentler, and more aware of their inter-connectedness.

Moving into the body of his speech, entitled “America, Islam, and the Unfinished Dream of Martin Luther King,” Safi referred to King affectionately as “Brother Martin” and spoke mainly about King’s lesser-known Riverside speech, in which he argued against America’s actions in the Vietnam War.

Safi explained that, while just about all of his audiences at his previous talks have known at least parts of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, very few people knew of the Riverside speech. Safi argued that the obscurity of King’s passion against the Vietnam War was intentional on the part of his opponents; while King is revered and proselytized for his groundbreaking work for civil rights, he was shunned for his disapproval of the war in Vietnam.

Safi then likened King to religious prophets, such as Jesus and Muhammad, all of whom preached the need for change in the face of atrocities.

“King was a revolutionary Christian who comes out of this prophetic tradition,” Safi said.

Safi compared King to the subject of one Mahatma Gandhi’s famous proverbs.

“When the prophets come, the establishment laughs at them,” Safi explained. “If that doesn’t work, they try ignoring them. If that doesn’t work, hey fight you. If that doesn’t work, then they kill you. Then you win.”

Safi then took the saying a step further and applied it to King’s legacy.

“If mocking you, if ignoring you, if fighting you, and if killing you doesn’t work, this is the last trick: it’s to take a prophet and turn that prophet into an icon, which is precisely what we have done to Brother Martin,” Safi said.

He argued that American culture has turned King into the “black American Jesus” and that his commemoration intentionally excludes his dissenting opinions on the Vietnam War, as well as other parts of King’s life that American culture does not view positively. During the last five years of his life, King became immensely unpopular, with dismal approval ratings, while simultaneously being described by the FBI as the most dangerous man in America.

King’s late pushes for a living wage salary for all men and his growing concern for global violence, including the children who were burned to death by napalm bombings during the Vietnam War, are the reasons behind his iconization.

“[King] begins to see that the racism in America is connected to the militarism and colonialism of it,” Safi said.

To this end, Safi recognized the fight for civil equality is still alive and well, especially as America spends billions of dollars on the military each year. Extending the speech to modern relevance, he referred to the daily profiling of Muslims in America and the unlawful captivity of Muslims in Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp. In Safi’s view, these examples of intolerance prove work still needs to be done to make the world a more equal place.

“It’s not a Democrat or a Republican thing, it’s American,” stated Safi in response to the blatant day-to-day intolerance currently occurring.

Safi concluded by arguing that America’s willingness as a country to take up arms and dedicate so many resources to the military is embedded in its culture, and, until something is done to change that, King’s struggle against violence and inequality continues.

First-year Eric Acre is a staff writer. His email is eacre@fandm.edu.

 
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