From Breath to Voices

Nadia Marzouki

Civil unrest in Philadelphia, PA. June 2, 2020. / Rob Buhlman / Flickr / CC-BY-2.0

The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020 triggered an unprecedented wave of protests in the United States and all around the world from Australia to the UK, France, Tunisia, and Iraq. This worldwide wave of protests exemplifies the multi-directionality and “polyfocality” (Dabashi) of grassroots forms of resistance to police brutality and systemic racism. 

Some government officials and public intellectuals — notably in France — have been prompt to condemn anti-racist protests organized in the wake of the Minneapolis protests, suggesting they are evidence of an attempt to divide French unity by importing US racial wars. The outdated paradigm of cultural imperialism totally misses the inventiveness and complexity of this simultaneous outburst of protests against anti-Black racism all around the world. The global upsurge of demonstrations reveals forms of relationships between US-based and other protesters that have nothing to do with cultural imperialism. They express an exceptional capacity for mutual learning, information sharing, adaptation to local contexts, and improvisation. In France, the committee “Justice for Adama” organized a protest in front of the Paris court on June 2 to claim justice for Floyd and Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old Black man who died in summer 2016 while in police custody. Despite the fact that the demonstration was not authorized, 20,000 to 60,000 demonstrators showed up. As shown by Audrey Celestine, comparing French and US forms of anti-Black police violence does not equate identification and confusion of the two countries’ distinct histories. The wave of post-Minneapolis protest is a story of reinterpretation and solidarity, not of extraction and assimilation. 

Map of protests around the world with over 100 participants. Minneapolis-St. Paul is marked in red. Click to open dynamic version. Source: Wikipedia maps | OpenStreetMap contributors.

In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), commentators and activists were prompt to describe the US protests as the American Spring, in reference to the wave of uprisings that toppled authoritarian regimes (successfully) in Tunisia and (unsuccessfully) in Egypt in 2011. Lebanese activists Sarah Aoun and Azza el Masri shared a set of guidelines for protest with American demonstrators, titled “From Lebanon to Minneapolis, solidarity everywhere.” From my Tunisian perspective, the resemblance between the murder of George Floyd in 2020 by US police and the Tunisian police’s assault against Mohamed Bouazizi in 2010 that led him to commit self-immolation is uncanny. To survive in an unfair system of “law and order” in which they had no place, both disinherited men were led to work and act beyond the law (Bouazizi’s fruit stand was technically illegal, and Floyd allegedly purchased cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill). Both victims of state-sponsored violence and police brutality turned into martyrs and icons of an unforeseen wave of protests. 

The current international wave of solidarity achieves two things. First, it makes the paradigm of cultural imperialism that officials and intellectuals from the left and the right like to agitate to disqualify so-called US-inspired protests irrelevant. Second, the Arab/American Spring analogy invites people to connect the discussion about race and anti-Black racism with the discussion of authoritarianism in and outside the US. Lebanese satirist Karl Sharro tweeted on May 29: “the US should invade itself to bring democracy to the US.” With this ironic tweet, he rightfully connected the issue of racial justice to that of US state violence, border control, and democracy failings. 

All too often, these two discussions have remained separate, especially due to the post-WWII knowledge repartition between area studies and the study of American democracy. In this framework, US anti-Black racism would be approached as a sort of cultural glitch that had nothing to do with America’s foundational narrative of the formation of its state institutions and national imagination. In the MENA, the culturalist fascination with the question of the compatibility between Islam and democracy has hindered the reflection on how postcolonial states were built on a complex system that interweaves class- and race-based forms of exclusion. A beneficial effect of the global wave of protests may be to de-parochialize discussions about race in the US and connect them with discussions about race- and religion-based discrimination in other parts of the world. Another related effect may be to de-compartmentalize discussions about race and discussions about the formation of postcolonial nation states and authoritarian regimes. 

For example, in Tunisia, where no one may straightforwardly identify as white, the simple importation of the US categories does not suffice to address racial discriminations. Yet, the idea of white privilege has been constitutive of the formation of the post-colonial Bourguibist nation state ideology. The idea of white privilege has operated through labels such as Phoenician, Byzantine, Mediterranean, and Ottoman that all function as ways to mark a class- and race-based distinction from groups alternatively deemed too dark, too Arabicized, too Muslim, too poor, too illiterate, etc. In the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings, anti-racist activists have created organizations to defend the rights of Black Tunisians. Black Tunisian women activists and scholars, such as Maha Abdelhamid and Huda Mzioudet, have been at the forefront of this struggle. This struggle has evolved in an intersectional perspective that connects the defense of Black Tunisians’ rights and dignity with resistance against gender discrimination and pan-Arab solidarity, notably with Palestine through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, thus belying the old colonial “divide and rule” trope that pits together Arabness and Blackness. 

A beneficial effect of the global wave of protests may be to de-parochialize discussions about race in the US and connect them with discussions about race- and religion-based discrimination in other parts of the world.

On June 6, the Tunisian association Damj, which advocates for LGBTQ rights, organized a protest of solidarity with American Black lives, holding signs with slogans such as “our revolution is queer, our revolution is womanist, our revolution is Black.” Members of organizations advocating against anti-Black racism criticized the blending of anti-racist advocacy with other causes such as gender rights and Palestine, arguing that it would detract from the need to focus on Black lives. Others emphasized the importance of intersectional and interracial coalitions. Echoing similar divides among protesters in the US, such debates and other forms of reverberations and reinterpretations of the US protests constitute the sites of protests not as mere sites of occupation — where disinherited bodies sacrificially resist police forces — but as collective sites of political creation and imagination. The current protests plant the seeds of a “worldwide struggle” that, as Sarah Azaranski showed for the 1960s, invites us to situate the current US movements for social and racial justice in a global wave of similar movements that are not led by grasstop leaders but blossom at the grassroots level. The global south plays a particularly important role both as a source of inspiration and as a place where US protests resonate in a particularly acute way. It is important to consider this cross-border diffusion to and from the US  to undermine the unconscious predisposition towards American exceptionalism that exists even amongst some progressive activists.  

This worldwide struggle produces its own form of spirituality and sacred rituals that weave together old and new symbols. The sacred transformation of places of protests into places of mourning and prayers in the US these past few months bring to mind images of Egyptian Copts surrounding and protecting their fellow Muslim protesters in the early day of the 2011 uprisings in Tahrir square. Such images of Egyptian interfaith solidarity echoed similar images of interfaith engagement during the contemporaneous Occupy movement in the US. Today, the rapid globalization of rituals such as taking the knee or chanting “we can’t breathe” and “Black lives matter” further contributes to the transformation of sites of protests into sacred spaces that transcend the religious/secular divide. The transnational formation of a sacred repertoire of moral outcry that puts matters of dignity and vulnerability at the center renders obsolete the paradigms of Islamophobia (Kambiz GhaneaBassiri) and clash of civilizations. As Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou argued, this wave of uprisings for social and racial justice marks the end of the post-9/11 era and writes the first act of a global resistance to right-wing populism and white supremacy in its various local forms. ♦

Nadia Marzouki is a research fellow at Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Paris. She is the author of Islam, an American Religion (Columbia University Press, 2017).

Recommended Citation

Marzouki, Nadia. “From Breath to Voices.” Canopy Forum, July 16, 2020.