I’ve been having a discussion on Islam, democracy, and some other subjects on sister Gess‘s website, at the same time I picked up a book by Professor Cornel West, “Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism” that I borrowed from a good friend. 

images11Professor Cornel West is one of the very visible liberal popular public intellectuals who appears on many forums discussing various subjects mostly in regards to race, theology, philosophy and history.  I have watched a few of his lectures and I find much that is compelling and engaging but also some ideas that give me pause and seem to contradict his own methodologies and principles.  So I viewed this opportunity to read his book as a way to get a better knowledge of where he is coming from, what he has to say and what solutions he is advocating.

The book is about the importance of Democracy “matters” (used as both a noun and a verb), threats to Democracy matters both in America and around the world, the need to reinvigorate Democratic forces interlaced with historical background and shared experiences.  West declares that there are three nihilisms at work in American Democracy that need to be overcome: Evangelical nihilism, paternalistic nihilism, and sentimental nihilism.

Evangelical nihilism pertains to those who “mock truth, integrity, and principle by claiming that power, might, and force dictate desirable political action and what is right…rather than moral principles…the terms of what is just must be dictated by imperial elites because such exercise of power is necessary in order to ensure national security and prosperity” (p.30). This is embodied in the classical example of Thrasymachus the Sophist who argued this exact point to Socrates in Plato’s “Republic.”  West connects this with the Republican Party and the Bush camp who have lied, manipulated, and abused their power in goal of “American domination of the world.”

Paternalistic nihilism is what the Democratic party is guilty of.  He draws a comparison between the character of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov who has become so cynical, that although he knows the Inquisition is a peversion of the teachings of Christ carried out by a corrupt Church, he nevertheless takes part in the abuses. “He has come to believe that the corrupted church is the best that mankind can hope for because human society is simply not capable of living in the way Christ instructed…better not to rock the boat with pipe dreams of a radical transformation of society. The elite of the church can do more good, the Inquisitor believes, by working within the corrupted system, paternally deceiving the public, sheilding society from the terrible burden of the mandates of truth. He has cast his lot with corruption…the elites in the Democratic party have become ineffectual by having bought into the corruptions of the power-hungry system. Though they wish that the system could be made to serve more truly democratic purposes, they have succumbed to the belief that a more radical fight for a truer democracy, battling against the corruption of elites, is largely futile. So they’ve joined the game in the delusional belief that at least they are doing so in the better interests of the public…the Democratic party leaders seem to have lost the conviction that corporate elites can be forced to make concessions under the pressure of organized democratic forces.” (p.32-3)

Sentimental nihilism, is “the dominance of sentiment over truth telling in order to build up market share. Our market-driven media have become constrained in the coverage of unpleasent truths, much too preoccupied with the concerns and views of middle-class and upper-class white people, and much too beholden to the political persuasions of the media moguls…hense we have witnessed the breakdown in media ethics – going after “good” stories even if the truth has to be stretched or outright fabrications are condoned…many newspeople are deep believers in the principle of the free press and the special role it’s meant to play in our democracy, and yet that belief all too often amounts to sentiment cecause they fail to act more consistently on that principle.”  (p.36-7) This is embodied by the Bodin family in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which though Abolitionists and knowledgable of the horrors of slavery lack courage to speak against it because they fear social shunning.

These nihilisms lead to Imperialism as was the result in Iraq and Free-Market Fundamentalism, which is our Achilles heal parading as our crown jewel. “These three nihilistic threats connect the spiritual with the social, the personal to the political, and the economic to the existential.”

The way to counter these nihilisms is to combine Socratic questioning/examination with Prophetic witness/drive/vision and a Tragicomic dark hope that seeks the “democratic” inspiration of Blues and Jazz.  According to West this is the methodology and democratic forces that are vital to democracy matters at home and across the world.

What is problematic to me is his chapter “Forging New Jewish and Islamic Democratic Identities.” In this chapter he calls for Jews and Muslims to be critical (nothing wrong with that) and to take on his methodology of Socratic questioning to form democratic identities(problematic). In particular he advocates the works of Mahmoud Taha and his “Second Message of Islam” which according to some does away with the Medinan period of Islam and focuses on the Meccan period.  An overly liberal and in the end anti-intellectual and inaffective solution/contribution to reform of Muslim societies and renewal of Islam. It is careless of West to promote Taha who doesn’t have a large audience in the Muslim world though certainly all voices should be heard and be fairly treated and his murder by the State of Sudan was unjust.

On the Palestine issue he hardly covers the deep questions, hypocrisy and nihilisms of Israeli society; it’s demolition of Palestinian rights, it’s self proclaimed commitment to a Jewish state (a justification for genocide and violence towards Palestinians), the land grabs and violence of Israeli settler’s, etc. Though he calls on both sides to be critical and terms the actions of Israelis “inhumane” his analysis falls far short of fair and balanced critique.

He puts the oppressor on par with the oppressed when the monoply on power and violence is in the hands of Israel; the victimized Palestinians who lash out in unjustifiable suicide bombing are labeled “barbaric.”  There is no doubt that when Palestinians target civilians and those not responsible for the violence they harm the resistance, contradict Islam, and act criminally but the fact that this action is not justifiable does not mean that it’s underlying motive is not understandable: it occurs out of a deep dissatisfaction with occupation and daily State terror something he also fails to mention when asking Israelis to be critical. He begins from the premise that Israel’s origins are as a legitimate state that came into existence as similar liberation and independence movements across the world. He omits that the State of Israel itself was founded as Colonialist state, and the lack of acknowledgement of this tragic history is the greatest impediment to a peaceful and equitable solution to the conflict.  His non-recognition of this fact contradicts his principles and reeks of the same nihilisms he is fighting against. 

He goes on to state that the greatest Democratic possiblities may come out from the Palestinians and the Kurds.  This is an interesting statement especially since in quite free and fair elections after this book was written the Palestinians overwhelmingly elected Hamas into government. West was quite critical of Islamic revivalists movements which he equates with clerical authoritarianism and fundamentalism, but what would he think about this democratic out come in Palestine, does he believe it is a manifestation of the strong democratic possibilities of Palestinian society, or another manifestation of nihilism and if so how is he any different then George Bush and those Evangelical nihilists who parroted democracy and freedom only to destroy the democratic aspirations once a group they disliked came into power.  Also on the issue of the Kurds I believe West has glossed over the fact that one group the PKK and affiliated groups run Northern Iraq and are themselves quite autocratic and authoritarian when it comes to party’s who challenge their power.

His other contention is that so called Islamic revivalists movements are in power in the Muslim world when nothing can be further from the truth, he states, “the Islamic revival mobilized the masses and gained state power.”  Aside from Iran which is quite a problematic and unique case in itself (being Shia’) every Islamic revival movement from Algeria, Morroco, Lybia, Egypt, Syria, Sudan, until recently Iraq, Turkey, Bangladesh has not only felt the brunt of state repression but also state violence and subjugation.  They have been the reciepients of some of the most gross violations of human rights that such a statement by West is inconcievable. 

He goes on to state: “It is the legalistic conception of Islam that often authorizes an antidemocratic rule of Muslim jurists. This version of Islam is dominant in the world today…the present form of clerical Islam is an authoritarian effort to secure an Islamic identity and to run modern nation-states given the collapse of secular nationalism…like rabbinical Judaism or Catholic Christianity, clerical Islam is in no way the essence of Islam…therefore, the present task is to undermine the authority of the Muslim clerics on Islamic  and democratic grounds.”

The conception of Islamic “clerical” authority being on par with rabbinical Judaism and Catholic Christianity is nothing but a crude comparison. The fact is the uniqueness of Islam, sometimes to a fault but generally for the better, is that there is no Pope or hierarchy of established clerical authority; at least in the dominant Sunni tradition.  There is also hardly any rule of Muslim jurists in the political realm outside of the Iranian theocracy (which is singular in Islamic history), as the State has gone to enormous lengths to subjugate, co-opt and undermine Muslim Jurists at every turn.  The point of undermining clerics is crass and is exactly the same thing that Osama Bin Laden and other extremists have done and leads to nothing but anarchy and superficial understanding of Islam.  The fact is and this may be counter intuitive but the Islamic revivalists movements and their associated scholars, Callers, intellectuals, laymen, and workers have been the foremost cultural force for transformative change that reconciles Islam with the current historical context and situation. The eternal modernizing force and tool at the disposal of qualified scholars is ijtihad, or independent reasoning and is being used precociously being combined with tajdid or renewal of the Faith.  A good starting point to read about the conversation between Democracy and Islam is the book by Yusuf Qaradawi, “The Priorities of the Islamic Movement in the Coming Phase.”

In the spirit of Socratic questioning we must ask, “what is an authentic and truly prophetic model, organic to the historical paradigm of Muslim nations?” “Why should Muslims take on models and concepts from the West and show greater confidence in them then the West which has revealed a deep distrust and lack of confidence in Democracy and the Enlightenment,” and “since the historical trajectory of the Islamic civilization is different in many ways to that of the West and its relationship with religion don’t calls from Westerners for democratization lack historical knowledge and reek of paternalism.” To his credit West does say that “Western style democracy has no future in the Islamic world.”

I think the most salient point in the book and where he is his finest is when talking about our problems at home.  Our need to be self critical of the abuse of power, the nihilisms that it leads to, the destructive Empire that succumbs to Imperialisms and the proper way in which to engage our strong historical democratic tradition and forces against the dark side of American Empire.

This requires paidea, or the cultivation of critical and active citizenry, something in my opinion that not only non Muslims but also Muslims here and abroad can gain from. America can be a force for good if it checks it’s hubris, fights imperialism, and most importantly re-invigorates those forces that oppose expansionism, free-market fundamentalism, and oppression at home.