In the broad range of interviews we have conducted over the years, this was by far the one interview that could not have been better timed in both its scheduling and in the conversation. Cornel West is a seminal figure on issues of race and religion in America.
He is a busy man, with multiple interviews and appointments lined up back to back. But when I was introduced to him, he approached me and exclaimed, “I don’t always get an opportunity to sit with my Muslim brothers and sisters, welcome, welcome, alright, alright, take your time!”
He was beyond warm, extremely easy to talk to, very vivacious and more than animated in his responses.
The sit down offered some great insights into the America of today, New Atheists and their take on Islam, more exposed racism of today in America, and the trajectory of where Muslims are now in the course of American history and its treatment of minorities. West casts a more bleak image of where the treatment of Muslims will likely go in the future.
West’s insights are important in helping explain minorities, Muslims included, of America today and it’s a conversation we hope to continue with him in the future.
Interviewed by The Islamic Monthly Editor Amina Chaudary in the Fall of 2014
The Islamic Monthly (TIM): When you look at the overall history of America and its relation to outsiders and minorities, where do you place Muslims then and now? What will we face if we follow your vision of that trajectory in the coming decades?
Cornel West: America began as a Protestant Christian project, which is to say, it was a colonial settler project, but it’s the Protestant Christian culture and religious component that is central. So from the very beginning, it is the White Supremacist and in domination vis-à-vis indigenous peoples, their land violation, dispossession of their babies and women and men. And the dispossession of the lands was a precondition for American democracy. Then you got the enslavement of Africans, which is the second Other, as it were, given the White Supremacist colonial settler project of the United States. Then you have got Latinos with the Imperial expansion and Manifest Destiny. Then you have got the new immigrants, who are Catholic — so there is deep anti-Catholic sentiment, a discriminatory practice that went hand-in-hand with the initial Protestant, Christian, cultural and religious component. And then you got Jews — Americans were deeply anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish. You then have Muslims now. By the time the Muslims have a prominent presence, Protestant America has undergone incorporation and inclusion of Catholics and Jews and slices of black folk. This is primarily because of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, the White Supremacist’s Immigration Act of 1924, and the Black Freedom Movement put pressure in the 1960s, so in 1965, it opens up. You have got Africans from different parts, you have got Asians from different parts of the world and Muslims began to have a much more prominent presence. And then, of course, given the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., you got a panic, you got a hysteria and so you have got this war on terrorism, which is very much a war on Muslims, a war on Islamic brothers and sisters — a demonizing of Islamic brothers and sisters, and trivializing their suffering as well as overlooking their humanity. And so what you actually have when you look at the history of the United States, you have a process of authoring, a process of degrading those constituted as Other. But in this particular moment in the history of the American empire, and it was an empire from the very beginning, expanding from New York to California. But the particular moment in history the American empire is at right now is primarily anti-Muslim and anti-Islam. It doesn’t mean it’s still not antiracist, it doesn’t mean there are some anti-Jewish elements, it doesn’t mean there is some anti-Catholic elements, but generally speaking, there has been a kind of integration of all of those Others. But when it comes to Muslims and Islam, especially given the role of what’s going on around the world from ISIS to al-Qaida and what have you, for brothers and sisters inside the American Empire, who are Muslim, who are of the Islamic faith, they have become the primary Others to be demonized, degraded, dishonored. That’s why anybody concerned about being decent or having any moral integrity must be very, very vigilant in terms of defending the humanity of Muslim brothers and sisters.
TIM: It’s interesting though because as a minority group right now, Muslims are, I would say, an interesting demographic community — wealthy in some, severely disenfranchised in others, but the most diverse religious community in America by far. How do you deal with that diversity when dealing with these issues?
Cornel West: It’s true. I think the major challenge for my precious Islamic brothers and sisters is being seduced by the idea of American inclusion, which makes him think that somehow they become full-fledged American citizens, even when their fellow Muslims are still being demonized, and that’s a class question. This is true from the black experience — it’s so easy for the black upper classes and the black middle class, that somehow they have been accepted by the American mainstream, while the black poor and the black working class continue to be attacked by police, inferior education, no jobs with a living wage, and so forth. This is a problem, I think, for Muslim Americans as well. I was blessed to speak at a gathering in Los Angeles about three years ago with my Muslim brothers and sisters. I was talking as a Christian to Islamic brother and sisters, that when you say that Allah is great, what you are saying is that all flags must be subordinate to God. But you can also allow American nationalism and American culture to become your idol, to become the very thing that you have fundamental allegiance to as opposed to Allah. My understanding of Allah is that this is a law of justice and mercy and so forth. Therefore you are concerned about the stranger, the poor, the least of these, the working classes and so on. I take my cue from Malcolm X and Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, who, to me, is a spiritual giant in the history of modern Islam and equality of women. He was a democratic socialist in terms of the distribution of wealth being fair, especially for the poor and working class, he was Islamic to the core and was executed in Sudan. But that to me is a compliment that he was a great prophet in the history of modern Islam. And prophets are often crucified, executed. And of course, there are other great Islamic voices too, but I just mentioned those two, Malcolm X on the one hand and Mahmoud Mohamed Taha on the other. But I think that’s a major challenge right now, because the Muslim community is so diverse, is variegated, is full of magnificent variety, the voices have to be raised. Of course in the mainstream, they would be characterized as moderate Muslims, as if somehow they are cooled off. You see, I want Muslims to be on fire for justice and on fire for mercy. They don’t need to be cooled off. They don’t need to be monitored in the sense that they are not concerned about serious critiques of empires, serious critiques of privilege, serious critiques of patriotic and so on. But “on fire” means you’re filtering your fire through love and mercy and justice. And that’s a very, very rich tradition in the long history of Islam.
TIM: Where are we heading in this trajectory of American Muslims — if you were to base it on the patterns of minorities in American history but also the unique space that Muslims are existing in?
CW: I think it’s going to be much more difficult for my precious Islamic brothers and sisters because America is right now in the process of moving toward a kind of police state, when it comes to massive surveillance, when it comes to, not just keeping track of dissident voices but Muslim voices, dissident or not. Again, this is a particular moment in the history of the American empire where there is increasing authoritarianism. Earlier moments in America were much more open to inclusion and assimilation. So, the demonizing of Muslims is something that is going to be around a while, because Americans are very hysterical and full of panic and they are willing to. I mean, four Americans have been assassinated with no due process, with no judicial review, that’s unprecedented by the president. President [Barack Obama] and Secretary of State Hillary [Rodham Clinton], and the other guy who is on the killer list, it’s primarily Muslims. Since when does the American nation-state just decide to kill people with no judicial review, no transparency, no publicity vis-à-vis the citizenry, that is a police state. And it’s permissible under the National Defense Authorization Act. This is another reason why we, especially Christians like myself and black men like myself, have to be vigilant in terms of protecting the rights and liberties of my fellow Muslims. It’s true for all citizens, but especially for those who are targeted, unfairly targeted.
TIM: This was a tough summer for American Muslims as we navigated through different opinions and struggles to find our balance of civic engagement. Gaza, National Security Agency revelations on Muslim targeting, White House iftar boycott, divisions over the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement. American Muslims are struggling to find expressions of civic engagement they are comfortable with given how American policy plays out in the world. So if meaningful political change is the ultimate goal, balance between engagement with government regardless of what policies you may find problematic versus protesting or taking yourself out of the system, where should American Muslims be?
CW: I do believe in an inside-outside strategy. It’s very important that there be Muslim elite inside the system who can try to keep non-Muslim elite accountable, based on just principle, based on ideals, democratic ideals and ideals of freedom. I also believe there ought to be Muslim people outside the system who organize to bring power and pressure to bear on the system. And there has to be some coordination and cooperation between Muslim elites inside the system and Muslims outside. But especially, I think, in both cases, there has to be a coalition — the Muslim elites have to be able to coalesce with non-Muslim elites who are liberal and progressive. And the Muslims outside protesting have to be able to coalesce with fellow citizens who are progressive and prolific. And this is one of the reasons why it is crucial that non-Muslims step to the plate and work with and be willing to bring pull and pressure to bear on the system along with Muslims. There has to be a coming together. And this includes Christians, it includes Buddhists, and it includes Jews and includes secular agnostics and atheists, who are fundamentally committed to justice. We saw that this summer around the Gaza issue. I think there were a number of voices, many of us thought that these crimes against humanity, especially the killing of the precious Palestinian babies and innocent civilians, should be put at the center of the discussion. And we had to do it from the outside because those on the inside have a consensus. They hardly say a word when it comes to Palestinian life loss, as opposed to Israeli life loss, and it’s just wrong, it’s just not justice, it’s not more.
TIM: This is a really hard to topic to talk about and it has started to come into the consciousness of American Muslims. But racism is actually a very big occurrence within the American-Muslim community, despite the fact that black Muslims have been in this country for longer. What are ways that this should be accounted for? And in light of you being arrested in Ferguson recently, if you were to place this racism inside the American-Muslim community into a larger conceptual framework, how should American Muslims address this? Will it ever likely be addressed?
CW: Thank God we had some prophetic imams there in Ferguson, along with prophetic rabbis, prophetic Christian ministers, and progressive secular people. But I think we have to keep in mind that we are witnessing the Americanization of Muslims, and the Americanization of any group, it could be Catholics, Jews, it could be black folk, Latinos, indigenous peoples. But the Americanization of any group does include racist elements. When you come to America, it’s so easy to look at black people and brown people and red people through a racist lens, just like black and brown and red people and Asians too, can look at Muslims through a racist lens. The stereotypes are there and it’s true on both sides. The only way you can shatter those racist lenses, and how we view each other on both sides, is through struggling together — in struggle you have dialogue, you have engagement, you have conversation, but you also have transformation. So, it’s true that we have had black Muslims for a long time. But it’s easy for a nonblack Muslim to come in and still have a racist attitude toward black people. That is part of the modern world and is also part of being Americanized. When we are asked, we have to be candid, we can’t come in and deny that we have racist elements in the Muslim community, just like you can’t deny that you don’t have anti-Muslim sentiments in the black community or brown community.
TIM: You were on Bill Maher’s show recently discussing issues of Islam and violence. Maher said the mainstream understanding of Islam is problematic, and regular Muslims are maybe not violent but at least widely sympathetic to violence. I think the statistics he used obfuscates political realities with religious ones, but nonetheless his perspective is held by many people. You have argued that religions can be a force for good and evil, but singling out religion as the primary factor is unfair. What do you think Malcolm X would say to someone like Maher? How does that prophetic voice within religion address the demonization of religion especially in our context?
CW: I think the first move, of course, is to try to get inside the skin of brother Bill Maher and try to understand why it is that he has such an intense hostility toward religion per se and then why he targets Islam in particular. For him, when he looks at religion per se, he sees it as a promotion of domination, subordination, hatred and revenge. Now, of course, we know that the history of all religions, and the species, is one in which it has often accommodated religion for domination and subordination, hatred and revenge. This is true for Christianity, is true for Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, across the board. On the other hand, we also know that this is where I think Malcolm and the others would come back and say, wait a minute though, brother Bill, you know that I, Malcolm X, am a prophetic revolutionary progressive. He would say, yes, yes, so was Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — these are people who were willing to be critical of their own religious tradition in the name of justice and all of them got in trouble. Heschel gave a lecture across street in April 1948 from where the Jewish terrorist group Virgo killed 250 precious Arab men and women, innocent men. He cried, he couldn’t finish his lecture, and he walked home saying, “I cancel the class, I don’t know when I am coming back.” That’s April 1948, a month before the official founding of the state of Israel. He knew the final question was going to be, okay, Israel, you are going to coexist with the indigenous people or you are going to dominate. Einstein said, coexist, Ze’ev Jabotinsky said dominate. Who won out? Jabotinsky. They have been dominating ever since, and then occupying after 1967. So, I think Bill Maher would have to say, well, of course there had been some religious figures, but they are the exception, they are so small, and you say, well, that’s human history. Human history is one in which subordination, hatred and revenge have been stronger than freedom, democracy, love and justice. It doesn’t mean love and justice hasn’t had an effect and consequence, but we still live in a world of empires, patriotism, homophobia, class subordination and so on. So that’s the history of who we are as a species and that’s true whether you’re religious or not.
TIM: It is interesting to note that Islam has come up twice now in Maher’s show and not one Muslim was given space to address the issue or provide an articulate response to the concern. This is largely the case across the media where the narrative of demonization is played widely. Where’s the responsibility?
CW: Now, he has got to allow for the voice, you know. We have a very distinguished scholar, Jerusha Tanner Lamptey, and she has just written a wonderful book. Her voice would be very important in this regard. There is a variety of different distinguished Islam thinkers and voices and figures who need to be not only at the edges, but at the center of this discussion. I would give up my seat in a minute to an Islamic voice that would be talking about freedom and democracy and equality as they relate to the very rich and complicated Islamic tradition.
TIM: Do you think this exclusion is a structural problem within the country that is an inevitable outcome of imperial presence overseas? Is it the media?
CW: I think the media bears a lot of responsibility for this. Unfortunately much of the media, not all, but so much of the media is market driven. The degree to which Muslims are a constituency that watches TV and buys products, advertisers want sales. So once that becomes even stronger, then lo and behold, you have more weight and leverage in terms of who’s actually on. This is a neoliberal capitalist society that we live in, it’s ruled by big money.
TIM: Are you noticing a trend of people who are standing up for saying that this kind of logic is just not right? You have yourself, as has actor Ben Affleck. Are you noticing that trend on those voices who are coming up for, Muslims aside, standing up for Islam and those who are building their case against it? How would you categorize them?
CW: I have a number of non-Muslim brothers, scholars who come up to me and say, we so deeply appreciate what you are saying, your concern about what is true and just in Islamic tradition and that it can be a force for good or a force for evil, just like in Christianity, Judaism and the Other. And brother Bill Maher says to me, well, of course, ISIS and al-Qaida are at a moment when Islam poses more of a threat than Christianity, than Judaism or whatever, you said it is relative to the context. You see in Gaza, it’s fundamentally Judaism and Judaism as a force for occupation. In the context of the U.S. foreign policy as related to Syria, yeah, we all agree, ISIS is genocidal and fascist and barbaric. In fact they kill more Muslim brothers and sisters than non-Muslims. So at that point, it’s more or less a spiritual issue that cuts within the Muslim world, as well as Muslim and non-Muslim distinctions. But in other parts of the world, in India, it’s still a caste question, with our precious Dalit brothers and sisters. It’s Hinduism that’s a force for subordination and domination. So, it depends what your context is and you have to keep track of the truth. As I said before, there is a truth in what brother Bill Maher is saying in terms of a religion being a force for domination. We all agree with that. It’s just, you can’t be so narrow and exclusivist. It is also a major force for good.
TIM: Last question on Bill Maher. What do you think is his end game? Why is Maher pursuing this line of reasoning so much?
CW: I think the fundamental motivation of my dear brother Bill Maher is he wants to point out the hypocrisy of secular liberals who he thinks don’t want to be more explicit about Islam as a force for subordination. The irony is that you got a whole lot of liberals who talk their way, whole lot of neoliberals that will talk that way. But for him, within the left, he sees leftists who don’t want to come out and talk about just how ugly the deeds of ISIS are. They want to engage critiques of American empire and what have you. And I think that it’s a fundamental thing, he wants to point out that hypocrisy among the left. And yet, in the end, we have to be concerned about truth and concerned about justice, and I am really concerned about how we deepen and expand prophetic thought and prophetic deeds in the Islamic tradition, because it has a history of it, and it’s a matter of continuing to build on it.
TIM: The new atheist movement has gained prominence as of late, where do you place the kind of criticism they set forth against belief and faith historically? And where do you place it in America?
CW: There are three different things. One is that we live in a market culture, where the idols of commodity, instant gratification, fleeting pleasures, success, celebrity, all are the dominant idols of the American empire. And what I like about any form of atheism is that it views all claims about God as claims about idols, so it helps clean the slate as if we are. As a prophetic Christian, I still want to argue that there are conceptions of God that are not idolatrous. But any prophetic version of Judaism, prophetic version of Islam, prophetic version of Christianity, is driven by a critique of idolatry. Therefore you do have to be critical of what these small gods are in any culture. At least atheism cleans the slate and says, well, it cleans out all the idols, because all God-claims are but idols. I disagree with the latter, but at least it provides some critique of idols and idolatry. That’s the first level. The second level is that most forms of atheism view religion as solely about individual beliefs in God. Whereas, we know that the very notion that religion is solely about cognition is a modern construct that goes back to 19th-century Europe. Judaism, Islam and Christianity were not religions up until the 19th century because there is no conception of religion. It was a whole way of life, it was the way a community understood its history, it was a way a community connected cognition, affection, conviction and community together. In the modern age in Europe, religion became differentiated from conviction, differentiated from affection, it solely became a matter of cognition. And if we can show that there is no grounds for cognition claims about God, then we should be atheist. And you say, oh, so you think that Islam is a modern religion, as opposed to a long-standing ancient, medieval and modern way of life that is not reducible to just claims about God, is full of a host of stories and narratives and rituals and ceremonies and so forth and so on. So, the new atheist tends to be highly “scientistic,” and there is a between scientific and scientistic. When you are scientific, you have a scientific temper, you are concerned about evidence, you are concerned that the answer should be based on evidence. When you are scientific, you think that science has a monopoly on all cognitive claims. But science is just a matter of human beings making more high-level predictions about the future than in the past, but science cannot provide any kind of set of stories and narratives of how we ought to be human, how we ought to have values and virtues and visions. And then you have got to move to something else. And that’s where religious ways of life and moral ways of life, an aesthetic way of life play a fundamental role.
TIM: Right. Because religion was never perceived in this way, most people de facto believed in God, public discussion was not on if God existed or not, even the founding fathers had some range of belief, but that’s not the case anymore.
CW: Not until the 19th century, when Protestant liberal scholars tried to reduce all these various complex ways of life to religion. There is a wonderful book by Leora Batnitzky called How Judaism Became A Religion. And it shows, if somebody can write the same book, how Islam became a religion, how Christianity became a religion. It shows how 19th-century categories were used to religious ways of life, it somehow reduced them to just a religion rather than something so much deeper, you solely mean issues of cognition, knowledge claims about God. And it becomes nice little philosophical discussion about whether God exists or not. You can go to Darwin, you can go to Sir Issac Newton or Einstein, whatever. I think Leora Batnitzky’s work is very applicable to Islam, is very applicable to Christianity, I think “religion” is too narrow a term.
TIM: The groups seem to have a special place for Islam in its rhetoric. Is this just because Islam is an easy target these days or are there larger political/historical/racial motivations driving this kind of rhetoric?
CW: Since 9/11, Islam, as I mentioned before, has been the object of so much demonization and so much negative targeting that, if you can show that ISIS and al-Qaida somehow are strong forces for evil and somehow speak on behalf of the vast majority of Islamic brothers and sisters, then you have grounds to not only be an atheist, but also to be anti-Islam as opposed to critical of certain immoral practices done in the name of Islam.
TIM: You are putting it in a political context?
CW: I think it’s very much political. It has a historical backdrop because it is in this moment in history, 2001 to the present, and it is racial in the sense that it is for the most part nonwhite. I think there is a racial dimension there. Most Muslim brothers and sisters are nonwhite in the eyes of the mainstream. And so that also makes it easier to target and demonize.
TIM: What are the connections between neoconservatives and the new atheists? Ayaan Hirsi Ali, for example, is a prominent member of AEI, a well-known conservative think thank. How exactly does that conservative space have a place for both new atheists and Christian conservatives? How do you hold such a coalition together and what are the political realities that keep hypocrisy from being brought to light?
CW: My challenge is just that I deeply sympathize with the degree to which she has been mistreated and victimized and abused by right-wing versions of Islam, and I think that’s her experience. She has to be true to her experience. But at the same time, I think she, like brother Bill Maher, have to be open to those Muslims who would come to her defense in the name of tolerance and liberty and freedom and democracy and equality. One, but secondly, she has to be consistent. What I mean by that is, she has been abused by right-wing versions of Islam, but I expect her to express full solidarity with those who have been abused by right-wing versions of Christianity, right-wing versions of Judaism. So, where is her solidarity when it comes to right-wing Christians abusing, where is this solidarity when it comes to right-wing faults of Judaism in Gaza or in the West Bank and so forth. Her AEI friends, they tend to be actually on the side of some deeply, ugly practices when it comes to right-wing versions of Judaism in the Middle East. You have to be consistent, that’s what I would say to her.
TIM: What is one thing that people would be surprised to know about you?
CW: I am deeply tied to the love supreme of John Coltrane. His first wife was a Muslim, in the 1950s, Naima. One of the greatest songs he wrote was in honor of his wife. And here he comes out of a Christian context, who fell in love with a Muslim sister and she was fundamental in shaping his music, in shaping his sensibility. So, that for me is probably the most interesting thing as it relates to my intellectual and spiritual life. I just love music. That’s true. No, of course, I do. I have a precious daughter who comes from a Muslim background. Her mother is Turkish and Kurdish, and absolutely, I got that in the book too. She’s very secular in her own orientation, but she has a great appreciation of Islamic culture and Muslims. In fact, her first language is Turkish and she speaks that language with her grandmother, who is Muslim.