Is God a White Racist?

Since Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, there has been a renewed national conversation about race in America. While most thoughtful analysts agree that there is a wide racial divide in the country, no one has come up with a definitive answer as to how to solve it. Despite decades of government, non-government and civil society efforts, the issues of racial discrimination, racial tension persist. While different racial groups have responded differently to this situation, the response by American Muslims is of particular interest to me, given that Islam is supposed to be ‘race-blind,’ according to popular understanding. A related question that is important is: How do Muslims make sense of black suffering, fully believing that God is beneficent and merciful?Michelangelo-Creation_of_Ev

‘Does Islam ‘do’ race?’ asks the scholar Sherman Jackson, one of the most well-known scholars of Islam in America. Even if at face-value, Islam does not address race as a question, since most Muslims argue that race is a ‘social construct’ that the white man came up with. Even if Islam does not do race, ‘Islam does reality,’ Jackson reminds us, urging us to be aware of the vast differences between the race-neutral languages that most Muslims use versus the presence of racially discriminatory practices and ideas around us. Jackson argues in his book Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering that universalizing tendencies of many immigrant and overseas Muslims about ahistorical truths and ‘race-free’ discourses won’t help and that we must engage with the discourse of race, instead of ignoring it.

Jackson points to the work of William R.Jones, whose book Is God a White Racist? has brought to fore the question of how to make sense of black suffering in the world. This question becomes relevant to those religions that insist that god is benevolent and merciful – a fact that Islam endorses, time and again. If God is all powerful and benevolent, then the protests of Blacks against their condition could be considered a revolt against the will of God and the only appropriate answer to this situation would be ‘quietism,’ argues Jones. Jones’s critiqued all existing Black theologies in favor of secular humanism or humanocentric theism, which he believed offered a solution to Black suffering. The biggest critique of Jones has been his complete negation of Jesus, the central figure in Christianity, who is supposed to embody suffering of all mankind. But Islam does not suffer from this problem. While considering Jesus as a prophet, Islam rejects the notion that he died for the sins of all humans.

Consider the following: Every Surah of the Qur’an begins with the phrase ‘In the name of Allah, the beneficent and Merciful.’ The question that Jackson is bringing up is how can Sunni tradition, or rather Blackamerican Sunni tradition make sense of this dichotomy between reality of Black suffering and the claim that God is all loving and merciful? A powerful and important question indeed. The challenge before Blackamerican Muslims has been how to overturn these structures of oppression, rather than just accept them passively, within the theological framework that Islam offers, says Jackson. This is similar to the struggles that Malcom X went through after his break with the Nation of Islam, says Edward Curtis in his book Islam in Black America. Curtis argues, against conventional understandings of Malcom’s life that he sought to separate out religion from his politics – post his break from the Nation of Islam (NOI). One may recall that the NOI was a racist, black supremacist organization that believed that Allah did not have a place in heaven for the ‘blue eyed devil’, i.e., the White man. This followed his realization that while Islam sought a race-blind adherence to the religion and universal brotherhood, the problems of Blacks in America were real. So, Malcom sought to align with Pan-Africanism to address this specific issue, before he was assassinated, argues Curtis.

So, how does mainstream Sunni theology reconcile Black Suffering with the belief a merciful god? Before we authoritatively answer that question, Jackson suggests that we look at the way Muslim theology developed. He offers a rather insightful look into the evolution of various schools of thought – Muta’zilite, Ash’arites, and the Mutaridities. While the first group of scholars are the ‘rationalists’ the latter two are ‘traditionalists’ operating in the rational tradition. Questions of anthropomorphism, the createdness of the Qur’an and related areas are where they differ and this has important implications on how they view reality. For instance, whether the Qur’an is a created word of uncreated can have implications on the extent to one which can have flexibility in interpreting the text- versus using it literally.             Of course, there are verses in the Qur’an such as “O mankind, we have created you from a male and a female, and appointed you races and tribes, that you may know one another.” (Qur’an. 49: 13). Tariq Ramadhan, another well-known scholar tells us that such reminders are handy, when one has to reconcile between the daily realities and the larger principles on which one has to base one’s life. Muslim jurists have worked hard to explicate the challenges of dealing with vast diversity that we find amidst ourselves, while staying true to our religious ideals, Ramadhan suggests. But Jackson seems to be taking this argument one step further by arguing that a Blackamerican Muslim theology must be developed to address these challenges, while remaining conscious of the universal arguments made by mainstream Sunni Muslims, around the world. A uniquely Black response is needed, as it addresses specific issues of Blackamerican Muslims, he contends.

In discussing the evolution of the four traditions of Islamic theology, Jackson says that the key principle that is important to understand Theodicy is one of divine omnibenevolence – meaning that God could ‘neither sponsor human evil nor reward people or punish them for actions over which they had no effective control’. (p.51). In other words, this means that humans have free will to decide what they want to do. To quote Jackson “This demanded in turn, that humans be endowed not simply with freedom of choice but also with the actual ability to translate their choices into actual physical reality. In this way, no evil committed by humans could be attributed to God, and God could not be deemed unjust for holding humans accountable for their evil actions.” (p.52). This strategy of positioning man in a position that is ‘rational’ and one with agency to decide his/her fate, Mu’tazalites paved a way for a certain interpretation of suffering in this world. This notion of free will or ikhtiyar has come under considerable attack, as Jackson reminds us.

Finally, Jackson reminds us that despite differing in the amount of agency that each school of theology gives to humans, they all agree that there is an element of power in the human hand. “For if humans petition God to instantiate their will to do good, God will inevitably respond,” he says. From this, it seems that be clear that God is not seen as a white racist by any of the schools of Islamic theology and there is also no need for quietism – since racism and any violent oppression is against God’s will – and must be resisted by all people of conscience.

To William R. Jones’s question on whether ‘God is a white racist’, the simple answer, is that he is not a racist. The problem is of course, human will – which in Islamic theology accounts for much corruption that we see amidst us.

Is there a ‘rational’ way to Discuss Immigration Reform?

America is a country that equally loves and hates immigration. With public opinion on this issue being divided, it does not look Americans will reach a consensus on what is good for the country, anytime soon. If history is any indicator, then this question has not been settled in the last three hundred years. So, as urgent as this matter is – and I do believe that immigration reform should take place – I think we need to step back and look at this issue for what it is – a deeply rooted one, that is intertwined with the very identity of America. Is America really a ‘melting pot’ of cultures and people? Or is it not? There is no right answer to this question, as it is a normative one, whose meaning will be defined and re-defined by every generation. I would argue that it is impossible to determine this purely on the basis of polls, public opinions or even voting, because this question is about values and normative assumptions about what constitutes America.

Liberty

By this, I mean that there is no ‘rational’ or ‘scientific’ way to go about immigration reform in the U.S. I believe the best way to think about this issue is to think of it as an ethical value, rather than as a ‘rational’ one, that would either benefit or harm America’s economy. President Obama’s recent moves to allow millions of undocumented workers is not a new story, in the sense of being totally novel, but one that is part of a struggle between nativists who did not want to dilute the character of America versus liberals, who believed that the melting pot of America should be kept open to all, who wanted to be a part of it. As this article in the New York Times points, one key piece of the Executive Order may allow up to five million undocumented workers to work in the U.S. with work permits and not fear being deported. The benefits of this measure could be potentially limited to those who have lived in the country for more than ten years, the report added. This brings us to the question of why immigration continues to be such a big issue? Why is it so divisive and what is the history of this discourse?

Since the early 19th century, this has been the pattern of existence for most Americans. While the immigrants have changed – from Irish in the early nineteenth century to Asians, Arabs and now Latinos. The anti-immigration sentiment has been based on fear. This is a dominant theme that emerges time and again. This could be a fear of several things: Fear of lack of resources, vanishing jobs, ‘dangerous criminals’ and fear of ‘diluting the true identity’ of what it means to be an American have all been invoked, from the early 19th century onwards. While we are witnessing anti-immigrant sentiment against Latinos and Muslims now; the Irish, Eastern Europeans, Arabs to South Asians have faced this in the past.

Latino immigration and fear of the ‘foreigner’

While President Obama has been slow to push for comprehensive immigration reform, given the nature of divisive politics in Washington D.C., there is indication that he will issue an Executive Order, soon. This is meant to allow for greater access and mobility for undocumented workers, who are predominantly from Mexico, but also come from Latin American countries.

Nativists argued for banning the Irish from entering the U.S. in the 19th century and then later in the 20th century, the same arguments were propounded against Arabs and those from Asia. As Wuthnow suggests, we must critically examine the mythos that make up America – that is a land of opportunities, or that it is really a religious place. These myths are not helpful, and can do more harm, he suggests and goes on to say “For example, they encourage us to think that we are more religious than we are. They result in ideas on how to escape materialism and consumerism and are more wishful than what we imagine.” Any such examination should take into account that we are becoming more individualistic, as a society and this needs to give way to a more collective way of thinking, he suggests. So, is the anti-immigration sentiment a purely rational decision of individuals deciding to keep those not ‘fit’ to be part of the U.S. out, while allowing others to come in? Or is there something more to it? Can we explain this through purely rational choice paradigm or do we need more than that?

So, while it is important to examine the narratives on which America is built, it is also crucial for us to look at the narratives and myths about the immigrants themselves. I would argue that this is equally important, if one were to arrive at some approximation of ‘truth’. While several studies have shown that immigration is good for America, there are an equal number of them that would point to the opposite – that immigrants are harmful to our economy, they take away jobs from deserving Americans etc. This sort of ‘instrumental rationality’ of measuring everything from a purely ‘scientific’ perspective is not helpful. In social sciences, we need more ‘value rationality’, as suggested by Flyvberg (2001) and others. This means that we actually go beyond purely epistemic or quantitative analysis and make normative, ethical judgments about issues – whether an issue is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for our society.

As Wuthnow argues, renewal of America – as an idea – is not purely about material conditions, though economy is always part of the political discourse, but rather about where people feel the country is headed. This is evident in the mid-term elections that concluded, where a majority of voters did not recognize Obama’s achievements in reducing unemployment, budget deficit etc. and instead voted for the Republicans. How does this fit into the arguments that I have made thus far? It confirms in some ways what Flyvbjerg says that people do not make ‘rational’ choices but rather those that are based on normative choices. So, in our analysis of issues like immigration, climate change etc. perhaps we must be open to including judgment and decisions made in the manner of a ‘virtuoso social and political actor’, as Flyvbjerg suggests, rather than just focusing on the rules of the game. Rules are often now followed and are often broken, when it comes to practical, everyday life – a fact that ‘rational’ social science does not take into account.

 

The Fall of Journalism and Rise of PR?

Are we witnessing the fall of journalism and rise of PR? I find myself asking this question, quite often. As a former Public Relations man, I can spot a plug, a media story that is promoting either a product, a person or an organization – off a mile – and unfortunately, this seems to be happening all too often. From the lowliest yellow journalistic papers to the venerable New York Times, this phenomenon is becoming all the more common. And this means that what we are being fed as news is often propaganda, marketing or at worse – lies. And we are willingly consuming this, with very little critical thinking. Journalism seems to be failing in its duties and we are getting more PR in the guise of journalism. While the three functions of media are to inform, educate and entertain, current mainstream media in the West seems to be all about entertainment, with very little, if any information or education happening. Let me explain what I mean.

source : artofmanliness.com
source : artofmanliness.com

Many years ago, when I was an employee at the Ogilvy and Mather PR firm in Bangalore, I read the very famous book – Fall of Advertising and Rise of PR – by Al Ries and Laura Ries. I remember their advice clearly and I devoured literally every word of it. I was a young PR professional out to prove myself. Very soon, I learned the tricks of the trade and did rather well for myself. I was one of the top performers in the network – nationally and won recognition fairly soon. One of the first things I realized and internalized was that it was hard for ‘truth’ to be known. With special interests, government agencies and media industry’s own will to survive thwarting genuine dialogue or debate, the changes of the ‘truth’ coming out is hard, if not impossible. This is what makes WikiLeaks sensational. While I believe that most people are smart and are able to see through the mediocre coverage and analysis that we receive, I think the problem facing us is not lack of intelligence, but rather lack of critical information in the public sphere. Media houses and journalists are making us lazy, if not stupid. This has got to do with the overt commercialization and consolidation of media houses, among other things. There are a few reasons why this phenomenon seems to be occurring.

The first reason why journalism is failing is because it is becoming more and more like PR. Journalism’s basic function – to function as the ‘fourth estate’ of democracy is being lost. Whether it is following meekly the administration’s line, as the American media did, while the George W Bush administration sought to beat the drums of war against Iraq or the almost servile attitude that the Indian media has towards the business community and the national government of Mr.Modi, this aspect of media is visible, quite clearly. What this does to our public consciousness is that it dumbs us down. Media in this sense force-feeds us press releases that are supposedly news. While genuine dissent becomes a luxury, even the tiniest differences between opposing views becomes part of a big ‘debate’. Non-issues become issues and comedy shows – like the Daily Show- become the only way to actually get to the truth. Remember the foreign policy debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama?

Secondly, advertising revenues dictate how media houses operate. While the Times of India, the most widely read English daily started selling ‘advertorials’ in India, there was a huge hue and cry. This meant that the editorial page – the holy grail of the broadsheet – was up for the highest bidder. The sanctity of the holy space is no longer kept pure. As this report adds, the selling of editorial space created not only a conflict between the media marketing departments and Medianet type agencies, it also further created a divide between ‘genuine news’ and ‘fake’ news. As Ranjona Banerji adds : “ To add to this corporatization of news, there then came the new element of “paid news” which was noticed to be widespread in the 2008 general elections. Here, editorial space was sold – apparently without the knowledge of journalists – to candidates and political parties. This practice was and is prevalent across the media – which includes TV. It has emerged since that in some cases journalists were also involved – not always voluntarily – to approach politicians to put money into buying editorial space to further their election prospects.” There is good reason to believe that this occurred during the recently concluded elections in India and will occur in the upcoming elections too. While this phenomenon may not occur as blatantly in the U.S., the purchasing power of big names and corporations with deep pockets will definitely influence the way certain issues get covered. To deny this is to be naïve.

Finally, Media consolidation is a problem that is facing us all. While corporate ideals dictate increasing bottom lines at every quarter, this means that journalists are fired often, they are under paid and increasingly forced to toe the line of the establishment. Democracy Now shows how Comcast and Time Warner merger could form the largest media conglomerate in the U.S., making it almost a monopoly. Good news for the corporate houses, but not the consumers, who may not have much of a ‘choice’ in terms of either content or pricing. Michael Copps argues in this story that this consolidation, like others would continue the private sector consolidation of the media sector that would make costs higher. “What this means is the cabelization of internet, and to be controlled by a few gatekeepers, who can block websites, we are doing irreparable damage to the free speech ideal.” Copps further points out that our increasing marketization decreases the media democracy. The Federal Communications Commission should step back and break these consolidations, he suggests. This also implies that if a company is in charge of both production and distribution, it gives them power way beyond what others had, in the past, allowing them to block content that they do not agree with, thus limiting the democratic discourse.

Media buying and political influence seem to go hand in hand. With the Citizens United judgment that removed all caps on corporate spending on politics, the Pandora’s Box has been opened. And this has direct implications on how media houses are run – especially in the context of political campaigns. It would not be a surprise to see this, and we are perhaps already witnessing an onslaught on our senses by both political parties in the U.S., by way of political ads and campaigns, that aim to malign the other, rather than actually seek to inform or educate the public of genuine choices.

When media becomes all about PR, the question is not whether one is receiving quality news or bad news. It becomes a question of whether what one is receiving is news, at all. That is the danger facing us all. An informed citizenry is crucial for any democracy and unless the media is free, this is not possible.