2009 marked the 100th year anniversary of the birth of Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, and January the 18th marked the date in which he was executed 14 years ago. Taha was a Sudanese liberal reform figure and believer in a version of progressive Islam. His vision of Islam – one in which maintained the equality of women and was dedicated to socialist republicanism – along with his protests regarding the imposition of sharia law stirred Sudan’s dictator Jaafer al-Nimeiri in the 1970’s and 80’s to the point that he, after efforts to curb his influence and ban his lectures, called for Taha’s blood.
Indeed this was to be the case, when on the 8th of January 1985 Taha, and four other comrades were put on trial for apostasy under section 96 of the Sudanese penal code. The decision was confirmed on January the 17th to execute Taha for his crimes, whereas Taha’s comrades were given the chance to appeal (provided they retracted their “apostasy”, which they promptly did). Taha was eventually put to death on January the 18th by hanging, before his body was taken to a desert location by Helicopter to be buried, reportedly in the west of Omdurman, Sudan’s largest city.
Taha’s message, expressed in his book “The Second Message of Islam”, was that the Koran had been revealed in two locations, firstly in Mecca where Muhammad and his followers were minorities, and in Medina where the city was brimming with Jews and Pagans. During his verses in Mecca, Muhammad promulgated a “peaceful persuasion,” whereas in Medina the verses are filled with rules and intimidations. The Medinan verses, the first message(s) of Islam, were directed to a whole community of early believers and not Muhammad alone, according to Taha. These messages were a sort of ‘historical postponement’ as George Packer puts it in his New Yorker article on Taha. It was the Meccan verses, the second message of Islam that would represent, for Taha in his revisionism, the perfect religion, an acceptance of equality and freedom that, in seventh-century Arabia, Muslims were ready for. This provided his grounds for a progressive Islam that the likes of Nimeiri refused to even speculate on.
In January, a two-day conference celebrating the 100th birth year of Taha at Baker University, in Kansas, USA, brought together a miscellany of important ideas that reflected the life and legacy of Taha. One of the speakers on the 18th was Dr. Cornel West of Princeton University. He, during his keynote address, called upon the audience to adopt the traits of ‘humility and love’ that encapsulated the mind of Taha. West considered some of today’s existing problems with the same character as Taha. On the question of Israeli-Palestine conflict West observed that “the spirit of Taha leads me to say: Why the relative silence on Gaza” in reference to what West considered to be the US’s refusal to speak out about the Israeli slaughter of the strip, from both Democrat and Republican camps.
The stylistic similarities in West and Taha’s work are quite clear; both have a radical streak to them, challenging the dominant forces in their society and the orthodoxy of their own religions. West’s Christianity is fused with a healthy dose of radical socialism, as was Taha’s Islam. But more than that, both actively sought to show that the existing powers have got their religions wrong. West’s America, as was with Taha’s Sudan, both use religious sentiment - or as West himself referred to it regarding America in his 2004 book Democracy Matters an “imperial Christianity, market spirituality … let’s-make-a-deal with God” mentality - to justify their wars on what they perceive to be an unholy society. In Republican America (or “the age of Ronald Reagon”, as West proclaimed that Obama’s presidency initiated the end to), the efforts to limit time on abortion, cap stem-cell research, and wage wars on foreign countries by ‘God’s own decree’ were all so-called expressions of Christian ideals. But for West, this is a peculiar use of Christianity, which, for him, should explore the problems that sexism, racism and hegemony can bring about in order to remove them. West’s first book Prophecy Deliverance in 1982 advocates the benefits of an African-American Christianity that draws its ethical dimensions from socialism and Marxism.
Cornel Ronald West was born June 2nd 1953 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was in his teenage years when his activism started to develop, caught up in the middle of civil rights demonstrations in which he helped organise and march on. His Harvard years would see him being taught by the libertarian influenced Robert Nozick, most famous for his work on epistemology and his contribution to the brain-in-a-vat thought experiment. His militancy also started here, pushing for his political agenda’s to be met by the education hierarchies and creating a platform for his own “African, Christian and de-colonized outlooks.”
West’s academic life has been truly prolific since the completion of his doctoral thesis on Marxist ethics, which he earned from Princeton in 1980. He is currently the class of 1943 Professor of Princeton University in the centre for African American Studies and the department of Religion. He holds 20 honorary degrees and is the author of 19 books that examine subjects as wide-ranging as racism, the Black Baptist Church, philosophy of religion and jazz. As well as writing books, he helped develop the philosophically charged storyline for the Wachowski brothers’ film The Matrix (1999) doubling up as the film’s official spokesperson and appearing in the final 2 films as Councillor West.
Unheard of for most intellectuals, when he is not working on anything academic or in film, West works on his musical career. He has recorded 3 music albums to date. His last album Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations featured some eminent names such as Prince, Outkast, Talib Kweli and KRS-ONE and took a stand against homophobic rap culture and lyrics that are considered derogatory to women.
Along with the recording of CD’s, advising Rev. Al Sharpton on his 2004 presidential campaign, and several lecture post cancellations, West drew some rather strident criticism from several other professors, who began questioning West’s intellectual rigour. One criticism in particular came from the Conservative professor of Comparative Literature John McWhorter who in April 2002 had written an impassioned article in the Wall Street Journal criticising West for replacing scholarly output with personal gain. McWhorter, who felt that it was inappropriate to keep West on as one of only 14 professors at Harvard, also speculated on West’s recent “decamp to Princeton” which began with a high-profile dispute with Lawrence H. Summers, the former president of Harvard.
The dispute started with Summers’ concern that West had started to neglect serious scholarly activity, and that West’s recent work had only consisted of edited volumes. Summers claims that West had cancelled three weeks worth of classes to endorse Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign which led to West responding that he’d cancelled only one class to deliver an address at a “Harvard-sponsored conference on AIDS.” West felt that an academic should be specialised and faithful to her/his field but should not be limited to it, which encroached upon Summers’ very strict view of an academics’ duty and, according to West, is the totality of the disagreement.
But the disagreement went further still when West was taken ill with prostate cancer, he became disappointed that Summers had taken so long to send a get-well message (according to Pam Belluck and Jacques Steinberg for the New York Times in 2002) when by contrast new Princeton president, Shirley M. Tilghman “had called him almost weekly.” West ended up calling Summers the “Ariel Sharon of American Higher Education” and accepted an extended job offer made by Princeton, where he remains.
West’s public intellectual status began with the 1993 release of Race Matters, which has sold half a million copies to date. At the start of his book writing career his political orientation was leaning more towards Marxism, with releases such as Prophecy Deliverance! (1982) and Prophetic Fragments (1988) that contended that class plays a far heavier significance than race in determining who is able to possess and who is lacking in societal power. But it was at the time of West’s release The American Evasion of Philosophy (1989) where his intellectual attitudes began to modify, in which he took up more existential concerns.
For West, to be a left-winger today, one has to be concerned at the level of both the institutional and the existential. In an interview with Democracy Now West claimed that the left today must target “the catastrophic … [so] often concealed in the deodorised and manicured discourses of the mainstream.” This bears many significant parallels to the new project taken up by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, admired by West who chaired an event in November 2005 at Princeton for him, in his 2008 book Violence. The book aims to describe the differences between the violence we see on the news in the form of thuggery and the violence incurred by the workings of the rogue bankers tweaking the economy. The difference, for Žižek, is the difference between “subjective” and “objective” violence. That is to say, “subjective” violence is the perceptibly obvious violence seen on the streets in the form of “crime and terror, civil unrest, international conflict” whereas “objective” violence is the unseen form of violence that takes the form of either the “symbolic” (bound in language and its forms), or the “systemic” (the catastrophic consequences of our economy when it is functioning as normal). The very notion that this objective violence is unseen sustains the level with which we perceive something as subjectively violent.
Žižek readily points to the likes of Bill Gates and George Soros as figureheads of a new type of business ethic that implicitly incorporates objective violence. They create a philanthropic standard for themselves at which they desire to be perceived, when in fact the more appropriate standard to which one should perceive them is at the concealed level of their function in the economy, an economy that determines the fate of individuals and whole nations. For instance when their philanthropy is contrasted to a street robber it might seem obvious who the violent criminal is, but when we start to analyse that which may not be readily perceptible – objective violence - we start to understand their violence at another level, which the philanthropy has been used to camouflage.
The notion of objective violence is precisely analogous to what West meant when he called on “sleepwalkers”, during a debate at the 2007 Left Forum in New York, to “wake up from indifference to other people’s suffering.” Market-driven culture, as West would put it, has made people very complacent with their attitudes towards their fellow beings, precisely because of the so-called philanthropic standard, which the capitalist class promotes. West here is calling on an “institutional” solution – like West’s wish that Obama had said something before his inauguration about the Israeli-Palestine conflict – and also, more importantly, an existential one in which we wake up and put the pressure on the government to stop the suffering.
West’s insistence on political existentialism emanates from his views on race. For him the birth of American racism and what he identified in Race Matters as black “existential angst” – which he believes still persists – originated in 1619, when America received shiploads of slaves. At this point, says West, America had both white and black slaves, and slavery itself was not yet “racialised”, but come 1621, white slaves had been named, whereas black slaves were identified simply by reference to their skin colour. West attributes this event as advancing the “black problematic of namelessness.” The black struggle that began with the abolitionist movement, all the way through to the civil rights movement, and to the present day is an expression of the fight against this “namelessness.” And it is an issue that West has always felt himself inextricably linked to.
So what symbolic event could ever take place to start averting Cornel West’s notion that the US is an institutionally racist nation? Surely the one that took place early this year with the presidency of Barack Obama; America’s first African-American president.
West’s opinion on Obama has been critically supportive over the period of time in 2007 and early 2008 that he joined his campaign trail. West's socialist tendencies have meant that he has taken a step back on promoting Obama for his economic policies due to his appointment of advisers such as Robert Rubin, the economist who was behind the financial deregulation of the Clinton years. But West considers the presidency to be symbolic on the psyche of black people and their struggles against what he considers to be America's “white supremacy”.
Another public issue that West has recently immersed himself in is the debate over the term “post-racial America”. For West, the term's recent importance designates a change in attitude that the white voter has of black candidates, what West calls “crossing the colour line”. Which, in his opinion, is obviously no bad thing, but it needn't cross the line into “colour-blindness”. He goes on to say that the “black body” should be associated with “black humanity” and that the term “post-racial” is just an expression of “less racism”.
For justification, West notes that black voters have been voting on white candidates for years and, for them, it was not an expression of the post-racial, but looking for the best policies in a candidate, or, as West himself put it, apropos of the vote for a white mayor over the black candidate in Gary, Indiana, a vote based on “qualification as opposed to pigmentation”. And here, of course, he does have a major point; why should the issue of post-racial America emerge only now that there is a black president when black voters have always been looking beyond racial issues in their candidacy choice?
Whatever the outcome on the post-racial debate, West has told his supporters, and supporters of Obama in general, that the most important thing they can do is make their voices heard during his presidency years, and revitalise American democracy from its slumber. West has said that he aims to put pressure on Obama himself. In the interview with Democracy Now he stated clearly that he hoped Obama will be a “progressive Lincoln” so that West can be the “Frederick Douglass [abolitionist who held talks with Lincoln in 1863 on the treatment of black soldiers] to put pressure on him.” And my suspicions are that in the next few years he will do just that. Cornel West’s highly enthused, energetic and celebrated voice will be heard many more times to come in this new American era, and I also predict that his voice will soon start to be heard more widely in this country as well.