In this week’s episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, the show’s host debated with Cornell West, the public intellectual and social activist. Maher criticized West for creating a dangerous false equivalency between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, which essentially encouraged progressive Americans either to vote for a third-party candidate or no candidate at all. In the end, Maher claimed, lefties like West are responsible for the election of Donald J. Trump. West, by contrast, indicated that while he always preferred candidate Clinton to candidate Trump, that doesn’t mean he should find her acceptable. According to West, a progressive is obliged to speak out against Democratic candidates as long as they remain agents of the status quo, rather than finding solace in the fact that these individuals are less right-wing than their Republican rivals.
Score one for West. If you are a progressive, you need to fight for the party you want, rather than settle for the so-called “lesser of two evils.” You need to fight for authenticity. You can’t satisfy yourself with limousine liberalism. The Democratic party, West would contend, will continue to lose as long as its sole theme is “They’re Crazy and Evil. So Vote for Us.” Democrats need to stand for, rather than against, something; and that “something” had better include a significant measure of change. Hillary’s campaign did not clearly enunciate what significant transformation it was looking to make, and that – more than any other reason – is why she is not president today.
Allow me to channel West in a different context by moving forward in time by 48 hours – from Friday, when Maher’s show was taped and aired, to today. Here we are on the verge of the first momentous foreign policy speech of Trump’s presidency. He is in Saudi Arabia and is expected to talk about how America respects and honors Islam and hopes to work seamlessly with the Saudis and other Muslim regimes. Yet surely, nanoseconds after he walks off the stage, mainstream liberal Americans, the ones who praised Hillary throughout her campaign, will return to their regularly-scheduled us-versus-them mockery. Trump, they will claim, has shown himself to be a typical politician – saying one thing (bashing Islam) in front of his base, and the diametrically opposite thing (praising Islam) when traveling abroad. Within hours, if not minutes, we’ll be watching montages of Trump’s greatest hits on the subject, showing a Muslim-bashing statement one moment followed by a Muslim-praising statement the next. Here in Blue America, everyone will be in good spirits laughing at this Zelig of a President. And, of course, the undercurrent of all this mockery will be a single theme: that Trump was elected by a group of stupid bigots who despise Islam as much as they love Trump, and who will rationalize today’s speech as an example of a shrewd businessman and statesperson sweet-talking his enemies into making the concessions that advance his blessed America-first agenda.
Like West, I am not here to defend what Trump has said about Muslims in the past. Nor am I here to defend his base. It consistently refuses to hold the President accountable for his words. And let’s face it – that base is ridden with Islamophobia. But the question is, for those of us who feel differently about Islamophobia – who wish to eradicate it as a scourge – is it enough simply to bash the Republican base and the politicians who cater to them? Or do we have an affirmative obligation to embrace Islam and those who practice it? In other words, is it appropriate to sit on our couches and mock candidate Trump for demagoguing on the issue or do we need to stick our necks out and publicize to our family and friends what is uniquely beautiful about Islam?
I don’t always agree with Cornell West. On the subject of Israel, for example, I would surely find myself to be far more on the Zionistic side of the spectrum. But what I appreciate most about West is that he is an activist who fights FOR the social transformation he believes in, rather than simply fighting AGAINST the politicians he dislikes. West has a vision of reform and he is looking to join with other change agents, rather than simply to join in mockery of those who would reform the world in the wrong direction.
On the issue of how the West must deal with Islam, I’ll be blunt: it isn’t enough to condemn Islam-inspired violence (which we must condemn) or to attack the scourge of Islamaphobia. We must work together with our Muslim cousins on social causes and in fellowship activities. Plus, we must dialogue with our Muslim cousins, exploring the many profound similarities among our respective faiths and cultures, and embracing the many profound differences among these faiths and cultures. We must discern what makes Islam special – not just a tributary off the great “Judeo-Christian” river, but a faith that builds masterfully on its Jewish and Christian antecedents. And we must study the challenges that Islamic extremism presents to the world – challenges that are in some respects far more stark and scary than the challenges we’re now experiencing from Jewish and Christian extremists.
Late in 2016, I helped to spearhead a new initiative in the Washington DC area that is known as JAM-AT: Jews and Muslims Acting Together. Members of JAM-AT will be meeting this afternoon at a home in McLean Virginia with one goal in mind: to take Muslim-Jewish engagement in the greater Washington DC area to the next level.
In contemplating today’s meeting, I have pictured Cornell West and Bill Maher attending such an event. West, though a Christian, would fit in wonderfully. He has great respect for both Judaism and Islam. He would be what we in Muslim-Jewish circles refer to as an “Ally.” And indeed, in the last JAM-AT meeting, everyone who was neither Jewish nor Muslim was asked to stand up so that we can applaud our “Allies” – who are invariably among the most righteous in the room.
As for Maher, when I imagine him at a JAM-AT event, all I can envision is his discomfort and cynicism. Most likely, he would view the rest of us as a bunch of stupid religious people, clinging to our primitive superstitions (or, in the case of Spinozist Jews like me, to our contorted rationalizations for embracing organized religion). Maher has saved some of his meanest mockery for Islam. He of all people can ill-afford to get on his high-horse and criticize President Trump for Islamophobia.
When I look at a Cornell West, for all our disagreements, I find a fellow traveler. He loved Heschel as much as he loved King. Indeed, he is a dreamer far more than he is a hater. I’ll grant you that his rhetoric against mainstream politicians can be hyperbolic, but that is the way prophetically inspired progressives often speak. At least I know that what he stands for is more important to him than what he stands against, and what he stands for above all else is universal human dignity.
If you find yourself inspired more by a Cornell West than a Bill Maher, then do me a favor. Find a mosque in your area, pick a night when it is holding an Iftar that is open to the interfaith community, and break pita bread with them. Next weekend, you see, is the start of Ramadan. The Muslim community will be fasting from sun up until sun down throughout the month. You don’t have to fast – just come one night and honor your hosts with your presence. Come with an open mind, an open heart, and an empty stomach. You will likely encounter some of the kindest, most generous people you’ll ever meet. And if the alternative is to turn on cable TV and watch comedians pull out montages that mock Islamophobic politicians ... trust me, experiencing an Iftar is far better for your soul.
[Note – The Empathic Rationalist will be on holiday during Memorial Day Weekend and will return on the first weekend of June.]