Carrying a Jihad- like Hate in the Black Prophetic Tradition: A Response to Black Prophetic Fire by Cornel West

My name is Nyya Toussaint and I am an SGPIA student concentrating in  Governance & Rights. Additionally, I am the first concurrent dual-degree student between The New School and Union Theological Seminary where I study Church & Society. This piece stems from my broad research interests of the intersection of global politics and theology and was presented in February 2018 at the inaugural Political Theology Conference at Emory University (Atlanta, GA). I understand that this piece is based on a sensitive topic and event for many Americans and I want to make it known that I honor that suffering. I vividly remember my Haitian grandmother taking me out of my first-grade classroom in Lawrence, NJ and my extended family sitting in front of the T.V. throughout the night on September 11th. I have grown up only knowing the War on Terror. I look to facilitate this conversation because I realize that though our country does not allow us to forget the events in Manhattan’s financial district, it tries to erase from our memory that Black communities constantly exist in a state of terror.  

I propose that a new proficiency in the Black prophetic tradition will be found in adopting a ruthless, rootless, and boundless, jihad-like hate for the political and socio-economic System that oppresses Black communities. Anthropology professor,  Darryl Li describes the Arabic term jihad as “connoting exertion or struggle”. In the USA jihad is commonly understood to be “religiously sanctioned warfare against non-Muslim and Muslim powers”. Less commonly, jihad is known to signify “nonviolent and purely internal struggles such as social activism”.

The FBI defines domestic terrorism as, “[being] perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature”. Four Black Americans are currently wanted as terrorists by the FBI; Cheri Dalton, George Wright, Ambrose Montfort, and Assata Shakur. Additionally, as of  August 3rd the FBI, in its own imagination, has morphed the Black Lives Matter movement into what it believes to be a new terroristic threat that it calls Black Identity Extremists (BIE). BIE’s possible acts of terror are said to be in response to perceived racism and injustice. The Bureau is fearful of BIE seeking to establish “a separate black homeland or autonomous black social institutions, communities, or governing organizations within the United States;” as BIE extremists are “influenced by a mix of anti-authoritarian, Moorish sovereign citizen ideology, and BIE ideology”. The movement for Black liberation has remained constant in, and conscious of, the power of non-violence. I quote Cornel West in stating that “the Black freedom movement has always been an anti-terrorist movement,  Black people in America had a choice between creating a Black al-Qaeda or a movement like Ida B. Wells’” who through her Christian faith called into question the repressive, unnecessary, and racist violence of the State. Even with a non-violent commitment like Ida B. Wells being carried by Blacks during slavery, the Civil Rights movement, and currently in the Black Lives Matter movement, the United States, under both Obama and Trump-like administrations, has deemed four Black senior citizens and the masses of Black youth as terrorists.

The Black prophetic community must reconcile with itself and its people, due to its turning away from radically detesting and speaking truth to a System that has hindered Black freedom. Such restoration begins with a consciousness that the Black prophets’ current commitment to non-violence also carries the risk of suppressing the level of  detestation that is necessary for the fall of the System. As the Black freedom movement is being equated to al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, DAESH, and Hezbollah, now may be an opportune time to observe how our sisters and brothers in the Middle East are responding to the oppression, repression, and suppression of the same System. If the Black prophetic tradition is to continue to include a commitment to non-violence, the beginning of it attaining new wisdom may begin with adopting the mujahedeen’s stubborn, radical, and subversive hate for the System. This jihad-like hate for the System is first ruthless, second rootless, and third boundless; even with a commitment to non-violence, the Black prophet’s adoption of these elements is necessary for proficient prophetic ministry today.  

The beginning of new wisdom for the Black prophets is first “BE RUTHLESS”

One month after 9/11, Osama Bin Laden expressed that justice had been served to the United States and that our nation’s experience was insignificant compared to the “humiliation and degradation” the Islamic world has tasted for scores of years. The Black prophets need to question the common consensus in the U.S. that terrorism is solely externally based acts of violence that threaten the continued stability of the state and its institutions which serve the majority. Violence sanctioned by the state is not yet commonly considered an act of terror that disrupts the stability and peace of marginalized groups. State inflicted terrorism easily goes unquestioned because it is committed under the guise of protecting the state’s security, identity, wealth, power, and provisions. The USA’s use of mercenaries and drones has sanitized the state’s terrorism. Both private military companies and drones enable the U.S. to fight wars with its own blood off of the “gambling table”; “this creates a moral hazard as it lowers the barriers of entry into conflict”. In a recent article, Cornel West recalled the following events that took place during Obama’s administration: “563 drone strikes, the assassination of U.S. citizens with no trial, the 26,171 bombs dropped on five Muslim-majority countries in 2016, and the 550 Palestinian children killed with U.S. supported planes in 51 days”. Without mercy, institutionalized violence strikes up systematic terrorism on its victims without many Americans ever knowing about the insecurity generated by this Empire.

Archbishop Oscar Romero was a victim of the U.S. supported violence enacted by the government of El Salvador. He defined terrorism as a form of violence that was mistakenly perceived to be the final and effective way to change social issues. Romero claimed that such seditious violence only produced “useless and unjustifiable bloodshed”. I imagine by the time of his assassination, Archbishop Oscar Romero had no choice but to see state violence as terrorism. After the democide of his priests, after the events in reaction to El Salvador’s egregious laws, and if possible, after witnessing the state detonating explosives at his own funeral the Archbishop understood state violence to be “useless and unjustifiable bloodshed”.

State violence cannot be differentiated from terrorism. The minuscule difference between using violence to maintain unjust social conditions and using violence to change one’s own oppressive conditions is not a change in the means to an end, it is a difference in the intended end. After 9/11, the following question arose; “how many September 11ths has the United States caused in other nations since WWII?” As of January 2018, the answer is an estimated 10,000 terrorizing attacks intended to destabilize other societies. 9/11, like all struggles for freedom by the oppressed, is found on a timeline where before it there was institutionalized terrorism sanctioned by the State and in response to it there was increased violence by the state towards those physically begging for freedom – using physical strategies to ensure physical safety.

The beginning of new wisdom for the Black prophetic tradition may begin with asking “how many September 11ths has the U.S. caused in our communities since the Emancipation Proclamation or the Civil Rights Act of 1964?” The beginning of freedom’s ruthlessness is in accepting that violence enacted by the powerful terrorizes the very breath within black and brown bodies. Archbishop Oscar Romero defined violence in legitimate self-defense to be the use of force in response to the unjust aggression subjected on groups or individuals. Even with a conviction to non-violence, the Black prophetic tradition must be sensitive in its critique of those who seek freedom in ways defined by the empire as terrorism. The violence of the oppressed, as seen through the four wanted alleged Black terrorists and BIE is in reaction to the political, psychological, and physical terrorism of the USA. The oppressed are pushed to violence; thus the Black prophetic tradition must be aware that the Empire’s terrorism is the force behind Black people’s violence. From this terrorizing political and socio-economic System, the tradition must reclaim its people who are wrongly labeled as terrorists. Freedom’s ruthlessness is being unapologetic about the back-lash to state terrorism. Though the prophets may not agree with the tactics, there can be no pity or compassion in the moments when the state claims to be attacked by the weak until this demonic System stops waging war on Black communities. The beginning of wisdom for the prophets is adopting a ruthlessness that fiercely calls out tyranny as tyranny and that responds to the System’s pitiful claims of being attacked with “well, what else did you expect?”

The beginning of new wisdom for the Black prophets is second “BE ROOTLESS”

Within contemporary international law there are two established categories of armed conflict: international armed conflict- as in war between states, and non-international armed conflict as in civil war within a state. The attacks in Manhattan on 9/11 did not fit into either category. This was the beginning of a new type of war, where the mujahedeen were neither interested in establishing a state nor in replacing the hegemon. It was a form of public and social execution intended to punish America for its  “transnational moral perversion”.  

The mujahedeen’s lack of affinity with the nation-state order is rooted in the Middle East’s marginalization and oppression caused by the international system. The mujahedeen have made a conscious choice to step outside of that order in their quest for systemic change. The attacks on September 11th  struck fear within the entire international system because a force attacked the hegemon without any desire to take its place. Transnational jihad works under the conviction that replacing those in power is not the answer, peace can only be found in discarding the entire oppressive System.

In the current nation-state order, that is inspired by Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan model, individuals give up their rights to the state, who in turn promises security. The Leviathan, which Hobbes calls the state, is only given legitimacy through the citizens’ willingness to put their security in the hands of this sea monster. The fault in the nation-state order is that as individuals are giving up their rights to the state, the state is not keeping up its end of the agreement and providing individuals with security in return. Additionally, the state does not only fail at providing security to  Black communities but, as was my first point, it produces existential insecurities among these citizens.

There is a trending belief among Black activists and prophets that freedom can come from the prophetic community gaining political agency and working for the oppressive Empire. This thinking is what led Blacks to have the audacity to hope in the election of Barack Obama. With Obama as the greatest example, the Black prophetic tradition must understand that the existential insecurity of Black communities cannot be changed by Black prophets being rooted in this flawed and backward System.   

In Black Prophetic Fire, West grants three causes for the decline of the Black prophets. First- a shift of  Black leadership from the voices of social movements like Du Bois, King, Wells, and Malcolm to the voice of elected officials in the mainstream political system. Second- the power of neoliberalism to seduce potential leaders and intellectuals into a culture of raw ambition and instant success that thereby incorporates them into the neoliberal regime. And third- the U.S. empire “contains a vicious repressive apparatus that targets those strong and sacrificial leaders, activists, and prophetic intellectuals who are easily discredited, delegitimized, or even assassinated, including through character assassination”. The beginning of new wisdom for the Black prophetic Tradition should cause skepticism of the activists and prophets who are not willing to seek freedom under the threat of the Empire’s vicious apparatus; skepticism of those who would rather struggle by having political and entrepreneurial positions that resemble the character of the oppressor. The beginning of new wisdom that is rootless, is no longer being deceived that a long-distance relationship with the State is relinquishing the prophets’ Esther-like position of influence. It is the questioning of how prophetic communities will ever manifest God’s justice while being rooted behind enemy lines- attending political conventions, relying on government funding, and being recipients of the System’s privileges. The beginning of rootless wisdom strategizes how the prophets will untangle themselves from a relationship with the State; how they will attain  Samsonian redemption by leaning against the pillars of empire that tempt them to be political instead of prophetic. The prophets must maintain their proficiency by stepping out of the System and then leaning on its strongholds until the entire Empire falls for the glory of God and liberation of black, brown, Arab, Christian, female, LGBTQIA-GNC, poor, incarcerated, and migrant-refugee communities.

The beginning of new wisdom for the Black prophets is third “BE BOUNDLESS”

The oppressive nature of the U.S. Empire is transnational. Tear gas in Palestine, tear gas in Ferguson. 60,000 unaccompanied Central American minors detained at the southern border in 2016; 21,000 Black youth in juvenile detention centers in 2015. 28.5 million White Americans and 10.2 million Black Americans below the poverty line. Famines in Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria and Somalia; food deserts in Bankhead (Atlanta), Kenilworth (DC), Trenton (NJ), and Inglewood (Los Angeles). The systematic oppression faced by Black communities is similarly known by oppressed people worldwide. West claims the proficient Black prophetic tradition to value the precious lives of babies in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Haiti, Gaza, Tel Aviv, Lagos, Bogotá, and everywhere else equally to the lives of precious Black babies in the USA.

The Black prophetic tradition has lost sight of the expansiveness of state-inflicted oppression; therefore the prophets have lost their solidarity with the masses of people who are also in the struggle. The Black prophetic tradition has remained silent about the Muslim ban, DACA, the crisis in Puerto Rico, the treatment of trans women in prison, the continued class war between White capitalists and poor White communities. Nor has this tradition proficiently spoken truth to power about how its own brothers and sisters; Cheri Dalton, George Wright, Ambrose Montfort, and Assata Shakur, have been labeled terrorists in response to their personal convictions on how to attain freedom.

The beginning of new wisdom that carries a boundless, transnational affinity with all who are oppressed is recalling how in Matthew 5, Jesus is challenged by a Syrophoenician mother who longs for him to heal her daughter. Initially, but not eternally, Jesus was silent to her plea. Embarrassing, but not dooming, in this passage, when the Savior of the World finally does speak he claims he is not called to serve this woman nor her people and that God’s justice is exclusive to Israel alone. For too long, the Black prophets have been silent in their empathy for all oppressed people. They have sought freedom from racism yet have been prejudice towards others who are also oppressed by a System which favors the wealthy, the cisgender-heterosexual, and the white male. The beginning of new wisdom that is boundless is remembering how the Syrophoenician mother spoke truth to power and told Jesus that even the crumbs of God’s freedom, that fall from one oppressed group to another, will show God’s preferential option for the least of humanity and grant them justice.

In conclusion, as the Black freedom movement continues to follow the non-violent path of Ida B. Wells, my prayer for the Black prophetic tradition is that it will not sacrifice its proficiency through empathizing, colluding, or tacitly approving with the State.  

  • I pray that the prophets will be ruthless in defining state-sanctioned oppression in Black communities as TERRORISM and be ruthless in reclaiming individuals like Cheri Dalton, George Wright, Ambrose Montfort, and Assata Shakur as fellow liberationists who just have a different conviction.

 

  • I pray that the prophets will be able to be rootless by handling their cravings for political agency or any fleeting luxuries offered by the State, in order for them to step outside of the System and create a proficient prophetic ministry that dismantles political and socio-economic oppression.

 

  • I pray that the prophets will be boundless in who they see as oppressed and will acknowledge that true Black freedom will only come with freedom for all.

 

Citations in order of appearance

Li, Darryl. 2015. “Jihad in a World of Sovereigns: Law, Violence, and Islam in the Bosnia Crisis.” Law & Social Inquiry 1-31.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. n.d. Terrorism. Accessed February 11, 2018. https://www.fbi.gov/investigate/terrorism.

Federal Bureau of Investigation: Counterterrorism Division. 2017. Black Identity Extremists Likely Motivated to Target Law Enforcement Officers. August 3.

West, Cornel. 2014. Black Prophetic Fire. Boston: Beacon Press.

Davis, Rowenna. 2011. Bin Laden: the war in his words . May 2. Accessed February 11, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/may/02/bin-laden-war-words-quotes.

Gilsinan, Kathy. 2015. “The Return of the Mercenary: How private armies, and the technology they use, are changing warfare.” The Atlantic, March 25.

  1. Ta-Nehisi Coates is the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle. December 17. Accessed February 11, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/dec/17/ta-nehisi-coates-neoliberal-black-struggle-cornel-west?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other.

Romero, Oscar, and Arturo Rivera y Damas. 1978. The Church and Popular Political Organizations: Third Pastoral Letter of Archbishop Romero,. August 6.

Lucas, James A. 2018. US Has Killed More Than 20 Million People in 37 “Victim Nations” Since World War II . January 7. Accessed February 11, 2018. https://www.globalresearch.ca/us-has-killed-more-than-20-million-people-in-37-victim-nations-since-world-war-ii/5492051.

Romero, Oscar, and Arturo Rivera y Damas. 1978. The Church and Popular Political Organizations: Third Pastoral Letter of Archbishop Romero,. August 6.

Li, Darryl. 2015. “Jihad in a World of Sovereigns: Law, Violence, and Islam in the Bosnia Crisis.” Law & Social Inquiry 1-31.

Appadurai, Arjun. 2006. Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Hobbes, Thomas. 1998. The Leviathan. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

West, Cornel. 2014. Black Prophetic Fire. Boston: Beacon Press.

Davis, Angela Y. 2016. Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Johnson, Jeh. 2016. United States Border Patrol Southwest Family Unit Subject and Unaccompanied Alien Children Apprehensions Fiscal Year 2016. Statement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection. https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/stats/southwest-border-unaccompanied-children/fy-2016.

Equal Justice Initiative. 2017. Black Children Five Times More Likely Than White Youth to Be Incarcerated . September 14. Accessed February 11, 2018. https://eji.org/news/black-children-five-times-more-likely-than-whites-to-be-incarcerated.

United States Census Bureau. n.d. Poverty Status in the Past 12 months: 2012-2016 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates.

McVeigh, Karen, and Ben Quinn. 2017. Famine looms in four countries as aid system struggles to cope, experts warn. February 12. Accessed February 11, 2018.

United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. 2017. Food Access Research Atlas . May 18. Accessed February 11, 2018. https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-access-research-atlas/go-to-the-atlas/.

West, Cornel. 2014. Black Prophetic Fire. Boston: Beacon Press.

Image c/o James Stewart

1 Comment

  1. I appreciate your thoughtful retrospect on the Black activist, prophetic tradition. It’s a lot of room for thought and consideration. I think for a long time Black activism existed in a nucleus for obvious, especially because of strategic isolation from the powerful, similarly to the embargos enforced to countries that the US want to force in alignment with their plans and strategies… (i.e. Cuba, Haiti to name a few) However today, there is room for collaboration amongst other activist groups as we strive for equality for ALL opressed people, however there has to be room for an understanding of where we differ as well. “Can we march arm and arm and agree that we don’t see eye to eye in everything but yet still march for the same rights for all?”
    I appreciate your perspective on “the Black prophetic tradition must understand that the existential insecurity of Black communities cannot be changed by Black prophets being rooted in this flawed and backward System.” However I think to list it as “backward” is harsh, perhaps it is an antiquated system that needs to evolve and radically recharged. There is much to learn from our roots, so please don’t dismiss it so quickly.

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