A blog on political conflict and the ways we make sense of it

Month: October, 2012

Abigail Fisher and the reaction of race politics

The Supreme Court is hearing arguments in a case that stands to uphold, limit, or gut the court’s 2003 upholding of Affirmative Action in the Grutter case. Abigail Fisher, who recently graduated from LSU and works as a financial analyst in Texas, sued the state of Texas for racial discrimination. Texas’ affirmative action policies are rather mild compared to many other states: the state guarantees college admission to top high school students but uses factors like race and extra curricular activities to determine acceptance in general admissions.

Fisher was not among the 75% of Texas applicants who yearly receive offers of admission from the UTs. And she was not among the accepted students from general admissions. With mediocre grades and the interplay of extras, letters of recommendation, and her race (white), it remains to be seen how her lawyer will prove that Fisher’s whiteness was the factor in her failure to gain admission.

I haven’t spent a lot of time reading up on this case, but the issue of affirmative action played a key role in my undergraduate life at a large public university. The central trope of “diversity within diversity” that still allows for racial admissions gerrymandering: recruitment of wealthy minorities.

It is deeply frustrating that race relations are played out in our nation’s universities, schools, streets, and even our courts as a hazy shroud over deepening class relations.

It is amazing that race is still parried as the central and most determinant feature of economic and social injustice in this country. For many Americans still think that race is a primary indicator of economic status. Rather, I would argue that the race and socio economics are correlated (for obvious historical and legislative reasons that privilege wealthy whites). The tragedy of America’s debate over affirmative action is that it rests on the fragile image of aggregated colors, rather than what makes a generation of people (and another, and another) disadvantaged: poverty.

Rethinking yesterday’s post: “danger” was a poor choice… Shura and Democracy

in wording. And soon enough, I found evidence to damn my own conclusions. It is clear to me now that my frustration with the term and implications of shura were from the Shavit piece, more specifically, from Shavit’s explanation of the historical functionalization of the term. (Especially in the case of the Society of Muslim Brothers, it is guilty of all the things I frantically outlined…)

After I rushed off to class and we discussed “what is the West and what is democracy?” I had a few more thoughts on shura and the demands that the question (not only of “the West” and democracy, but) of the emancipatory principles of Islamic law.The project is riddled with layers of decrepit politicized crust. It is hard not to take the crust for law, historical implementation for potential. In short, I cannot mistake my big fat finger for the moon, even though I have to point to it somehow.

I also read Charles Tilly’s piece on Social Mechanisms, and his example of mechanisms and their interplay was on democratization. What do you think his definition was?

Democratization is any move toward protected consultation, de-democraization any move away from protected consultation.

As you recall, shura is translated as “consultation.” But I think that I was a little bit right and a lot wrong when I said that there are dangers of equating shura with democracy. I was right in my discernment on the improper and unclear linearity of the two terms. I was incorrect because (from ignorance and conceptual ambiguity that DEFINITELY still lingers) on the relationship to shura as a mechanism in democratization. Thus, the concepts are not linear or interchangeable but are definitely related. There is certainly more to come on this topic. I only wanted to point out my earlier failing and also to share my definitions of “the West” and “democracy” (both formulated pre-Tilly).

{Directly from my notebook:}

The West: A non-geographical tradition of accumulating hegemony. Western thought is also an inheritence of this type, and it remains a sort of hegemonic enterprise defined after its apogee. Historical networks of hegemony centralize power and expand influence. Resistance is always non-West, because it is always non-hegemonic. Is “the West” a way to name a dot on the map of this tradition as it falls away?

Democracy: mutual recognition of inherent radical equality for decentralized, ubiquitous consensus.

Signing off,


Thought, Deed, Habit, Character: Dogen, Mechanisms, and Insensibility in Book II of Nichomachean Ethics

“The thought manifests as the word; the word manifests as the deed; the deed develops into habit; And habit hardens into character. So watch the thought and its ways with care, And let it spring from love born out of concern for all beings.”

 The intermediary states are best; the slack state is a spongy wall. The intense state makes us like a grenade in a glass fortress.

{Below are some brief notes that I’ve transposed to the blog entry, all further writing in italics is my addition and thought to the content of the proceeding chapters}

Chapter 1: How Virtue of Character is Acquired

Virtue of thought is the product of teaching; virtue of character is habit (ethos); none arise naturally.

We are by nature able to acquire them, and we are completed through habit; we acquire them as we do crafts, by activating them.

We are temperate by doing temperate actions, we are brave by doing brave actions, we are just by doing just actions.

Buildings can be made poorly, just as our temperance and other crafts can be poorly done, otherwise we’d need no teachers only having been born good or bad. Instead, we have a choice and a responsibility over ourselves and the world that we live in. Indeed, it seems that we shape the world, but we do not receive in the manner or as the matter that we wish. However, this does not exclude us from cultivating virtue in character. It does pose significant challenges against just thoughts, temperate actions, steadfast habit, and our manifest character in the world.

It is all-important that we become habituated in these crafts from youth.

Chapter 2: Habituation

Actions should accord with reason

There are no fixed answers; since we are dealing with a world that we have not made but inherit and only after shape, we must shape ourselves and others to be fit for such a task. I will suggest, treading lightly in Charles Tilly’s tracks, that ethics are also subject to a situational and historical set of mechanisms. In “Mechanisms in Political Processes” Tilly sites Aristotle’s use of mechanisms in Politics. Mechanisms are understood a dynamic set of relations or causal-topologies through which we understand the world and meaning of change. For example, in his discussion of democratization and the role of public politics, Tilly is in lock-step with Aristotle’s notion of “activation” when he says: “Democratization is not a product but a special condition of public politics” (Tilly 33). Indeed, the fixity is not in the substance but in the essence of reflective and ethical action, as well as in the political.

These states are ruined by excess: too much or too little food, just as too much bravery turns to brashness, and the antithesis of intemperance is insensibility.

Aristotle states that there are very few people who are insensible, since it is not in human nature to lack gusto, desire, and emotion.But I would argue that we are living at a time when insensibility is akin to shutting out the world. A type of willed ignorance, how many people shut off the world around them and their role in it? There are quite a few of us; even further (in a different venue and format) insensibility (the lack of feeling of response) is a prerequisite for function in late modernity. If our actions and virtues are activated in us through education, none of them coming naturally, there seems a struggle between the logic of virtue and its null, the logic of insensibility, of numbness, of non-character.

Chapter 3: The Importance of Pleasure and Pain

Virtue of character is about pleasure and pains. There are three dichotomies within the topology of pleasure and pain: the fine and the shameful, the expedient and the harmful, the pleasant and the painful.

Pleasure grows with us from birth; and if crafts of thought and ethics are not endogenous but in-built in the process of becoming human, pleasures, then are what make us animalistic.

A good result is even better when it is difficult. Aristotles recurring emphasis on the process of “activation” or becoming human resonates in Book II, and I am also reminded of Dogen, even more so than of Budhha. The 12th century thinker and founder of the Soto Zen school emphasized on the process, or activation of “think not thinking” during meditation and in daily life. Of course, we are born with automatic thoughts (not cultivated thought in the Aristotelian sense) that torment us with pushing or pulling, leaning or falling, towards what? Towards pleasure or pain. Dogen’s maxim “think not thinking” was not a command but a process of activation against the immediacy of our animalistic (or lower) senses that ensnare us in emotive and responsive states. When we think not thinking, of course we are actually thinking something, (not thinking) and this serves as a mechanism to detach from content of phenomenon or thought rife with suffering. I wonder to what extent Dogen is speaking in a similar topological mode to Aristotle?

Chapter 4: Virtuous Actions versus Virtuous Craft

The agent must also be in the right state in virtue of character; a firm and unchanging state (think not thinking).

Three further criteria:
1. the actor must know his own virtuous action

2. the actor must decide (have decided) on them

3. the actor must do them from a firm and unchanging state

The many take refuge in arguments and think they are doing philosophy.

In an election year, how sadly obvious this statement is. Less than argument, upon close examination, the argument for the many is little more than the opinion shrouded in a cheese cloth of facts. Someone (in my family) listed the errors against Obama, among them “giving cell phones to folks on welfare.” I responded that the cell phone initiative began during the Bush administration. No response. There was a picture of a hammer and a sickle with a quote from Lenin on the destruction of the West through (and I am paraphrasing) the promotion of sex culture, consumption, and the deteriorating knowledge and capacity for historical education. Again, the message was interpreted as a war against the West, and I (for REALLY enjoying it) was condemned for supporting the destruction of “America.” Ignorance and conceptual fogginess, never mind my interlocutor’s historical bias, seemed to prove Lenin’s intended criticism about the contradictory logic of Western hegemony in the negative.

Sadly, I am at a loss. But not to worry Aristotle, it will not be for long.

Chapter 5: Virtue of Character: Its Genus

There are feelings, capacities, and states. Feelings are our appetites, our fear, our anger, our “little mind.” To return to my earlier example of Dogen’s maxim, our feelings are the responses that arise out of suffering, pulling or pushing due toward pleasure or away from pain.

Our capacities are the potentials for our being emotive, but also of our capacity to “think not thinking,” or the quest for activation of craft beyond feelings.

States, are what we have when we are well off or badly off in theses states. The intermediary states are best; the slack state is a spongy wall. The intense state makes us like a grenade in a glass fortress.

Virtue is a state, not an emotion or a capacity. Thought, deed, habit, character. A fortress with walls and doors, carefully made with a far view out to sea and a deep well in the middle.

Chapter 6: Virtue of Character

The appropriateness of feelings is a character of virtue. How many times have I myself been angry with the injustice of a situation? My interlocutor and I do not share common ground, and I have entangled myself in a mess of opinions and emotions masquerading uninvited to my argument ball. And I am made to play Cinderella: pitiable, laughable, and disrespected. And yet, this is not cause for just anger, says Aristotle. Well, that’s up for debate.

Virtue is a mean. It aims at what is intermediate, but also correct. (The intermediate is relative and dependent.)

The tricky question in this quality of virtue is the power and the need for discernment. Discernment is not a method, not a state. Hm, it seems a bit like a virtue…

Chapter 7: The Particular Virtues of Character

People who are deficient in pleasure are not often found (see above); magnificent people are concerned with large matters. “People” ought to be replaced with “person.” The magnificent and the magnanimous person is rare. He is the aristocrat of virtue. Not to mention he ought to be very rich. I saw him (in later books) to be a sort of sketch of Plato’s philosopher king.

Chapter 8: Relations Between Mean and Extreme States

The extremes of a virtue are not equally distant from the mean (self-deprecation is closer to truth than boastfulness, for example).

The brave person seems rash in comparison to the coward (but we don’t give a fig about the coward). Each extreme tries to push the intermediate to the other extreme: pleasure is suffering as pain is suffering, because they are pre-rational, pre-ethical feelings.

Chapter 9: How Can We Reach the Mean?

It is hard work to be excellent. You’re telling me. For in each case it is hard to find the mean… and do we run the risk of a Kantian dilemma? Are ethical means known, or rather, are they merely discerned—activated—through the quest for a steadfast moral state. 

Is there a lesser of two evils? We must beware of pleasure and its sources. It is particularly difficult to determine with whom we should be angry, at the right time, and in what state such anger might be best expressed.

The thought, the deed, the habit that hardens in to character.

Signing off,


What is Shura? and the dangers of “synonymism” with democracy

What is Shura? It is commonly translated into English as “council.” And since I have no experience whatsoever with Arabic, it seems that I have entered into a debate-matrix without any shoes on my feet. This entry is organized around a few texts that I have read on the matter. It will be part precise part implication (or, a partial reflection of framing of the democratic debate over the “Westernization” of Islam). As a caveat, I must warn any reader, especially myself, that my knowledge of Islamic law and culture is bare, at best. If I make some vocabularic or terminological mistake, please do point it out to me. I realize that in the fall out of attending middle and high school under Bush, there is considerable room for error on any uneducated American’s part. 

With that said… what is Shura? In the pieces that I discuss today, shura is almost always employed either negatively or positively in the context of democratic debate. 

I looked through Wael B. Hallaq’s (enormously helpful and clear) An Introduction to Islamic Law, a Cambridge Introduction. I was shocked to find that the term was not listed in glossary or the index. At this point, I started to wonder how far afield the term is, and whether or not the resurgent search for a term commensurate with “democracy” is more drawn from reactive impulses than a bona fide relation between the two concepts. 

Urita Shavit’s essay “Is Shura a Muslim Form of Democracy? Roots and Systemization of a Polemic,” (2010) attempts to answer just this question. Since the piece was written in 2010, the opening lines perhaps shed light on the ideological confusion pervading the conceptualization of democratic voice in the Muslim World: “Can the lack of democracy in Arab societies be explained by their religious identity?” [I think that, living in a post Arab-Spring world, we have to reject this hypothesis, even as Shavit only employs it as a foil.]

Shavit reroutes the fallacious dichotomy between Islam and democracy; for if such a dichotomy exists, the conclusion is forgone. Instead, the author wants to focus on shura and the body of scholarly exploration around the term, mostly compiled during the last 40 years. Reference and foundation to “shura” in Islamic discourse comes “mainly on two sentences for the Quran– ‘and seek their council in all affairs’ (3,159) and ‘[for those] whose affairs are settled by mutual consultation’ (42,38).” 

Shavit lists four schools, each with its own interpretation on the role and meaning of shura in law. The following will outline them and their core tenets:

1. Scholars and Activists (strongly affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood). In their interpretation, shura is more of a distinctly Muslim duty rather than a right that grants all the merits of a liberal democracy without any of its flaws. Presumably, Islamic faith and law serve as a regulative force against the “flaws” of liberal democracy. This conception of shura allows Muslims to free Islam from arcane traditional notions and interpretations, but does not liberate Muslim societies directly. Rather,shura as council underscores the importance of itjihad (reinterpretation and striving for meaning in changing historical circumstances), so that the people benefit from a highly regulated reinterpretation of Sharia and Islamic law. Much of this scholarship is from Islamic liberals, namely Hassan al-Banna. Here, Shavit surprisingly puts al-Banna in the same ideological framework as Sayyid Qtub, who is usually employed as a marker for the radical departure of liberal Islamism to radical Islamism. However, Qtub also wrote for the “need for shura to reflect the opinions of the nation in its entirety.” 

The constitutive role of “the nation” and “the people” is sorely lacking. For (it seems from my early stage in research) that itjihad is left to determine the extent of inclusion and exclusion of parties from other faiths, not to mention the role of women and disenfranchised groups within the Muslim community. Here, I found Eric Davis’ piece “The Concept of Revival and the Study of Islam and Politics.” Davis outlines the development of the Society of Muslim Brothers from 19th century liberals (chez al-Banna) to its 20th century iterations.

Davis maps out the role of urbanization in Egypt (as well as in the Arab world) that was responsible for the uneven development in inclusion and exclusion of marginalized groups, namely women. MB was largely a product of the rural-to-urban transformation of the petite bourgeoisie. Just as Shavit points out, the MB utilized principles of consultation to liberate themselves and their political programs from historical interpretations while strongly advocating “traditional” roles (of subordination) for women, rural peasantry, and a growing industrial class in the cities. 

Shura, then, seems to be a partial liberation from history for the ends of an emerging hegemonic stratum in Islamic society. In this context, it seems that shura is not analogous to democracy in the Western sense. Given its refusal for universal suffrage and interpretive contingency, it does not clearly outline the governing structure whether it supports timocratic, democratic, or oligarchic regime-types; hence, it is inappropriate to continue to question its roots as a democratic mechanism.

Jihadi-salafis (largely dichotomoize shura and democracy); for lack of research, I have not included them in today’s post.

Liberals who employ shura as a key support for the role of western-style democratic rule. This group isn’t safe from the charge of selective democracy, either. For, as Shavit says, “in the aftermath of the military coup that followed the Isalmic Salvation Front winning the first round in multiparty elections in Algeria in December 1991, Islamists became increasingly suspicious as to whether the West and Arab secular regimes would ever allow them to win power peacefully.” This sort of power struggle between liberal secular regimes and conservative, even radically conservative regimes is not local to shura or Islamic rule. Indeed, I am thinking of the Weimar Republic’s deeply liberal constitution that tolerated its own subversion and demise by the Nazi party, which was democratically elected. 

This raises the more general question of the limit of liberalism: to what extent can secular liberal democracies uphold “universal” rights and freedom of expression without fostering its own destruction. For, it is logical to assume that any Islamist regime popularly elected in a previously “secular” state would suffer extreme augmentation. In a move for self-preservation, wouldn’t it seem (in a pattern not dissimilar from the Muslim Brotherhood) that the secular regime would liberate itself from the historically-contingent apparatus for its own ends while suppressing popular or marginal expression that is antithetical to its own privilege?

4. Long-standing regimes and intellectuals who use shura to legitimize the extant political order. This is clear in diverse regimes like Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the latter case, shura has been used by opposition to the king to demand the right of a cabinet. So far, the king’s ambiguous recognition of the need for council (though not binding) has been a means to side-step its actual political formation. In Iran, the unicameral house has employed its right to council by calling in Ahmadinejad for questioning over economic policies (the first leader ever to face such questioning). 


It seems to me, after this brief engagement with shura council and its ostensible relation to democracy, that it is not shura or Islam that poses significant problems to popular will; rather, it is democracy. To be specific, hegemonic prescriptions and definitions of democracy serve to threaten and destroy actually-existing consensus. 

Shavit continues: “Islamist scholars who equate shura with democracy emphasize that, being democratic, Islam calls on people to elect their leadership and that non-elected leadership is illegitimate… People do not have a right to practice shura,  [al-Qaradawi] wrotes; rather, a system of shura is a Muslim obligation. It seems that the central question for both shura and democracy, but more for democracy, is the right to inclusion. If the people cannot practice shura and it must be only limited to representation, is that not a (rather Western) manoeuvre away from democracy toward oligarchic rule?

And, after this, I am less concerned with this application shura as an autonomous concept than with its role as a handmaid of decrepit democracy, at best. In the coming weeks, I will look for examples of support for shura as a universal.  

Time-lag: the Beginning of Crisis in Iran

Image(Photo courtesy of NY Times)

Panic, desperation, and a financial drone that’s been a long time coming. Is it possible to stave off the impending collapse of Iran’s economy? The story is unfolding at different points in the politico-capital spectrum, leaving many (including myself) with the feeling that global, paradigmatic geo-politics leaves us all behind in the dust. When the jobs are devastated, the currency value imploded, the bargaining purchase of a university education have all been shot up before us, are we left with wreckage? or reminded that we were always only human? How many of us boring our way through the second decade of the 21st century recognize our (own) political nature?

Left, right, center, anarchist, Islamist: we are aware of the politically-defined character of our lives (to say nothing of the economically-determined character of our private lives and in common). But to what extent are we aware of our own politics, our own political agency?

I hear my professor’s voice: who is we Kimosabe?  Well, that’s what I’m here to figure out. Provisionally, I mean “all;” in this RARE instance I mean universal man; but can’t we say that all is also the disenfranchised, the ones who maybe forget that we determine as much as we are the unwilling inheritors of political determination?

This blog will not orient itself around overly-abstract conceptions of politics, community, economy, and conflict. I hope that in the course of writing and reading in the world, I will find light shed on our ability to recognize our own political capital, disown the shattered wreckage as the space-junk engineered not for us, but them.

It remains to be seen, just who we are, whether our political nature has to be reclaimed, named, or mobilized. Until then, I’ll be here, writing the time-lag.

Signing off,