Here’s my interview with Brookings Institution senior fellow and Atlantic contributor Shadi Hamid about protests, riots and national conversation on racial justice in recent days.
Hamid, whose family is from Egypt, is Muslim and self-identifies as politically on the left. He is a defender of American democracy and warns against apocalyptic claims that America is becoming authoritarian. He’s also concerned that America, in its self-critique, may lose confidence in its own important national purpose, with negative domestic and international implications.
At the conclusion, Hamid offers a compelling and vigorous “sermon” (my term!) on the importance of serious religion in America’s national life. He warns that the increasingly prominent “church of woke,” which substitutes political obsessions with systemic injustice for traditional faith, is disturbing but reveals a spiritual yearning in America that may lead to a substantive religious revival.
Hamid is insightful and entertaining. Enjoy!
Rough Transcript of Conversation:
TOOLEY: Hello this is Mark Tooley editor of Providence, a journal of Christianity and American foreign policy, as well as president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, DC. Today I have the pleasure of conversing with Shadi Hamid, who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, also in Washington, as well as a regular contributor to The Atlantic magazine. So Shadi, thanks so much for joining this conversation.
HAMID: Hi Mark, thanks for having me.
TOOLEY: Now you are an American citizen of course; your family is from Egypt and you were educated in Great Britain and you identify as Muslim, if I recall correctly, so you bring a unique perspective to your analysis that will be interesting and noteworthy to many of our listeners. I think political you would self-identify as left-of-center, but your analysis of America often tends to be more favorable and upbeat than many of those who are well right-of-center. So, I would love to have your analysis about what happened in Minneapolis and subsequent events, especially what’s happening in Washington, DC, this week.
HAMID: Yes, yes, I am more than happy to and I do confuse people a little bit because as you said I do consider myself to be on the left—that’s my tribe so to speak—but I am ideologically heterodox. Some people like that, some people increasingly don’t like it, and so I sometimes find myself caught in these Twitter firestorms and elsewhere in the public debate and I think it’s a hard time to be sort of difficult to pin down ideologically. I think people want a clear sense of who you are and what you stand for, and you have to sort of declare your side. And if you don’t declare your side you’re immediately suspected of God-knows-what—the whole list of things.
TOOLEY: Well first of all, is the apocalypse upon us at this very moment or are you more optimistic in terms of the long term for the United States of America? It’s been a difficult week especially here in Washington, DC, with the demonstrations sometimes turning up violent, and the events in Lafayette Park. Obviously, much conversation about how the president has handled this situation so what are your thoughts and what does it say about America in terms of where it is as a nation politically, culturally, and spiritually at this point?
HAMID: Yes, so I have a dark view of human nature and I’m generally sort of pessimistic about human beings. That said, I am generally optimistic about America; I’m optimistic about the resilience of American democracy. I think that we’ve been hearing for the past almost four years that American democracy is dying, is about to die, that we’re going to become a dictatorship. I think that’s been proven wrong time and time again, not because Trump isn’t a bad person—I think Trump is pretty bad and has authoritarian sensibilities—but I think that our system is strong. We have checks and balances and we have a vibrant civil society. And so that’s my starting premise.
However, I will say the last week with the peaceful protests—which I’m a hundred percent supportive of—but then obviously we’re also seeing riots and violence and justifications for that violence. And I think that I’m scared in a way that I haven’t been before. If we’re looking at the Trump era as a period of almost four years now, what I’m seeing this week in particular is something. There’s a lot to say so let me let me try to unpack it. I have to say I think that I’m a little bit flustered, I’m a little bit frustrated, I’m sad, obviously, to go to the very first event that that triggered this and rightfully so—the murder of George Floyd. And I think there could have been a better response, a more measured response from many folks on the left and on the center-left. We’re not talking about just radicals. I think we’re seeing this more and more in mainstream center, where the middle is supposed to be, where it’s this minimizing of violence, minimizing of looting and riots. That doesn’t justify Trump threatening to call in the military, and I think Tom Cotton’s op-ed in York Times was atrocious. Does that mean I don’t think it shouldn’t have been published? No, I think atrocious views, if they are legitimate, if they are coming from legitimately elected leaders, who for better or worse represent states or the country or whatever it is, I think Americans should at least be exposed to what their position is—that maybe forty or fifty percent of Americans may share. Certainly, Trump supporters share it and if we’re pretending that is not a view that is in our country, or that everyone who has these views is irredeemable or beyond the pale, then I just don’t know how that works.
And I feel like there is an aspect of woke culture that can be very maximalist, very totalizing. When we start getting into this language that all white people, by definition, because they are white, are inherently of sin or inherently guilty, we’re going into dangerous territory. And when we assume that all people of color have the same view, that all black people agree with all other black people, or all POC are just one massive blob and we aren’t individuals who actually think differently from each other. And the black community is divided in certain interesting ways generationally and ideologically. And I think we’re getting into a potentially dangerous space where a lot of the woke language that I think is very problematic is now mainstreaming itself and it’s just the way that people are talking. And if it becomes more and more mainstream then I think essentially what we’re going to have is a polarization of debate between basically liberals, who are mostly left liberals, who are mostly woke on one side, and then everyone on the other side who is assumed to be a soft white nationalist. And what I think should be most of the country which I think is in between those polls that the center doesn’t hold. I’m not a huge fan of centrism; I’ve never considered myself a centrist. But I do think sometimes it can be good to be in the middle between two what I consider to be extremes in a certain sense. Sometimes the middle is the place to be. It’s not always, but maybe now it is.
TOOLEY: Do you think the United States is intrinsically and systemically racist and is America racist compared to other nations of the world?
HAMID: Okay wow, so there is an interesting debate about what structural or systemic racism actually means. I’m generally of the view that there is structural racism in the sense that, whether it’s housing policy or the educational system—a tiered educational system—I think we can look to things that are deeply embedded in our society and that are basically hard to undo and that’s why we’ve had trouble undoing them so I’m fine with that. What I’m not fine with is the taking away of agency from people of color and minorities. And I’ve even seen this; sometimes otherwise well-meaning white folks will talk to me this way or talk about Muslims or Arabs in a certain way. And it’s a certain talking down; it’s patronizing, and it flattens out differences between people. And maybe in that sense I’ve realized that I’m more of a classical liberal that I might have originally thought. I do think judging people based on their individuality as opposed to their group membership is important and I can’t believe I even have to say that as a somewhat controversial view. So, I think it should be possible to acknowledge that there are deep injustices, systemic inequalities.
Sometimes it’s race, but we shouldn’t also forget that class matters too. And I think we as Americans are often uncomfortable with the language of class difference because we all want to be the middle class and the American Dream and all of that. If it’s just about skin color then we get into this weird situation where very successful black, Hispanic, or other people of color who are, let’s say, in the upper class or quite rich and quite successful, that we’re saying in some way that a white person from a very underprivileged background in Appalachia—that we’re sort of like so wait the person who is black and successful is a victim of society or of the system much more than the white person who’s had a terrible life and has been effectively punished by the system in a different set of ways. And I think that that’s where class can sometimes become a useful addition to the conversation.
TOOLEY: And again, do you think America is racist compared to most other countries of the world and would your typical well-educated Egyptian when thinking of America go, “That’s a racist country.”?
HAMID: Yeah that is certainly a perception that folks in the Middle East have. I think some of it’s about displacing their own sin, shall we say, because their own societies have suffered so much and have been unfortunately rather unsuccessful and have plunged into dictatorship—a very frightening kind. And I’ve been very outspoken about that in the Middle East and the fact that we as Americans have supported many of these authoritarian regimes. So I think that sometimes it can give people a sense, it helps their sense of self when they can look to the most successful country in the world or the richest country in the world, the United States, and say, “Well look at look at the problems that they have. They’re racist; they’re becoming a dictatorship themselves; look at how they’re treating protests.” And it’s a way to actually displace criticism and we have to be very careful about that. So yes, are we a flawed system? Of course. Do we have a tragic history? Yes, we do. But to pretend that we’re not a democracy, or to say that we are about to become a dictatorship, or that we are already a dictatorship—this kind of language I think is taking words and divesting them of meaning. If we’re saying that we’re a dictatorship too, then these words don’t mean anything. We are a democracy and Trump for all of his bad intention cannot on his own change that. And the very fact that we’re having such a vibrant, and sometimes I would say too vibrant, debate sometimes on social media and in a lot of places in our country shows that we’re not. People should understand what dictatorship actually is. Having lived in authoritarian countries for a big chunk of my life at different points I can tell you that dictatorship looks quite different. And I was in Egypt for example in the lead-up to one of the worst massacres in modern history really anywhere. About a thousand people were killed in mere hours in Egypt after a military coup—long story—but just to say that is what dictatorships do. We do bad things but we’re not like that and if we start drawing a moral equivalency between the US and Egypt, or the US and Iran, or the US and who knows who else, it’s wrong, but there’s also this weird loss of self-faith, of faith in who we are, that there are good things about America. And this self-doubt that we’re seeing I think has gone in a very extreme direction and we have to be careful about losing sight of the reality.
TOOLEY: Is there a direct foreign policy application for the events coming out of Minneapolis and will this in any significant way impair American influence in the world?
HAMID: So it certainly undermines our soft power in one sense or another. But that said, when people say, “Oh well how will people ever look up to us again after the events of the past year?” Wait, where have you been the last 20, 30, 40 years? People weren’t looking up to us that much before this. This is not the one thing that changed everything. First of all, police brutality has been going on for many decades but there’s a whole other list of things—the Iraq war which led to hundreds of thousands of people being killed over several years, support for authoritarian regimes. I’ve been critical about the US stance on Israel-Palestine that we haven’t supported or at least been willing to listen to the Palestinian side and we’ve been unquestioningly in support of Israel. Those are things that people have been citing for a very long time. And don’t even get me started on Barak Obama and his policy on Syria where we in effect turned a blind eye to about half a million or more Syrians dying in a civil war and we said—quite literally Obama has a quote where he dismissed it as “somebody else’s Civil war.” So, people have been losing faith in us for a very long time.
That said, I think people also are angry at us because they believe that we’re better; they believe we’re capable of being better. So, the fact that people throughout the world are protesting against police brutality and in solidarity with George Floyd and other black folks who have been targeted by the police, that shows us something. They don’t protest about the Uighurs in China; they’re not protesting about Syria. That’s problematic but it also shows that they look to America and they have a sense that this should not be happening in our country. So that’s depressing, obviously, in a sense, that we’re falling short of what people think we’re capable of being. But it also shows that there is still that belief that America can and should change—and in part because we’re a democracy—and that if enough people come out in the streets and voice their opposition and voice their grievances, then change is possible. No one thinks that about China. No one thinks that about Iran. No one thinks that about Egypt. I see that. So, there’s a lot of interesting layers that are going on here that have to be unpacked very carefully when we look at the international response to what’s happening in our own country.
TOOLEY: And then final question for you. Let’s get a little bit spiritual on this one. I was speaking to our mutual friend yesterday, Sam Goldman, who identifies as not religious but comes from a Jewish background, but he was saying that because of America’s Christian revivalist past we have these cycles that America goes through of national guilt, national repentance, and attempts at national atonement, and these latest events appear to be part of that ongoing cycle across the centuries. Although our capacity for finding national atonement has become more and more difficult—we may lack the tools that we would have had say during the civil rights movement of fifty and sixty years ago. Looking at the cycle and where America is spiritually, as a Muslim, what kind of analysis do you have, and could there be potentially any positive outcome from these events? Could there be any kind of spiritual awakening in America do you believe?
HAMID: Well I look at this sort of secular religion that’s growing in this country, the woke church or woke whatever you want to call it. It’s a dogma; there’s an orthodoxy; there are real conceptions of sin, of guilt, of shame, of atonement; there are effectively clerics of the woke movement who are arbitrators of acceptable conduct. As someone who studies religion, if you’re going to do religion, do religion, but don’t do this mimicking of the certainty and conviction of religion, but basically use it for a false secular god. That to me is part of what’s scary about this moment. That people are clearly looking for meaning, they’re looking to believe in something, but they’re finding it in odd places. We’ve seen these images and videos of—I guess you can call them white guilt rallies—where white people—and it’s creepy, it’s really creepy stuff—they’re basically prostrating on the ground as if they are praying and they’re essentially absolving themselves, trying to absolve themselves of sin and almost totemizing black people as—there’s something weird about that, that they’re in a sense using black people to atone. So, it gets into this really weird racial stuff and all that. And sometimes you see rallies of white liberals doing almost like what you see in some evangelical churches, putting their hands in the air and begging for forgiveness. It’s very weird stuff but it also shows the decline of a common Christian culture. I’m not Christian but I do respect that Christianity can play an important role in society and once we take that away, and as we’ve seen decline of attendance rates and of identification with traditional Christianity, we have a real vacuum in our country. And the idea that we’re going to evolve into some kind of enlightened secularism misunderstands human nature. We are faith-based individuals. I’m biased in the sense I believe in God, so if you believe in God then presumably our Creator instilled into us some kind of natural, or authentic, or innate belief in him. So, if you believe that God exists, you can’t just get rid of him; he is there in some perpetual sense. And that’s why I think we’re seeing how this faith-based tendency that is there within us comes out in these other ways. So, you can get rid of organized religion, but you’re not going to get rid of religion in the broad sense of wanting something to hold on to, and to believe in, and to worship, ultimately. Because some of the images that we’re seeing are basically the worshipping of wokeness or something like that—I don’t even know how to describe it. So, I think we have to have a conversation about the role that religion has played in our history, the role that it still can play.
There was some talk during COVID—and I feel even weird bringing up COVID because no one apparently cares anymore and I guess we’re on day six of the post COVID era. It’s remarkable to me we’ve seen such a massive shift in perception; I’ve never seen anything like it. But in the COVID era people were talking about how there are some polls coming out that more and more Americans are responding to this crisis and the death toll by actually turning more towards religion. Maybe that’ll continue in some way, I don’t know. I think it would be helpful though. Not all kinds of religion are good. Obviously, people can turn to religion and that can actually be problematic in a number of ways. We see this in the Middle East; we see this throughout the world.
And I don’t want to go on too long but one thing that I really appreciate about religion but also specifically about Christianity is this idea of being broken by sin and the humility that results from that starting premise—that because we are we are weak, because we are fallen, it leads to a certain epistemological humility about what is possible in this world, that this world isn’t everything so therefore we don’t need to come up with maximalist judgments and attack people all the time and call everyone we disagree with racist without just cause; we have to take a step back and we have to postpone judgment because the ultimate judgment is God’s alone and there is a life after this one. So, I appreciate those concepts and that’s part of what religion can offer us—this humility. Most practicing Muslims, practicing Christians, practicing Jews don’t always live up to these ideals. We talked about the humility that comes from the experience and knowledge of Christ on the cross and that’s not always reflected in the way people act, but religion provides us the possibility and the aspiration that we can kind of be more humble, be more modest, and postpone judgment, and I think that that’s really important. It’s probably even more important right now.
TOOLEY: Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, thank you very much for, as expected, a very insightful and enjoyable conversation.
HAMID: Good to be with you Mark, thank you.