Inauthentic Dialogue: Hamza Yusuf, the US Department of State, and Habermasian Communicative Action Theory

Hamza Yusuf has once again stirred-up controversy via his choice of political affiliations.  According to an article that appeared in The Guardian on July 8th, the founder of Zaytuna College will be joining a commission at the behest of the Trump Administration that intends on reviewing the role of human rights in public policy. The commission draws from a wide range of somewhat well-known and polarizing figures such as the 2018 Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture’s Evangelium Vitae Medal recipient, Mary Ann Glendon, and the US Department of State Director of Policy Planning, Kiron Skinner, who regarding China was recently quoted as saying that “it’s the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian,” which Chinese officials were quick to call out as racist.

Many have jumped to Hamza Yusuf’s defense contending that this is a chance for a well-known Muslim leader to change the system from the inside and give a voice to Muslims who are critical of secular-liberal norm entrepreneurship. Is there a problem with critiquing secular-liberal definitions of concepts like human rights?  Absolutely not.  This is a discussion that is long overdue in my opinion.  I do believe alternative voices have been somewhat stifled in this public debate over the years, often relegated as rantings by fringe religious partisans whose opinions,a priori, have been deemed as not worthy of taking seriously.  However, the next question I ask here is the following: Is a commission headed by an administration openly hostile to Muslims— one that has categorically banned citizens from 5 predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States even to live with their American citizen or Legal Permanent Resident spouses and/or children— a venue where one can expect authentic Habermasian deliberative discourse to transpire regarding the role of human rights in American public policy?  Once again, I would respond: Absolutely not.

According to Jürgen Habermas, perhaps the world’s most important theorist of communicative dialogue:

Is there a problem with critiquing secular-liberal definitions of concepts like human rights?  Absolutely not.  This is a discussion that is long overdue in my opinion.  I do believe alternative voices have been somewhat stifled in this public debate over the years, often relegated as rantings by fringe religious partisans whose opinions, a priori, have been deemed as not worthy of taking seriously.

Communicative action serves to transmit and renew cultural knowledge, in a process of achieving mutual understandings. It then coordinates action towards social integration and solidarity. Finally, communicative action is the process through which people form their identities. (1985: 140) 

In an effort to condense Habermas’ enormous theory, I would contend that Habermasian communicative action theory hinges upon two main premises: 1) giving an equal voice to all relevant parties in the dialogic process (i.e. not discriminating based on pre-dialogic assumptions and/or factors extraneous to the content of the dialogue itself such as race, religion, gender, sexuality, age, disability, etc.); and 2) arguing in good faith which necessitates an active willingness to change one’s opinion if evidence that emerges from the dialogue that an alternative position is more convincing than one’s initial position.  If one of the aforementioned elements is absent, then one is not engaging in authentic dialogue. Other things can certainly be added to this, but this is the crux of the theory. Inauthentic dialogue yields a net-negative since it actually only further serves to reinforce pre-existing power dynamics.  Basically, one is better off not having a dialogue at all rather than having a “fake” one that ultimately serves the interests of the more powerful.

I do not think an event organized by the US Department of State can be assumed to meet either of the criteria noted above.  First, the idea of all parties being equal in the dialogic process necessitates a certain type of horizontal power dynamic.  An initiative funded by the Department of State, with actors such as Kiron Skinner who are actually fromthe Department of State, clearly hinders this possibility.  Such a venue cannot be conceived of as organically developed nor set up in a manner conducive to mitigating pre-existing power relations.  Such a dynamic under the watchful eye of Mike Pompeo and a state-sponsored funding apparatus that expects certain results places enormous pressure on individuals to conform to certain protocols.  Even if not directly coerced, it is hard to imagine a final document emerging that does not reflect the vision of human rights that the Trump administration seeks to promote.  

An initiative funded by the Department of State, with actors such as Kiron Skinner who are actually from the Department of State, clearly hinders this possibility.  Such a venue cannot be conceived of as organically developed nor set up in a manner conducive to mitigating pre-existing power relations. 

As for the second premise, it is inconceivable that those power brokers in the discursive process will freely change their position if evidence emerges in the dialogic process that shows the alternative position is stronger.  Connected to what was said above: too much money, time, and effort will have gone into creating this Commission which is meant to produce certain politically expedient outcomes and results.  Mike Pompeo the other day commented, “We must, therefore, be vigilant that human rights discourse not be corrupted or hijacked or used for dubious or malignant purposes.”  It is readily apparent that the intent behind the commission is to rein in certain conceptions of rights that have already been “hijacked or used for dubious or malignant purposes.”  It is unimaginable that such a commission would produce any type of result that concludes otherwise.  

It is readily apparent that the intent behind the commission is to rein in certain conceptions of rights that have already been “hijacked or used for dubious or malignant purposes.”  It is unimaginable that such a commission would produce any type of result that concludes otherwise.  

This administration has not been one to shy away from its disdain from the notion of human rights that have been carefully crafted and legally codified over the last 75 years under the auspices of previous Presidential administrations.  It has also not been one to shy away from its selective invocation of human rights when it serves its needs.  Back in March, Pompeo prefaced the State Department’s annual report on global human rightsby blurting out, without hesitation, that “The policy of this Administration is to engage with other governments, regardless of their record, if doing so will further U.S. interests.”  Muslim scholars should not take part in this charade that is an archetypical example of deliberations transpiring in bad faith that will only further normalize discrimination against communities that have already suffered enough under the current regime in power.  There is no need for Muslim leaders to offer their rubber stamps on policy initiatives that have already been finalized and sit quietly locked away on some hard drive in the Department of State.  Muslim leaders in the US should be challenging oppression, not normalizing it.

Reference

Habermas, Jürgen. 1985. The Theory of Communicative Action, ed. Thomas McCarthy, vol. 2. 

Boston, MA: Beacon Press.


Joseph J. Kaminski is Associate Professor and Department Chair of International relations at the International University of Sarajevo.

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