Mos Def mostly deaf to rationale

Rapper Mos Def asked his fellow panelists on March 27’s ‘Real Time with Bill Maher’: ‘What is the Taliban’s manifesto, and what is it exactly that they want on a political level?’ The discussion started off well enough, but quickly degenerated into a wincingly embarrassing confrontation between panelists Salman Rushdie, Christopher Hitchens and Mos Def.

When Salman Rushdie pointed out the difference between al-Qaida and the Taliban, and then clarified its agenda, Mos Def claimed a blatant mistrust of authorities and linked the persecution of al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden to that of Black Panther exile Assata Shakur.

Shakur was convicted of the shooting of New Jersey police officer Werner Foerster in a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike, which also claimed the life of Black Liberation Army member Zayd Malik Shakur. She escaped from prison and now lives in Cuba under political asylum.

Shakur is also step-aunt to deceased rapper Tupac Shakur.

The difference between Assata Shakur’s case and Bin Laden’s is that Bin Laden has claimed full responsibility for various mass murders and atrocities in the ongoing violence toward the U.S. while Shakur has maintained her innocence.

It is painful to watch Mos Def struggle with the information and authority of Rushdie, Hitchens and Maher. Although a talented and intelligent artist and devout Muslim, Mos Def does not have the experience and scholarship of the other three, and is clearly less informed than they are.

Yet there is something else that becomes clear as the three fellow panelists share their views with Mos Def. He is struggling with the need to acquire more information, but is unable to believe the reliable sources in front of him.

Few people can claim as intimate an association with radical Islam as Salman Rushdie, who spent years in hiding from an Irani fatwa resulting from publication of his novel The Satanic Verses.

Hitchens is similarly well known, with an illustrious career as a journalist and commentator. He had recently returned from a trip to Lebanon, where a local neo-Nazi group attacked him in the street. Members of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party beat him severely for defacing one of their signs, which bears a modified swastika.

Mos Def’s reaction to having his question answered by men who have been in the line of fire of fascism was inappropriate. Yet the greater harm was in his lack of ability to understand why they were so incredulous and why they failed to respect his question.

There have been many incidences of racially and culturally motivated bias from authorities in Brooklyn and across the U.S. toward young black men, an attention that has shifted to young Hispanics and to middle easterners as well.

Yet this is no reason to distrust all authority. It is a reason to question assumptions, and take advantage of the opportunity to learn more about the conflicts.

Mos Def is intelligent, and provides cogent, if inflammatory, commentary in his music on political issues, particularly those dealing with race.

His fellow panelists also spend their careers spotlighting fascist and authoritarian tendencies in politics.

Mos Def hamstrung himself by not educating himself beforehand, and by not maintaining the ability to synthesize information.

Mos Def could have had a real conversation about authoritarianism with intellectual soldiers who have spent time on the global front. Instead, he turned an opportunity for conversation into a confrontation by his defensiveness.

As much as we have powerful opinions as a result of exposure to complex struggles and ideas, we must also maintain the responsibility to educate ourselves about the players and viewpoints.

Shaista Mohammed is an anthropology and communication sophomore and may be reached at [email protected]

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