Race & Terrorism at Chicago Ideas Week

For the last five Octobers thought leaders from around the world gather in Chicago for a week-long series of talks that inspire, connect, and impact the city and world. This week’s speakers have included Sal Khan, the founder and CEO of Khan Academy a nonprofit with the mission of providing a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere; DeRay Mckesson, a protestor dedicated to ending police and state violence; actor, writer and producer Fawzia Mirza, and many more.

This year’s CIW has delved more into issues of social justice than previous years and has committed to fostering discussion around more hot button issues like race, terrorism, and politics.

On Tuesday CAIR-Chicago’s Communications Coordinator, Renner Larson, attended talk entitled Race in America. The talk took the form of a panel discussion featuring DeRay Mckesson, a prominent leader in the Black Lives Matter Movement; Tanner Colby, author of Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America; Crissle West, writer and the co-host of hit comedy podcast “The Read”; and Dr. Nitasha Tamar Sharma, Associate Professor, African American Studies & Asian American Studies, Northwestern University. The panel was hosted by Jay Smooth the hip-hop scholar and cultural commentator, best known for founding New York's longest running hip-hop radio show, the "Underground Railroad" on WBAI.

The discussion of race focused not only on popular movements like #BlackLivesMatter but also on the history and policies that have created racial inequality. While discussing the concept of white privilege Tanner Colby, the only white speaker on stage, brought up the concern that semantics were problematic and that the word “privilege” made many white people uncomfortable, which could hinder the goals any conversation about race strives to achieve. In response Crissle West, made the excellent point that discussing the semantics of the word “privilege” distracted from the original question about white advantage and that misdirection was in itself an example of how white privilege passively protects the beneficiaries of whiteness. Though not without disagreement, the talk remained fairly tame throughout.

Wednesday, Larson attended another talk focusing on the topic of terrorism. Similar to the event on race, a panel discussion featured CNN’s Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr on America’s counterterrorism efforts; Scott Shane on national security; Farah Pandith on how she approached her job as the first-ever U.S. Special Representative to Muslim Communities; and William McCants on ISIS’s "doomsday vision."

Disappointingly, the talk covered exclusively “Islamic” terrorism which Larson expressed concerns about to organizers afterwards in a vibrant discussion of Islamic values and acts of terrorism worldwide. It was however recognized that every panelist made it explicitly clear that extremist are a vast minority that threaten Muslims themselves far more than the western world. The most poignant part of the talk was Scott Shane’s telling of the story of Anwar al-Awlaki who was once a respected and peaceful cleric but was driven to Yemen by an FBI investigation where he eventually joined Al-Qaeda. Al-Awlaki was eventually killed by an American drone strike as was his teenage son. I the Q and A following it was recognized that U.S. military action was not the solution to overcoming terrorism.

“This year’s events are hardly the full difficult conversations that we as a country need to be having, however they show a move towards Chicago Ideas Week being less 'safe',” said Larson. “They show a desire to make people uncomfortable at times and though there is certainly room for them to delve deeper I think it is an exciting new direction that other similar conventions tend to avoid. I’m excited to see what’s next and would love to continue to hear more minority voices at Chicago Ideas Week.”

If you are interested in learning more about Chicago Ideas Week or would like to attend one of the remaining events Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, visit chicagoideas.com.