The Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims, & the Poverty of Liberal Thought

41U9bCoyn0L__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Since the release of the Oscar nominated film American Sniper there has been plenty of heated discussion about the life and attitudes of the film’s protagonist Chris Kyle. A brief look at some of the excerpts from his autobiography reveals a soldier immersed in delusions of American exceptionalism and the rightness of the US invasion of Iraq. Pitifully little of this made it into Eastwood’s film but this is to be expected. Imperial societies are notorious for their inability to look in the mirror. Constructing elaborate fantasies about one’s own benevolence and heroism is much less painful. Nevertheless, those serious about overcoming this severe moral deficiency would not pass over this norm silently. In particular, one would not ignore the critical role that anti-Arab racism and highly reductionist conceptions of Muslims plays in ensuring that dehumanizing portrayals of Arabs, like those featured in American Sniper, are ignored or, more insidiously, celebrated. Steven Salaita’s Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims, and the Poverty of Liberal Thought is essential reading for those willing to explore this recurring theme in American entertainment culture and US political culture at large. Consisting of twelve essays covering topics from anti-Arab racism in Michael Moore’s healthcare documentary Sicko to the thinly veiled bigotry embedded in liberal critiques of Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon, professor Salaita challenges readers to move beyond the obvious and interrogate those prejudices which form the foundations of intellectual discourse about Arabs and Muslims in the US. On the topic of Israel, he highlights the tendency of commentators to begin their criticism from the position that Israel’s interests are paramount. In this form of criticism the fate of the Palestinian and Lebanese people is rendered invisible.

As Wisconsin-based political analyst John Nichols stated in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006, “Israel’s attack on Lebanon, which has already killed and wounded hundreds and destroyed much of that fragile democracy’s infrastructure … has done nothing to make Israel safer or more secure from threat posed by the militant Islamic organization Hezbollah.” Nichols went on to add “no one in their right mind thinks Israel is going about the mission in a smart manner.” This position, that illegal wars of aggression should be evaluated on the basis of its efficacy (is the war crime “smart”) and not on the basis of international law or morality, is standard in liberal circles. Focusing on this practice, Salaita notes, “Nichol’s analysis reinforces Israel’s right to violence and then encourages it not to terminate its attacks but to practice a wiser form of aggressiveness.” Incidentally, this type of unquestioning support for violence as a purely tactical matter was replicated in President Obama’s condemnation of the 2003 invasion of Iraq as a “dumb war.” Like Nichols’ critique of the Israeli invasion, Obama was merely calling for a “wiser form of aggressiveness.”

Another notable example of the liberal disregard for Arab and Muslim lives could be found in Michael Moore’s healthcare documentary Sicko. In an attempt to lampoon the US healthcare system, Moore exploited the very real and intense suffering of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. After Republican Senator Bill Frist made the claim that “prisoners on the US military base at Guantanamo receive excellent healthcare,” Moore attempted to make the healthcare available to ailing 9/11 rescue workers who were “unable to obtain adequate medical coverage.” Ostensibly, the premise of the action was to illustrate that the US healthcare system was so hopelessly corrupt that it would more readily attend to the healthcare needs of “terrorists” than 9/11 rescue workers. But this point could only be made if Moore completely ignored the verifiable fact that many of the prisoners at Guantanamo were kidnapped and imprisoned illegally in violation of international law (therefore, they weren’t “terrorists”). Furthermore, many of the prisoners were also subjected to cruel and sadistic forms of torture, another fact conspicuously omitted from Moore’s documentary. Consequently, Moore’s critique of the US healthcare system relies on the invisibility of the victims of US power, an erasure that is made more troubling by the appeal to patriotism. “The detainees,” observes Salaita, “are rendered props in Moore’s rhetorical circus and are thus precluded from the luxury of basic human identification … Here the Guantanamo prisoners become dehumanized tableaux.”

Aside from these scathing critiques of “well-intentioned” liberalism, Salaita’s book also offers emotionally moving autobiographical glimpses into the life of a public intellectual grappling with the complexities of being an Arab in America and the Othering effects that come with this particular ethnic and cultural identity. Reflecting on the national mood during the First Gulf War, Salaita states, “I knew that I wasn’t merely an American, I was also an Arab, like the Iraqis. Like Saddam Hussein. This reality wasn’t lost on my classmates, who routinely demanded that I reaffirm my loyalty to the United States.” Accordingly, Salaita reaffirmed his “loyalty” by “[pumping] [his] fist along with everybody else when American warplanes blew things up”, acts that “weren’t traitorous but immoral.” Stories of this kind echo those featured in his previous book Anti-Arab Racism in the USA. In both cases they touch on a highly relevant theme in American nationalism, namely the theme of redemptive violence and how the politics of exclusion are necessary to cement a “national identity” (what Salaita calls in Anti-Arab Racism “imperative patriotism”).

Special treatment is given to the topic of redemptive violence in the essay on the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. Departing from conventional narratives that portrayed the mass shooting as a shocking aberration which was entirely unpredictable due to the fact that the killer was thoroughly “assimilated”, Salaita argues that Cho Seung-Hui’s crime must be understood within the context of American society at large and how the survival of American institutions depend crucially on the reproduction of violence, physically and systemically. Taking these realities in mind, we must acknowledge “the ugly truth” that “the American government does a fine job on its own nurturing a culture of violence in the United States.”

Reviewing the hideous record of anti-Arab racism, regularly intensified by periodic military “incursions”, one gains a new understanding of the significant barriers that prevent the emergence of a genuinely humanistic discourse free from the patronizing and simplistic explanations of establishment liberal discourse. In order to surmount these difficulties it will be necessary to dispense with Orientalist assumptions about Arabs and Muslims. Moreover, it will be necessary to listen to those who are on the receiving end of US violence. In Salaita’s words, “Please disagree with me; please argue with me; please point out where I am wrong; but please don’t be so damn certain from the outset that I represent a culture or world-view that is fundamentally inferior.” Sadly, such certitude is something that Hollywood movies like American Sniper are designed to cultivate, a fact made glaringly obvious when one considers the public expressions of bloodlust that have characterized some of the more enthusiastic fans of the film. Throughout his autobiography Chris Kyle refers to the Iraqi people as “savages.” This attitude did not form in a vacuum. It was nurtured by a political culture that rationalizes the most barbaric of actions under the pretext of “national security”, “patriotism”, and “American values.” Professor Salaita’s essays are indispensable in demystifying these pernicious doctrines and combatting the Chris Kyles of history, the big screen, and (if these insights aren’t seriously absorbed) the near future.

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2 thoughts on “The Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims, & the Poverty of Liberal Thought

  1. I just signed a petition (sent to my inbox) from MoveOn’s petition site to tell Congress to boycott Netanyahu’s upcoming speech. My heart sank as i read some of the other signors’ comments – their main issue was Netanyahu’s disrespect of the President in violating appropriate protocol rather than the much more blatant insanity of having an ethnic cleanser over to address our so-called “public servants.”

    It was like a well-intentioned, very ignorant, “Netanyahu hates our President so screw him. Also he doesn’t seem like that great of a guy anyway.” The American public seems to have no clue just how bloody are the leaders with whom our leaders will align themselves. Not to mention the blood on the hands of our own leaders. Except perhaps for elite students, who learn of this information but have it presented as simply the price of doing business.

    1. I think the level of disagreement between Obama and Netanyahu is often overstated. If one looks at the diplomatic record or how Obama behaves whenever Israel launches one of its many wars of aggression they’d immediately discover that Obama is one of the more enthusiastic supporters of Israel in the last several decades. Even George Bush Sr. imposed mild sanctions on Israel once.

      I understand why this line is always raised though. I think it’s raised for the same reason that elite commentators love portraying conflict between Democrats and Republicans as heated. By doing this you can distract attention away from larger crimes like the ones you mentioned (ethnic cleansing for example). For a long time I’ve thought that this has been the primary impediment to generating real change in Israeli policy.

      Too many people buy the idea that Israel is somehow determining policy unilaterally without decisive US support every step of the way. It’s a very self-flattering conception to have. One can then blame all Israeli atrocities on the Israeli government while ignoring US complicity. Rashid Khalidi points out in his book on US complicity Brokers of Deceit that Netanyahu’s political advisor was thrilled that Obama was the first President in many years to invite the Israeli Prime Minister to Washington for a private talk without mentioning Palestine once. Hardly the behavior of someone who disagrees with Israeli policy.

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