On the Significance of Social Media Activism

Any honest observer of contemporary activist struggles would be remiss to ignore the substantial influence of social media in bringing together disparate groups struggling to achieve a common goal. Contributions of social media activism to political discourse are numerous from gruesome images filtering out of occupied territories to raw footage of militarized police brutalizing nonviolent protestors. Undoubtedly, political agitation cannot be confined to the physical realm. Mass movements crucially depend on the rapid circulation of information and images, which, more often than not, occurs in cyberspace.

The social media activism that accompanied Israel’s seven week assault on the Gaza Strip offers a paradigmatic illustration of the central role Internet users play in galvanizing mass support for marginalized populations. As journalist Yousef al-Helou stated in his assessment of the impact of social media websites like Facebook and Twitter in generating support for Palestinians fleeing in terror under Israeli bombs:

“Citizen journalism from Palestine is especially valuable for those who are looking for information which has not been filtered through a Western agenda. Social media has definitely weakened the Israeli narrative, as Palestinians are able to connect directly with overseas audiences and tell the stories that they feel are important. Hundreds of thousands of tweets exchanged reports, opinions, and challenges to mainstream news reports and to each other.”

This adversarial spirit—the willingness to present “challenges to mainstream news reports”—is a thread that unites several of the most prominent social media campaigns and is reflective of the public’s desire to move away from the highly corporatized and anti-septic discourse of the establishment press toward more non-mediated and participatory forms of information sharing.

Not unlike other trends toward democratization, this blossoming in social media activism has elicited a fair amount of criticism from centers of privilege and power. Perhaps the most recent iteration of this elite backlash can be found in an article published in New York Magazine by former New Republic journalist Jonathan Chait. Decrying the rise of political correctness, a “system of left-wing ideological repression”, Chait targets social media and its broad influence as culpable in spreading this virus:

“Political correctness is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate. Two decades ago, the only communities where the left could exert such hegemonic control lay within academia, which gave it an influence on intellectual life far out of proportion to its numeric size. Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach. And since social media is also now the milieu that hosts most political debate, the new p.c. has attained an influence over mainstream journalism and commentary beyond that of the old.”

Echoing such establishment manifestos like the Powell Memo, which infamously denounced the failure of “institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young” (schools), Chait’s criticism conveys a palpable sense of alarm, a fear that the hallowed corridors of “respectable” discourse are being intruded upon by less qualified and less enlightened commoners. Fundamentally, Chait’s article conveyed, as Glenn Greenwald put it in a stinging critique, “anger over being criticized in less than civil and respectful tones by people who lack any credentials (and thus entitlement) to do so.” This is a sentiment that is as pernicious as it is pervasive and the elite response to social media activism is just one of its more visceral manifestations.
Incidentally, similar objectives to stem the tide of social activism’s “vast cultural reach” likely lay behind the concerted efforts on the part of the telecommunications industry to eliminate net neutrality, a campaign that was recently dealt a devastating defeat thanks to a grassroots movement of “guerrilla activism”, much of it online, dedicated to preserving the “the principle that all Internet traffic must be treated equally.” Responding to the FCC’s decision to uphold these basic rules of net neutrality, the campaign director of Free Press stated “this is probably the most important ruling in the history of the FCC.” In these hard-won achievements we can discern the significance of social media, not only as a virtual public square where dialogue and reflection on some of the most important issues of our time can flourish, but as a space whose mere existence constitutes a grave threat to those whose power relies on the erasure of these sites of democratic expression (the National Security Agency’s regime of electronic surveillance, a legal monstrosity hauntingly portrayed in Laura Poitra’s award winning documentary CitizenFour, is one of the more obvious opponents of Internet freedom in this respect.)

hasbaraUnderstandably, this is why “companies such as Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and Time Warner Cable, had lobbied furiously against [net neutrality], spending tens of millions on lobbying and on so-called ‘astroturf’ efforts to pay third party groups to support their position.” Faced with the inability to manage the formation attitudes and opinion online, power systems have pursued the same tactic applied to the print media, namely exercising stricter control over the medium. Sometimes this control rises to the level of law enforcement, as the Obama DOJ made clear in a recent announcement that they would be “willing to indict people who assist ISIS with its use and production of social media”, a decision that “raises questions about where the government would draw the line between support for a terrorist group and legally protected free speech.” Indeed, if pro-ISIS propaganda is criminalized why not criminalize other forms of propaganda?

For example, why not criminalize the Facebook administrators who created a fan page for Chapel Hill murderer Craig Stephen Hicks? In fact, if we accept that issuing indictments in response to social media propaganda is the proper course of action (one would hope we don’t) then it probably would be more reasonable to indict these propagandists since gun related killings committed by non-Muslims vastly outnumber deaths associated with so-called Islamic terrorism. Or why not indict US citizens who regurgitated Israeli hasbara manufactured in IDC Herzliya “war rooms”? How was this not apologetics for terrorism? Naturally, certain forms of propaganda, namely those types which conform to elite US opinion, will pass under the DOJ’s radar more easily than other “anti-American” forms. Consequently, this decision risks converting policies with the ostensible purpose of combating “terrorism” into effective weapons against political opponents (terrorist or not).

Whether it’s a battle for Internet freedom, the publication of humanizing representations of Palestinians or the fight for social and governmental policies that affirm the urgent, inspirational demand that #BlackLivesMatter, it’s abundantly clear that the struggles currently underway cannot be reduced to petty ideological contests waged from the safety of our computers. To the contrary, these struggles raise profoundly consequential questions about the social, cultural, and political evolution of not only our society but, when one considers the unprecedented forms of solidarity that social media activism is able to foster, the fate of us all globally.












The “Rift” That Never Was: How Hyping Obama-Netanyahu Gossip Preserves the Status Quo Against Iran & Palestine

Disrespect IV
Among the myriad tactics employed by the establishment right in the US, a category which increasingly includes Democrats and Republicans, a favorite is what can be called the repositioning of the political center. Under this logic radical, militarist policies are normalized as legitimate responses to “imminent” threats by “liberals” while “conservatives” lambaste presidential decisions, no matter how egregious, as being too “soft on terror.” One of the more recent applications of this framework could be detected during the US bombing of Iraq and Syria. When President Obama decided to commence an air war against the Islamic State, a clear violation of international law, the dominant theme within elite media was that this was behavior emblematic of a “reluctant warrior.” “The Bible makes it clear that leadership is unpredictable: That the most powerful people often don’t get to choose what they themselves will do,” opined David Brooks in an embarrassingly effusive Op-Ed in the New York Times. “History is full of reluctant leaders, too. President Obama is the most recent.”

Arguments of this kind are extremely convenient in that they foreclose entirely peaceful alternatives while reducing the debate to how hard we should pummel the “enemy”, and not the much more consequential question of what legal or moral right we have to engage in such acts of aggression. Furthermore, this tactic obscures the consensus between both political factions that violence is justified, rendering critical analysis of this area of agreement more difficult. It therefore should come as no great surprise that this tactic has surfaced once again, this time in the context of the ongoing US-Israeli hostility to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Current debate has it that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is undermining President Obama’s Iran policy in his decision to deliver a speech before the US Congress promoting his more aggressive stance against Iran and its nuclear program. “White House officials remain furious with Netanyahu for failing to notify the administration about the address to Congress, a breach of diplomatic protocol,” reported John Hudson of Foreign Policy. New York Times columnist, and noted expert on everything Iranian, Roger Cohen echoed this sentiment, observing that the Israeli Prime Minister’s actions made Obama “furious, with cause,” adding, “He has been a firm supporter of Israel,” and “His patience with its leader is at an end” (my emphasis).

Exaggerations aside, Cohen’s assessment is worth further analysis in one crucial respect, namely his acknowledgement that Obama has been “a firm supporter of Israel”, an understatement when one takes a look at the diplomatic record. Numerous scholars, from Rashid Khalidi and Max Blumenthal to more mainstream commentators like Hillary Mann Leverett and Fawaz Gerges have been unambiguous in their acknowledgement that the Obama administration has been an uncritical advocate for Israeli militarism and diplomatic sabotage. Since November 2008, Israel has carried out three major military assaults against the Gaza Strip: Operation Cast Lead, Operation Pillar of Defense, and Operation Protective Edge. In all three cases Obama vigorously embraced the Israeli line that any display of Israeli terror, regardless of how many civilians it kills, falls under the rubric of “the right to self-defense.” During Operation Protective Edge the Obama administration went as far as blocking a UN inquiry into war crimes carried out in the Gaza Strip.

Writing on Obama’s policy with regard to Israel-Palestine, London School of Economics professor Fawaz Gerges stated “US politicians, including Obama, are trapped in a political culture that promotes conformity and groupthink on Israel and strongly discourages dissenting voices. After a promising start, the new president dared not to exert real pressure on Israel to stop the construction of settlements on the West Bank and to negotiate in good faith with the Palestinians.” While Gerges attributed this to a combination of Obama’s “timidity” and his being “trapped” by external forces beyond his control, other critics have been less generous. In his extensive review of US policy in Israel-Palestine Brokers of Deceit Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi was unequivocal in his description of Obama as an unprincipled cheerleader for Israeli brutality:

“Crucially, since Barack Obama first stated his view on this topic, he has always accepted a constant, central element of Israel’s self-presentation: its victim status, to which it has always clung fiercely and aggressively. In his public statements he has always accepted as well a related proposition, dear in particular to the heart of Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli right wing, and its followers in the United States, but widely believed farther afield: that the state of Israel and the Israeli people, indeed the entire Jewish people, are in a state of perpetual existential danger.”

Incidentally, it is precisely this argument—that Israel is facing an existential threat from Iran—that Benjamin Netanyahu aims to invoke in his speech to Congress, a point conceded by Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer in an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. Moreover, this is also the argument that various media organizations are laboring to portray as antagonistic (and not compatible) to Obama’s policies despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. So the Obama administration’s decision to sale 55 “bunker buster” bombs to Israel in 2011, a move widely interpreted as a preparation to attack Iran’s underground nuclear facilities, does little, if anything, to interfere with the perception that Obama is opposed to Netanyahu’s policies. In fact, in some vital respects Obama’s policy vis-à-vis Iran has gone considerably beyond his “neoconservative” predecessors. As Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett state in their authoritative study of US-Iran relations Going to Tehran “[the Obama administration] did nothing to rein in the anti-Iranian covert programs it inherited from its predecessor; indeed, leaked documents show that such programs (including ties to groups whose actions in Iran, had they been taken in Israel or many other countries, would be condemned as terrorism) intensified after Obama came in.”

More troubling, “the Obama administration used nuclear talks with Iran primarily as a way to set the stage for more coercive measures—tougher sanctions and, at some point, military strikes—and to bring international partners and the American public on board” (my emphasis). Another glaring illustration of just how supportive Obama is of the US-Israeli status quo in the region can be found in his decision to boycott a nuclear non-proliferation conference in Helsinki on the dubious pretext that the “political turmoil in the region and Iran’s defiant stance on non-proliferation,” made US participation impossible. When Israel’s attendance was requested the Obama administration denounced it as an act of “coercion.” Predictably, this blatant disregard for international law (as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty Iran has a legal right to enrich uranium) was misleadingly described in USA Today as indicative of “clashing visions of disarmament and non-proliferation efforts.” Perhaps this description is correct, if consciously escalating the threat of nuclear proliferation by shielding the one state with a nuclear monopoly in the Middle East (Israel) from any form of international scrutiny can be described as a “vision of disarmament and non-proliferation” (disarmament for “enemies” and proliferation for “allies”).
White House Statement
To the limited extent that there does exist any animosity between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama it has virtually no impact on the substance of US-Israeli policy. In tactical terms, Obama’s resort to military force may be more calculated than Netanyahu’s but to read this as representative of a split between Obama’s position and the Israeli Prime Minister’s is to ignore these much larger areas of strategic and ideological overlap which, if left unchecked, will only add to the horrors currently enveloping the region. Much more significant, and thus underreported, is the growing divide between the US public and centers of power. Latest public opinion polls reveal a noticeable shift in American attitudes towards Israeli aggression. After Operation Protective Edge Gallup reported that 51% of Americans under 30 said that “Israel’s aggression in Gaza [was] unjustified.” Meanwhile, Pew reported “among 18-29 year olds, 29% blamed Israel for the current wave of violence, while 21% blamed Hamas.” These are the political transformations that would dominate headlines in a genuinely democratic society, not the highly personalized, gossipy squabbles between two war criminals, which may deserve lengthy analysis in the National Enquirer or the Globe but not anywhere where the fate of humanity should be a high priority.




Leverett, Flynt Lawrence., and Hillary Mann. Leverett. Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Khalidi, Rashid. Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Gerges, Fawaz A. Obama and the Middle East: The End of America’s Moment? New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.











Reflections on the US Destruction of Fallujah & American Sniper

For anyone interested, there’s a wealth of reporting and commentary on Clint Eastwood’s latest and widely celebrated film American Sniper. Responses to the war drama range from effusive praise of the “genius” of Chris Kyle to more critical condemnations of Kyle’s enthusiastic embrace of violence and the broader societal maladies that his behavior emblematized. While this discussion is definitely worth having, there is a risk that confining the conversation to the criminality or heroism of Kyle distracts from a larger issue, namely what the US bombing of Fallujah looked like from the perspective of Iraqis. After all, the setting for the many kills carried out by “The Legend”, Kyle’s wartime moniker, was this city in Iraq, also known as the City of Mosques. Unlike debate over whether or not Kyle’s actions were justified, there really isn’t much to speculate about in this regard as the deeds of the US military have been voluminously documented by some of the most respected investigative journalists and scholars of the “western” world.

Take for example the work of the unembedded journalist Dahr Jamail. In his book on the US occupation of Iraq Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq he documents, in excruciating detail, the humiliating and devastating human toll that the Iraqi people were made to endure under the onslaught of US weaponry. He opens his chapter on the Second Battle of Fallujah, the assault in which Kyle took part, with a photograph of an exasperated Iraqi. Beneath the photo is a caption that reads “Fallujan refugees at a mosque on Baghdad University campus told of the white phosphorous, cluster bombs, and other weaponry used by the US military in their city. November 2004.”

And this wasn’t the only fact excised from the Hollywood version of the military assault. On the topic of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a person who was explicitly named in the film as a threat to US soldiers, Jamail observes “in the United States, most corporate media outlets were busy spreading the misinformation that Fallujah had fallen under the control of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.” Jamail went on to add “There was no available evidence that Zarqawi had ever set foot inside the city. It was amply evident that the resistance of the city was composed primarily of people from Fallujah itself.” Given this “amply evident” fact that the media ignored one would think that ten years after the implementation of this war crime a more intellectually honest portrait of the siege would prevail. Yet, in the film there’s a scene where this myth is repeated without a shred of skepticism or caution. Neither was there any attention paid to the fact that the US deliberately punished the Iraqi population by blocking access to vital medical aid or as Jamail notes “the humanitarian disaster in Fallujah worsened as the US military continued to refuse entry to Iraqi Red Crescent (IRC) convoys of relief supplies.” The pretext for the blockage was that aid was unnecessary since there were no civilians in the city, an absurd claim immediately debunked after “officials acknowledged that thirty thousand to fifty thousand residents remained in the city.”

Incidentally, it would be instructive to compare the response to this war crime carried out by the US military to a more recent war crime carried out by Syrian forces in their ongoing civil war. After it was discovered that Syrian forces were blocking Red Cross aid to rebel territory in Baba Amr the Australian based Sydney Morning Herald ran an article headlined Outrage as Syria Keeps Up Blockade on Red Cross. “Syria faced world condemnation as it continued to block the Red Cross from delivering desperately needed aid to the vanquished rebel stronghold of Baba Amr in the city of Homs.” No such outrage was perceptible when the US engaged in similar atrocities under comparably dire circumstances during the murderous bombardment of Fallujah. Instead, the moment was characterized by a severe climate of media repression which included an order circulated by a US-backed media commission that all news outlets “stick to the government line on the US-led offensive in Fallujah or face legal action.” Meanwhile, US forces escalated the assault by attacking and occupying the city’s hospital.

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None of this made it into Eastwood’s film, which completely glosses over the fact that this was a vicious military assault on a civilian population in a brief scene where a soldier refers to the “military aged males” in the area who were out to kill US soldiers. A radically different picture is presented in Jamail’s text, where he concludes his chapter on Fallujah with a historical analogue that must, for understandable reasons, be filtered out of any commentary heralding the military assault as valorous and brave, predictable clichés that pass for informed analysis in establishment quarters:

“The second assault on Fallujah was a monument to brutality and atrocity made in the United States of America. Like the Spanish city of Guernica during the 1930s, and Grozny in the 1990s, Fallujah is a monument to excess and overkill.”

Empirical data gathered in the aftermath of the attack conformed to this assessment. “Iraqi medical personnel in Fallujah estimated that of all the bodies they had logged in their database, at least 60 percent were women and children.” If one considers the documentation of the “first medical teams” on the scene, who “collected more than 700 bodies”, the percentage of women and children killed stands at “nearly 80 percent.” Recall this was the second time the US attacked the civilian population of Fallujah, the first time being in April 2004. In the Spring attack an estimated 736 Iraqis were killed with “60 percent of those killed [being] women, children, and elderly.” The film’s omission of any reference to the first attack on Fallujah in April is quite significant as this attack helps to explain the historical context in which the Iraqi resistance developed.

The exclusion of this highly relevant information, as many of the film’s enthusiasts contend, was not intentional. Rather, critics are reading too much into a movie that was not intended to be “political” but a “case study” on the tormented soul of an American soldier. Perhaps this argument could be taken seriously if it were not for other creative flourishes, which call into question this apolitical stance. Are we to believe that it’s a mere coincidence that Eastwood erased many of the morally repugnant realities from Kyle’s life, much of it discussed in his autobiography, while at the same time concocting, out of pure imagination, demeaning and stereotypical caricatures of Iraqis (“The Butcher” never existed)? This is highly doubtful, just as it likely was not coincidental that he dispensed with historical context entirely in his failure to mention the April assault on Fallujah as a prelude to the November assault but somehow managed to imply, in an amazingly brazen propaganda move, that the terrorist attacks of September 11 had anything to do with the Iraq war. Furthermore, neither of these distortions (the dehumanization of Iraqis and the fallacious 9/11-Iraq linkage), were they excluded from the movie, would have undermined Eastwood’s argument that the film was primarily a “case study” of Kyle. In fact, a more historically accurate depiction of the events  probably would have enhanced the film’s impact as a case study. So why the glaring misrepresentations of the historical record?

Presumably, these directorial decisions were made because it was not enough for Eastwood to revise the factual record. He had to invert it. Iraqis weren’t the victims in his portrayal. They were the aggressors. The US military wasn’t engaged in the “supreme crime” of “military aggression” in violation of every conceivable standard of international law. To borrow the language of Chris Kyle’s father, the US military invaded Iraq as “sheepdogs” with the objective to protect the world’s “sheep” from the Iraqi “wolves.” The gap between this jingoistic worldview and reality is vast and will likely grow without a concerted effort on the part of the American public to inform themselves about the war crimes that the US military committed, as a matter of policy, in the city of Fallujah. Outside the most chauvinistic of circles, condemning Chris Kyle is quite easy. It’s alot more difficult to indict the society that produced him and laid the ideological basis for his crimes.

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.

Goliath: Life & Loathing in Greater Israel

Blumenthal-GoliathIf there ever were a manual designed to instruct colonial administrators on how to best manage an oppressed population there’s little doubt that one of its leading principles would be to repeatedly, and emphatically, portray every resort to violence, no matter how egregious, as an heroic attempt to promote peace. Such is the case with Israel’s long, brutal, and US-backed (crucial detail) occupation of Palestine. After the Palestinian Authority’s decision to seek membership in the International Criminal Court, what Newsweek described as Abbas “[rolling] the statehood dice”, US and Israeli officials wasted little time in venting their rage. While Israel reacted “by saying it will withhold $120 million of tax and customs receipts it collects on behalf of Palestinians each month” (a reality that flatly contradicts the Israeli self-image as a fortress of “democracy” and not a military occupier), the US State Department, in typical paternalistic fashion, condemned Palestinians for making a move that “badly damaged the atmosphere for peace.” Conversely, US military support for Israeli atrocities, a policy that made 2014 the most devastating year for Palestinians in terms of casualties since 1967, did not “badly damage the atmosphere for peace.” These crimes, as our colonial instruction manual would surely contend, enhanced “peace.”

Anyone observing this state of affairs could learn a great deal by asking how a worldview of this kind is sustained, and more importantly, what we can do to undermine it. Max Blumenthal’s Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel offers a deeply unsettling look into what is often called “the only democracy in the Middle East” and in doing so challenges readers to defy these propagandistic constructs which exert such tremendous influence on American attitudes and US political discourse generally. Separated into ten parts, bearing titles like “Indoctrination Mills”, “This Belongs to the White Man”, and “Feeling the Hate”, Blumenthal is unsparing in his examination of a country drowning in toxic ideologies of racism, nationalism, aggressive militarism, and ethnic supremacy. Reading Blumenthal’s study it’s extremely difficult to ignore the fact that the anti-Arab (and in many cases anti-African) racism within Israel extends far beyond the confines of illegal settlements. The Israeli political establishment has not only legitimized these hateful ideologies but has been in the lead in ensuring that they are treated with the reverence of sacred truths.

One glaring example in the legal realm is the 2010 Acceptance to Communities Law. Proposed by Israeli Knesset member David Rotem, this law “officially [sanctioned] ethnic segregation in the small Jewish towns planted across the Galilee and the Negev Desert.” Policies of this kind conform neatly to Israeli public opinion, which views Arabs as a “demographic threat” to be contained, if not expelled entirely in accordance with exclusivist doctrines of ethnic purity. “A poll taken in August 2012 by Tel Aviv University statistician Camil Fuchs revealed that a majority of Israeli twelfth-graders supported the total deportation of non-Jewish African asylum seekers living in the country, and the expulsion of their Israeli-born children.” Meanwhile, “almost half of secular high schooler seniors declared their refusal to live next door to an Arab,” and “nearly 90 percent of their religious counterparts endorsed the segregationist view.” Openly racist viewpoints of this kind are the rational results of a society with a school system geared toward “the transmission of nationalist attitudes through Israel school textbooks, both through implicit and explicit messaging”, an educational model Blumenthal described as “systemic and comprehensive.”

Along with Israeli atrocities in the Palestinian territories, these racist attitudes are given scant, if any, attention in mainstream US discourse. Part of this silence can be attributed to the routine hypocrisy that ignores unpleasant realities about so-called allies while amplifying those of declared enemies, but another, much deeper reason may lie in the fact that the United States is not immune to this brand of systemic racism. Indeed, US political and media elites almost certainly identify with it. This congruence between race relations in the US and those within Israel came into sharp focus in the aftermath of the highly publicized murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. In addition to casting light on the close cooperation between Israeli security forces and US police departments, these events demonstrate how state violence relies heavily on obscuring the humanity of oppressed populations, whether it be through everyday forms of racial discrimination, which constitutes the core of apartheid regimes, or the dissemination of Founding myths designed to whitewash the historical grievances of others. Just as political elites in Arizona worked feverishly to purge public school curriculums of ethnic studies programs that provided an alternative to the Eurocentric narratives of establishment discourse, Israeli public figures have dedicated themselves to removing any trace of the Palestinian Nakba from the historical record. “Since the foundation of the State of Israel,” Blumenthal writes, “Palestinian students in the country’s segregated Arab schools have been forbidden from learning about the Nakba.” He continues, “though textbooks in Arab schools are replete with Holocaust history, references to the Nakba have been completely omitted.”

Given the savage assault on the Gaza Strip last summer, and the enthusiastic support for it within the US Congress (“progressives” included), it’s incredibly tempting to succumb to defeatism. But only if one ignores the enormous sacrifices of the Palestinian people. If this—the courageous and irrepressible spirit of Palestinians—is acknowledged one can easily adopt the opposite approach: a moral urgency to denounce the indignities of a social and political order that values degradation above human affirmation and the consolidation of power above the defense of the powerless. Very much in the tradition of classic texts like W.E.B. Dubois’ The Souls of Black Folk, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, and Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, Blumenthal’s Goliath takes what could have been a very dispassionate work of investigative journalism and brings it to life it with emotionally moving glimpses into the lives of those on the other side of the gun. Whether it’s his writings on the resilience of the Tamimi family after being subjected to a litany of tragedies at the hands of Israelis—wrongful arrests, imprisonment, exile and murder—or the families of the Abu Eid Refugee Camp whose homes were demolished under Benjamin Netanyahu’s “campaign of ‘Judaization’”, these stories serve as an inspiration to all who are sincere in their desire for justice in the region.

This brings us back to the second half of the opening question: what can we do to undermine the easy resort to dehumanizing clichés and violence? A recent editorial in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz acquires new meaning in the context of Blumenthal’s book and provides a possible answer. Summing up the general mood in Israel, the board observed, in disturbingly casual tone, “Few things are more popular in Israel than making life harder for Palestinians.” The horrors concealed in this throwaway line merits more than idle contemplation when the US contribution to this policy is fathomed. As journalist and activist Ali Abunimah eloquently stated in his latest appearance on Democracy Now! “I’ll tell you what didn’t help the atmosphere [for peace] … during the summer in Gaza when dozens of people were being killed every day by Israeli bombs, when entire neighborhoods were being destroyed and carpet-bombed by Israeli shelling, when, during that time, the Obama administration, President Obama, decided to resupply the Israeli military with bombs so it could continue to murder people in Gaza. To put it mildly, that didn’t help the atmosphere.” As much as this book puts Israel under the magnifying glass, we must not lose sight of the country that has consistently undersigned these policies of state terror, namely the United States. Meaningful change requires more than negotiations over Israeli and Palestinian borders, (central as they are to a just resolution). It also requires long-lasting social, cultural and political transformations within our own society. Goliath is essential reading in helping us embrace this grave responsibility.









A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror

9780805080414_custom-f738395eec5b7662a84419a1012990e3e9b54ce5-s800-c15Since the highly publicized release of the US Senate Torture Report reactions have ranged from outrage, to shameless apologetics, to cold indifference. The New York Times, in an unusual display of adversarial journalism, decried the revelations as “a portrait of depravity that is hard to comprehend and even harder to stomach,” while the Washington Post declared “Torture is wrong, whether or not it has ever ‘worked.’” Both of these responses, while properly critical of state criminality, offer only a partial picture of the culture of power responsible for the atrocities detailed in the report. In order to grasp fully how the CIA constructed this global torture regime it’s necessary to explore the history of US policy, specifically when it comes to the treatment of “enemy” populations. Alfred McCoy’s A Question of Torture is essential reading in tracing this history, beginning with CIA experimentation with Soviet-inspired methods of “mind control” and culminating with the sensory deprivation, stress positions, and “rectal rehydration” (anal rape) of today’s agency. Contrary to myths that the barbaric actions of the CIA represented an assault on “American values”, McCoy demonstrates how torture has long been a key instrument of US policy throughout the Cold War period and in its aftermath. During the Vietnam War the US military enforced a national torture program drawing its tactics from a document called the Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation handbook. Contained in this handbook were instructions for the implementation of “a revolutionary two-phase form of torture that relied on sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain for an effect that, for the first time in the two millennia of this cruel science, was more psychological than physical.” Alongside this embrace of psychological torture was the Phoenix Program, a highly complex assassination program that led to the deaths of 40,994 Vietcong guerillas (Saigon government figures).

Shortly after the inception of these policies, they were replicated in Latin America, first in US-backed South American dictatorships (Brazil for example) and, eventually, in Central American terror states like Honduras. This continuity between US policy in Vietnam and policy in Central America during the 1980s could be perceived most clearly in the Human Resources Manual that the Honduran state drew from in their torture of “communist” subversives. Among the methods relied upon in this manual were sensory deprivation, with an emphasis on forms of solitary confinement, and manipulation of the environment. In one particularly gruesome instance of this paradigm in action, the Caballero unit, named after Honduran Sergeant Florencio Caballero, brutally tortured a “young Marxist” named Ines Murillo. While in Honduran custody Murillo was “stripped naked and subjected to electrical shocks for thirty five days.” Afterwards, she was “moved to a second, secret prison near Tegucigalpa where her questioners … ‘gave her raw dead birds and rats for dinner, threw freezing water on her naked body every half hour for extended periods, and made her stand for hours without sleep and without being allowed to urinate.”

Overshadowing all of these crimes, from those in Indochina to those in Central America, was a culture of impunity that shielded all responsible from even the slightest forms of legal accountability. In this respect, America followed the same path of its imperial predecessors in France and Britain. When colonial France was found to have committed heinous crimes against the Algerian resistance, crimes which included, among other things, the waterboarding of Algerians, a government organized inquiry (the Wuillaume Report) exonerated all high-ranking officials on the flimsy argument that the torture methods employed were “more psychological than physical and therefore [did] not constitute excessive cruelty.” Similarly, when it was exposed that British forces were engaged in torture in Northern Ireland—“five techniques” consisting of wall standing, sleep deprivation, starvation, subjection to noise, and hooding—a government-led investigation (The Compton Report) absolved the perpetrators arguing that the crimes were “necessary against terrorists because ‘information must be sought while it is still fresh … and thereby save members of the security forces and of the civil population.’”

It therefore should come as no surprise to any student of history that President Obama honored this disgraceful tradition when he responded to the Senate exposures of CIA torture by urging that we not “refight old arguments” by going after the culprits (a reasonable position if we internalize the worldview of a state terrorist). Aside from conforming to a societal pattern of callousness and disregard for human life, what MIT international relations scholar John Tirman calls “collective autism”, Obama’s statement evinces a deep-seated ignorance as it relates to the long-term psychological effects of torture. In historical terms, the psychological damage that can be inflicted on a human being via torture is well documented. In 1972 a selection of Danish medical professionals examined “Greek and Chilean refugees for ‘forensic medical evidence of the after-effects of torture,” and concluded “of the 200 victims examined … nearly 70 percent still had ‘mental symptoms at the time of examination.'” Symptoms included “nightmares, depression, panic attacks, and low energy”.

Contemporary cases of torture demonstrate a similar trend. The brutalization of Canadian national Maher Arar is a textbook example. In what’s euphemistically called “extraordinary rendition” Arar was kidnapped by US agents at JFK Airport in New York, “loaded onto a CIA-chartered Gulfstream III jet”, and transferred to a Syrian prison “where he remained for a year being beaten and whipped so savagely that he confessed to anything his tormentors suggested.” Two years after his release Arar reported that he “still [had] nightmares about being in Syria, being beaten, [and] being in jail.” Post-traumatic stress of this kind is a common experience for torture victims who are unable to casually dismiss these crimes against humanity as an “old argument.” For torture victims the “argument” is never truly “old.” It’s perpetually present.

Examining the enormous scope and level of coordination behind the Bush administration’s torture program it’s glaringly obvious that anything less than a criminal prosecution of top administration officials (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice), apologists in the legal profession (John Yoo, Bybee, Alberto Gonzalez), and high-ranking military figures (General Sanchez) will ensure that worse atrocities will be committed in the future. Achieving this will require an honest look at not only the criminality embedded in institutions of power but an equally honest look at the social norms and mores that enabled the US public to silently acquiesce to these monumental crimes. In the words of a recent Washington Post article, “A majority of Americans think that the harsh interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were justified, even as about half of the public says the treatment amounted to torture …” Disengaging from this culture of indifference is a necessary prerequisite to overcoming this tradition of state sponsored terror. Only then can the American public help provide the psychological and moral closure, and significantly, legal justice, that the victims of these savage acts rightfully deserve.






Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters

Memories_of_muhammad_coverIn a society permeated with stereotypical portraits of Muslim communities intellectually honest narratives are regularly subordinated to sensational fairy tales replete with fear, xenophobia, and dehumanizing tropes purporting to explain violent behavior. Examples of this are too plentiful to enumerate. Dr. Omid Safi’s Memories of Muhammad chronicles the life of the Prophet Muhammad, the historical developments that characterized his time, and the various scholarly and theological interpretations that followed to provide an incredibly detailed description of Islamic teachings and the enormous influence they continue to exert today. In doing this Safi offers a much needed refutation to the monolithic conceptions of Islam that pervade US discourse. As Safi puts it, “If we are to understand the Islamic civilization that rightly sees itself as being shaped by the revelation given to Muhammad, it behooves us to engage the multiple ways in which Muslims have come to cultivate the memory of Muhammad.” Several realities must be factored into this analysis. Among these realities is the fact that “perhaps over 600,000 hadith reports came into circulation in the centuries after Muhammad’s passing” (“classical hadith scholars … accepted only 1 to 2 percent of the hadith in circulation as reliable”), that there is a rich tradition of devotional poetry uplifting the example of the Prophet Muhammad, and Muslim communities, from Sunni to Shia and Sufi, have brought their own unique interpretations to this body of work.

The sharply conflicting responses to the Burda, a devotional poem authored by Sufi Egyptian poet Busiri, is a paradigmatic example of just how radically disparate certain interpretations are within Muslim majority societies. While the poem is hugely influential in many parts of the world (“the Burda was translated … into Persian, Urdu, Turkish, Punjabi, Pashto, Swahili, English, Malay, and Shila-Berber”), it has been met with hostility in other quarters. Saudi Arabia, the center of Wahhabism, has been the principal opponent of this devotional strand of Islam.

“Under the influence of Wahhabi clerics,” Dr. Safi writes “Saudi authorities have … erased all but the last line of the Burda poem in praise of the Prophet that had been inscribed on the walls of the Mosque of the Prophet during the Ottoman reign.” Safi went on to add “had the Wahhabis had their way in 1812, it would not have been merely the Burda that was effaced but the entire Mosque of the Prophet.” More than a mere disagreement over the “devotional practices of Islam”, this event was likely reflective of a much deeper tension between Islamic orthopraxy as understood by Wahhabi clerics and dominant understandings within the Sufi tradition where the “connection to the Prophet is more existential,” with “knowledge [coming] from a less mediated source.”

Beyond these points of friction, it’s also worth acknowledging the role of certain Islamic teachings as a unifying force critical not only of intellectual divisions within Islam but, more broadly, parochial elements within the older Abrahamic religions (Judaism and Christianity). “The Qur’an,” Dr. Safi argues, “makes no move to negate the earlier revelations. In fact, the Qur’an criticizes the Jewish and Christian communities around Muhammad for having become too exclusivist and for denying the truth of other revelations.” Safi highlights this thoroughly Abrahamic ethos in the following passage:

“They say: ‘Become Jews or Christians if you wish to be guided.’
Say You: ‘No! I would rather be part of the tradition of Abraham, the true one, who did not associate partners with God.’” (Qur’an 2:135)

Examples this kind greatly complicate if not eviscerate completely jingoistic ideologies that promote a “clash of civilizations” where “our” “Judeo-Christian heritage” is perpetually threatened by the rise of the “Islamic menace.” Here we realize the dangers of reading religious texts divorced from the historical context and geopolitical disputes that constantly shape the world we live in. Much of the bigotry that today’s “intellectuals” direct at Islam and the Prophet Muhammad are merely parroting others who, despite their reputations as great thinkers, were just as steeped in ignorance. “Some classics of Western literature, such as Dante’s Inferno, depict Muhammad as being cut open right down through his torso and cast into the ninth circle of Hell.” Meanwhile, the celebrated figurehead of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, wrote the following in a preface to a 1543 Latin translation of the Qur’an (note the seething anti-Semitism as well):

“For just as the folly, or rather madness, of the Jews is more easily observed once their hidden secrets have been brought out into the open, so once the book of Muhammad has been made public and thoroughly examined in all its parts, all pious person will more easily comprehend the insanity and wiles of the devil and will be more easily able to refute them.”

Quite apart from an innocent investigation of “ideas”, as contemporary bigots love to contend, Luther was acutely aware that he was “living in the aftermath of the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.” Furthermore, he was “mindful and aware—even fearful—of the presence of Muslims (‘Turks’ to him) and was keenly interested in the study of Islam. Yet he was not interested in understanding Islam per se, or getting to know Muslims as human beings.” This brand of “study”–selectively quoting text entirely divorced from the complex lived experience of actual human beings who have devoted their lives to honoring the Prophet’s example–lies at the core of all ahistorical commentaries on Islam. The fact that so little has changed from the bigotry of Dante and Martin Luther to less influential, but just as intellectually feeble, denunciations of Bill Maher and Sam Harris is a screaming testament to this.

This is why Safi’s Memories of Muhammad is such an invaluable contribution to our troubled times. Safi’s scholarship is aggressive in its rejection of easy explanations and careful in navigating the spiritual paths that each community has charted to bridge their experiences in this world with the divine. “This is the goal of the community of Muhammad: to be led to Muhammad, and from Muhammad to God.” Many of the biographical insights Safi provides with regard to the world the Prophet inhabited mirror those of Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time, primarily his observation that the Prophet’s followers “saw their society as one in which the strong oppressed the weak and ‘the ways of the forefathers’ had become more sacrosanct than the ways of God.” In both biographies the Prophet resonates as a revolutionary messenger struggling on behalf of the marginalized.

“Islamic life is not usually black-and-white but rather takes on a full spectrum of color,” notes Safi. “People’s lives, cultures, ideas, and sensitivities are more fluid and water-like than rock-like: they are in constant motion.” This “fluid and water-like” character of Islamic life is embodied in the poetry of Rumi, Medieval Muslim miniatures, the thousands of hadiths, in the “well known artistic tradition called the Hilya,” where “it became customary to depict in a richly illuminated manuscript an edified description of Muhammad”, in the Dalia’il al-Khayrat—“a series of litanies” devoted to the Prophet—and in several physical sites imbued with historical significance from the al-Asqa Mosque in Jerusalem to the Topkapi palace in Istanbul. Unless this more inclusive, historically literate, and thoroughly humanizing method of analysis is embraced more widely many will be left to rely on the reductionist explanations of today’s political and intellectual elites. Reasons for avoiding this outcome are obvious, as are the destructive consequences of inaction.