Anti-Arab Racism in the USA: Where it Comes from & What it Means for Politics Today

Anti-Arab RacismThe University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign has come under intense criticism after Chancellor Phyllis Wise decided to un-hire professor Steven Salaita. Salaita, an outspoken critic of Israeli terror, was denied the teaching position after complaints arose about Tweets he posted condemning the Israeli massacres in Gaza (“Operation Protective Edge”). The primary argument given to justify this removal was that Salaita’s Tweets violated University standards of “civility” or as the Chancellor stated “What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.”

John K. Wilson of the Academe Blog described this justification as “ridiculous”, noting “Respect is not a fundamental value of any university, and being ‘disrespectful’ is not an academic crime.” Moreover, a petition has now surfaced urging Salaita’s reinstatement. Underlying this entire affair is a deep history of complicity between seats of power and domestic institutions (colleges for example) which purportedly exist to challenge such displays of authority. Steven Salaita’s Anti-Arab Racism in the USA unveils how profoundly racist doctrines of American exceptionalism, colonialism, and white supremacy have permeated US discourse about Arabs (both domestically and internationally). The endemic culture of racism directed at Arab communities, Salaita argues, is but the latest iteration in a long history of racism that has its roots in the European genocide of North America’s indigenous population and the subsequent crimes against humanity carried out through the enslavement of Africans. “Modern American racism developed as a result of the imagery of Indians and Africans promulgated by White settlers,” observes Salaita. “Indeed, the covenantal Messianism with which early American settlers invested their identity invents and reinvents itself based on deeply encoded notions of racial superiority.” In this sense, Salaita’s text views anti-Arab racism as derivative of a larger discourse of racism that targets multiple ethnic groups in distinct ways.

One area of particular focus is what Salaita calls “imperative patriotism.” Under imperative patriotism statements are made that represent “a stable fixed identity rooted in a physical and cultural Whiteness for which many immigrants do not qualify.” Exclusivist doctrines of this kind are often voiced in xenophobic remarks such as “If you don’t like America, go back to where you came from” or equally ludicrous comments concerning Arabs who threaten the American “way of life.” Salaita samples a range of media, from the “liberal” and “progressive” to the “neoconservative” end of the spectrum, and they all parrot, in one way or another, these reductionist tropes. For example, Salaita critiques Michael Moore’s critically acclaimed documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. Particularly, Salaita criticizes the Eurocentric character of the film, noting “one would think that only middle-class Whites are inconvenienced by [the passage of the Patriot Act].” Moore, Salaita continues, “could have profiled thousands of Arabs or Muslims who have been detained on undisclosed ‘secret evidence,’ denied access to legal representation, and held for months in solitary confinement.”

Apart from these illustrations of “progressive” contributions to anti-Arab racism, Salaita thoroughly analyzes the pernicious role of neoconservative lobbies in influencing the quality of instruction within institutions of higher education. Here Salaita writes with a prescience and clarity that perfectly anticipates the treatment he eventually received at the hands of Chancellor Wise and her associates at the University of Illinois.  Years before Salaita was denied employment for the crime of incivilty the US House of Representatives passed a bill with the explicit goal of undermining any effort to educate the American public on the extraordinary oppression Palestinians have been forced to live under: House bill HR-3077. This remarkable piece of legislation was unanimously passed by the House Subcommittee on Select Education in order to “create a federal tribunal to monitor criticism of Israel on American college campuses.” Furthermore, any professor who violated its totalitarian strictures would be “subject to investigation.”

On October 21, 2003 “the bill was passed by the full House,” with the objective to “set up a seven-member advisory board that has the ability to recommend cutting federal funding to universities harboring academics accused of endangering Israel’s interests.” The undemocratic removal of professor Salaita is merely an affirmation of this insidious principle that was articulated in perhaps its most virulent form in 2003. Tragically, such treatment is not new for Salaita, as he has been ostracized and marginalized for most of his academic career. He opens the book with a recollection of how he was subjected to cruel racism in his grade school years. “The foreign kid never wins crack fights in American schools,” he solemnly remarks. In one childhood memory Salaita recalls how “a first grade teacher once referred to the warang dawali (grape leaves) [his] mother had packed [him] as ‘little pieces of doo-doo’ in front of a crowd of laughing children.”

Unlike  Salaita, who was made to endure the scornful words of the colonial administrators at the University of Illinois, these teachers were not censured for their lack of “civility.” In fact, Salaita could not “remember a single instance, from kindergarten to twelfth grade, when a teacher intervened to stop others from insulting [him],” and “it was teachers who articulated racism with a cruelty unsurpassed by students.” It is within this cultural environment that deeply reductionist narratives about Arabs are allowed to flourish, creating an acute sense of foreboding among many Arab students in the University setting. Consequently, “most Arabs in American universities exist in contradictory and problematic spaces: for an Arab academic (in, say, the humanities), the simple act of raising one’s voice can be controversial.” As a result, the dominant function of the University conforms with that desired by anti-Arab racists which “isn’t to foster critical thinking … but to enhance the image of the United States at home and abroad and to work with policymakers to transform students into good citizens.”

Crucially, this intersection between American imperial policies abroad and state-capitalist policies at home brings into sharp focus the ideological underpinnings of anti-Arab racism. Included in this ideological makeup are Christian evangelicals eager to bring about the apocalypse (what Salaita refers to as the “dispensationalist” camp), Zionists (of the Christian and Jewish variety), and state terrorists from the Bush administration. The anti-Arab racism fomented by the Bush regime was graphically displayed after the gruesome revelations of US torture carried out in Abu Ghraib prison. In this crime against humanity the American intelligentsia participated in a “racism of denial” whereby the relentless cruelty and savagery of US soldiers was written off as an aberration—the “bad apples” argument—rather than an illustration of the fundamentally racist character of the Iraq war.

While Rush Limbaugh compared the images of torture to “anything you’d see Madonna or Britney Spears do on stage,” commentator Tammy Bruce indifferently remarked “I consider the vast majority of what happened at Abu Ghraib to be hazing—nothing more, nothing less.” Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Cucullu intoned “until [Iraqis] begin to wise up to the fact that they are thwarting those who are fighting to liberate them, I worry less about the Arab Street losing its ‘good will’ than I would fret about a recurring Ice Age.” Cucullu was plausibly articulating a worldview held by many within the US military which was thoroughly immersed in anti-Arab literature like Rafael Patai’s The Arab Mind, “a viciously racist work of pseudoscience.”

In this book Arabs are described “in explicit detail as lazy, sexually obsessed, incurably hostile, and irrationally dedicated to an honor-bound culture.” Writing on the circulation of this book within the US military Guardian reporter Brian Whittaker observed “according to one professor at a US military college, The Arab Mind is ‘probably the single most popular and widely read book on the Arabs in the US military,'” and “it is even used as a textbook for officers at the JFK special warfare school in Fort Bragg.” It was within this military culture, shot through with racism, that Abu Ghraib guard Lynndie England, in that infamous photograph, held “a leash attached to the neck of a naked Iraqi man, who was lying on the floor in obvious pain.” Though “universally overlooked” in the corporate press, University of Toronto scholar Sherene Razack decoded the “visual symbolism” of this atrocity, a symbolism which revealed a “racial relationship.” Salaita recreates the scene: “The brown, bearded man is naked before his White captor. He is subdued on a leash, a device usually reserved for animals, and made to lie on the floor, although the White captor seems to be trying to pull him onto all fours, thus to force the man to emulate a dog and complete the act of dehumanization.” It was this image—the “juxtaposition of England and the prisoner”—that Salaita identified as the “perfect metonym for the invasion of Iraq, in total, in which the uncivilized brown people were to be subdued for their own good by their enlightened (and benighted) Western liberators.”

Aside from this review of media complicity in crimes against humanity, perhaps the most surprising element of Salaita’s examination of this ideological campaign is his incredibly nuanced analysis of Zionism. “Surprising” because of how sharply it conflicts with unsubstantiated allegations of anti-Semitism directed at him, mainly by University of Illinois professor Cary Nelson. In a section titled Is Zionism Racism? Salaita states “it is unfair to say ‘Zionism is racism,’ a blanket statement that leaves no room for group or individual nuance.” He continues “I wish to be clear that I object to this statement not on moral grounds but in the interests of intellectual probity, for I believe that the majority of worldviews that arise from Zionism are infused with anti-Arab racism, or directly purvey it.”

Careful and nuanced analysis of this kind illustrates how absurdly authoritarian it is to un-hire a professor based solely on 140 character Tweets (Tweets which, despite the hysterical propaganda about their contents, accurately captured the savagery of the Israeli military bombardment of Gaza). Quite apart from advancing anti-Semitic views, Salaita is a victim of those who propagate the doctrine of “the new anti-Semitism.” The new anti-Semitism slanders anyone who criticizes the policies of Israel as incurable racists who are unable to overcome their seething hatred for Jewish people. Embedded in this construct of the new anti-Semitism is “an ulterior motive”, namely to “increase financial and philosophical support for Israel, thus tying it even more closely to Zionism.”

Instead of portraying the fight against anti-Jewish hatred as inherently antagonistic to the fight for Palestinian self-determination, Salaita sees both of these struggles, when sincere, as complimentary. Indeed, he acknowledges that the history of persecution carried out against Jews is but one part of a larger edifice of white supremacy that today is routinely imposed on Arabs. Referencing a 1994 essay by Ronald Stockton on “negative ethnic imagery” Salaita astutely notes “anti-Arab racism is derived from the same attitudes that produced American anti-Semitism.” This is an “ironic” fact because “one way Americans now marginalize Arabs is by labeling them anti-Semitic when they articulate their (legitimate) political sensibilities.”

Very much in the tradition of post-colonial scholars like Edward Said, Frantz Fanon, and Rashid Khalidi, Steven Salaita’s profoundly complex and cogently argued study of anti-Arab racism powerfully captures the prevailing sociocultural norms of the society he inhabits. Furthermore, he offers viable and potentially transformative ways forward to combat this soul-deadening phenomenon that has afflicted far too many in America’s internal and external domains of control. On “Arab violence” Salaita proclaims “you either promulgate the assumption that Arabs are irrationally violent, or you simultaneously examine the context in which that violence arises. There is no other option intellectually: you are either a thoroughgoing racist or you take your responsibilities as a citizen and commentator seriously.” Unless these elementary truths are absorbed—in television studios, editor board rooms, University classrooms, and among the American public at large—the toxic myths and stereotypes that currently saturate “educated” discourse will spread unimpeded. While Academic Proconsuls like Phyllis Wise work vigorously to turn this ominous prospect into an unalterable reality, conscientious scholars like professor Steven Salaita are essential if this outcome is to be avoided.