Don DeLillo once famously called JFK’s assassination “the seven seconds that broke the back of the American century.” September 11, 2001 is perhaps similar to that moment not in kind but in magnitude and reach, and in our sprawling attempts to make sense of it. So what, ten years after, can we say is the nature of September 11th as a rupture?
I will always remember the day JFK was shot in my home town. I was in elementary school; many of my classmates missed school to catch a glimpse of our charismatic President at the parade. I still remember the eerie silence in the school hallways, so loud you could hear a pin drop. Like most Americans, I recall where I was and how I felt when I learned of the tragic attacks on 9/11. Images of the crumbling Twin Towers were seared on our collective consciousness as we tried to make sense of the tragedy. However, to claim that either the assassination of JFK or 9/11 were cataclysmic rifts of equal magnitude for the entire planet reflects a long tradition of American exceptionalism.
There are certainly myriad directions one could take in responding to the question. However, since media and higher education are the institutions that historically have had the strongest educational influences on social life, I focus briefly on these areas.
In an effort to “explain” Islam and the Middle East to their domestic and international audiences, U.S. media’s ubiquitous coverage of the War on Terror replicated a pattern of Orientalist discourse. Images of evil Arabs had already been burned into the American psyche by Hollywood filmmakers, and as Jack Shaheen pointed out, TV dramas are full of evil Arab Americans lurking in the shadows, waiting to destroy the homeland. In order to scapegoat a people their humanity must first be erased. By continuously disseminating images and stories that demonized and objectified Muslims, the media played a leading role in cultivating a culture in which hate crimes and discrimination skyrocketed. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee reported over 700 “violent incidents” in a nine-week period following 9/11.
Universities do not exist in isolation from the broader society, from the communities they serve. The most virulent attacks since the McCarthy Era, enabled by the media, were unleashed on higher education. In addition to traditional media sources, new Internet-based outlets emerged designed to “monitor” higher education with a focus on critical and activist voices of dissent.
Last year I interviewed academics from across the United States. Since these neoconservative web-based outlets disproportionately highlighted Middle East Studies, most of the scholars who participated had connections to the Middle East in terms of their work in the academy or the broader community. In searching for the threads that connected their narratives, the trail invariably led to either Palestine and/or racist renditions of the “New Enemy,” a flattened Orientalist composite of the Arab/Muslim “Other.” Racism played a role, albeit sometimes implicitly, in the attacks on scholars with “perceived” Middle Eastern or South Asian heritage.
Evidence from this research revealed a concerted effort to silence scholars who challenged the U.S. mainstream narrative on Israel/Palestine through their actions or ideas. The overwhelming majority of academics interviewed had been targeted by various neoconservative organizations/websites based on their criticism of Israeli policies.
All of the academics faced consequences, professionally or personally, as a direct result of their critical perspectives on Israel. However, when I spoke with Noam Chomsky, he reminded me that the McCarthy period was far more serious in part because there was no resistance, “people just crumbled and collapsed.” In contrast, I found that despite the consequences, e.g. publishing hurdles, cyber harassment, death threats, and in a few cases, tenure denial, there was a strong spirit of resistance to these attempts to intimidate and silence.
New challenges to fundamental First Amendment rights in the U.S. emerged in the aftermath of 9/11, becoming an ongoing reality in the academy and broader society. September 11th provided the backdrop for neoconservative attacks on critical scholars. However, the tragedy also highlighted the fact that academic freedom is not simply a philosophical concept, but a principle that must be vigorously exercised.
I want to begin to respond to the question by posing another question: “Do 9/11 and ‘post 9/11’ in fact represent a rupture?” Much like the considerations in researching any issue, the premise of the research question as well as the sample selection can lead to erroneous conclusions if not carefully examined for inherent assumptions and biases. Thus, I would argue that the answer would vary widely depending on the positionality and perspectives of the respondents. This includes but is not limited to the extent that one is being informed by national, racial, cultural, or political consciousness. I think of my experience of attending the “National Day of Mourning” overlooking Plymouth Rock post 9/11 where the Native American speakers reminded their allies in attendance that 9/11 was not the “first terrorist attack” on American soil, given the history of terrorism against the indigenous population since 1492. To them the rupture was not on 9/11, neither was it a discrete, single event. This sentiment is shared by many around the globe whose daily life experiences include violence, oppression, and destruction in their communities, often committed by state-actors, including those overtly and covertly operated or supported by the U.S. It would also be inaccurate to consider it a rupture in U.S. global politics and policy. While the pretext of 9/11 is used to wage imperialistic wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, these wars represent a continuation of the U.S.’s ongoing global hegemonic agenda while exploiting the pre-existing Islamophobia heightened by the post-9/11 fear-mongering rhetoric.
From the perspective of many U.S. citizens, 9/11 did indeed result in ruptures. For instance, certainly a rupture occurred for many in the United States in the sense of implicit security. For a short time, people here were forced to ask the question “Why?” and the discourse that followed exposed the limits of their political and global awareness. Thus a rupture occurred in the luxury of not having to think about the perspective of those impacted by the politics and policies of aggression perpetuated by the American government. The fear and insecurity experienced by Americans offered an opportunity to understand the experience of large segments of the world’s population. Unfortunately, the events of 9/11 also presented a great opportunity for the U.S. government to promote its agenda of global dominance in the disguise of security. And thus the moments of bewilderment, in which sincere efforts to make sense of traumatic events that could have led to gaining a global perspective were quickly misguided. The rhetoric of “us versus them” promoted further isolation, with “us” being further exceptionalized and “them” being further vilified.
As we now know, Islamophobia provided the political-ideological weapon of the ongoing War on Terror. Domestically, this paved the way for unleashing an offensive on the civil rights of communities of color and those who challenged the agenda of the empire. An increasing police-state with overreaching surveillance of its citizens under the draconian Patriot Act and Homeland Security, as well as the detention and deportation of immigrants, was created with little opposition. But once again it is important to remember that much of this was an expansion of previously existing covert and overt operations both internationally and domestically. Thus 9/11 served both as a rupture in the sense of security of many as well as a continuation and further consolidation of preexisting ideology, policies, and perspectives.
In the end, I would argue for actually creating a different kind of rupture, a rupture in the dominant discourse. We need to work towards a rupture in the notion of justifiable preemptive strikes in the name of national security, as well as a rupture in viewing the U.S. as “civilized” while pictures circulate of naked prisoners being shackled and paraded, and thousands are detained without any charges or due process. We need a rupture in the politics of global dominance and the permanent state of required war. Perhaps we should begin by engaging in a discourse that does not begin with 9/11 as the most shocking act of terrorism but in with historical and ongoing state-sanctioned terrorism of immense proportions.
I have to say at the outset that the notion that 9/11 possibly broke the back of the American Century is an example of precisely the kind of U.S.-centric vision that has led to the hubris of empire and to the blindness that has been its downfall. Perhaps DeLillo was suggesting that there are events that crystallize in a few moments a national crisis that is the outcome of a much longer historical process. But I think it is this notion of 9/11 as a “rupture”–the belief that many Americans had that somehow the world had ended on September 11, 2001–that I would challenge.
Yes, 9/11 was a cataclysmic event that ruptured for many Americans their belief in the invincibility of the U.S. national security state and, more importantly, their denial of the atrocities that the U.S. had long committed in the far-flung reaches of the globe, in countries and places whose names Americans did not know or did not care to think about. But in fact, there had been many other September 11ths, and so as some pointed out the event marked, if anything, a moment of Americans rejoining the world due to their experience of these horrific attacks. As some others pointed out, it was time to talk again of September 11, 1973, of the U.S.-backed coup against the democratically elected leftist president of Chile, Salvador Allende, and the beginning of the regime of General Pinochet, who committed atrocities against his own people with U.S. support. This other 9/11 was just one of many instances of U.S. covert operations and imperial interventions about which there had been a willed amnesia in the U.S., what William Appleman Williams called “empire as a way of life.”
So yes, 9/11 was perhaps a rupture in public discourse–for a few weeks or months–of the collective denial of U.S. imperialism. It was described by some as a loss of innocence, as if Americans were now coming of age and entering a new era of worldliness. But at the same time, others saw this as ushering in the New American Century, a moment that would allow the U.S. to consolidate its status as the sole global superpower. The attacks of 9/11, as we all have to acknowledge by now, were used by the neoconservatives to justify the invasion of Afghanistan–a quagmire which still continues to haunt the U.S.–and the long and bloody occupation of Iraq, as well as the later drone attacks in Pakistan and interventions in Yemen. Attempts to engage honestly with the political grievances that might be related to the fury that drove the hijackers to hurl themselves at the symbols of U.S. political and economic might and kill innocent civilians were quashed as anti-American expressions of “terrorist sympathizers.”
The Global War on Terror was launched by George W., a war against an abstract and ill-defined enemy: “terror.” Under the guise of this War on Terror, civil liberties were tossed out of the window, and political speech, not just political activities, that opposed U.S. policies became criminalized under the PATRIOT Act. Even conservative libertarians became increasingly alarmed at the erosion of individual freedoms and freedom of speech, with the onset of legally mandated surveillance that had been restricted after COINTELPRO and the Church Committee. So perhaps it is in this sense that 9/11 was a shift–a phase of a more overt surveillance state and of overt interventionism. The U.S. was now actually occupying countries again, in the name of bringing “democracy” and “women’s rights.” The U.S.-led War on Terror was also globalized, providing legitimacy to other regimes around the world that used counterterrorism as a justification for their own repressive operations, from Britain to the Philippines.
9/11 was also a moment of rupturing for many South Asians, and perhaps for some Arabs and Iranians in the U.S., the belief that the U.S. was an exceptional space of individual freedom. The model minority-hood of South Asians who had Muslim names or were “Muslim-looking” was shattered by the backlash and assaults after 9/11. Yet there is a long history of surveillance and repression of Arabs and Iranians in the U.S. that is generally not known in the U.S., and that has in many cases been tied to the suppression of the Palestine question and Arab American movements as well as to U.S. interventions in Iran. So this, too, was not necessarily a moment of rupture but of heightened racism and Islamophobia, a crackdown justified by the overseas War on Terror. The policies of surveillance, detention, and deportation have, of course, long been directed at other groups in the U.S. and so this was not a moment of exception in these disciplinary apparatuses either. Unfortunately, however, the extent of the post-9/11 crackdown was generally unknown to those who were not themselves in the crosshairs of the War on Terror. I have suggested elsewhere that this led to “two nations under Ashcroft”–for example, most people, including academics and students, I talk to today don’t know about the Special Registration program. They are unaware that immigrant men from 24 Muslim majority countries were forced to register with the federal government and thousands were put into deportation proceedings because of their religion and national background.
Most people are also unaware that as the War on Terror has increasingly shifted to the homefront, with increased scrutiny of “homegrown terrorism” and Muslim American youth, student activism and youth networks more generally are increasingly under attack. This has led to some of the most egregious instances of profiling and repression of young Muslim Americans of various backgrounds. This new McCarthyism has been supported by the active efforts of pro-Israel lobby groups and right-wing Zionist organizations, evident most infamously in the recent case of the Irvine 11, eleven UC students who were criminalized for a peaceful political protest of a speech by the Israeli ambassador at UC Irvine. The entire Muslim Student Union was disbanded under pressure from Zionist groups. Numerous other incidents of suspicion and demonization have led to a chilling effect on campus activism by Muslim and Arab American youth, as I have been exploring in my new research on post-9/11 coalitions among college students in Northern California.
So whose backs were broken after 9/11? One of the things that is apparent as I write this is that the cracks in the U.S. empire are deepening with the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. The U.S. and its client state Israel can no longer be sure that they will have authoritarian puppet regimes that they can rely on to suppress democracy and support occupation and colonialism in the region. 9/11 was not a moment of exception but an ongoing state of emergency. And, perhaps, to turn an Orientalist image on itself, the genie is out of the bottle.
More than seventy years ago on February 17, 1941, Henry R. Luce, the Life magazine publisher, coined the phrase, “the American Century.” Luce used the term to urge the United States to forego a policy of isolationism in favor of interventionalism, in which the U.S. could play a role in “spreading democracy.” In his now famous article, Luce advised the U.S. “to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit” (my italics). As anthropologist David Harvey points out, Luce chose to call it “the American Century” rather than “the American Empire” because he believed the power conferred to the United States was global and universal, rather than territorially specific. Luce was the son of missionaries, and his vision was not just informed by a sense of geographic manifest destiny, but more accurately, it was fueled by a religiously inspired sense of general American superiority.
While September 11th may have momentarily shattered a naÃ¯ve sense of U.S. impregnability, it is difficult to argue that we have witnessed a rupture to “the American century” since that day. To the contrary, the tragic attacks enabled the country to further “exert upon the world the full impact of [its] influence, for such purposes as [it sees] fit and by such means as [it sees] fit.” By creating a specter of the “enemy” in the image of an Arab and/or brown Muslim man, an enemy who threatened “the American Century,” the U.S. government found justification for the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and the launch of covert military operations in Pakistan and Yemen. The resulting catastrophic destruction and murder of thousands of civilians were not so much a rupture, but the continuation of a pattern. Indeed, astute parallels continue to be drawn between post-9/11 aggressions and the U.S. debacle in Vietnam and Cold War operations in Central and South America throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s.
After September 11th, while the U.S. leapt abroad to “spread democracy” and crush the tyranny of the Arab-Muslim specter, what we witnessed at home was the lawless growth of executive power, the creation of secret courts, and the advance of oppressive laws and regulations that threatened the lives and realities of Americans–particularly those who became racialized as the enemy and those with critical political views. Many U.S. commentators were quick to point out hypocrisy and irony in domestic policy in light of U.S. missions abroad. While the U.S. was exerting its “democratic” influence in the Middle East, the vitality of American democracy was being trampled. This righteous criticism, however, only scratched the surface. The hypocrisy between domestic and foreign policy was and is fundamental to the imagination of the American Century. U.S. empire building could not continue as robustly as it has after September 11th without the faÃ§ade of superiority and exceptionalism. The strong domestic critique of war and the humanization of the “enemy” are profound threats to this pretense. In order to squelch these threats, a culture of fear focused on the “enemy within” was fostered to defend the retreat from the rule of law. As others have pointed out, the attack on the civil rights of leftist activists and South Asians, Arabs, and Muslim Americans more generally was historically analogous to attacks on other domestic communities during times of threat to the spirit of “the American Century.”
September 11th certainly served as a catalyzing moment that flung the United States into a supposed “state of exception,” justifying war at home and abroad. But to call it and the intervening ten years since that day a rupture in “the American Century”–the idea that the U.S. is destined for global economic and social hegemony–overlooks the cyclical history of U.S. oppression and aggression. The domestic and global aftermath of September 11th can more accurately finds its roots in the imperial history of the nation, a history of doing “as [it sees] fit…by such means as [it sees] fit” in order to exert “[its] full influence.” Channeling Henry Luce’s divinely inspired spirit of U.S. superiority in his famous coinage of the term “the American Century,” former President George W. Bush himself emphasized the degree to which the violent aftermath of September 11th was by no means a rupture: “Americans…know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not [just] America’s gift to the world; it is God’s gift to humanity.”
I would like to first thank Rajini for the opportunity to engage in this dialogue. Reading the responses of the other participants was an affirming experience. I was struck by the common themes in our responses; our responses parallel and extend each others’ voices.
All of my fellow authors contextualized September 11, 2001, within the broader historical framework of U.S. imperialism. Veena described U.S. aggressions after 9/11 as “the continuation of a pattern” in Vietnam and Central and South America. Sunaina reminded us of another 9/11, the U.S. orchestrated coup in Chile in 1973, and Rakhshanda reflected on the genocide of Native Americans and other peoples terrorized by U.S.-backed regimes.
After 9/11 scholars who dared mention the history of U.S. imperialism faced enormous pressures. For example, Robert Jensen (UT Austin) wrote an editorial on September 11th, published a few days later by the Houston Chronicle. In his essay he commented on U.S. actions, i.e. support for “client states” that resulted in “indiscriminate” violence, the deaths of innocent civilians across the globe, including in Vietnam, East Timor, Chile, Iraq, Palestine, and more. In response to his call for an end to the “insanity” of violence, UT President Larry Faulkner publicly rebuked him in a follow up editorial, calling Jensen’s views “a fountain of undiluted foolishness.” In the aftermath there were calls for his resignation, hate emails, etc., and aside from one colleague who wrote a letter to the college newspaper critical of Faulkner’s actions, not one of his colleagues publicly supported Jensen. He received absolutely no faculty support.
As Rakhshanda pointed out, there was a brief time after 9/11 when people were compelled to ask the “why” question. However, President George W. Bush, in a Congressional address on September 20, 2001, reframed the question as, “Why do they hate us?” As we probably all recall he attributed the 9/11 attacks to “hate” for “our freedoms” and a desire to “disrupt and end a way of life,” “drive Israel out of the Middle East…[and] Christians and Jews out of…Asia and Africa,” and so forth.
Despite efforts to silence those whose views challenged the president’s narrative and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, faculty-organized rallies and educational forums across the country. I refer to two of these events, and the scholars I interviewed who helped organize them. At Columbia University, students had a rally a few days after 9/11 at St. John the Divine. Hamid Dabashi was one of the panel speakers. Shortly afterward in November 2001, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni published a report on their website which listed “anti-American statements heard on college campus,” and charged several dozen professors with “unpatriotic behavior.” I spoke with Hamid Dabashi about the rally and the website. He explained, “My line of argument [at the rally] was that the world has legitimate grievances against the United States, and when you don’t pay attention to these legitimate grievances, they’re put into illegitimate means.” Dabashi speculated that his inclusion on ACTA’s list was “probably predicated” by his talk at the rally.
In my own community, beginning in fall 2001, Vida Samiian and Sasan Fayazmanesh organized a series of Middle East forums at California State University, Fresno. When I spoke with Fayazmanesh he stated that there was a “concerted, well-organized, and well-orchestrated” campaign to “stop any critical discussion of the Israeli/U.S. policy in the Middle East.” As a result of the forums, the organizers faced numerous attacks, e.g. hate email, offensive posters outside office doors, computer bugs, and slanderous attacks on local radio, Horowitz’s FrontPage website, and Sean Hannity’s Fox News website. Detractors handed out leaflets outside the talks asking people not to go in, accusing the Forum organizers of being anti-Semitic, and letters and emails, some from as far away as Israel, were sent to the Chancellor and University President to stop the talks. According to Fayazmanesh, in response to severe, ongoing pressure, the university invited Daniel Pipes to give a talk on campus for a hefty price tag of ten thousand dollars, and scheduled an investigation that could more accurately be described as an “inquisition.” Samiian and Fayazmanesh were put in the rather bizarre position of having to defend their efforts to bring education about the Middle East to the community.
After 9/11 numerous attempts were made to silence critical discourse. I came across many more cases in the course of my research, and I wonder how many more we will never know about due to the self-censoring effects of fear. This campaign strives to instill fear to stop scholars from writing and speaking about these issues, particularly Israel and Palestine. As all of my colleagues have mentioned, much of the post-9/11 public dialogue has been inherently racist, exploiting Islamophobia and fear of a dehumanized Arab/Muslim “Other.”
The consequences of these actions extend well beyond academia: vandalism of mosques, the introduction of anti-Shariah bills, job discrimination, profiling of individuals perceived to be Muslim or Arabic, and as Sunaina mentioned, the detention and deportation of “immigrant men from 24 Muslim majority countries.” Most people were oblivious, but not the Japanese Americans who stood outside the detention centers collecting names of “the disappeared” and their relatives; they remembered what it was like. The documentary film 9066 to 9/11 tells the story of their courage. Hate crimes and civil liberties violations continue; just browse CAIR’s website for the latest examples.
I close with a question: can we have this conversation in the United States today? Is the kind of “rupture in the dominant discourse” Rakhshanda argued for possible without fear? During my research last year I spoke with Jess Ghannam, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Global Health at the University of California, San Francisco. He shared his marker for academic freedom. He asks his colleagues a “very simple question. Do you psychologically feel comfortable just speaking your mind on campus?” He explained that the stress of not feeling “psychologically free to speak…colors everything, no matter what other legal protections you may have, because it takes its toll on you.” All the professors I spoke with during my research explicitly mentioned some form of psychological stress–post-traumatic stress syndrome, ostracism, fear, nervousness, self-censorship, etc. Many were worried about their children when they were attacked. No parents should have to fear for their child’s safety, or be glad their son or daughter does not have their last name because they dared to exercise their First Amendment/academic freedom rights to express scholarly, critical positions. How long will it be before we can have these conversations without fear of reprisals in some form?
Reading the dialogues by each of the fellow participants was a delightful experience, with each providing a thoughtful perspective and at its core voicing a principled opposition to U.S. domestic and global oppressive and hegemonic policies. I also want to thank Rajini for creating the opportunity for such an exchange.
As Veena suggests, Henry Luce’s imperialistic vision regarding the role of the U.S. in “spreading democracy” seems to not only be critical in U.S. policymakers’ framing of the mission of expanding the empire, it is also deeply embedded in the psyche of the nation and thus influences the mindset of people from all strata of life, including liberal academics. This was exhibited clearly in the recent exchange I observed between a white liberal academic and an Afghan female scholar on campus. During a presentation by an Afghani female scholar on the impact of war on women in Afghanistan, a liberal academic confronted her analysis for its conclusion that the U.S. forces need to leave Afghanistan. She informed the Afghani female speaker that Afghani women are definitely benefiting from the presence of U.S. forces and are very appreciative of being saved from the fundamentalists. She went on to say that this was based on her recent visit to Afghanistan and that, in her opinion, in addition to the solution of the continued presence of U.S. forces in the region to finish “democratizing” while protecting the women, the most critical issue for Afghans is the lack of education. Perhaps I don’t need to elaborate, but to give you a better understanding of her perspective, suffice to say that during her visit she stayed and toured with the U.S. soldiers. This lack of hesitation to consider the absurdity of being from the invading country and working with the invading soldiers to research and then telling an Afghani woman why she is wrong about knowing what is good for Afghani women was a small reminder of the pervasiveness of the sense of superiority and U.S. imperialistic mindset even amongst those who consider themselves liberals and feminists. In my informal conversation with the speaker afterwards, as we shared our frustration, she remarked that educating educators is the most difficult. Perhaps it is a manifestation of the point Mary makes that academia does not “exist in isolation from the broader society.” It does make a significant statement about what role education can play in unpacking the dominant discourse when educators themselves are not immune from it.
The increasing trend of censorship of voices that challenge this dominant discourse was a significantly noticeable theme throughout the writings, and in particular Mary’s research, indicating a “concerted effort to silence scholars who challenged the U.S. mainstream narrative on Israel/Palestine.” The censorship was further exemplified by the recent news of Israel having passed legislation that would target BDS activists within Israel and abroad. This is in addition to Israel having established a new military intelligence unit for tracking groups abroad and within the region which are aimed at “delegitimizing the State of Israel,” with the definition of “delegitimizing” being circular, including any and all activities that the state of Israel deems delegitimizing. These increasing efforts to define all dissenting voices as “illegal” follow Hannah Arendt’s description in her political analysis of totalitarianism in The Origins of Totalitarianism: “The first essential step in the road to total domination is to kill the juridical person in man. This was done, on the one hand, by putting certain categories of people outside the protection of the law” and by placing fascist activities “outside the penal systems.” The impact of these new laws and the significant increase in the state apparatus being to silence any challenges to the U.S./Israeli government’s agenda.
Like Sunaina, I am curious about the duplicity of the U.S. and its only “democratic ally in the Middle East” being exposed by the recent revolutions in multiple nations with former U.S.-backed dictators. I would like to end with Sunaina’s optimism and wonder if these new measures and increased attacks on activists and dissenting individuals reflect the fear due to what she sees as “cracks in the U.S. empire deepening with the revolutions” in places where previously they could rely on dictators to “suppress democracy and support occupation and colonialisms.” Perhaps the inspiration and strength from having been witnesses during these powerful times will add to the voices opposing colonialism and militarism to also “walk like an Egyptian” (as shown on a pro-resistance poster with an Egyptian defiantly walking towards a line of armed policemen).
I’m struck by many of the insights that the other participants in this dialogue have shared and very glad to be part of a discussion with such wonderful scholars, activists, and women! I think all of us seem to be trying in different ways to achieve what Rakhshanda has called a “different kind of rupture,” to challenge the dominant discourse that often seems to obscure the politics of life and death or to recreate them in its own moral, self-serving terms. Mary’s research on academic freedom is crucial, for I think that there are not just two nations under Ashcroft (or Holder) but also “two academies under AIPAC,” or the pro-Israel lobby, and it is time that the U.S. university began resisting this regime of censorship. I am not as convinced as Noam Chomsky that this period is somehow better than the McCarthy era because there is more resistance. Today, as I write this, Republican Congressman Peter King, Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has convened hearings on “radicalism“ in the Muslim American community. So would I be considered a radical or a “terrorist sympathizer” because I support the right of colonized peoples to resist ethnic cleansing or genocidal violence? Isn’t the point of a truly democratic society, if it is not simply living in an ongoing state of emergency, to not repeat its errors?
Rather, it seems to me that the U.S. state has learned that it cannot physically put people in concentration camps behind barbed wire anymore, so it encamps categories of people in its prisons with other populations that have been warehoused and confined to social death. The state has learned that it cannot call its witch-hunts “un-American” so it couches its War on Terror as a War on “bad” Muslims, not on all Muslims and certainly not the good Muslims. Veena has pointed out the ways in which a retreat from the rule of law has been accomplished through the law itself, through oppressive legal regimes that have created a culture of fear and policing and have instilled divisiveness, mistrust, and paranoia in targeted communities. There is resistance to this crackdown and surveillance, yes, but this targeting remains deeply racialized and has managed to deepen the self-censorship of critical or radical political views in the academy as well.
My concluding thought is that as young people from Tunis to Cairo and from Sanaa to Benghazi rose up to challenge decades of repression and censorship, freeing themselves from U.S.-backed dictators, commentators began to wonder if this was the beginning of an Arab and Muslim Century. I am one of those who thinks that this century belongs not to a particular group, even a formerly colonized group, but to all those who resist tyranny and the everyday violence of inequality, to those ordinary people who went up in flames so that others could have freedom, to the young men and women who walked out onto the streets one day and said to the world, We will take our freedom, and we will not leave our square of liberation till we are free, or dead.
I am inspired by the courage of my colleagues in this dialogue. In her research, Mary Hussain has played a path-breaking role in documenting the silencing of criticism in that sacred place that is the soul of any democratic nation–the University. Sunaina Maira for years has been a force, speaking truth to power–not just in her scholarship but also in her vocal support of and participation in the radical critique of the U.S. Empire. And Rakhshanda Saleem boldly hits the nail on its head in her discussion of how carving individuals out of the protection of the law is the state’s first essential step toward fascism.
I am inspired by their bravery in part because, since September 11th, I have witnessed firsthand the disastrous potential implications of critiquing the U.S. national security state. The critiques of Empire and support for oppressed peoples across the globe have the very real potential to brand activists as criminals, profoundly disrupting their professional and personal lives. And as we have learned recently, this threat isn’t as far off as it may seem.
My colleague and friend Hatem Abudeyyah and other peace activists in the Midwest who received grand jury subpoenas are currently being threatened with prosecution for “material support of terrorism” crimes. The definition of material support of terrorism, after the Supreme Court’s Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project decision in 2010, has been vastly expanded so as to include emails to individuals who may be affiliated with the U.S.’s changing list of terrorist organizations with thoughts that may amount to advice. This has had an extremely chilling effect on international aid. Several student activists whom I know and admire, collectively dubbed “the Irvine 11,” were recently criminally prosecuted by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office for disrupting, but not preventing, a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California at Irvine. One of those student activists had lost close friends and family in the assault on Gaza in January 2009–an assault that Ambassador Oren has staunchly supported, despite widespread international criticism. Another colleague of mine, Wajahat Ali, a lawyer and acclaimed playwright who wrote “Domestic Crusaders”–a play about the scapegoating of Muslim Americans since 9/11–has had FBI Special Agents surveil his talks. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the criminalization of political dissent since September 11th.
And so I’m profoundly in awe of strong voices against oppression like my colleagues in this dialogue who brave the struggle no matter the consequences. When they travel, Mary, Sunaina, and Rakshi are no doubt asked by U.S. border agents about their political and religious views. In their classrooms and talks, they may be observed by FBI informants and agents who, as of December 2008, do not need any evidence of criminal activity to open up an investigation on an individual or organization. If they do not already, Mary, Sunaina, and Rakshi may soon have intelligence dossiers on them, as did Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement, that presume them to be threats or potential threats to national security.
This kind of overboard surveillance and criminalization of dissent are not conducted illicitly, beyond the boundaries of the law. Rather, academics and activists like Mary, Sunaina, and Rakshi, who create ruptures in the dominant discourse of the War on Terror, are among those increasingly carved out of current judicial protections in order to justify the acts of violence and subjugation that are essential to imperialism. It is this carving out, this growing use of law–emboldened by a culture of fear–to exclude certain individuals with particular religious affiliations and political views from the protection of the rules that govern our society, that is most frightening and foreboding for our future. But it is Mary, Sunaina, and Rakshi–and others with the compassion and strength to speak and act the truth–who give me hope.
“Is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”