Friday, October 16, 2009

Book Review: The Uncultured Wars, Arabs, Muslims and the Poverty of Liberal Thought

I was invited to submit a review of Steven Salaita's new book, The Uncultured Wars, Arabs, Muslims and the Poverty of Liberal Thought on electronic intifada (ei). I was happy to do it, its a great book and you should go and read it. Below is a cross-post of my review:

Book review: Orientalism and Islamophobia in the American left
Joseph Shahadi, The Electronic Intifada, 15 October 2009

Steven Salaita's new collection of political essays, The Uncultured Wars, Arabs, Muslims and the Poverty of Liberal Thought exposes orientalism and Islamophobia on the American left. Salaita draws his title and premise from the notion that in the Western imagination Middle Eastern societies and people are considered barbarous and therefore essentially uncultured. It is this assumption that implicates all Arabs and Muslims in the "War on Terror" and justifies the grotesque excesses of the American right -- the expansion of presidential powers, the attendant decrease in civil liberties and the legalization of torture. But Salaita argues that this discourse also has currency on the left and over the course of 13 essays he targets liberal icons like Barbara Ehrenreich, Michael Moore, Michael Lerner and Katha Pollitt among others, for their anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia. Salaita characterizes his book-length engagement with these thinkers -- and the "chattering and intellectual classes" (2) they represent, whose liberal politics usually exempt them from such critiques -- as his emergence into the uncultured wars.

While the demonization of Islam and anti-Arab racism on the right is often blatant and easily identified, progressive expressions are more subtle, and rely as much on lies of omission as rhetorical bluster to make the same case. This is a strategy Salaita defines as "the act of professing liberal political viewpoints through the partial use of illicit racism as an unacknowledged rhetorical device" (53). For example, he notes the curious adoption of the passive voice among liberal commentators, as when Barbara Ehrenreich writes, "unknown numbers of [Afghan] civilians... managed to get in the way of [our] bombs and bullets, earning us the lasting enmity of their survivors" (17). The self-sustaining model of violence suggested by Ehrenreich and others omits both the history of colonial intervention into the Arab and Islamic worlds and the contemporary military policies of the United States and Israel. Ironically enough the subtext here, that Arabs and Muslims are fundamentally violent and irrational, while the US and Israel only use military force strategically, is about white supremacy, a philosophy that presumably liberals like Ehrenreich would find repulsive under other circumstances. Not so in relationship with the "War on Terror," which she "with great reluctance and foreboding" agreed with former US President George W. Bush needed to be launched (17). Salaita is especially contemptuous of the liberal value of "tolerance" which allows white liberals to express general displeasure without truly disrupting a power structure that benefits them as well. It is this "smokescreen" which he argues allows "liberals and progressives to be sufficiently critical of the United States and Israel while upholding the longstanding assumptions that relegate Arabs to the status of subhuman -- and more important, safeguard white privilege ..." (21).

Israel's brutal bombing of Lebanon in 2006, which was framed in the American media as an act of self-defense rather than military aggression, provides Salaita with a prime example of his thesis. Zionist pundits like Alan Dershowitz predictably argued that aggression was an essential Arab trait while Israeli military action, such as the devastation it was visiting upon Lebanon, was a sad duty, despite unfortunate photographs of delighted Israeli schoolchildren writing racist messages on about-to-be-launched missiles. However, Salaita traces this same premise through editorials in The Nation, The New York Times and The Washington Post, concluding that "anti-Arab racism generated on the right finds its way subtly into political analyses on the left" (12). During the 2006 bombing, the Lebanese point of view was entirely omitted in favor of the Israeli one, a rhetorical strategy that reduces complex social and political phenomena to cartoonish simplicity: good guys vs. bad guys.

As a fair-skinned Arab Christian and not incidentally a professor of English, Salaita has a level of social invisibility and access that often grants him a front row seat to the peculiarities of white liberal rhetoric. He writes with grim wit of attending a faculty function for "distinguished" (read: rich) alumni which was -- with the notable exception of himself, a single African American colleague who left quickly, and a four person catering staff -- wholly white. As the evening progressed a conversation about Evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell culminated with the suggestion, heartily seconded by laughing liberals, that the best way to neutralize the conservative pundit would be if he were discovered in a hotel room "with a black boy" (27). In other words, for the white liberals who wished to end Falwell's career, on balance the sexual molestation of a child of color seemed an acceptable price to pay. This logic depends on an understanding of the theoretical boy as not quite human, but doubly objectified, first by a predatory fantasy Falwell and second by the cocktail-sipping liberals willing to use him to silence the infamous preacher.

Salaita succeeds brilliantly at deconstructing the hypocrisy of such scenes, making clear that liberal politics are no guarantor of empathy. He writes, "Most white liberals have a remarkably difficult time identifying with the subjects of their sympathy" (165). Salaita argues this difficulty is especially acute when the subjects are Arabs or Muslims, whose lived experiences are so often disregarded in favor of racist caricature. However, to insist that Arabs and Muslims are more complex than their barbarous stereotype suggests is to become "uncultured" in Salaita's terms, a victim of white liberal sanctimony. And the key difference between neoconservative anti-Arab and Muslim hatred and its liberal parallel is that the former is openly hateful, while the latter maintains a compassionate pose while reinforcing damaging stereotypes.

In one of the most affecting essays in this collection, "I was called up to commit genocide," Salaita affirms his identity as a Palestinian Christian to disrupt the claim to authority of Christian Zionists who cite biblical justification for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. However, he is conscious of the trap inherent in using Christian identity to advocate for Palestine, namely the risk of further defamiliarizing the majority of Arab Muslim voices in the West. If the impression of legitimacy that Arab Christians convey in the West is based on familiarity, then that is not the same thing as actual legitimacy, especially when it depends on the continued suppression of Muslim voices. This conundrum, in which the simple act of describing oneself in religious and/or cultural terms becomes complicated because of the powerful perceptions of those outside the community, is a quintessentially Middle Eastern problem. Salaita writes, "with Arabs this problem is acute because we exist in political colloquy as characters, never narrators ... [But] we too deserve the courtesy of telling our own cultural and historical stories" (165).

The Uncultured Wars is a worthy contribution to a tradition of works by Arab American essayists, a distinguished company that includes Joseph Massad, Elmaz Abinder, Diana Abu-Jaber, Edward Said and others. Its theme is timely, as the shift to the left that swept Obama into office has rendered less tangible benefits than were originally hoped for. The Obama Administration has resisted calls to prosecute the members of the previous administration for war crimes, backpedalled on closing Guantanamo Bay and instead proposed its own system of "preventive detentions," escalated war in Afghanistan and, of course, remains as blindly committed to Israel as George W. Bush ever was. In other words, in material terms the overwhelming victory of American liberalism has not effected much change for Arab and Muslim Americans. While it is too early to make any definitive judgments about this presidency it is clear that situating Arab and Muslim American concerns between the right and left does not offer the clear-cut results one might assume. With this book, Steven Salaita offers a corrective and a warning about the capacity of white liberal altruism to victimize, especially when its intent is to affirm the superiority of its own worldview.


  1. Wow, great review. Seldom do I buy a book based on a review, but I most certainly will this time.

    This book covers a topic that is glaringly obvious to us in the Arab/Muslim community of the West, yet is so seldom talked about.


  2. Being a left Australian (a socialist) I gag when I hear American liberals being called the American left. It is a misnomer. Unless they have a critical view of capitalism and imperialism then they have no right to be called left. It is because of this shortcoming that they express the views mentioned above.
    For me American liberalism = poverty of thought.

  3. @Abu Sinan
    You are right, the essentially conservative nature of US politics is rarely acknowledged--that is one of the reasons I think this book is so timely. I think Arabs and Muslims get a first-hand look at the disparity between American liberal rhetoric and deep-seated Orientalist and Islamophobic hatreds they camouflage. You should definitely read Steve's book: he really breaks it down...

    I can imagine how you must roll your eyes to hear a phrase like "American left"... I was just saying yesterday that when I was Reagan-era teenager I thought the US was so conservative that would suffocate under the weight of it. And now I long for those days. The drift to the right this country has undergone since then happened at such a basic level that even so-called liberals are caught in its pull. They think nothing of (a la Bill Maher--a US liberal pundit/comedian) making the most outrageous generalizations and outright misstatements about Arabs and Muslims and fail to see how that conflicts with their liberal values. Its sickening.

  4. Oh Oh, I offer a comment with some trepidation and fear over how what I actually say, might be conflated with what it is I must believe and/or what I say "really" means. As an American jew married to a Palestinian Muslim woman, and as a non-supporter of Israel as a legitimate state and arguing always that notions of moral/ethical superiority on behalf of Israel and the west, that statements about democracy and respect for human rights, by Israel and the west, etc., are absurd, I also find myself tired by sectarian and divisive ways of looking at the world. There are important many issues raised by Steven Salaita and included in your review, but failure to allow criticism of the arab polity, or the behavior of individuals or groups, at the risk of being labelled an anti-arab orientalist, is lame. Being branded, constantly and idiotically, a self-hating jew, has made me well-recognize the rhetorical weakness in disagreeing with something one says and then, instead of discussing it directly and openly, accusing the speaker of anti-arab prejudice and an essentially white supremist point of view (either intentional or hidden). I don't presume to know Barbara Ehrenreich's or Michael Moore's feelings and beliefs about arabs, muslims, white and non-whites, etc., but I would be extremely reluctant to paint them to broadly based on the comments you reference.

    As a final comment, the quote about "the chattering and intellectual classes" and Des' statement about Australian socialism and the American left seems interestingly connected - is Des an example of the chattering and intellectual classes? How does the Australian socialist, view the conservative islamic elements, governments and groups in the arab middle east who are legitimately fighting against colonialism and occupation but also incontrovertibly against gender equality and much else that an Australian socialist presumably supports?

  5. @Anon
    I can understand why you'd be reluctant to offer your comment: Frankly, I am always suspicious whenever anyone tries to steer conversations about orientalism and Islamophobia toward social conditions in Middle Eastern cultures. Apples and oranges my friend.

    The topic of The Uncultured Wars is the US American left. If you want to read about, say gender in the Middle East then you'll need to read a different book than this one, which is not about that. (Saba Mahmood's Politics of Piety is good though, if that is your interest.)

  6. Sorry Joseph, but I don't understand your response as anything specific to what I wrote. I thought I asked a straightforward and direct question which was this - What evidence is there that Barbara Ehrenreich and Michael Moore, for example, are either "islamophobic" or "orientalist"? I am also asking the following:

    1. Who is permitted to offer critical comments about the contentions made by S. Salaita or you? If I have ideas, comments, questions or criticisms, other than what you or anyone believes relevant, on point or whatever, and especially if I am white or non-arab or Italian or liberal, can my voice be at least as significant as yours or must I be considered lesser?;

    2. Are any and all critical comments made by what is being termed white liberals, chattering intellectuals, etc. by definition then, racist, islamophobic, orientalist? Again, who is permitted to join the conversation in that case?;

    3. Do you mean to say that if there is a legitimate liberation struggle going on - as I believe is the case in Palestine against Israel - no criticism of the way that struggle is carried out can be heard without branding those doing the criticism in the terms used herein? We live in an all or nothing world? Once a wrong has occurred and people are suffering, living under occupation, have been tortured, terrorized and diminished, they can strike out as they see fit, they can advocate and institute their own impossibly repressive and repugnant ideas and institutions, without facing any criticism from the "outside" and, if criticized from the inside those critics can be labeled traitors and collaborators and imprisoned, tortured and killed? Nice system;

    You know, Joseph, as one who constantly hears that I am anti-semitic (i.e. against the jewish semites) for my criticisms of Israel (I don't think the establishment was legal, justified or morally/ethically acceptable; I don't think Israel's behavior or actions have been acceptable; I think the Israeli government, military and nation is guilty of human rights abuses, terrorism, murder, etc.; I believe that there should not be, anywhere in the world a "religious state" - this is by it's very nature an anti-democratic, anti-rational concept; and I think there should be a one-state solution in which Palestinians, jews, muslims, arabs, should all live together in what would be called Palestine - this would obviously mean that there would be a jewish minority and Palestinian/Arab/Muslim majority - good.) But, I don't think that my advocacy of such a position fairly characterizes me as anti-Jewish and it is both tiring, intellectually simplistic and, more critically, unfortunately divisive (thereby ensuring a continuing spiral of death and destruction - mostly experienced by the arab/Palestinian side), to hear from anyone that critical comments, questions and thoughts, must be a reflection of bigotry, or ignorance or hidden islamophobia or white, chattering intellectualism (I mean, really now, aren't PhD's/university professors/scholars/performance artists, etc. the very definition of the chattering intellectual class? - white or non-white, but still chattering intellectuals indeed?) prejudice, etc. Finally, to the extent that this characterization might in any case be true, it is true of the human condition - so I guess self-reflection and self-criticism is in order for us all, including book writers, reviewers, performance artists and scholars, European jews, Palestinian muslims, arab christians, blah, blah, blah.

  7. @Anon
    Perhaps we are speaking past each other. So let me answer your points as you have raised them:

    1) This book is a collection of political essays so Salaita does not offer "evidence" of the anti-Arab and Muslim prejudice of various American Liberal icons (Ehrenreich, Pollitt, Moore, etc.)in the legal sense. Rather he offers insightful political analysis of their comments in post 9/11 America. Some of which are, frankly, shocking in their similarity to those made on the American right. I agree with Salaita that this is a phenomenon worth noting. If you have specific questions about the examples he cites, I refer you to his book.

    2) I am not in a position to grant you "permission" to do anything. You are a free person and can offer criticism of me or anyone as you see fit. However, that doesn't mean I'll publish it on my blog. I have been allowing your comments because I think this exchange is instructive. I am not sure why you are defensive... perhaps you feel implicated in the language of my review and stung by my (or Salaita's) conclusions? If so, that seems worth talking about.

    3) I am making no argument whatsoever about the relationship between occupation/colonialism and social, cultural and/or religious conventions that do not mirror my personal values. And neither is Salaita. He is writing about the political terrain of the United States, not the Middle East--and that is what I responded to in my review.

    And really, what would be the point of including that element in a dissection of the way American Liberal values are played out re: the peoples of the Middle East? The implication is that only people whose values align with our own deserve to NOT be singled out for racist commentary... Would we make a similar argument about, say the African victims of genocidal violence? Of course not. Conversely, if we agree with someone's politics in general but they make racist comments should we let them go on that basis? Again: no.

    I appreciate your statements about a one state solution etc. But this book is not entirely focused on Palestine. It is rather an exploration of the orientalism and Islamophobia of US Liberals in more general terms. Palestine haunts that discussion, for reasons that should seem obvious, but it is not Salaita's main focus. If I gave that impression then that is a weakness in my review.

    While I understand your weariness with knee jerk accusations that are designed to stifle argument, I don't think that is what this book is doing. When the people who are the focus of racist discourses point them out they/we worth listening to.

  8. Joseph, I appreciate the respectful nature of the exchange, your thoughtful responses and your providing space and time for this discussion on your blog. Let me see if I can briefly (and better) summarize - I, like you, and S. Salaita (I recently listened to his interview on Progressive Radio with Matthew Rothschild and I did order his book which I will read), believe that it is critically important to think about and understand what is going on in the world and I have a special interest in the middle east; and I believe that democracy demands a progressive and critical engagement with ideas and actions.

    So, responding to your response I would say:

    1. Point well taken - I will look a little further at the Salaita's political analysis and the confluence of the American right and left and, as I said, I will read more about this;

    2. I understand your comments about "permission" to criticize and your willingness to continue dialog on your blog. As to being defensive, well I don't really feel defensive about any of this, but if I sound this way, I'll have to more carefully examine how I am expressing myself. To the extent any of us can examine ourselves, our words and our ideas, with the same critical faculty we can bring to bear on the words, thoughts and actions of others, I don't think I feel implicated by your review or by Salaita's analysis to the extent I understand it (obviously this can be a bit of a self-serving judgment but without deep discussion and review, I guess it will have to stand for now). Instead, my motivation here was to comment on what often seems to me to be a too broad-brushed criticism of those not toeing a very fine line, staining them with the labels "racist" "islamophobic" "anti-semitic" "terrorist", etc. with less than sufficient reason. Perhaps that is not happening here, and I that I responded a bit more harshly than I should have, but it struck me that way at first; if I am wrong, please accept my apology. I will think further about this;

    3. No argument with your 3rd response; and

    I firmly believe that identifying injustice, understanding racist and islamophobic writing and speech and fighting against such ideas is critically important. I think it is our special duty to speak out when repressive and regressive ideas and actions are expressed by those who seem to be your allies and supporters (perhaps this is part of what framed Salaita's essays) and we also are obligated to focus on the actions and behaviors of our own country in perpetuating negative imagery, violence and social injustice against any people.

    Thanks for your forebearance.


  9. @Jerry
    No problem, as I said, I think the things you have raised are worth discussing. The only thing I can add is that it's a double -edged sword: some people use the accusation of racism (anti-semitism/Islamophobia etc.) as a way to stigmatize and therefore silence others... and there are others who are instantly dismissive of such charges as way to do the same thing.

    There is no formula I think. It's complicated.