Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Interview: Steven Salaita, Part One

I first met Steven Salaita in February of '09 when he spoke at Alwan. He talked about his book of political essays, The Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims and the Poverty of Liberal Thought, which I subsequently reviewed for Electronic Intifada. I love the book and I wrote, " (it) 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." The topic and theme of The Uncultured Wars, the disappointing track record of US liberals in regard to orientalism and Islamophobia, is timely... but even if you have no special interest in Arab and Muslim issues this book has a lot to offer in its deconstruction of the many forms of white/western authority. An astute critic, Steve is the definition of a public intellectual in Saidean terms: That is, one whose mission is to advance human freedom and knowledge. He chatted with me via Skype from his home in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Joseph Shahadi: One of the things I really love about your book (and the reason I went to hear you speak at Alwan in the first place) is that you went after some sacred cows in critiquing US liberals, Barbara Ehrenreich, Michael Moore, Michael Lerner and Katha Pollitt among others... Why did you decide to write about liberals at a moment when we are living with an ongoing legacy of very bad things courtesy of the US Right?

Steven Salaita: Mostly because US liberals, to be frank, had been annoying me for some time in terms of their approach not only to Arabs and Muslims but to the global south more broadly. By reading their work closely, it became clear that many US liberals are part of the same apparatus that produces the very bad things they like to attribute solely to the right. If political thinkers just sit around criticizing and piling on the right, then we miss some really important ways to analyze empire, economics, race, and so forth.

Joseph Shahadi: I agree with you but let me play the devil’s advocate for a moment...

Steven Salaita: Please do.

Joseph Shahadi: What would you say to someone who argues that the US Right is more dangerous to Arabs and Muslims (and the Global South more broadly) than the Left because of their trademarked brand of religion ‘n guns?

The "attack Christians", if you will.

... As opposed to liberals who are well intentioned, if not always perfect in terms of execution (no pun intended).

Steven Salaita: I would say that these "attack Christians" are indeed dangerous to Arabs and Muslims, but only in a distinct, limited sense. Let me try to draw out what I mean: Yes, (for example) it's much more likely that a Christian Zionist will support a policy that is genocidal vis-à-vis the Palestinians, say. But if we limit our critique to that Christian Zionist, we will also miss all types of other useful points of analysis. For instance, people get bombed in other parts of the world--Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, etc.--because the US government is beholden to the interests of a very small financial elite, not to liberals, and not to "the people," whatever that means.

This reality is much more dangerous to those who are colonized or otherwise oppressed.

Joseph Shahadi: What are some of the liberal parallels to that Christian Zionist?

Steven Salaita: Lots of liberals support Israel. They sound nice about it, and give some B.S. overtures about a vague "two-state solution" here and there, but in the end their loyalty is to Israel as an ethnocentric state. They may disagree with Christian Zionists on every other issue (unlikely), but on this issue they are in basic agreement. That's why liberal Zionist organizations work with Christian Zionists and cater to them. So, if you're a Palestinian living under Israeli occupation, does it matter whether your oppression is being supported by a liberal or a religious zealot? Of course not. The Palestinian needs the boot to be removed from her neck.

The point, anyway, is that if we care about justice we need to criticize anybody who is facilitating injustice, regardless of political orientation, party, religion, or nationality.

Joseph Shahadi: The reason I ask about your practice of questioning the liberal left is that it seems that the Democrats are so busy in-fighting that they cannot present a united front against the Conservative movement, which gets nuttier by the day... So I want to be clear: you are suggesting that it is always better to hold even your putative friends accountable for their racism, ethnocentrism etc. even when the conservative right is more or less unified in their antipathy for you/us?

Steven Salaita: Well, now that you put it this way... yes. This isn't a universal rule, I don't suppose, but in the end when my putative friends are working and profiting from the same system that my explicit enemy exploits, then it’s the system I have to attack. I'm not interested in rowing with one paddle. Anyway, if we take your metaphor (a good one, by the way) to its logical conclusion then I'd say that in the end my putative friends would take the side of my enemy when push comes to shove. My friends are those who care about other human beings more than they do about preserving the trappings of some benign-sounding ideology.

Joseph Shahadi: That is a great summary of the main theme of your book.

Steven Salaita: Thank you.

Joseph Shahadi: Of course Palestine/Israel is a perfect example of this push-comes- to-shove phenomenon, so is Palestine a limit-case for you in re: to "First World" racism/colonialism/imperialism?

Steven Salaita: I try not to limit myself to Palestine as a continual litmus-test, but it just happens to be the issue by which people's real commitments are exposed. I remember when I was at UW-Whitewater a few years ago. A group of activists brought a divestment resolution to the faculty senate. It was quite a good resolution, too.

Now, the folks in Wisconsin--the academics, anyway--fancy themselves proudly progressive, and in many ways they are. When the resolution came to the senate, I showed up in support of it, of course. It was a no-brainer to me. Israel is breaking tons of international laws and mistreating people. It is therefore in accordance with the university's mission statement to divest from companies that aid and abet such human rights abuses. Yet when I got there, I saw half my department--loud progressives, all--speaking against the resolution. One of the activists, Mohammed Abed, told one of them, who had said he's against the occupation, "If you're really against the occupation, then why don't you do something about


This question, needless to say, went unanswered.

This is one of many cases in which people's stated viewpoints don't at all match what they're actually willing to do when the time comes to act, even in completely tepid and nonviolent ways.

Joseph Shahadi: I have also found this to be so.

Steven Salaita: Yes, it happens all the time. That's why I never believe the poll numbers liberal Zionists and some misguided Palestine activists like to cite about support for a resolution to the conflict.

Joseph Shahadi: When you and I met I was a guest correspondent at Racialicous. I'd been a regular commenter and was invited to contribute articles. Despite the fact that the site covered a wide range of racial and ethnic struggles (macro and micro) from all over the world, at a certain point I became uncomfortable with the overwhelming silence about Israel… And I wasn’t alone in that feeling. But when any of the Arab or Muslim members of the community brought it up we were loudly shouted down by 1) Aggressive male Zionists who suddenly overran various threads and made it impossible to continue…

Steven Salaita: [nodding vigorously]

Joseph Shahadi: …and/or 2) passive aggressive female Zionists who announced suddenly that they "Didn't feel safe"... my least favorite way to control a conversation...

Needless to say these tactics worked. Every. Single. Time.

So I suggested that the commenting policy on the site be amended to include a statement of support for Palestine, or at least to provide a check on Zionist bullying that prevented any real discussion of the issue. The commenting policy at Racialicious is comprehensive, going beyond even "racial" categories and encompassing things like LGBT friendly language, which I totally support as a necessary corrective to establish ethical guidelines for conversation. So it's not as if what I suggested was unprecedented.

And they said no. Flat out.

Steven Salaita: That's a shame. I'm actually finishing up a book on what I think is the same topic: how Zionism has entered into the spaces of convivial multicultural dialogue. So to criticize Zionism--an ethnonationalist movement, for fuck sake--is somehow to be apportioned into some bizarre radical stance that is outside the boundaries of respectability. But such a move is ultimately problematic, possibly dangerous. It relies on a conflation of Zionism with Jewish culture. It's never good when an ethnic/religious culture is conflated with the actions of a nation-state, particularly one as aggressive as Israel.

Joseph Shahadi: And/or there is a cultivated ignorance on the topic as in, "well I don't know enough about it to offer an opinion..." What's to know?

Steven Salaita: I think that rationale is a stand-in for fear, or at least it is very often. The best way to lose one's liberal base of support is to criticize Israel too strongly. Or, hell, to criticize it at all.

Joseph Shahadi: There is a vague notion that Zionism IS Judaism, which is ridiculous. That's like saying communism is the same as Cuban ethnic identities: one is a political philosophy and the other is a religious and ethnic identity...

Steven Salaita: Exactly. But that's where ethnonationalism leads us. Ultimately, it's about who acts and how he or she acts. Any asshole can sound like a humanist.

Joseph Shahadi: I left Racialicious because they wouldn't commit one way or another--I said "If you support Israel at the expense of Palestine you ought to say so... you have a lot of Arab and Muslim readers who should know where you stand" But they refused... And then after I left the editor told me they were planning to ban me anyway. Like, "You can't quit, you’re fired!" Since the pieces I wrote for them on a whole range of topics were popular, while the aforementioned Zionists contributed nothing to the community beyond obstruction, and violated its decorum with impunity, the only real justification for asking me to leave was my open support of Palestine.

Steven Salaita: Being banned for opposing Zionism. We should start a club. We could get thousands of members in a day, unfortunately. I don't generally read Racialicious, mainly because I followed a debate there once about Zionism and came away disappointed. But there is an important broader issue here, and that's how Zionist activists have so effectively positioned Zionism and Israel as proper objects of multicultural decorum. In many ways, we can say that Zionists have colonized multiculturalism, and so in spaces that celebrate racial diversity and such, there's very often an ostensible "Jewish" presence that in reality is a Zionist presence. At the very least there isn't often any type of Palestinian presence.

Joseph Shahadi: Have you experienced any lasting professional consequences for being outspoken? About Palestine, or anything?

Steven Salaita: No I don't think I’ve dealt with any negative professional consequences. I've been lucky. I work hard. I say what I need to say. My colleagues generally leave me be, and I afford them the same courtesy. I can make lots of guesses about repercussions (on the job market, for instance), but I have no evidence to prove my suspicions.

Joseph Shahadi: One of my oldest friends, a black guy who is a journalist, had a difficult period professionally about ten years ago. He was stuck and he couldn't figure out why. So I asked

him, do you think any of the resistance you are experiencing is racial? And he said, "I try not to think about that question because there is nothing I can do about it. I can’t be less black."

Steven Salaita: That's true. I try not to think about it. I guess we just try to control what we can control. The problem is that these realities compel people to be silent about all sorts of terrible things in the world. Academe has always been that way, though. People of color are denied tenure all the time because their work isn't "rigorous" or "theoretical" enough, a coded way of saying that they're too interested in producing writing that matters.

Joseph Shahadi: And God forbid, you try to cross campus without your ID visible or get into your office after hours...

Steven Salaita: (pause)… Sorry, got my cat crawling all over my keyboard.

Joseph Shahadi: Ha. My dog is So Profoundly Asleep at my feet. He could not be less interested in this conversation.

Steven Salaita: Aaah, Rocket. I know him from your blog. My cat isn't so cerebral right now.

Joseph Shahadi: Yes, Rocket is very famous.

Have you had any blowback from your book? You go after some pretty big names...

Steven Salaita: No, I haven't. People ask me that often, expecting that the answer will be "yes." I thought for sure I'd get some blowback. I think I haven't for two main reasons: the liberal-left that I criticize seems to be obsessed with the far right and pretty much blows off what they consider to be the fringe left (though I honestly don't know where I belong on this political spectrum); and because very few people, all things considered, have read it. It's not the sort of title that ends up at the local Borders.


Steven Salaita: Ha! And give the poor bastard some blowback already.

Joseph Shahadi: Exactly, we want to see you trying to get a word in edgewise on Hardball.

Steven Salaita: I'm sure Rachel Maddow would adore me.

Joseph Shahadi: If you get to go on Maddow I am your roadie. I called it.

Steven Salaita: It's yours.

Joseph Shahadi: I'll go on ahead of you and say stuff like "Steve needs a mineral water!"

Steven Salaita: And eucalyptus tea. (I don't know what that is, but it seems like something a media celebrity should drink.)

Joseph Shahadi: Exactly.



  1. great interview. I most especially agreed with the part about Racialicious and those pro-Zionist supporters... really f--king ridiculous.

    To diss Israel is a taboo in American society.

  2. Thanks so much, DIMA. Next time you're in Virginia you must stop by for some eucalyptus tea and civilized conversation (the kind that involves savaging Zionism, of course).

  3. Awesome interview! It's so refreshing to see Arab American intellectuals who challenge the status quo. The liberals and the Left alike espouse a kind of racism that is too masked for the ordinary person to detect, and it is important for us to keep calling them out. I'm looking forward to the second part.

  4. I liked that you brought up Racialicious. It is a prime example. I dont think they act the way they do because they dont see the problems with Israel and Zionism, I think it is nothing short of moral cowardice.

    They know that to make a stand against Israel, even if it is consistant with their own stated goals, would cause major issues for them. At least one of the people there uses the blog as sort of a platform for their business, so it is financial as well.

    I guess it is a good thing such moral cowardice did not win out in the civil rights movement in the USA. I really, really dislike people like this.

    They are happy to grandstand but when it comes down to it, to the core values and put up or shut up time.....not only do they shut up, they'll go out of their way to shut others up as well!

    I was banned there at one point, until enough of a fuss was made that I was let back in. Of course my position was attacked there all of the time because I am a white guy, never mind I am married to an Arab, a convert to Islam and have bi-racial children. I really feel that the moderators there let me be treated in a way that they would have let no one else be treated because of my support for the Palestinians.

    I am not friends with anyone who runs that blog so I can say it openly and factually. The people who run that blog are hypocrits. Their moral cowardice on this issue makes their moral stands on other issues moot.