Thursday, February 25, 2010

Interview: Steven Salaita, Part Two

Steven Salaita

Joseph Shahadi: So you just starting writing a column at PULSE, how did that come about?

Steven Salaita: I had been in contact with M. Shahid Alam, who does lots of good writing around the web, and he suggested that I give it a try. I communicated a bit with the editorial team, all wonderful and very sharp people, and decided to give it a try. I've been very wary of the genre of blogging, but I finally overcame my Luddite tendencies. It was easy in this case, because I had been a regular reader of PULSE.

Joseph Shahadi: Why wary of blogging? Just Luddite tendencies or other reservations about the format?

Steven Salaita: A bit of both. I guess I have a bit of a fuddy-duddy attitude about writing. (Self-awareness is the first step to recovery, right?) So many blogs, even political blogs, are silly, attenuated, hasty, and ill considered. But then again, so is much of the journalism and commentary in corporate newspapers. I like to write and to read things that are carefully considered, supported, provocative. Some blogs do this well--Vs the Pomegranate, for instance--but the majority of them stink. I've realized, though, that the problem is in the act of writing and not in the format itself, for almost all genres of writing are riddled with unreadable shit.

Joseph Shahadi: Ha. Nice save Steve. Of course I agree with you. It was hard to decide to do a blog for that reason.

Steven Salaita: Yes, I can see that. But there's no doubt that blogs have changed the media landscape tremendously and they do offer people access to audiences that they wouldn't have had in the past. This seems to me an extremely important benefit.

Joseph Shahadi: I think a lot of mainstream media people read the blogs to take the temperature of the culture. So it’s a way to influence the larger conversation. But coming from academe getting the tone right is tough. Too academic and no one reads, too colloquial and you get the wrong sort of attention. Have you found it challenging in the pieces you are doing for PULSE?

Steven Salaita: Very tough. Lots of academics, even in the humanities, don't know how to write for general audiences. I get ribbed by friends and family all the time for my fancy talk. Let Orwell be our guide, I suppose.

George Orwell

Joseph Shahadi: Hey, I like that. "Let Orwell Be Our Guide". I think we just settled on the wording for my first tattoo.

Steven Salaita: Then again, Christopher Hitchens has used Orwell as his guide and look where it's gotten him.

Joseph Shahadi: ...To the bottom of a bottle of Vodka?

Steven Salaita: So far I've only done two (articles for PULSE) so it's been all good. But I am having trouble evolving into the idea of writing as part of a routine and not based on extemporaneous inspiration. That's the best thing about being part of a multi-author blog. I can be as apathetic as I want.

Joseph Shahadi: Speaking of Hitchens, lets talk about the new Euro-Atheists a minute. Part of their shtick seems to be presenting themselves as wholly rational.

Steven Salaita: I like that you use the word "shtick." It accurately describes much of what they're peddling. Actually, they're atheists who proselytize, which is funny enough, but we can talk about that later. Their idea of rationality isn't detached from history, but they pretend it is. That's their main problem. They adhere to a form of smug non-belief that comes directly from an enlightenment concept of modernity that has been terribly violent. They want to consign all violence to the religious, though. In so doing, they gloss over tons of history.

Christopher Hitchens

Joseph Shahadi: I think they are part and parcel of the current anti-immigrant, orientalist, Islamophobic hysteria that has swept Europe. But because they assume this faux- objective stance they insulate themselves from the same sort of critique that, say, the Italian food-purists get. Richard Dawkins doesn't even bother to hide his Islamophobia anymore...

Steven Salaita: No, he doesn't. And Sam Harris never tried to hide it in the first place. I saw him on TV once and thought he was remarkably stupid for somebody whose argument boils down to the belief in his own intellectual superiority (because, you know, he thinks God doesn't exist and all). Then there's Hitchens, who argues that religion leads to all kinds of irrational support for war and violence. Yes, that would be the same Hitchens that supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and is an ardent backer of American military exceptionalism. I mean, the guy disproves his own core argument. If the atheists are too damn dense to figure out that all of Hitchens's arguments about religion and war apply to his own points of view then they're not nearly as smart as Dawkins thinks they are.

Joseph Shahadi: My issue is not atheism per se but rather people who use it to 1) rewrite European history 2) cast Muslims as savage, backwards bad guys who will ruin "western civilization" unless they are stopped... and that pretty much describes all of the guys we have been talking about.

Steven Salaita: Exactly. Same here. I don't really care about anybody's level of belief or disbelief. It's not something that should really matter when it comes to working out social, political, and economic issues. (But) the atheism they promote, I'd like to add, is inherently violent, because they have an idea of moving away from religion that would erase the peoplehood of indigenous communities around the world. It's all colonial retread in the end. And boring, to boot. It's been done a million times before, by better writers.

Joseph Shahadi: We are both Arab Christians-- a population that seems to be invisible in popular discourse. There are lots of issues around that but could you talk about how Islamophobia implicates us too because of the racialization of Islam? For me, the solidarity I feel with Muslims is partly based on a general commitment to social justice and partly because Islamophobia effects me directly as an Arab. Do you feel similarly?

Steven Salaita: I feel exactly the same way and think you express some of these complexities eloquently. If we think about Islam entailing cultural norms in addition to religious obligations, then we are profoundly engaged with the cultures of Islam, which is a wonderful benefit to being an Arab Christian. I often wonder if it's possible for other communities to feel a deep belonging in two different religions the way I do (this is coming from somebody who's not at all religious, by the way). I suppose it's not unheard of, but it definitely seems rare.

Joseph Shahadi: Yes, that's it exactly. Perfect.

Steven Salaita: It also seems to me that in Islamophobia we get such a conflation of Arab culture with Muslim communities that it's impossible for anybody who is Arab not to be effected by it, whether they are Druze, Christian, Bahai, Jewish, whatever.

Joseph Shahadi: Yes, yes. It is in our self-interest to oppose Islamophobia.

Steven Salaita: A lot of folks also conceptualize Islam as the material articulation of Arab backwardness, or conversely view Arab backwardness as evidence of a dysfunctional Islam.

Joseph Shahadi: Which is ridiculous if you know even a little bit about the history of Arab and/or Islamic scientific innovations... But that's just it: most people in the west don't know even a little bit about it.

Steven Salaita: Yep. It behooves us to try our best to keep a broad view of all religious and political phenomena. But when religion is held up by imperialists and scoundrels as the basis of regional and civilizational conflict, this is what you get.

Joseph Shahadi: That seems like a great way to end. Steve, thank you so much for doing this. It was great talking with you.

Steven Salaita: Thanks, brother. Likewise. Let's do it again sometime, okay, if only for kicks. I enjoy the hell out of your insights.

Joseph Shahadi: Right back you. And definitely, yes.

Steven Salaita: Okay, salamat.

Joseph Shahadi: Talk soon. Good night.


  1. Very true-- ever since 9-11, Islam and Muslims have been racialized as one large slump of brown people. It's depressing as hell.

    secondly, I want to thank European atheists for making me grateful to be American. I never knew people could be so hateful, ignorant, and bigoted. Americans are much more open-minded and tolerant of religions, unlike many Europeans.

  2. These have been delightful to read, Joseph. Mr. Salaita's book is in my Amazon queue and I'm very much looking forward to reading it once I'm done with "A Mercy." Aaaaand I'm always happy to see gratuitous Rocket pics.

    This doesn't have anything to do with anything but...CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS' TEETH. Riveted with horror, Joe. Good gravy.

  3. @ Fiqah

    "Give us a kiss then, luv.." ::shudder::

  4. Thanks Joseph. I particularly like reading your back and forth about the issues of being Christian and Arab. I wish this viewpoint you outlined as universally understood in the Middle East and the rest of the world.