Filter +

Islam, Colonialism and U.S. Foreign Policy

Publisher: Transaction Publishers (2005)

Publisher: Transaction Publishers (2005)

You have recently gained notoriety by being listed on Campus Watch, a project of Daniel Pipes' Middle East Forum, which closely monitors academics and Middle East Departments throughout the country perceived to be critical of Israel, and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and/or Islam. What do you think the implications of these kinds of initiatives are on academic freedom in this country?

There are two rather contradictory responses, but they are both true. There are negligible or no repercussions for recognized scholars who have established their teaching and academic career long before this charlatanism emerged. Certainly in my own experience here at Columbia, there have been no repercussions whatsoever in terms of my career.

However this does not mean that I have not created a headache for my university. Especially after I organized the Palestinian Film Festival in January 2003, a three-pronged attack began to take formation. One was the intelligence arm that began to collect things about me and what I do. This was accompanied by two contradictory but complementary actions: one was the lunatic fringe who hacked my computer, spammed my email, subscribed me to obscene websites, and basically disrupted all my communications. The other was to mobilize the 'Millionaires' Club' among Columbia University Alumni, so they began to bombard the President's office, and the University Development and Alumni Relations Office, with attacks against me and what it is they thought I was doing. At official university functions such as a recent John Jay Award, an alumnus attacked my department and myself. It is a nuisance more than anything else; but perhaps it is just an occupational hazard.

For junior faculty, however, it has serious repercussions. Graduate students, those who are just beginning their career, are of course the most vulnerable. When they look at the horror that comes the way of those who remain loyal to certain political and moral convictions, it may dissuade them from doing the same.

In addition, people whose names are associated with "creating trouble" will have problems. Even the way your question is framed suggests that people acquire a certain reputation associated with political activism of a particular kind; this explains why you used the term 'notoriety'. I used to be a very respectable scholar, and I tend to think I am still a half-decent one, but my academic credentials become overshadowed by the reputation I have acquired as a public intellectual.

Ironically enough, when I speak out against the depredations of the Iranian government or any Arab government or the Indian government, I am applauded and told how courageous I am. But the minute I begin to criticize the United States and Israel in conjunction, and speculate about the relationship between these sorts of colonialism - the US in Iraq, Israel in the Occupied Territories - then I am maligned and my name is added to these websites and so on.

The other problem is that the trouble that comes my way can have a negative catalytic effect on my junior colleagues. I have extremely courageous young colleagues who put their careers on the line to speak their mind. But the fact remains that they are professionally much more vulnerable than I am.

How would you respond to widespread claims that the positions you take on the Israeli-Palestine conflict are tantamount to anti-Semitism?

I think these claims are too ludicrous to deserve a response.

I will simply respond by looking at the spectrum of political sentiments and activities of which I am a part, and those whom I count among my comrades. These include not only progressive Jewish intellectuals in this country but also the most progressive Jewish intellectuals from Israel. They are all my comrades so if I am anti-Semitic, then they are anti-Semitic as well -- which is obviously silly.

First my critics separate me from my comrades in this way; markme as a Muslim, and can then say I am a pro-terrorist, anti-Semite. I have comrades throughout the world, including and particularly in Israel. So if you place me in my natural habitat, I am with progressive intellectuals globally and in Israel, so it would be rather absurd to accuse me of anti-Semitism.

That said, I think there is anti-Semitism both in Europe and in the United States and it is an extremely dangerous factor that one has to keep in mind. We have to always be careful that a legitimate criticism of the Israeli government is not identified with that anti-Semitism.

The so-called pro-Israel lobby - I do not even believe they are pro-Israel, because their activities in the long-term will only harm the Israeli state - cannot see what Israel now represents. They cannot see that Israel over the past 50 years as a colonial state - first with white European colonial settlers, then white American colonial settlers, now white Russian colonial settlers - amounts to nothing more than a military base for the rising predatory empire of the United States. Israel has no privilege greater or less than Pakistan or Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. These are all military bases but some of them, like Israel, are like the hardware of the American imperial imagination. Some are software, like Jordan or Kuwait or Pakistan or Tajikistan. There is clearly a division of labor in the rising empire.

And who pays the price? Israeli mothers, who have lived for 50 years with perpetual war and bloodshed. The pro-Israeli ideologues live in very wealthy houses in suburban New Jersey, they have nothing to do with the miseries that Israelis have to endure. They are integral, all of them, to this predatory empire and I for one never credit them with "pro-Israeli" sentiments. I am pro-Israel, but I am against a Jewish state with the same logic that I am against an Islamic state or a Christian state. I believe in one secular state with equal rights for all its citizens. And this is bracketing out for the moment the historical fact that over the last 50 years the Israeli state has systematically, in broad daylight, swiped the land from under the feet of Palestinians.

It is clear that the formation of a Jewish state in 1948 has had a catalytic effect in the sustained rise of religious movements, not only in the Islamic world, but also with this ghastly Hindu fundamentalism in South Asia. It is wrong to attribute all religious fundamentalisms in the region to a Jewish state. The Jewish state was formed in 1948, and it was only three decades later, in 1979, that an Islamic republic was founded. I am opposed to a Jewish state in the same way that I am to an Islamic republic or a Hindu fundamentalist state in South Asia.