Writing Resistance in the Age of Surveillance: A Comparative Review of Steven Salaita’s Uncivil Rites and Moustafa Bayoumi’s This Muslim American Life

Erik Wallenberg

senza-titolo-1The recent report on allegations of anti-Semitism within the CUNY system acknowledges that Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) has had nothing to do with anti-Semitism on CUNY campuses. While this is a welcome finding, the existence of the report itself exemplifies the profound Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism pervasive in the CUNY system and embedded in our society more broadly. The now routine attacks on SJP coming from the likes of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), politicians from New York City and throughout the state, and the CUNY administration itself have created a hostile environment for Arab and Muslim students and in particular for supporters of justice for Palestinians. These attacks have come mostly in response to the growing movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israeli apartheid, including the resolution in support of BDS passed last year by the Doctoral Students’ Council at the Graduate Center, and similar resolutions passed by other unions and student groups at New York University, UMASS Amherst, and many more.

Moustafa Bayoumi and Steven Salaita have each written books that put these events into the broader context of anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia that has become so common in US society today. While Bayoumi focuses on the creation of a broader ‘War on Terror’ culture promoted in the media and popular entertainment, driven by a paranoid state, Salaita’s focus is on the struggle for academic freedom and free speech especially around the question of advocating for justice for Palestinians.

As Salaita notes, his book is one of both personal and analytical essays. Thrust into a national discussion about ‘civility’ and academic freedom after being fired from a tenure track job that he had yet to start, Uncivil Rites is not only Salaita’s defense, but a full-blown argument for the right to dissent in the face of injustice. He wants his readers to understand that “oppressive institutions can never subdue the agility of mind and spirit. Humans can be disciplined, but humanity comprises a tremendous antidisciplinary force.”

Salaita draws attention to the absurdity of being fired for “incivility” for tweeting his outrage at the wholly uncivilized act of bombing an entire people, namely the 2014 Israeli siege of Gaza. He asks the obvious question of what is uncivil. In the chapter that gives the book its title, Salaita documents the process whereby he was alerted through email to the fact of his firing. And while Salaita reveals the uncivil rites he was forced to endure, he shows the far greater uncivil rites that Palestinians and others suffering under colonial occupation have borne for much longer.

Being a professor of global indigenous studies and the author of a half-dozen books on American Indians, colonialism, nationalism and more, he has a wealth of knowledge that he employs throughout the book.

Though Salaita’s book is built around the question of academic freedom, the heart of Uncivil Rites is a broader discussion about fighting for a just society. Salaita gives us a brilliant example of how the former illuminates the later. In 1960, an assistant professor of biology named Leo Koch was fired from his job for writing a letter to the school newspaper challenging repressive sexual mores. Salaita sheds light on the similarities to his case where the university president and board acted arbitrarily and against faculty governance, pressured by outside organizations and individuals, to take his job away after he tweeted critical remarks about the state of Israel’s siege on Gaza. The comparison between his case and that of Koch (among many others he discusses) turns attention to the common violation of academic freedom such that, Salaita argues, “academic freedom and free speech both inform the mythologies of the liberal state.”

Salaita exposes the struggles in the broader society that administrators and politicians are policing when they use the shibboleth of “civility” to regularly undermine academic freedom. “Ironically,” he notes, “had Koch criticized Israel in 1960, and had I condemned sexual puritanism in 2014, neither of us would have been fired.” Depending on the political moment, the state and the academy end up determining the bounds of what is acceptable to say. This is of course unacceptable to Salaita.

In the end, even though Steven Salaita won his case, received monetary restitution, and a temporary gig at American University of Beirut, his permanent appointment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was stopped. He was blacklisted. Supporting Palestinian liberation has been deemed out of bounds. One can find similar attacks across the academy, including the campaign against Sarah Schulman at CUNY’s College of Staten Island.

Salaita both digs into histories of academic freedom and free speech struggles while also telling a personal story of how these attacks turn lives upside down, create immense hardships, and destroy careers and lives. It is painful to hear his stories of people combing through every word he’s ever written looking for something to hold against him, dealing with the shame of being fired, and of detractors calling his friends, family, and colleagues to regularly harass them for information.

Salaita gives us an intimate picture of how he lived through this ordeal and had his life scoured and scrutinized. It’s hard to imagine not falling apart in the face of so much turmoil. Salaita’s done an invaluable service by giving us this inside story and showing how to take a stand against political attacks on academic appointments.

Moustafa Bayoumi achieves similar depths of insight and feeling in This Muslim American Life. About halfway through the book, we get Bayoumi’s reaction to the events of September 11, 2001. “What sustained me through it all…” he writes, “was my lecturing. I would give talks to audiences across the country on civil liberties during wartime, about torture, about Islam, about the war, and the audiences were full of people who didn’t want a murderous clash of civilizations but needed and wanted a lens through which they could understand this complicated world that they felt they had suddenly been thrust into.”

In a subtle and usefully disorienting move, Bayoumi tells us of his travels to the Arab world and having to explain that not all Americans are ignorant of or uncaring about the rest of the world. He takes on the role of showing a moderate America. “The Americans I have encountered, and continue to meet, throughout my travels have always been curious and generous.” It’s a wonderful inversion of the liberal proclamation that says ‘not all Arabs are bad people.’ It also shows how his activism sustains Bayoumi through the most difficult of moments.

But the thrust of This Muslim American Life is spent showing how the American state began policing the everyday lives of Muslims in America. Bayoumi highlights “what happens when ordinary life becomes grounds for suspicion without a hint of wrongdoing, when law enforcement premises its work on spying on the quotidian and policing the unremarkable, and when the everyday affairs of American Muslim life can so easily be transformed into nefarious intent.” The exposure of this kind of surveillance of American Muslims forced the FBI to change its training manuals, removing nearly 900 pages . It’s also the kind of spying that CUNY has supported or turned a blind eye to in the case of the Muslim Student Association and the more recent revelations of spying on the Islamic Student Organization and SJP at Brooklyn College.

This era of entrapment, carried out by Obama’s FBI spies, is centrally important for ramping up fear, specifically of brown-skinned people who may ‘appear’ to be Arab or Muslim. Bayoumi gives us the example of the top federal immigration official in Montana, Bruce Norum, who in 2011 forwarded an email chain that read “I want you to leave. I want you to go back to your desert sandpit where women are treated like rats and dogs. I want you to take your religion, your friends, and your family back to your Islamic extremists, and STAY THERE!” Bayoumi notes “this is the man who holds the power to arrest, detain, and deport immigrants in Montana.”

More centrally, there’s Michael Bloomberg who, when mayor of New York City, used the NYPD in a massive spying campaign against Muslim Americans. Bayoumi notes that we “need to recognize…that the hatred, fear, and suspicion of Muslims has seeped so effortlessly into our culture. Under the guise of common sense, the vilification of Muslims is normalized and neutralized by a broad swath of the population, including leading politicians, law enforcement officials, petty bureaucrats, and the media.” Bayoumi argues that this Islamophobia is part of the mainstream now. This is not the exception of a once fringe character like Donald Trump, but the everyday policies of the Obama administration.

Bayoumi takes us through the Bush era brashness that informed such blatantly Islamophobic shows as 24 and the justifications embedded in them for the use of torture. He compares them to the Obama era dramas exemplified by movies like Argo and others. He writes that they “illustrate in their focus on procedure an Obama doctrine of prosecuting the War on Terror in a fashion dangerously similar to that of George W. Bush but with a seemingly lighter rhetoric and a (falsely) progressive face.”

And while Bayoumi exposes how mainstream political culture justifies the building of an empire, he also shows the history of resistance to it. In particular, he’s interested in the solidarity that can be generated by those historically oppressed in the United Sates. Thinking of how to build resistance to US empire abroad and its attendant Islamophobia at home, Bayoumi looks to the history of black opposition to US empire. He quotes Frederick Douglass’s opposition to the US war on Mexico, which Douglass called “disgraceful, cruel and iniquitous.”

Black opposition to the Spanish American War saw one black editor of a magazine write, “We recognize in the spirit of Imperialism, inaugurated and fostered by the administration of President McKinley, the same violation of Human Rights, which is being practiced by the Democratic Party in the recently reconstructed States, to wit, the wholesale disenfranchisement of the Negro.” Empire building abroad it seems, has always been accompanied by the denial of rights and attacks on citizens at home.

Bayoumi argues that “War on Terror culture has meant that we [Muslims] are now regularly seen as dangerous outsiders, that our daily actions are constantly viewed with suspicion, that our complex histories in this country are neglected or occluded, and that our very presence and our houses of worship have become issues of local, regional, and national politics.” This is certainly obvious as we see Trump’s rise to national political prominence, with its attendant Islamophobia, calls for registration, detention, deportation, immigration restrictions, and turning away refugees (despite the crisis the US political class created by backing dictators and bombing its way through the Middle East and North Africa), right down to the local examples of the CUNY administration’s attacks on the MSA and SJP and the attendant Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism.

This war on terror culture is as Bayoumi states, “corrosive, not just to the legal profession but also to the national psyche. As a nation we had previously considered illegal (even if we condoned) such things as targeted killings, indefinite detention without trial, and torture. Now these actions are not only condoned but generally accepted as necessary and prudent, and they are frequently portrayed as such on television and in the movies.”

In an interview with political science professor Corey Robin, Bayoumi drew parallels to another era of state-generated fear. “Cold War culture changed the legal landscape of the country. It stoked our paranoia and drove our foreign policy. It influenced our novelists, painters, poets and filmmakers. And all of these fields—legal, political, entertainment—fed off of each other to create a broader Cold War culture. I think we see something similar operating right now, which we haven’t come to terms with.”

This Muslim American Life is inspiring and chilling in equal measure and gives a broader picture of popular culture where Islamophobia is a standard ingredient. Throughout, Bayoumi uses personal narrative to show how an Islamophobic society impinges on his daily life and how he reacts, sometimes with outrage, but just as often with humor. Uncivil Rites is similarly personal, includes a wide-ranging discussion of colonialism and racism, and is a book of intellectual history as much as a book about the attack on a life and scholarship dedicated to justice.

Both books are central to understanding our current world, where those seeking to build a movement for justice for Palestine are silenced, fired, and worse, while those promoting apartheid and Islamophobia claim to be victims. The New York Post has called for not allowing SJP groups on CUNY campus’s and the ZOA pushed hard to declare anti-Zionism the same as anti-Semitism. The ZOA was able to trigger the months-long investigation on anti-Semitism at CUNY. Chancellor Millikin, in his cover letter to the report on allegations of anti-Semitism, states that “CUNY takes seriously our commitment to creating an environment that is inclusive, free of discrimination.” Meanwhile spying, surveillance, and infiltration of student groups at CUNY–which has clearly created a hostile environment for Arab and Muslim students–has been ignored by the CUNY administration. This can hardly be reconciled with Millikin’s statement.

Unfortunately, Uncivil Rites and This Muslim American Life are becoming even more essential reading with each passing day. Salaita and Bayoumi have delivered work we need in order to better understand this world. The hope is that both of these books can become–instead of handbooks for activists today and arguments for how to change society and what needs to be changed (books of current events, as Bayoumi says of his other book, How Does it Feel to be a Problem?)–books of history. Of course hope without action is part of the problem. With Uncivil Rites and This Muslim American Life, both authors give us hope with a sense of what needs to be done and undone in order to bring another world into being.


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