Book review: Orientalism and Islamophobia in the American left

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.

Joseph Shahadi is a Brooklyn-based performance artist and scholar. A 2004 winner of the Performance Studies Award, he is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Performance Studies at New York University. He blogs about the relationship of culture to politics at VS the POMEGRANATE (

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