Campus Watch: Interview with Prof. Hamid Dabashi

A montage of Columbia University Prof. Hamid Dabashi (center), Daniel Pipes (on TV monitor), and MSNBC host Phil Donahue (right), debating the implications of the Campus Watch site. (EI)

Following the launch of “Campus Watch”, a new Daniel Pipes project to monitor the views of Middle East Studies lecturers on campuses, EI’s Nigel Parry interviewed academic Hamid Dabashi about how he felt to be one of the professors on which a “dossier” had been opened.

On 29 September 2002, EI noticed that the “dossiers” appear to have been removed from the Campus Watch website, although the basic content and aims of the site remain unchanged.

Nigel Parry: Were you aware of this website prior to this message? If so, how?

Hamid Dabashi: Yes I was. I first heard of it when a reporter from the Chronicle of Higher Education called me and said I was on it. He subsequently wrote a piece exposing it.

Nigel Parry: What are your initial feelings about the project?

Hamid Dabashi: Nothing really. My reputation as a teacher and a scholar over quarter of a century was not made by a dossier to be threatened by a dossier. I have received more moral support and endorsement of my career as a teacher and a scholar over the last couple of weeks than ever before.

Mr. Pipes has asked my students to spy on me and report to him. He is a bit late. My students have been ‘spying’ on me in the sweetest and most precious way ever since my teaching career began. If you go to Columbia website there is a page called CULPA that Columbia students have put together years before failed academics like Daniel Pipes sought to take revenge on institutions of higher learning that deny them access. On that site the students rank the best professors that no one at Columbia should miss. They have a special section they call “GOLDEN NUGGET.” Mr. Pipes should check that page. My students have been “spying” on me. I wonder if he would add their comments to my “dossier.”

This is not to prove that I am a good teacher. This is to point out that within universities there are built in mechanisms of assuring the quality of our teaching and scholarship, ranging from the opinions and judgments of our students to promotions decisions made regularly about our academic career by our senior colleagues. None of these points, however, are known to Mr. Pipes and his cronies because they have never had a half decent teaching career in any respectable institution.

The important issue though is not our academic records, which speak for themselves. The issue is the centrality of academic freedom that is critical to free and open exchange of ideas. Preparing “dossiers” on scholars is cyberspace McCarthyism of monstrous proportions. Mr. Pipes is either historically illiterate or has an astoundingly distasteful choice of words. “Dossier” is something that the Gestapo prepared on German Jewish intellectuals. Inadvertently, he has raised me and my other friends and colleagues to the status of such giant German Jewish Intellectuals as Walter Benjamin, Theodore Adorno, Edmund Husserl, Max Scheler, and Hannah Arendt. I have no objection to that extraordinary honor.

Nigel Parry: Have you noticed any monitoring on your campus? Have other faculty reported any such monitoring?

Hamid Dabashi: No I have not. But obviously Mr. Pipes has managed to generate lots of publicity for himself and his associates, all otherwise failed academics who have no scholarly credentials to recommend them. This whole exercise is a massive propaganda stunt to create credibility for discredited think-tankers by attacking established scholars. I have never met the man or read a word he has written, and until tonight when I saw him on MSNBC where I was asked to respond to his website I had never laid eye on him. But after his attacks on me started some of my students tell me that he has in the past reviewed some of my books very favorably and quoted my other books approvingly. It seems to me an astonishing sign of charlatanism that now he portrays me as a suspicious professor when he has used my scholarship in the past to claim legitimacy for himself.

Nigel Parry: Do you feel this will affect academic freedom on campus? How?

Hamid Dabashi: Most definitely. It preempts the possibilities of civilized dissent, civil discourse, and public debate. We live in an increasingly dangerous world. More than ever before our civil liberties are in danger, as is indeed the global peace. Mr. Pipes has joined force with warmongers who want to silence any voice of dissent. They will not silence me. I live in this country. My children were born and raised in this country. Daniel Pipes and his cronies are chiefly responsible for atrocious demonization of Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, and Palestinians in particular, as if we are all strangely shaped mushrooms grown under some ugly tree with guns and daggers in our fists. People near and dear to me, whether they live in downtown Manhattan, in Kandahar, in Ramallah, in Jerusalem, or in Baghdad, are at the mercy of US foreign policies. I have a moral duty in being party to voices of civilized dissent against this horrific environment of fear, violence, and intimidation that the likes of Daniel Pipes want to perpetuate so that only their views are heard. If anything, I am more determined to speak my mind. But I do worry about my younger colleagues and about our students, our Jewish students in particular, and the effect of the poisonous environment that this website has already generated on our campuses.

Prof. Hamid Dabashi talks about his disgust at what Campus Watch represents on Phil Donahue’s show on MSNBC. (EI)

Nigel Parry: Have you experienced pressure as a result of your views on the Middle East or any aspect of it? Has this come from the institution, faculty, students, or a mixture?

Hamid Dabashi: Not at all. The accusations of this website are so ludicrous, and the very language and diction of people like Daniel Pipes and his other associates (such as a man named Billy or Martin or Jeffery Kramer, I am not sure) are so vulgar and pitiful that they will have no enduring effect on anything. I think something extremely important is happening on our campuses. They are now turned into sites for cultivation of critical judgment for responsible citizenship in what we hope will remain a free republic. Even as late as five years ago no one would have dared stand on the steps of the Law Library on Columbia Campus and condemn the military thuggery of people like Ariel Sharon. Innocent people in Jenin, Kandahar, Shalamcheh, or Baghdad are brutally massacred and no one would have dared to condemn these acts publicly. But not anymore.

A whole culture and an entire civilization have been systematically maligned by a succession of illiterate charlatans—all the way from jaundiced orientalist like Bernard Lewis to failed academics like Daniel Pipes. They can no longer get away with it. They are now angry because they no longer have a monopoly of public forums. This is not the United States of even two decades ago. Massive labor migrations over the last couple of decades have permanently changed the demographic constitution of the US. The courageous and imaginative work of dissident intellectuals like my dear and distinguished colleague here at Columbia, Edward Said, has enabled a whole generation of defiant voices that have for ever changed the shape and vision of civil discourse and public engagement. As late as two years ago these shallow shells and empty voices thought they can force Columbia to fire Edward Said, its most glorious achievement in its entire history, its claim to fame. From every magnificent page that Edward Said has written a defiant book is now in press. These people are old, very old, in the very fabric of their claim to an intellect.

They can no longer turn their sickly mind into a battlefield between Jews and Muslims. We are Jews, we are Muslims, we are Christians, we are Hindus, and then we are agnostics, atheists, secular humanists. They cannot corner us in any angle. We fight back from another. If they brand us as Muslim fanatics we fight as Jewish intellectuals, as Christian liberation theologians, as human rights activists. Hannan Hever, Ella Shohat, Ammiel Alcalay, Gil Anidjar and tens and thousands of other Jews and Gentiles, Arabs and Israelis, Americans and Europeans, rabbis and priests, are all on our side. And on Daniel Pipes side are Fouad Ajami, Dinesh D’Souza, and Francis Fukuyama. This is not a battle between Muslims and Jews. This is a battle between those who dare to speak truth to power and those who serve it lucratively.

We have a far more serious task on our hands than wasting our time on non-entities and failed academics. We and our families and friends live smack in the middle of the most devastating military machinery in human history, which in turn generates and sustains other militant monstrosities like Ariel Sharon, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and Yasser Arafat—who sold out the aspiration of his nation to the pathetic cause of being called a “president.” As moral agents we have to fight on two fronts, both against the medieval horror of undemocratic states throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and the imperial globalization of US military might. We must categorically condemn all forms of violence, suicidal and homicidal, the more violent a violence the more emphatically it has to be condemned. Universities are integral to the public space in which we are duty-bound to engage in vital issues of our time. We will not allow that space taken away from us by failed academics who were denied access to it.

Nigel Parry: What other trends to quash free debate about the Middle East have you noted in your institution, if any?

Nothing. These people represent no trend. It is crucial to keep in mind that we are responsibly operating within the historical context of academic institutions. We are protected by the honored and enduring principles of academic freedom, which we use responsibly and judiciously as measured by criteria sacred to our profession. Outsiders who wanted but failed access to our hallowed ground would never understand these principles.

Nigel Parry: What do you think is the best antidote to this kind of project by the pro-Israel lobby?

Hamid Dabashi: I will not credit these Gestapo apparatchiks to be called pro-Israeli anything. If you credit them as pro-Israeli that would make me anti-Israeli. I am not anti-Israel. I am against the ghastly state of racism and apartheid now dominant in Israel, as are many Israelis themselves. It is extremely important not to allow these warmongers to abuse the horrific fact of Israelis’ life and predicament. It is the Israeli mothers who are paying dearly for the militant thuggery of people like Daniel Pipes who in the comfort of their suburban lives in Pennsylvania or New Jersey issue edicts as to how Israel has to behave. The so-called “pro-Israeli lobby” is an integral component of the imperial designs of the Bush administration for savage and predatory globalization, and has absolutely nothing to do with the inhuman sufferings of the Israelis. Not the Zionist state, but the Israeli people, their hopes and aspirations to live in peace, will have to be brought to the center of our collective commitment to the Palestinian national liberation movement. It is the Zionist state which has to be dismantled, not the Israelis as a people, a nation, a history, a hope to live in peace, as legitimate and historical as that of the Palestinians. it is the state of apartheid in Israel, the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, the settlement of fanatic zealots from Brooklyn on Palestinian ancestral villages, and the massacre of innocent people, Palestinian or Israelis, that have to be categorically condemned. We should never fall into the trap of charlatans who want to dictate the terms of even our dissent. We must dissent in terms domestic to our own politics, not in terms integral to their illiterate, inaccurate, and outdated language.

Nigel Parry: Other thoughts you feel are relevant?

Hamid Dabashi: The atrocious site of campus-watch.org has brought two crucial issues to the center of our collective concerns: the sacred site of our campuses and the honored principle of academic freedom, both at the service of an open and free exchange of ideas, of civilized dissent, of civil discourse, and of public debate, without which the likes of Daniel Pipes will turn our campuses to the interrogation halls of the Ministry of Information in the Islamic Republic of Iran, or its antecedent, the Gestapo headquarters of the Nazi Germany.

Related Links:

  • Campus Watch: Middle East McCarthyism? by Nigel Parry and Ali Abunimah, The Electronic Intifada, 25 September 2002.