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Contesting Narratives, Locating Power (Lund Conference)

The Social Relations of Islamophobia and the Role of the Academic

[image from unknown archive] [image from unknown archive]

 The events since December have clearly overthrown the putative assumptions and indeed Orientalist and Islamophobic paradigms regarding the Arab world outside of the Academy. Arabs “in the street” themselves put a bullet in the skull of Orientalism (not to say that its zombie corpse will not arise more dangerous than its Frankenstein father). Certainly, among the many beautiful accomplishments of the Tunisians, Egyptians, Bahrainis, Yemenis and Syrians has been the destruction thoroughly of the retrograde paradigms of Arab lethargy, extremism, complacency, and rentier state mentality. If the people in the streets have confirmed how Islamophobic paradigms are political, American media, politicians and pundits have demonstrated how these paradigms are entrenched within American culture itself.

These revolutions were one more method of stripping ideological myths, Islamophobia among them. In other words, the uprisings have shown how Islamophobia is one twine that interweaves and binds neoliberalism, authoritarianism (in its various forms), privatization, food security, suppression of civil liberties, US political and economic imperialism, and the occupation of Palestine with local elites, autocracies, Western powers, and international financial and political institutions. In other words, the events since December indicate to us that mass movements express a social relation to a systemic order that involves globalized capitalism, state power and US Empire.

The visceral reactions of many commentators and politicians reveal the racial and class anxiety provoked in white supremist mainstream American culture by brown people empowering themselves. Therefore, Islamophobia itself speaks to particular social relations that characterize power, economy and race in the unipolar world but arise from white privilege and capitalist order in the United States. 

The role of the academic has been to negotiate the social relations that Islamophobia perpetuates even if the academic seems to be critical of these social relations. Academics, by and large, mediate the social and political transformations in Southwest Asia and North Africa as to alleviate the class and racial anxieties generated by autogenetic self-empowerment of brown people.

Indeed, even the most progressive area specialist domesticates for the mainstream media, and concomitantly US civili society, the racial and political contradictions inherent within US academic, popular and political culture. In our roles of progressive scholars of the field, we  interpolate for the mainstream (if not liberals and other progressives) the challenges to global order and assure them that brown revolutionaries are not a threat to US white privilege.

The absence of a vanguardism in mass movements should do more than confront the theory that political change is the result of hierarchical organizing. It should also force academics to reflect on their own social relations and the social relations of their topic vis-à-vis the power structure that perpetuates the discussion of Islamophobia, democracy, the US role in SWANA.

The popular uprisings should help re-set what is relevant in the classroom by forcing us to devise a “revolutionary pedagogy” rather than a pedagogy of revolutions that positions academics simply as reproducers of knowledge, privilege and social, economic order. Rather than arrange our syllabi around what is preferred by the industrial-military-prison-academic complex (i.e., security, terrorism, “why they hate us,” and “how do they really think?") or to insist how “they” are people too, academics should devise a plan of non-compliance with structures, actors, institutions and discursive constructs that facilitate the reproduction of American Empire both home and abroad.

The act of non-compliance fits into a larger revolutionary pedagogy in many ways. It involves refusing to accept aid, grants from and/or send students to work for the State Department, Department of Defense or Department of Education. It includes a refusal to talk to the mediate to “help explain what is going on in the Middle East.” It even may involve refusing to send language students to the Arab world knowing that most will work for the government upon graduation or, refusing to teach courses that involve “terrorism,” security studies or any other analytical rubric that poses Arabs and Muslims as even a mistaken threat to democracy, Western values, etc.

Furthermore, a revolutionary pedagogy would also include making the direct connections between social relations within the United States that makes US Empire understandable and, indeed, necessary in the minds of the American public. Such connections might involve revealing how the racist violence of everyday life in Black and/or Latino America is inextricable from how the US military routinely kills, beats, tortures and humiliates Arabs and Muslims in SWANA daily or collaborates with local elites to restructure economies that enfranchise oligarchies and their sycophant “middle classes.”

Perhaps the revolutions in the Arab world and Iran can spur us to ask how do we progressive “specialists” reproduce a system of knowledge, power and politics inherent to the social relations essential to American Empire and global capitalism? Perhaps we can follow the lead of those who we study (i.e make a living off of) and understand revolution as an on-going process (thawrah hata al-nasir) that involves a transformation of the functionary role of academics who ensure that exploitive social relations will be recuperated into a transformative intelligentsia who can serve change both home and abroad.


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