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Anti-Arab Racism in the USA: Where It Comes From and What It Means for Politics Today

Ziad M. Abu-Rish
Date Published: 
February 01, 2007

While violence towards Arabs has increasingly become a central component of US domestic and foreign policies since the end of the Cold War, surprisingly little has been written about the topic of anti-Arab racism itself. Salaita’s book offers a much-needed discussion that specifically addresses anti-Arab racism and offers an analytical framework for understanding it that allows the reader to grasp its historical transformation, as well as its political context.

Salaita locates the emergence and persistence of anti-Arab racism within the broader dynamics of white supremacy. His introduction provides an important description of the evolution of white supremacy as a central component of the history and politics of US genocide, colonialism, and capitalism. He then attempts to delineate the specificities of anti-Arab racism with particular reference to the Gulf Wars, Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and the War on Terror.

The effects of September 11th on Arab-Americans are examined, with emphasis on pedagogy and literature. Here, the focus is the field of Ethnic Studies as the primary producer of scholarship on Arab-Americans, one that had only started to grapple with the dynamics of the Arab-American community in the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s. In discussing the development of the field, Salaita points out how, following 9/11, “an area study that had been exploratory immediately became too much in demand for its own good.” His focus on Ethnic Studies, as an important location from which to analyze the dynamics of the Arab community, is based on his rejection of “the notion that anti-Arab racism was formed and has evolved based solely on social features (primarily geopolitics) detectable in the interaction between Arabism and Americana.” This is perhaps one of his most important contributions to the discussion on anti-Arab racism. Instead of simplifying the issue to one that is derivative of US foreign policy, Salaita recognizes the creation of an Arab-American community and in doing so seeks to analyze anti-Arab racism as the product of a dialectic between domestic colonialism and international imperialism.

Anti-Arab racism in US academia is exposed using the speeches and writings of Daniel Pipes to show how this ignorance functions in higher education. The focus on Pipes is an effort at outlining the “knowledge” produced by and activities of “a network of commentators and scholars” who promote destructive understandings in the service of colonial political activism. Linking the issue of anti-Arab racism in academics to the current political context, Salaita demonstrates “the role of universities as a conceptual ground zero in the debate over how Arabs should be treated intellectually” and the organic connection with “the role neoconservatives play in the articulation of anti-Arab racism.”

Welcome analysis

Salaita then investigates how anti-Arab racism is sustained through the “Zionism as racism” debate. He reviews the discourses surrounding the debate as they emerged in the context of discussions about the 1975 UN General Assembly Resolution 3379, the 2001 Durban UN Conference, and the “new anti-Semitism” since the al-Aqsa Intifada started. An important contribution of this chapter is Salaita’s challenge to “thinkers concerned with the liberation of Palestine” to go beyond rhetoric and complicate “the juxtaposition of Zionism and racism so that we might remove any reductionism in our approaches to Israeli perfidy.” Unfortunately, he himself does not meet this challenge when he ambiguously states that Zionism is not racism but rather “is, and always has been, an enterprise as racist as each dogma instigated by biological determinism.”

Also challenged is the Christian Right, what he analytically calls “dispensational evangelicalism” or in one of his more satirically sub-heads, “radical Christianism.” Speaking as a Christian Arab and after detailing its fundamental presuppositions, he concludes that irrespective of labeling, “it is a version of Christianity that is shocking in its ability to induce hatred of Arabs and in its dedication to ending the world as soon as possible.”

Moving on from the more overt expressions of anti-Arab racism, Salaita focuses on its subtle expressions as manifested in the media coverage and political debate surrounding the torture in Abu Ghraib. He argues that by conceptualizing the conduct of the soldiers as “an aberration having nothing to do with enlightened American values,” such analyses miss the central role of ethnicity and religion in this particular context as well as “the United States’ long history of torture” and the “implication of [the] racist discourse that led us into Iraq.” The book ends with a reemphasizing of the historical context in which anti-Arab racism occurs and the need to create space for the existing Arab voices that communicate individual and collective experiences both in the United States and abroad.

Although it leaves out several important dynamics of anti-Arab racism, such as the role of collaborative Arab-American elites, the book is nevertheless a welcome analysis that prompts us to rethink reductionist historical and political explanations of anti-Arab racism. Through his book, Salaita has made an important contribution to a discussion that is only beginning to be theoretically engaged.

Pluto Press, 2006