Hint: It's Not Really About Free Speech.

Here we go again, shouting at each other about free speech and the university. For all our yelling about speech, and our insistence on rights and principles, it means little unless we’re also willing to reckon with institution and symmetry. Otherwise, we might as well just hold our breath.

Take yesterday, for example. Georgetown University (where I teach) invited Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions to lecture us on free speech. Sessions championed the noble idea that opinion and expression should not be censored. Insisting that a strong and healthy society is one that does not restrain unpopular speech, Sessions claimed, “Freedom of thought and speech on American campus are under attack. The American university was once the center of academic freedom, a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas. But it is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogeneous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”

Conservative commentators applauded Sessions as he stuck it to the (liberal establishment) Man. No surprise, for decades they have been claiming that free speech is under attack, particularly at universities. As someone who grew up in a conservative community, I understand this language and see how it resonates. But as someone who now works in higher education, I have to say that this view is based in a very poor understanding of what universities are.

Because ideas and deliberation are so central to the institutional mission of universities, they have historically made it a priority to host a very wide range of people who might fairly be called "experts." This includes scholars and scientists, of course, but also practitioners, officials, leaders, writers, athletes, entrepreneurs, poets, and artists. Is there any other contemporary institution so willing to acknowledge and promote such a range of knowledge? I doubt it. 

At the same time, universities are more than soapboxes. Unlike Hyde Park, we engage in scientific research and teaching and here the value of scholarly debate—and evidence—reigns supreme. Whether or not universities always live up these ideals, they form the ethical core of the place. And because of that, the university is usually (but not always) poor soil for ideas which fail to pass scientific and scholarly review. It has little to do with popularity. White supremacist explanations of the world used to be quite popular at universities. Same with male chauvinism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Now, these explanations melt like snowflakes in a warm classroom. Why? Years of informed counter-arguments produced by new generations of researchers. Note: this doesn’t mean racism and sexism have disappeared from campuses, only that their old intellectual foundations are now broadly and routinely questioned.  

Somehow, all this is lost not just on conservatives but also on some liberals who, looking for balance, have a hard time seeing the demands of right-wing free-speech warriors for what they are. While excoriating Sessions this week, Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan bent over backwards to concede that the right-wing is right on one point. “It’s wrong,” she wrote, “When far-right pundits are prevented from speaking on campuses because of liberal protests run amok — as has happened at universities in California, Vermont and elsewhere.”

Sullivan went on to highlight Sessions’ hypocrisy on the subject and the fact that Sessions’ talk took place in a safe space purged of protesters. Nonetheless, Sullivan demanded that universities play a particular role in American society and play it in particular way.

This is the moment where we need to inject the notion of symmetry into the debate. Or rather asymmetry. Why are we acting like universities are the only kind of institution where public speech takes place? I live in Washington, D.C. which is home to many very talky institutions besides universities. Just try to count the number of foundations, funds, institutes, think-tanks and organizations that host public lectures every day. Similarly, corporations routinely host speakers and mount lectures as so do military and intelligence agencies. Add to this all the sermons and talks at churches, temples and mosques. That’s a lot of events and booking agents, but who in this town is worried about empty lecterns? There are enough think-hatcheries and consulting firms to keep the streams of public speech stocked forever.

Which brings me to my point: if we were to count the number of public lectures­ that take place in the District during any given week, we would find that universities are certainly not the leading institutional site of public talks. So let's apply our principles to the entire spectrum of talky institutions. For instance, let's ask the Washington Institute for Near East Policy to host a talk by Iraq Veterans Against War.  Let's demand that the American Petroleum Institute convene a panel of Lakota Nation leaders to talk about tribal sovereignty. Let's make HUD invite public housing activists to give a briefing on the community effects of privatization. 

 All of this underscores the great assymetry in our conversation. Why are we talking only about universities? Why aren’t we insisting that Citicorp, for instance, invite Naomi Klein to speak at its next corporate retreat? Is it because we think boards of directors deserve more safe space than teenage students? And why are we so hung up on liberal universities? Why aren't we asking Liberty University why it has blackballed Noam Chomsky from speaking? Or is it that, unlike liberal universities, Christian colleges and corporations are immune to the dangers of echo chamber life?

We know the answer to these questions: this conversation is not really about free speech at the university. Instead, it is about the frustration the far right feels that its ideas are not taken seriously by mainstream research communities. For their part, liberal allies who talk about balance need to apply that same sense of balance to all the other institutions of public speech. 

Free-speech absolutists are welcome to continue their targeting of universities, but they should realize that the primary purpose of a university is not speech for its own sake, but rather speech that is knowledgeable, testable and informed. If free-speech activists want to be taken seriously on campuses, they should do what people do at universities: study and conduct research. Everything else is just talk—and has no intrinsic right to university platforms.

BDS is Professional Solidarity

I endorse BDS as a strategy because it is one of the very few ways to use our position as educators to act in solidarity with Palestinian colleagues who have lived under military occupation for fifty years.

Fifty years. That’s how long it’s been since Israel conquered those territories of mandate Palestine it had failed to seize in 1948. Ever since, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have lived under the grueling everyday circumstances of military occupation. We call it ‘occupation,’ but it is better called a siege.

The dynamics of this siege have changed over the decades. Sometimes it has been characterized by direct policing and unambiguous forms of domination. Sometimes by subtle forms of divide and rule or distanced, mediated regimes of command. But as any visitor to Hebron or Nablus can tell you: the system of control today is as tight and deadly as it has ever been.

During these five decades, Palestinian communities have been uprooted and subjected to a uniquely unaccountable form of violence. For fifty years, Palestinian leaders have been imprisoned, tortured and assassinated on the grounds that they were “terrorists.” For fifty years, Palestinians have watched as their lands were seized by an ethno-supremacist settler movement with deep roots and powerful patrons in the USA. For fifty years, Palestinians fought against their oppression even though this has meant confronting one of the most powerful militaries of the world.

The contrast with Israeli society could not be greater. Even though unabashed regimes of oppression always engender some forms of violence, Israeli citizens pay almost no price for the occupation. Israelis enjoy complete freedom of movement and robust civil and political rights within Israel and beyond. Indeed, for many Israelis, the fifty-year military occupation has been a source of opportunity and advancement. This is certainly true for the science and technology sectors, especially those that work closely with the intelligence and security agencies.

It is a source of personal shame for me to have watched as my elected officials—Democrat and Republican administrations and Congresses—trip over themselves to bankroll and celebrate the siege on Palestine. I have always been amazed by the generosity of Palestinians toward me despite this history, as well as their insistence on distinguishing between ordinary Americans and the governments we continually elect. The fact is that we do not deserve such generosity. Certainly we cannot expect it to last another fifty years, unless we—as private citizens—take tangible, real-world steps to show our dissent.

A vote for BDS is a real-world step that will mark our opposition to fifty years of US foreign policy on the occupation and the violence it has done to Palestinians. If for years we have failed to act or speak up, this will be a step towards ending our complicity and negligence. More importantly, it will allow us to act professionally toward colleagues who have long called for us to take a stand with them as they fight for their right to higher education.

Of all the wrongs in this history, it may seem odd to focus on the way the Israeli siege of Palestinian society tramples on the right to higher education. But since it is higher education that brings us together as professionals, it is fitting that we should single this out in our academic associations.

It is also fitting for another reason: the Israeli siege of Palestinian society has long included a draconian policy toward education. Checkpoints, closures, expulsions and the everyday violence of military occupation means it is very difficult to be a Palestinian student at any level. And it makes it very difficult to be a teacher, professor, researcher, scholar, dean or anyone else dedicated to the principle that Palestinians deserve education just like any other people.

For me, this is the heart of Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment: it is a call from colleagues living under duress and threat for help to break this fifty-year siege. The solidarity they ask for does not come from the fact that we share the same conditions of life, but because we share the same values, starting with the right to an education.

Admittedly, there is a paradox in the BDS position, since most scholars are by our nature prone to abhor policies that would place limits on intellectual movement, contact, and exchange. Indeed, it is precisely because such limits have been placed on Palestinian scholars, teachers and students that we need to bring them into question and make them a central issue of our professional solidarity.

And what, after all, is the fifty-year-old Israeli siege on Palestinian higher education? It is nothing but an unacknowledged and immoral form of boycott, divestment and sanction imposed by the powerful on the weak through military conquest. In contrast to this siege, our BDS campaign is based on transparency, non-violence, consensus and equality.

There is also a vexing question here: How does an endorsement of BDS help break the siege on Palestinian higher education? But the logic is not as convoluted as sophists would have it. It is simply to make Israeli institutions begin to pay a cost for the violent occupation they maintain, and to bring our weight as an association to bear on the subject. By introducing a set of conditions on the associations we are willing to make with our Israeli colleagues, we are asking them to end their quiescence and complacency and to clarify their position with regard to the siege on Palestinian higher education.

If it is difficult to imagine the endurance and patience of Palestinian academics struggling against military occupation, then consider instead the career of the Israeli humanist, Menahem Milson. Milson was a Harvard-trained literature professor at Hebrew University when he was tapped in the late 1960s to serve in the military government of the West Bank. Later, during the 1970s, Milson oversaw Israeli policy concerning Palestinian higher education. It was Milson’s office that issued “Military Order 845,” which effectively put Israeli military personnel in charge of admissions and hiring decisions at all Palestinian universities, and became the basis for the closures that lasted months and years. The result was devastating—an entire generation was denied access to the university.

When Milson finished, he simply went back to teaching literature as he’d done before. Over the years, he enjoyed the experience of being hosted as a visiting scholar at American and European universities, and had a distinguished career as Department Chair, Dean of the Faculty of the Humanities and eventually Provost.

Here is the point: it was our eminent humanist colleague, Milson, who launched the first assaults on Palestinian higher education, and his policies formed the artillery and battering rams of the fifty-year siege. While he toggled back and forth between his life as a civilian scholar and an officer of the occupation, the Palestinian students, teachers and scholars whose lives he governed never had it so good. Today, Milson is an emeritus humanities professor with time to oversee the odious “MEMRI translation project,” while his Palestinian victims still—decades later—struggle to overturn his destructive legacies.

If Milson’s example is too extreme, picture instead the quiescent and morally ambiguous position of the Israeli academy as a collective. At present there is not a single Israeli university that is not deeply imbricated in the occupation. Some even profit handsomely from it. This happens at the institutional level, and also at the level of individuals, providing crucial expert support for the occupation army, military intelligence and weapons design. 

Given this history, the collective silence of our colleagues in Israel is now deafening. It has gone on for half a century now. Which Israeli academic associations have extended gestures of decency and support, let alone professional solidarity, toward their peers living under occupation over the past fifty years? The list is not long.

True, there is an important history of dissidence within the Israeli academy, and it is not difficult to think of individual Israeli scholars who—by their research, teaching and professionalism—have worked against the grain of the occupation and have stood in solidarity with their colleagues living under occupation. But now, the few critics who remain in the Israeli academy are harassed and threatened routinely, quite often by administrators and colleagues at their own institutions. It is significant that most of these same dissidents have endorsed the call for BDS. So, in effect, the call for BDS is not just asking us to stand with our Palestinian colleagues as they face the siege. It is also to stand with those Israeli dissidents who have most resisted the occupation. 

There are colleagues who accuse BDS advocates of hypocrisy, with an insincere rhetoric of "whataboutery." They shout, "What about...?!" and ask why we are so silent about Saudi Arabia, China or Russia. When they do that we should remind them: we are not silent about other places, and we already do stand in solidarity with beleaguered colleagues wherever our principles and struggles converge . 

There are also colleagues who will suggest, as if they’d made a clever discovery, that the US academy might itself be targeted by BDS campaigns because of our collective complicity in American Empire. We should say to them: we would welcome sincere campaigns as signs of friendship and goodwill—because they would be nothing less than invitations for us to resolve the contradictions between the principles and values we claim to embrace as Americans and the way we work and live our lives in this country.

In the meantime, I join my colleagues at the MLA who have decided to stand with the Palestinian right to education. Anything less is to be party to the siege against our colleagues in Palestine. 

Advertising in the Time of Import Substitution

Being on leave means having the time to read the things you too often ignore. Like advertisements from periods you are studying for completely other purposes. Because of their attempt to appear "timely" and "contemporary" within the moment of their making, and because of their appeal to desire and aspiration, ads can read like windows onto the zeitgeist and collective dreamings of the past. But mostly, they are fascinating to look at. In the case of the images below, their nationalization aesthetic and rhetoric contradict and challenge our neoliberal present—and that in itself is worth the effort of study.

In July 1963, the Egyptian Gazette published a "special supplement" commemorating the eleventh anniversary of the 1952 coup d'état that brought the Free Officers to power. The oversize issue of the Gazette trumpets the accomplishments of the Nasser regime in a series of fluff journalistic 'pieces' and large ads mounted by leading public sector industries—from tourism to cotton weaving to tourism, offering a range of consumer products. Most (all?) of the companies here were built from colonial-era corporations that had been (in 1963) only recently nationalized. The ads of this issue of the Gazette are thus testament to the unrealized and imperfect dream of creating an independent national economy. 

Steel, iron, plastic and wood

They used to make things other than macaroni...

They used to make things other than macaroni...

Food and Drink

Luxury goods

Cotton and Textiles



Islam ( الدعوة ) 


Adventures in Socialist Advertising

Reading al-Tali‘a, the leftist Egyptian political-literary journal (1965-1977), I am struck by, among other things, the advertising. Started under Nasser's period of rapprochement with the USSR, al-Tali‘a was a platform for communist intellectuals who had just suffered under Nasser's attack on the Egyptian Communist Party (1959-1964). It is unclear what function advertising was supposed to play given the history and ideological orientation of its editors, like Lutfy al-Khouly. 

Scholars have explored the paradoxes of consumer culture—and advertising—in other socialist states. In particularly, I am thinking ofJonathan Zatlin's work on East Germany. But the topic of Arab socialist consumer culture calls out for similar attention. In a way, the road map for such study is already there in some of the cinema and literature of the period. Sonallah Ibrahim's novels, in particular, pay extraordinary attention to the details of consumer culture. In Dhat, most famously, Ibrahim documents the radical changes in Egyptian material life that took place during Sadat's infitah (Open Door Policy), which was nothing less than a top-down social revolution that sought to undo the state socialism of the Nasserist era. Sadat's counter-revolution largely succeeded—and gave birth the neoliberal consumer culture that thrives in the country today.

Below is an unthorough survey of advertising in the pages of al-Tali‘a. The images and slogans show the linkages between Egyptian nationalist strategies of import substitution and pan-African developmentalist appeal. As to be expected, advertisements featuring trade with the Soviet bloc stop suddenly in 1972. In the mid-1970s, these are replaced with public sector ads from Algeria and Iraq. Finally, just before al-Tali‘a was shut down in the wake of the 1977 Bread Uprising, we see a flurry of full-color ads for Western luxury products. 


In 1969, Port Said was very much on the front lines. Under Israeli military occupation, the city was also a center for guerrilla tactics in the war of attrition. For nationalists and revolutionaries, the very name of the city was a rallying cry for the unfinished business of national liberation. But Port Said was also the name of an Egyptian brand of cigarettes...

Aeroflot airlines ad announcing flights connecting to Bangui and Brazzaville. 

Egypt was more than just a leader in the steel industry... there was brass and aluminum, too.


Dear Smoker…we present to you the one and only Cleopatra cigarette, made from Arab knowhow and the very finest tobaccos from around the world...

Aronal toothpaste


The Nasr Import-Export Company. 


Nefertiti: Egypt's first e-cigarette?

On the move, on time, where you want it... drilling rigs. 



OPEC-era advertising. Algerian National Petroleum Company: Arab Petroleum belongs to the Arabs. 

Iraqi State Publishing: Saadi Yusuf... Muhammad Afifi Matar...

Jabra Ibrahim Jabra...


Soon after the mass uprisings against Sadat's economic policies, Lutfi al-Khuli is replaced as editor, and the journal struggles on for a few more issues. But not before becoming the platform for the new consumer culture. 


Preservation and Destruction

It is exceedingly difficult to know "what to do" as ISIS continues to attack the ancient material culture of Iraq and Syria. A few months ago, I weighed in on the subject in an essay that suggested that those of us who value antiquities for their historic, scientific and aesthetic value would do well to reflect on the ironies of the situation.

One of my main theses, which would be non-controversial for students of history, was that there is nothing inherently "Islamic" about the particular form of iconoclasm (or vandalism) practiced by ISIS. Throughout Islamic history, Muslims have held a wide range of beliefs about, and engaged in a wide range of practices involving, the objects of pre-Islamic antiquity. These range from admiration and wonder to indifference and doubt. The same range of attitudes exists in other traditions. 

Admittedly, I could have focused on the specifically "Islamic" elements of ISIS's campaign, which is to say, how they belong to a modern, Wahhabi tradition of attacking artifacts said to belong to other pasts. This tradition, while "Islamic" in the sense that its Muslim proponents practice it in the name of "Islam," should be seen for nothing more or less than what it is: a strategy of projecting, in brutal and spectacular ways, the material and cultural power of a nascent jihadi state. When viewed against the backdrop of 1400 years of Muslim cultural attitudes toward the distant past, it is a remarkably bleak aberration, though not one without precedents. The more dominant intellectual and textual traditions looked at the past as something to learn from, not something to destroy. Which is to say, ISIS's attacks on Palmyra have their roots not in the Qur'an or Hadith, but rather in the cruel 18th- and 19th-century Wahhabi-Saudi campaigns against tombs and Sufi shrines in the Arabian Peninsula as well as sites of Shiite veneration in southern Iraq.

Similarly, my blog post could have focused on ISIS's iconoclasm as a problem inside Islam, insofar as the Wahhabi-Saudi state theology really is a problem within Islam. But it did not because, as an American, I have a greater responsibility to respond the problems of my own national community, and in this case, the disingenuous posturing of neocons and their liberal allies who, in decrying the destruction of things, call once again for more US military intervention, as if that could be a solution. Contrary to what was said about my piece by interventionists, my piece did not seek to defend ISIS or attempt to rationalist its abhorrent actions. Similarly, there was nothing in the piece seeking to argue that the toppling of cheap Baathist-era statues was the equivalent of destroying priceless ancient artifacts. There was a juxtaposition of images of toppling statues meant to suggest that similar military logics were at work: destroying the arts of the defeated is what triumphalists have always done. If reckless interventionists were bothered by that suggestion, then all the better.

In the main, my post tried to shed light on the deep hypocrisies at home that have become, since ISIS's emergence, more and more manifest. 

The first hypocrisy is a disjointed form of American compassion marked, on the one hand, by newfound concern regarding Mesopotamian objects and on the other, a longstanding indifference toward the suffering of Iraqi people.

The second hypocrisy is rooted in the failure to recognize that the current moment of looting and destruction belongs to a historical context where the US military figures prominently, sometimes as an enemy of antiquities preservation and sometimes as its incompetent champion.

The third hypocrisy has to do with the witting participation in mass antiquities thefts by Western and Gulf antiquities dealers and buyers over the last decade. Without their willingness to traffic in stolen artifacts, the looting would not have reached the scale it has.

ISIS’s attacks on antiquities, like its reported involvement in the illicit antiquities trade, come directly from these contemporary histories. This remains true, even as ISIS spokesmen hide behind pious invocations of anti-pagan, iconoclastic "traditions" that far from being age-old are in fact largely modern phenomena, invented often during protracted conflicts with Western military incursions.  

Each of these hypocrisies is rooted in our culpability as American citizens whose democratically-elected governments and all-volunteer armies have been at war with Iraq and in Iraq continuously since 1991. It has been more than twenty-four years now since we first began our direct war against Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in the process, laying waste to large swaths of the landscape, and destroying—through harm and negligence—massive amounts of the country's cultural heritage. In this context, it is ridiculous for commentators to seek explanations of ISIS’s actions in seventh-century Meccan history or tenth-cenury Quranic commentaries while ignoring the well-documented rise of mass looting and theft that occurred during the US occupation and as a direct result of Washington's policies. Likewise, it is disingenuous for American commentators to imagine that the US was merely a distant spectator as Baathist thugs turned into pious Islamists during the years of US-led sanctions, and, during the years of US military occupation, a network of militants were gathered together in US prison camps and eventually morphed into ISIS.

In my blog, I did not comment at length on the depth of the crisis and what it has meant for archaeology and museums. Other commentators, like Fred Bohrer and Ömür Harmanşah have brought these points home in powerful ways. Nonetheless, let it be stated explicitly: anyone who cares about the past should be distraught, troubled and astonished by ISIS’s wanton destruction of museums and archeological sites. The materials under attack are nothing less than the priceless patrimony of Iraqi society, and perhaps something called humanity, if such a thing exists. In some cases, these objects under attack are the only surviving material culture we have of ancient eras of human history, and their value to the study of our own human development cannot be overstated. 

Is there any debate as to whether these objects deserve to be conserved in order to be studied by people trained to study them? There shouldn’t be -- but apparently since I did not repeat my allegiance to the principles of conservation explicitly, it was assumed I was against them. But my point wasn't to confirm a widely-embraced truism. Rather it was to question whether the only solution to this crisis was to pour more US bombs on it. I did this by attempting to problematize the way antiquities figure as important material signs in our modern, still-colonized world, and that as signs, antiquities can be used to mobilize senseless violence.

Affective Attachments

It is a truism that talk about artifacts often slips into talk about civilization. The slippage is common because it was intended to be. And because it is taught to some of us from a very early age. For example, the image or even silhouette of an ancient monument is usually enough to suggest a cultural, even spiritual meaning that far transcends the material dimensions of the object itself. The great pilgrimages that people make in order to be in the presence of artifacts unearthed by archaeologists is another indicator of the expansive meaning these objects have. A visit to the Parthenon or Jerash is for many an occasion to dwell in the presence of something that goes beyond the rocks themselves. It may be awkward to call monuments sacred or the modern veneration of antiquities a form of modern, secular religion, but I can think of no better terms that capture the sense of transcendent value, and the rituals of adoration that accrue around such objects.

From here, it is but a short step to the notion that an attack on such an artifact is an attack on civilization itself.  This is precisely where caution and critique are most needed. Why? Because this slippage from material object to moral argument has a genealogy, and a history. 

The affective attachments linking material objects to broad, moral claims about civilization are not natural but constructed. To point this out is not to suggest that they are unreasonable or undesireable, but rather that they are the result of human activity. Which is also to say, they emerge in histories of struggle, both as terms of struggle and as sites of struggle.

In my own study of a separate history of struggle over antiquities in Egypt, I found that the colonial context of archaeology marked the scientific and humanistic study of the objects in indelible ways. The history of archaeology and museums in modern Iraq is different, and yet it is marked by similar processes. For instance, in Mesopotamia, as in the Nile Valley, the great discoveries of colonial archaeology profoundly, and often negatively impacted the land rights, labor markets and local cultures of indigenous peoples. Similarly, in Iraq as in Egypt, those who most championed the civilizational meanings of ancient objects also tended to voice the most racist views about the modern inhabitants of ancient lands. Antiquities policies were built on these racist views, and it mattered to the people whose lives were impacted. (And as Nadia Abu El-Haj showed, the impact of Zionist archaeology on Palestine was even more pronounced.) While the move to nationalize the professions of archaeology and museum curatorship overturned and corrected some aspects of this colonial legacy, it also compounded them in other ways. Peasants, for instance, continued to be imagined primarily as a problem in the preservation regimes of the nationalist period just as they were during the colonial era. Scholars of colonial and nationalist archaeology have noticed similar patterns in the region, in Palestine, Iran, Turkey and elsewhere.

These dynamics are well known by those of us who study the region’s history, even if there is wide variation about how to interpret their meaning. Moreover, it is not just students of Middle Eastern history who have tried to grapple with these legacies: across the archaeological disciplines, similar lessons have been learned by a generation of post-processualists who have struggled to make ways for local populations to participate in the interpretation and conservation of ancient artifacts. And yet, as the present moment reminds us, colonial-era moral claims about civilization still dominate discussions about antiquities.

Artifact Interventionism

Many commentators on ISIS’s actions have pointed to a range of other historical contexts of iconoclasm—Revolutionary France, Byzantium, Bamiyan—with resonances to our moment. These analogies are rich in some ways, but they seem to miss one powerful fact—namely that ISIS is very aware of the kind of response its actions will garner and this, perhaps more than its rather inarticulate destruction of the objects themselves, seems to be the point. The destruction of the material objects is central to the story, but it also matters that these event are scripted and staged for the camera, and then mounted onto global media platforms as a spectacle assured to provoke intense reactions. 

As suggestive as the history of iconoclasm is, and as tempting as it is to imagine the motivations of ISIS iconoclasts, we should not fail to notice that the perpetrators of these crimes understand, or hope, that their actions will trigger intervention. To understand this, we need to situate these events within a history of artifact interventionism.

What is this history? In the nineteenth century, some of the first calls for direct European military invasion in the Arab world took place in the following way: a traveler or diplomat observes that an area is rich in ancient artifacts; the writer claims that such artifacts are under threat by the actions of local populations; using moral arguments about civilization, the writer urges his government to save the artifacts, employing military force if necessary; months later, the artifacts appear in the metropolitan museum. The process, to paraphrase Gayatri Spivak, is one of “white men saving antiquities from brown men.”

In the twentieth century, as colonized states won qualified forms of political independence, the terms changed slightly. Whereas in the colonial past, Western archaeologists had sought the protection of strong colonial governors, in the postcolonial era, archaeologists tended to favor strong autocratic local regimes because they believed that such regimes were more stable and thus better for securing exploration, excavation, and preservation. In this regard, we might consider the popular perception that many Egyptologists were glad when General Sisi came to power and they could finally get back to work. If true, this too would need to be seen as another variation on the old theme of antiquities interventionism. 

By invoking this history as relevant, I am not claiming that all calls to preserve objects from attacks are spurious, nor am I saying that all champions of conservation are warmongers or enablers of dictatorships. The reality is more complicated than that. As the current response of archaeologists and museum curators to the ISIS emergency shows, preservationism is complex, creative and often self-critical. 

Nonetheless, this history must be part of the conversation (and it is in some circles) since historically, many of the most urgent calls for preserving antiquities have served as the prelude to (and rhetorical grounding for) military intervention. And it is this history—as much as the intricacies of iconoclasm as a recurring historical theme and practice—that seems so relevant to our moment. 

I doubt whether ISIS iconoclasts know much of this history, just as their command over the textual traditions of Islam is so widely doubted. But they do not need to know any of this history to understand that an attack on a cultural icon revered in the West will shock elite opinion in the West, and thus enable broad tolerance for intervention among people who might be otherwise averse to military adventurism. ISIS strategists bet that their attacks will mobilize our own extremists—those who have called for open-ended military assault for many years now—thus provoking the kinds of conflict that help them recruit more jihadists.

After Bamiyan, Charlie Hebdo, the Mosul Museum and Palmyra, it should be clear that there is a broad, jihadi strategy to bait the West, staging crises where something civilizational needs saving. ISIS does not need a Quranic verse or fatwa to tell them to attack artifacts and art, for the simple reason that they already know there will always be white men who volunteer to save civilization from brown men. Again, this strategy is not grounded in any supposed theological aversion in Islam towards the image or the pagan past, but rather in a bloody colonial inheritance whereby national liberation has degraded into a logic of 'trading dead bodies', as Faisal Devji put it in his 2009 book, Landscapes of the Jihad. Juan Cole has talked about this same strategy in terms of “sharpening contradictions.” 

Beyond Colonial Rhetorics of Civilization 

Many of the loudest voices calling to protect the objects have never shied away from the call to defend civilization from barbarism. Likewise, many even parrot nineteenth-century antiquities interventionist rhetoric, calling for boots on the ground to secure objects on the ground. The civilization-barbarism binary is objectionable not just because it is historically inaccurate, but also because, when made into policy, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

It is not an accident that many of those now calling for the defense of civilization against the attack of ISIS were the same ones championing the US invasion of Iraq in the first place. This hypocrisy, as the use of moral discourse about civilization more generally, will only lead to more of the same. 

So, what is to be done? Those who speak most forcefully for action tend to think that only one thing can be done: more US intervention. They say this, knowing full well that US intervention played an outsized role in creating the collapse of the Iraqi state and in fostering the sectarian politics of post-war Iraqi society, just to take two of the principle catalysts for the rise of ISIS. Similarly, US military intervention played a direct role in the collapse of an already fragile Iraqi antiquities conservation system, and in the rise of new markets for looted artifacts. I have no doubt that the proponents of US intervention could produce examples of when the US military helped to secure particular excavation sites—but these, I think, are exceptions that prove the rule. And so perhaps it is easier to begin by saying what should not be done. Repeating past mistakes, for instance, is something we should not do, no matter how much we are provoked by the crimes of ISIS. Imagining that somehow this time, US military intervention will be different is another thing we should not do.

Long ago, Homi Bhabha reminded us of the ties between ‘emergency’ and ‘emergence,’ in order to suggest that crises are also opportunities for the emergence of something different. In that spirit, here’s a thought: what if, instead of responding to this emergency with more bombs we were to work toward producing more democratic, inclusive and effective systems of preserving antiquities? Forms of conservation and study built not on threats of violence, but rather on equitable participation in discovery and conservation as well as a transparent and fair distribution of resources? If it is justice that is desired, we could more consistently and vigorously enforce already-existing laws that ban the traffic of looted artifacts. While we're at it, if we are truly outraged by the destruction of Mesopotamian artifacts, we might even begin to hold those American officials legally accountable for the negligence and malfeasance of the occupation of Iraq, especially actions those that set in motion the waves of looting. 

Reasonable critics might say that is fine, but such things involve decades of education, inclusion and building and that right now we have an emergency on our hands. To them we should say: this has always been the case. Moreover, military intervention is not so much a solution to the destruction of antiquities, but one of its causes. Since Napoleon's intervention to save Egypt from the Ottomans, there is always an emergency and there has always been a crisis, and the great patrimony of human civilization is under threat. These things are related to one another in direct ways. And in the meantime, this greater work of education, inclusion and building is always postponed.

If we could move past the military incursions of the past, and past support for local strongmen promising security, we might finally attend to these larger and nobler tasks, which means we might have a chance to preserve the past and also learn from it. Anything less is the real threat to the patrimony of human civilization.

Scripted Hate: What to Expect When Campus Watch Smears You

A couple days ago, I woke up to the following email from someone calling himself "George Barbery":

It was only then that I discovered that Campus Watch still exists and that it has two other heads, one called Middle East Forum, and one called American Thinker (whose icon is a patriotic man in a straining, seated position). Thanks to "George Barbery" I had been alerted  to the fact that an employee of MEF and Campus Watch had defamed me as an apologist for ISIS. Given that what the author wrote bore no resemblance to what I had posted on my blog, it was easy to dismiss as non-serious. Yet, I couldn't help but respond:

"George Barbery" did not respond. But as I looked at the vitriolic comments that began to build on the website, I noticed a comment, posted by "RedzoneDog" that could belong to him:

People began to take RedzoneDog's advice. Minutes later, I received the following note, this time from someone calling himself "Dr. Tom Barron":

I responded again:

"Dr. Tom Barron" wrote back immediately:

The email read like it had been written by a Campus Watch/American Thinker/MEF employee whose job was to solicit content and create the appearance that these organizations are engaged in debates about ideas. Again, I decided to respond:

"Dr. Tom Barron" did not reply. Subsequently, as the piece was reposted across Campus Watch's other websites, such a Middle East Forum, I began to receive other emails such as this:

And this:

And on it goes. What has been most striking in the emails and comments are these things:

  • Misrepresentation. These folks—authors and readers alike—speak a lot about 'ideas', but do not actually engage with them. At first I was surprised to see how confident the editors of the site were that their readership would not bother to compare the piece's claims to what I actually wrote. Silly me. They know their audience very well, and are secure in thinking that their readership couldn't be bothered to check whether claims are accurate or fair
  • Defamation. Sites like these exist not to debate ideas, but solely to defame character. Usually, they set their sights on people of color and especially Muslims. For some reason, I am in their gunsights this week. Next week it will be someone else. The logic of their defamations boggles the mind. For instance, this author and his audience claim I am a communist, a Nazi, an ISIS apologist and more. But that's not the point—the point is they believe if they can fling enough crap, some of it might stick. For people whose careers are actually precarious, such willful misrepresentations of character and thought could actually inflict damage. 
  • Censorship and Danger. What the author and his audience find so objectionable is not just the content of what someone like me has said, but rather the fact that we were allowed to say it in the first place. In other words, the project is grounded in doubts as to whether people who disagree with them have the right to free inquiry and research. Why is their anger and outrage so visceral? Why are they so outraged that people oppose their agenda?
  • End the University. From the outset, one of this organization's goals has been to poison the workplace of universities. Why? With their relative autonomy, universities are some of the last places that cannot be (completely) controlled by the right-wing and their corporate backers. It is true that informed, disinterested research produces knowledge that diverges radically from the programs of think-tanks and interest groups. But Campus Watch and MEF would like to take it a step beyond contesting the claims of scholarship—they would like to do away with the institutional supports that make disinterested scholarship possible in the first place. Perhaps it is because they cannot imagine what it would be like to do disinterested research, for unlike scholars, American Thinker's editors and writers are paid to produce a given party line, just as an advertiser is paid to produce inticement or a lobbyist is paid to produce political and rhetorical pressure. These organizations are so detached from actual scholarship that they have come to assume that, like them, everyone else must be a party stooge or paid propagandist. 
  • Scripted Hate. The comments and emails sent to me by readers of The American Thinker (and MEF and Campus Watch) are so regular that they appear to be based on a preexisting template or script. The bullet points are remarkably focused: tenured liberals are radicals; our universities are corrupting the youth; leftists hate America; people who disagree with them must be Nazi sympathizers. The insults I have received from Campus Watchers pale in comparison to the kind of hate and contempt these organizations reserve for the Arab and Muslim figures they defame. But it is hate speech all the same, designed to hurt and intimidate. Behind this symphony of hate stand its conductors and composers, the Campus Watch/MEF/American Thinker editors and authors. 
  • Echo Chamber. The public comments section of the forums of these publications speaks volumes about the institutions that support them: they are uncivil and non-serious, characterized largely by an intense hate and fear, most of it directed toward Muslims and Arabs. It's difficult to get a sense of how hateful and inarticulate the comments are without reading them. Some of these comments smack of sock puppetry, like the email from "Dr. Thomas Baron." But others might be composed by actual people. At sites where comments are unmoderated, we could plausibly that the vitriol is accidental, or not necessarily a direct expression of the site's managers. In contrast, at The American Thinker the poison is not only moderated, but cultivated. The incivility and hatred that flourishes there is anything but accidental.

But what are we to make of a garden whose tenders plant so many flowers of hate and fear? And who needs groups like ISIS when such homegrown threats to civilization already flourish on our own soil? Curious, I wrote to some of my correspondents: 

It didn't take long for "ron.temis@aol.com" to write back:

I have been told the phrase "Lech tizdayen" (לך תזדייו) is not a traditional way to say "shabbat shalom."

Reading al-Koni in English

Kudos to the panel of judges for the Man Booker International Prize whose 2015 Finalists' List is to applauded both for the depth of talent it marks and the breadth of literary accomplishment it acknowledges. I cannot remember ever before seeing a list that so well reflected the fact that the literature was a global, and not just Euroamerican thing. There are many personal favorite writers on that list, with Hoda Barakat, Amitav Ghosh, César Aira, and Fanny Howe foremost among them. (Arabic Literature in English has a great round-up of the authors on the list with ties to the Arab world.)

I want to make a special pitch for the talents of one of the giants who appears on that list. Ibrahim al-Koni's oeuvre is well celebrated in the Arab world but still largely unknown in English. His life experience—from the Sahara to Moscow, from Tripoli to Warsaw and Barcelona—and his voracious reading in Arabic and Russian make him a very global figure. Reading him is like discovering a continent where Tolstoy and al-Jahiz are drinking companions, and where Dostoevsky can't get over al-Ma'arri.

For English-language readers wanting to catch up on al-Koni, I would most highly recommend two short novels widely available in English translation, The Bleeding of the Stone (trans. M. Jayyusi and C. Tingley), and Gold Dust, (trans. E. Colla). 

If you are hesitant about reading a novel, here are some FREE of CHARGE short stories and excerpts that will give you a sense of why everyone loves al-Koni:

In "Tongue," a harrowing short story from al-Koni's story collection Kharif al-darwish (Autumn of the Dervish), men are forced to confront the burden of unwanted speech.

In "The Teacher," excerpted from al-Koni's magnum opus novel, al-Majus (The Animists), men and Sufis struggle against the black magic of the desert. 

"The Cloak" is an excerpt from al-Koni's 2012 novel, al-Waram (The Tumor), an allegory of the Qaddafi dictatorship. 

And finally, here are three thought pieces about al-Koni, translation, and the place of his fiction in Arab and African writing:

"Translating al-Koni"

"Al-Koni's Homes"

"Ibrahim al-Koni's Atlas."

Jabra Ibrahim Jabra: Ramparts

Twenty years ago last month Jabra Ibrahim Jabra passed away. A Palestinian refugee, Jabra lived an extraordinary life in difficult times. He survived expulsion from his birthplace in Bethlehem, earned a PhD in England, then went on to a polymath career in the arts in Baghdad. As a novelist, Jabra wrote some of the most challenging works of the modern canon, including In Search of Walid Mas'ud, The Boat, and (with Abderrahman Munif), A World without Maps. As a translator, he managed to bring life to Shakespeare and Faulkner in Arabic during the 1950s, in so doing he opened the door for a set of lively conversations about world literature among Arabic modernists. Without Jabra's translation of The Sound and the Fury, it is unlikely that novels like Men in the Sun, Miramar or Voices would have been written. As a painter, Jabra was an ardent champion of experimentation and abstraction, and he was arguably the leading essayist of the Arab world, writing widely on art, literature, history and memory. 

As a poet in the 1950s, Jabra collaborated with other poets—Adunis and Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, especially—who were also experimenting with mythical themes and the ritual dynamics of formal poetic composition. At that moment, for these poets the core truth of aesthetic modernism resided in the possibility that the dead and the old might give birth to the new—and do so in art. This poem appeared in Jabra's 1959 collection, Tammuz in the City, and attests to the poet's ability to imagine the deep, mythical ties connecting his native homeland, Palestine to his adopted homeland, Iraq. 


Beneath the walls, walls.

And beneath them, walls.

Ur, Jericho, Ninevah, Nimrud—

On the debris where the sighs of lovers went to die

Where chattered then vanished the teeth of captives, stripped bare

There, now are hills that bloom each spring

Now home to crickets and ants,

Refuge to sparrows in the late morning

Feeling the last traces of the evening dew

Through tattered feathers

Beneath their tails lies a head

Before which millions once kneeled

Which ladies’ hands once anointed with perfume.

(Read the rest of the poem here)