A New Theology of Power

“This book sounds an alarm: Israel, through the deep and pervasive power of its lobby, threatens deeply-cherished American values-especially free speech, academic freedom and our commitment to human rights.”

Paul Findlay, They Dare To Speak Out (1985)

In 1982, Paul Findley, went down in his re-election bid after serving in the Congress for twenty-two years, and the principal pro-Israeli lobby in Washington took credit for his defeat. What was the Congressman’s crime? He had crossed a line drawn by the Israeli lobby in United States; he had violated the ban on meeting Arafat.

This past week I too had a small taste of the same medicine. No, I am not a public figure, nor had I met with Arafat or any other Palestinian degraded to “terrorist” ranks by Israel’s lexical offensive. I am only a professor, an obscure peddler of dissent, who, once tenure was secured, had been left reasonably well-alone by school administrators, colleagues, and assorted self-appointed censors. How then did I get into trouble?

Over the past year, however, I began to cross that thin line which I should have known one crosses only at some peril. I began to talk and write about Israel. None of this would have been newsworthy if I had been reading from the script; but I was not. Instead, I began calling a spade a spade. In other words, I was stepping over the line.

Although invisible, this line is like a charged electrical cable. I first stepped on this cable when I spoke at a seminar on September 11 at Northeastern University in October 2001. I had planned on providing a historical backdrop to the attacks on the Twin Towers, drawing attention to the record of French, British and American interventions in the region. My principal concern was that such an attempt, so soon after September 11, might be greeted with hostility. To my pleasant surprise, I was proved wrong. At the end of the seminar, not a few stepped forward to thank me for speaking out.

But the matter did not end there. I was informed by the Chair of my department soon after the talk that a colleague had emailed to complain that I had departed from the announced theme of the seminar. Later, the same day, as I was walking across the campus, I was stopped by a professor who informed me that he was at my talk, and he proceeded to accuse me of “hate speech.” Apparently, he had been troubled by a passing reference to the peculiar history of Israel.

The impact of September 11 on the lives of Americans was best summed up by the feeling that it had changed every thing. I shared in America’s grief at the wanton loss of human lives, the first in their recent history; though I had known this grief before, many times before. September 11 was changing me too. I was witnessing the curtailment of civil liberties in United States, growing attacks on Islam, and the triumph of lobbies who wanted United States to wage endless wars against the rest of the world. I decided to step out of my academic shell. It was time to speak to some real issues.

Among other things, when a campaign for the academic boycott of Israel was initiated in early April, I decided to join the campaign. When I invited a few colleagues to join the boycott, one described the boycott as destructive, prompting me to explain why I thought this campaign was morally justified. I did so in an essay, “An Academic Boycott of Israel,” which was first published in Counterpunch.Org on July 31, and it has since appeared on several websites, newspapers and discussion groups. Of course, this prompted both angry and supportive emails; only one threatened violence. On the whole I was pleased at the response.

There was worse to come. On September 3, the Jerusalem Post carried a report on my essay, without any mention its title or substance, under the heading, “US Prof Justifies Palestinian Terror Attacks.” This provoked more angry emails to me, the Chair of Economics, and some others at Northeastern University. Over the next two days, I was also contacted by The Jewish Advocate, Boston Herald, Bloomberg News, and The O’Reilly Factor. Although flattered by the attention, I declined the invitation to meet the honorable Mr. Bill O’Reilly.

On September 5, taking the cue from the Post, the Herald published another malicious and sensational report on my essay. It was headlined, “Prof Shocks Northeastern with Defense of Suicide Bombers.” It claimed that my article “sent shock-waves through the Fenway campus yesterday,” but quoted only one of my colleagues. This report too made no mention of the title or substance of my essay, justifiably raising suspicions about the reporter’s motive. And although I had responded in a timely manner to their email, the reporter claimed that he could not contact me by phone or email.

It is curious how these reports had inverted the objective of my essay. My essay made a case for an academic boycott, a quintessentially non-violent act, as an alternative to the recent Palestinian acts of desperation. By showing greater solicitude for the Palestinians’ desperate plight, I argued, international civil society could give hope to this beleaguered people, and persuade them to act with greater patience in the face of Israel’s brutal military Occupation. The Post and Herald had twisted a moral case for non-violent action into justification for terror.

It would appear that I had crossed the line in advocating an academic boycott of Israel, and I had to be punished. To quote from Taha Abdul-Basser (Herald, September 9), what the Post and Herald “actually find distasteful is the thought that intelligent, well-spoken people of conscience should call for a moral stand against the oppressive and unjust behavior of Israel.” At least in United States, it is the Israeli narrative that has dominated public discourse on policies towards the Middle East. This narrative speaks only of Jewish claims to Palestine, and presents Israel as a victim of Arab hatred of all things Western, a beleaguered outpost of Western civilization in an ocean of Arab barbarians. My essay was unacceptable because it questions this narrative.

The attacks against me perhaps are not over yet. As I was finishing this essay on the night of September 8, I learned that I had been ‘spoofed’-a new word in my lexicon. Someone had stolen my identity and sent out a malicious e-mail to administrators and colleagues at Northeastern. The spoof was quite crude, making it hard for anyone to believe it could have originated from me. Or perhaps, I am being na?ve.

In the days following the September 11 attacks, President Bush had ad-vanced a vision of the world framed in Manichean terms. You are either with us, or you are against us. We are innately good, but all those who oppose us are evil-doers; their violence against us is metaphysical, it springs from their devilish nature, and has no political or sociological causes. Instantly, this new-fangled political doctrine was also transformed into a theology. It applied not only to countries but also to individuals, aliens and citizens alike. Any dissent with the Bush doctrine could be regarded as blasphemous, as support for terrorism. This is the new theology of power, whose foundations and ramifications are being worked out feverishly every day by hawks of every stripe.

In the same manner that Israel, Russia, China, India, and many smaller powers besides, have appropriated this new theology to suppress the legitimate resistance of various oppressed peoples as terrorist activities, a variety of hawkish lobbies have been using the media to stifle discourse by painting their opponents with the brush of terrorism. In attacking me, the Post and Herald reports have employed the same strategy.

I am afraid that if these efforts are allowed to succeed, we may soon witness the narrowing or, worse, the closing, of all discourse on history, foreign policy, rights, justice, resistance, violence, power, oppression, sanctions, imperialism, and–lest I be accused of offering a partial listterrorism. We will be free only to mouth slogans.

Down with terrorism! Down with our enemies! Down with Islam!

M. Shahid Alam is Professor of Economics at Northeastern University, Boston. He can be reached at: m.alam@neu.edu

Copyright: M. Shahid Alam


M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Macmillan, November 2009). Contact me at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.