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The Legacy of 9/11 and the War on Intellectuals

(Photo: Bob Jagendorf / Flickr)

Ten years after 9/11, for the first time, a plurality of Americans recognizes that US policy in the Middle East played a major role in the attacks. It was not, as George W. Bush famously put it, simply because, “They hate our freedom.”

As a Middle East specialist, I engaged in scores of interviews and wrote a number of widely circulated articles in the days, weeks and months following the terrorist strikes arguing this very point.

Both out of respect for those killed and their loved ones as well as my own deep-seated feelings of anger and horror, I did not mince words regarding the perpetrators of the attacks and their supporters. I even supported the right of the United States and its allies to engage in (a limited and targeted) military response to the very real threat posed by al-Qaeda. However, I also thought that it was critical to examine what may have motivated the horrific attacks, which I found important not only in preventing future terrorism, but also to avoid policies that could further exacerbate the threat. Indeed, I barely allowed myself to grieve over the horror of 9/11 due to my fear – which ended up being tragically prescient – of the far greater terror my government would unleash on the Middle East.

My argument was that the more the United States has militarized the region, the less secure the American people had become. I noted how all the sophisticated weaponry, brave fighting men and women, and brilliant military leadership the United States possessed would do little good if there were hundreds of millions of people in the Middle East and beyond who hated us. Even though only a small percentage of the population supports Osama bin Laden's methods, I argued, there would still be enough people to maintain dangerous terrorist networks as long as his grievances resonated with large numbers of people.

I went on to explain how, as most Muslims recognized, bin Laden was not an authority on Islam. He was, however, a businessman by training, who – like any shrewd businessman – knew how to take a popular fear or desire and use it to sell a product: in this case, anti-American terrorism. The grievances expressed in his manifestos – the ongoing US military presence in the Gulf, the humanitarian consequences of the US-led sanctions against Iraq, US support for the Israeli government and US backing of autocratic Arab regimes – had widespread appeal in that part of the world. I quoted British novelist John le Carre's observation that, “What America longs for at this moment, even more that retribution, is more friends and fewer enemies.”

I reiterated how there was nothing karmic about the events of 9/11, but that history had demonstrated how the United States did not become a target for terrorists because of its values, as President Bush and others claimed, but because it had strayed from its values of freedom, democracy and rule of law in implementing its policies in the Middle East. Furthermore, I argued that a policy based more on the promotion of human rights, international law, and sustainable development, and less on arms transfers, air strikes, punitive sanctions, and support for occupation armies and dictatorial governments, would make Americans a lot safer.

I repeatedly emphasized that, whatever the failings of a government in its foreign policy, no country deserves to experience such a large-scale loss of innocent lives as the United States experienced on 9/11. Yet, I also stressed that the hope of stopping extremists who might resort to such heinous acts in the future rested in part on the willingness of Americans to recognize what gave rise to what veteran journalist Robert Fisk described as “the wickedness and awesome cruelty of a crushed and humiliated people.” To raise these uncomfortable questions about US foreign policy was difficult for many Americans, particularly in the aftermath of the attacks. Indeed, many were afraid to ask the right questions because they feared the answers. Still, I was convinced that it could not have been more important or timely.

Raising such questions was not popular, however. Detectives investigating a crime trying to establish a motive are generally not accused of defending the criminals. Fire inspectors inspecting the ruins of a building for the cause of the blaze are not accused of defending its destruction. Yet I found myself, along with scores of other Middle Eastern scholars, being attacked for supposedly defending terrorism.

Within a few months, I found my dossier – along with seven other professors specializing in the Middle East – compiled by Campus Watch, a project of the right-wing Middle East Forum, led by the Islamaphobic intellectual and occasional Bush administration adviser Daniel Pipes. The list of “anti-American” professors who had the audacity to raise concerns over certain US policies also included some of the top scholars in the field, including John Esposito at Georgetown, Joel Beinin at Stanford, Ian Lustick at the University of Pennsylvania, Rashid Khalidi of the University of Chicago and the late Edward Said at Columbia.

Rarely able to respond effectively to specific arguments by scholars of the Middle East regarding the negative political, strategic, economic, legal and moral ramifications of US policy in the region, supporters of US policy in the region resorted to misrepresenting our arguments to make them appear extreme, naive, cynical or simply foolish.

For example, my Campus Watch dossier included the following:

Prof. Stephen Zunes of the University of San Francisco believes that the US – a “superpower (that) puts far more emphasis on weapons shipments and air strikes than on international law” – is almost entirely to blame for Sept. 11.

The phrase “is almost entirely to blame for Sept. 11” was not in quotation marks because I never said that. The complete quote – which I had written in an op-ed column for the Baltimore Sun the day after the attacks – referred to the well-documented link between militarization and terrorism, arguing that:

It is no coincidence that terrorist groups have arisen in an area where the world's one remaining superpower puts far more emphasis on weapons shipments and air strikes than on international law or human rights.

Various manifestations of this Campus Watch claim that I had said that 9/11 was “our fault” soon made its way to Fox News, MSNBC, radio talk shows throughout the nation and even into my short biographical entry in Wikipedia.

Soon thereafter, a number of my speaking invitations were rescinded. For example, I received a last-minute cancellation of my scheduled presentation on international law at the Arizona Bar Association’s annual convention, which had been scheduled six months earlier, following the director and his board of governors being told I was “anti-American.” Even though none of them bothered to read my prepared remarks, they banned me from speaking on the grounds that their rules forbid presentations that were “ideological in nature.”

Attacks against intellectuals who raised questions about the relationship between US policy and the rise of Islamist extremism went beyond simply misrepresenting our views, but portraying such scholars as having a radically different mindset, a radically different worldview or a radically different lifestyle than ordinary Americans. As a result, they could portray our analysis as being the result of a calculated ideological agenda or the distorted perspective emanating from a perverse subculture. Not surprisingly, virtually all the assumptions about me in the angry emails appearing in my Inbox – which inevitably followed an appearance on a talk show or the publication of an op-ed column – are false.

For example, for opposing the Bush administration’s response to 9/11, I was accused of: being a partisan Democrat (I am not a registered Democrat; I never voted for Clinton; and I was an outspoken opponent of Clinton's foreign policy); being on the public payroll (I work at a private Catholic college and have never received a paycheck from any government entity); having the views I do because I'm from San Francisco (I was born and raised in North Carolina as the son of a small-town minister); never having done any “real work” (I spent most of my twenties in a series of low-paying blue collar jobs); being Muslim, Jewish, atheist, Arab, Communist, Nazi or gay (none of the above); and that I sip lattes (I prefer my coffee black).

Another strategy against professors critical of Bush’s “war on terror” was to raise the concerns of parents over the kind of education their children were receiving in the hopes of getting nervous admissions officers and other administrators to silence us. One tactic used was to convince the public that what a professor might write in an op-ed column or say in a public debate on the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 was identical to what the professor was “telling his students.” Not only did this issue only rarely came up in the scores of lectures I give every semester, the approach a professor takes to such a topic in a classroom is very different in both style and substance to what he or she may take as a citizen activist or political analyst. As editorial writers or media pundits, we are expected to put forward our personal opinions in a forceful manner. As a classroom teacher, by contrast, we are expected to present a broad and comprehensive scholarly overview of the subject matter appropriate for the level of the students, and to present various contending interpretations of the issues at hand. I know of very few professors of any ideological persuasion who fail to recognize that distinction.

This did not stop right-wing commentators from conflating these two distinct roles in an attempt to goad university administrators into attempting to rid their campuses of professors who expressed concerns about US policy, even if it was limited to forums outside of the classroom. For example, in a nationally broadcast talk show on Fox News, host Sean Hannity claimed that Campus Watch was doing “American parents a favor” by citing “the extreme left-wing agenda like Mr. Zunes” so that parents, “when they’re making decisions about whether or not to send their kids to Mr. Zunes' college like the University of San Francisco, they'll have at least some knowledge of where these people that will be educating their children are coming from.”

Being tenured at a university with applications for admission steadily growing every year, I was not worried about the USF administration's response when the phone calls and emails from worried parents and alumni began pouring in in response to Hannity’s statement. No doubt Middle Eastern scholars in a less secure situation, however, had to think twice about publicly raising questions about US policy in the region.

Perhaps more disturbingly, the attacks on Middle Eastern scholars were not limited to individuals who raised concerns over the Bush administration's policies, but the entire field of study. For example, Martin Kramer of the right-wing Washington Institute for Near East Policy argued in his book, “Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America,” that, “The field is pervaded by hostility to American aims, interests, and power in the Middle East, and peopled by tenured radicals.”

Regional specialists, given our unique understanding of parts of the world which few policymakers know firsthand, can play an invaluable role in the foreign policy sphere. Middle East scholars from across the ideological spectrum were almost uniformly opposed to a US invasion of Iraq and other Bush administration policies post-9/11 because we had a good sense of the tragic consequences that would likely result. And yet, like Southeast Asia scholars 40 years earlier, who forewarned the tragedy that would unfold by a US war in Vietnam, we were ridiculed and ignored and found our loyalty to our country questioned.

The United States, like other great powers, has made many tragic mistakes in its foreign policy, but never have the stakes been higher. Whatever crimes our government has committed in the past in Central America or Southeast Asia, no Nicaraguans or Vietnamese ever flew airplanes into buildings. By attacking the credibility of Middle East specialists who understand the dangerous ramifications of US policy, it is the right – not the left – which is endangering our national security.

Indeed, my decision to become a more public intellectual following the 9/11 tragedy was motivated by my understanding of how US policy in the Middle East was putting all of us in danger, and by my desire to do my part to make America safer.

In the months leading up to the October 2002 vote authorizing the invasion of Iraq, I provided extensive material to a number of Congressional offices of prominent Democrats raising serious questions regarding the administration's claims that Saddam Hussein had somehow reconstituted his “weapons of mass destruction” and offensive delivery systems, or that he had operational ties to al-Qaeda. I also provided these offices and committee staff with what later proved to be rather prescient predictions of the disaster that would result from a US invasion and occupation. I later learned that a number of these offices failed to take my arguments seriously and successfully resisted requests that I be allowed to testify before relevant Congressional committees because they had heard I was “extreme” and “far left” in my views.

Attacks against scholars raising critical concerns in the post-9/11 era did not cause most of us to lose our jobs or stop us from speaking out. However, it did cause political leaders, journalists and millions of ordinary citizens to not trust some of the country's most critical intellectual resources in formulating policies in the subsequent decade. As the wars continue in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond, and as anti-Americanism in the Middle East reaches an all-time high, the consequences of these efforts are tragically clear.