This morning I received one of the more disconcerting and annoying, although no doubt inadvertently, responses to an Ibishblog post I've ever gotten. A reader writes: "I read with interest and appreciation your somewhat generalized denunciation of Arab anti-Semitism. Would you be willing to get more specific (as in 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion' being distributed by Arab governments) – and would you be willing to speak out in Arabic, in the news organs of the Middle East?"
Well of course my denunciation of anti-Semitism among Arabs and Arab-Americans was somewhat generalized, because I was talking about the phenomenon in general and in the big picture. The same can be said about my concomitant denunciation of Jewish anti-Arab and Islamlophobic sentiments. I didn't go into any details about that either, because I was talking about the phenomena in general. But this question “would you willing to get more specific” is really pretty obnoxious. In fact I've been very specific about this issue, and in 2010 alone I've written long essays, including another one coming out shortly in The Common Review, the quarterly journal of the Great Books Foundation, on the subject. I've taken on many individuals by name and in print, organizations and others on this very point for many years, and I've been very specific. Sometimes you have to step back and look at the big picture, particularly when it comes to the idea which was the main subject of my last essay, that Arabs cannot be anti-Semites because, like Jews, they are also Semites. Had people not been making such claims in the context of the Helen Thomas controversy, the whole essay wouldn't have been written and I wouldn't have felt any need to give a big picture review of what is and isn't anti-Semitism and to try to explain to that part of my Arab-American audience that doesn't seem to know about it the etymology and history of the term anti-Semitism, and therefore why it has the specific meaning it does.
As for the so-called “Protocols of the Elders of Zion," I can't tell you how many times I've discussed and referenced this issue, particularly in the context of references to it and plagiarisms from it in the founding document of Hamas. I'm not aware of any systematic campaign by any Arab government at the present time to distribute this notorious forgery, but I've written at length about the effect it had in spreading Western Christian anti-Semitism in the Arab world, first among Arab Christians and then among Islamists and other Muslims during the course of the 20th century. It's simply insulting to be asked this question after having written the essay I just did, among other recent ones touching on the same subject. This is exactly the kind of thing Arab and Muslim Americans who want to take constructive stances on issues like anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, extremism or other internal problems facing our community have to deal with on a regular basis, and it's just unacceptable. One of the conundrums facing thoughtful, reasonable, introspective and intellectually honest Arab and Muslim Americans is precisely this: it's never enough. There is always the follow-up question: "well, that's all well and good but will you…" (fill in the blank with some additional demand or another).
It's all based on a series of extremely insidious ideas and assumptions that need to be fought against at least as strongly as anti-Semitism or any other form of prejudice: the idea that Arab and Muslim Americans, no matter how forthright or intellectually honest they are being, at some social and political cost I might add, about some of the excesses in the discourses of our own communities and those of the countries of our origin, always have something more to prove. Will you denounce this? Will you denounce that? Will you sign this statement? Will you endorse this petition? Will you participate in this rally? Will you say this in Arabic? And, by the way, when will you stop beating your wife?
It's so obnoxious that it makes one want to throw up one's hands and either walk away, or take the gangsta rap route and embrace the stereotype by throwing it in people's faces or by exaggerating to the point where it becomes obviously an absurdity. Of course I'm not going to do that, and neither should anybody else. But the kind of response I got this morning from the reader, well-meaning though it probably was, couldn't be more discouraging or unhelpful. And, of course, it taps into rather deep reservoirs of anti-Arab stereotypes about oriental subtlety and dissimulation, dishonesty, “taqiyya,” and the simple assertion, that we've heard from American and other Western officials, commentators and politicians in the context of the Iraqi and other recent conflicts in the Middle East that Westerners tend to be straightforward and tell the truth, whereas “Orientals,” including Arabs, tend to engage in what the French would call in their charming phrase “Chinoiserie." This can refer to an artistic style but can also refer to racist Western conceptions of “Oriental subtlety,” deceptive practices and dissimulation. In other words, a certain kind of racism, or racist stereotypes anyway, lie at the core of these outrageous demands. So, my answer to all those questions is not only no, but hell no, unless I want to say such things anyway for my own reasons and purposes. Were it my cue to speak, I should have known it without a prompter, thank you very much.
In the past two years I had the distinct pleasure, following a decade of debating anti-Arab racists and Islamophobes on American television, of debating individuals such as a Hezbollah MP from Lebanon and, on another occasion, a senior leader of the so-called “Islamic Jihad” organization from Gaza on Arabic language TV stations. In both cases the “gentlemen” in question ultimately resorted to openly accusing me of taking the positions I was espousing, which of course were strongly in contradiction to virtually everything they were saying, because I live in the United States and have to submit to the exigencies of American culture and politics, and implying that if I were living in an Arab or Muslim-majority country, I would be agreeing with them wholeheartedly. It was infuriating, but also easily dismissible, because it was obviously a rhetorical tactic of last resort. So now having written a rather soul-searching, and in many circles unpopular, article about what the Helen Thomas controversy reveals about the way some Arab Americans think about Jewish power in the United States, anti-Semitism, and similar issues, to be asked whether I would repeat these sentiments in Arabic almost makes me regret having written it in the first place.
I've written before about the phenomenon whereby Arab and Muslim American “silence” on terrorism is more a function of deafness on the part of our fellow Americans than muteness on the part of our own community. The response to my recent posting I received today is a close relative of that conundrum: no matter what we say, it's never enough. There is always another question, another hurdle we have to jump over, another hoop we have to leap through, another doubt we have to satisfy. And it never ends either. There are those on the Arab-American left and Muslim-American right who think I make a profession of doing precisely that. They're completely wrong, of course. I'm saying what I think, without trying to tailor it to anybody's particular sensibilities, and it hasn't exactly won me a large pile of friends on any side. So be it. But there has to come a time, and soon, when this particular stigma against Arab Americans, the a priori assumption that we will only say certain things in certain contexts or in certain languages, that we will not repeat our views in the same way in both English and Arabic or to Western or Middle Eastern audiences, and that we are somehow always probably dissembling in some way or another, hedging, or being coy about some aspect of our real opinions or sentiments has just got to stop.
If some people want to see this as an angry or defensive reaction to a question that might be viewed as either reasonable or obnoxious depending on your point of view, then fine. I'm perfectly happy to admit to having been obviously annoyed by it, and I came by that honestly. But I want to say very clearly to anyone who cares about it that I absolutely refuse to jump through anybody's hoops, to meet anybody's endless series of BS litmus tests to make sure that I'm not really secretly some kind of radical extremist no matter what I've been writing and saying for so many years, or to in any way allow myself to be held to a different standard than is applied to others. I have written what I have written. It speaks for itself. If it's too much for some people, that's fine. If it's not enough for others, that's fine too. It is what it is, and it's what I think. The stakes are too high to do anything else: The weight of this sad time we must obey; Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.