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A close-up image of a dictionary entry for "Islamophobia."

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In early November, we gathered with colleagues in Montreal for a roundtable entitled “Teaching 9/11 and the Global War on Terror at the Undergraduate Level” as part of the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). Alongside our conversation on pedagogical approaches across disciplines and geographies, we reflected on the constraints and personal risks of teaching these topics specifically as faculty members of color at our respective institutions. Our practice as educators in the classroom, we agreed, was inevitably shaped by pressures and politics well beyond it. Since Oct. 7, 2023, these pressures have been rapidly intensifying.

As if on cue, a few days later we learned that our panel was selected by a U.S.-based far-right website as among the most “politically correct” sessions at MESA. Purporting to reveal that MESA promoted “anti-Israel” and “anti-Jew” hatred (seemingly synonymous in their view), the author had evidently perused the conference program, copied and pasted a handful of abstracts ,and largely fantasized the rest. It didn’t matter that none of the summaries for our session mentioned Israel at all. Adding a dash of retro flair, we also stood accused of “spreading communism.”

This paranoid-delusional exposé of MESA and our panel gave us both a chuckle and a chill at once, especially in this climate where fringe ideas, no matter how ludicrous, can quickly gain mainstream traction and suddenly upend careers and personal lives. It is no exaggeration to say that academic freedom and extramural freedom of conscience and expression have never been more imperiled than they are today. Their erosion threatens the entire project and purpose of postsecondary education and, in turn, of democracy, or any sincere aspiration for it.

Yet we also contend that recent high-profile controversies involving elite institutions like Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania are only the most visible culmination of the right wing’s organized outrage machine. Developed over at least two decades of surveillance and anti-intellectual suppression, this well-funded and well-organized political strategy includes targeting vocal racialized scholars under the cover of “fighting terror.” In this moment of escalation and acceleration, it is vitally important to name how racism against Muslims, Arabs and immigrants works as an organizing grammar of the current assault on academic freedom.

Many readers may be familiar with the long-term developments that have eviscerated universities: corporatization; donors and trustees who overstep their roles; bloated upper administrations; casualized and disempowered teaching labor; the weakening of tenure; the dismantling of humanities programs; the defunding of diversity, equity and inclusion programs and centers; and even the outright closing of some postsecondary institutions. As scholars and educators working on state securitization and surveillance of racialized minorities, we believe these trends must be read within the framework of the so-called global war on terror (GWOT). In this open-ended “forever war” that has been so deeply normalized in social and political life across the North Atlantic and the world, higher education has become a fierce front line of conflict.

We find Patrick Wolfe’s famous formulation applicable here: we understand the GWOT as a structure, not an event. Even if we say that the U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan are technically over, the cultures and infrastructures of the GWOT are now deeply ingrained in policing, education, politics, news media, technology and entertainment. From this view, we can see how the aggregated effect of the neoliberalization of higher education is to neutralize universities as spaces of evidence-based critique and dissent. Framing the assault on academic freedom, including that which has been unleashed since October 2023, in terms of the longer GWOT also directs our attention to how racism—in particular, anti-Muslim racism—is key to disarming universities as sites of real or perceived political opposition.

Contrary to most contemporary mainstream discourse, when we talk about anti-Muslim racism, or the more familiar shorthand, Islamophobia, we do not only mean irrational hatred of Muslims or of Islam as a religion, though these are certainly part of it. Rather, drawing on research from Mariam’s work, among others, we mean that “Muslim” functions in this context as a racialized category that interpellates a range of subjects, including Sikhs, Arabic-speaking non-Muslims and brown immigrants perceived as threats to American imperial interests.

Cultural norms based on anti-Muslim racism have been intentionally manufactured across Western state and nonstate institutions for decades, with significant intensification immediately following Sept. 11, 2001. Throughout the ’00s, political leaders, think tanks, academics, news pundits and others churned out racist discourses and stereotypes about Muslims and Islam to rationalize U.S.-imperial militarization of much of the Global South. These anti-Muslim narratives were key frameworks to justify two decades of U.S.-led military campaigns against “terror” in more than 80 countries around the world. Mahmood Mamdani described this as a kind of “culture-talk” that strategically conceals the racializing impact of anti-Muslim discourses. The particularly covert nature of language-based anti-Muslim racism serves to sanction discriminatory practices and policies behind a thin mask of plausible deniability.

It is this type of covert racism that we and countless colleagues have experienced and witnessed in the dual role we inhabit as both educators/subjects and targets/objects of the GWOT. As faculty and students who pushed against anti-Muslim racism, we are familiar with the feeling of being watched and targeted in an increasingly panoptic climate on campuses and online. For some time now, to teach certain “sensitive” topics in a university classroom has been to fear surveillance and retribution, including the loss of employment and rescinded job offers. In the current climate, even booking a room for student groups can get a professor sanctioned by their institution.

From the day of the Hamas attack, both U.S. and Israeli officials have repeatedly and strategically likened Oct. 7 to Sept. 11 for U.S. audiences. And indeed, the immediate post–Oct. 7 assault on academic freedom has unfolded as an aggressive reactivation—one might even say completion—of post–Sept. 11 anti-intellectualism in the name of defending the U.S. support for Israel’s war effort. It is instructive to recall how, within days of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a parade of academics and pundits famously welcomed one salutary effect they hoped would come of the tragedy: the demise of postmodernism and postcolonialism. These twinned academic boogeymen of that era became semantically linked to terrorism in public discourse. Both were accused of promoting a kind of extreme cultural relativism that, at best, failed to celebrate Western superiority and, at worst, heroized Islamic fundamentalists. Even worse, they were “un-American”: postmodernism was a frivolous European import, while the swarthy complexion of postcolonial scholarship spoke for itself. The humanities, as a whole, became guilty and traitorous by association.

In 2003, the American Association of University Professors issued a report warning that academic freedom could become a casualty of the war on terror. Two decades after the AAUP’s report, the effects they foresaw now appear modest, even quaint, compared to what has transpired. Among other things, they did not anticipate the racialized othering of dissent that would arise with post–Sept. 11 securitization culture, nor the many state and nonstate mechanisms that have been deployed to discipline and surveil students and faculty of color. Just as most educators blacklisted for “subversive” activity during the McCarthy era were Jewish, faculty members of color today—who disproportionately fill the ranks of contingent and nontenured teaching labor—must be extra self-censoring in their language and cautious in their conduct. For example, in the structure of the GWOT, the demonization of critical race theory is revealed to be, among other things, another iteration of racialized backlash against “unpatriotic” and “divisive” teaching and scholarship.

In light of all of this, we should not be surprised by the mainstreaming of spurious attempts to equate criticism of Israel or of Zionism with “support for terrorism” or even “celebrations” of Hamas. This malicious conflation, which over the past 20 years has been used to erode academic freedom and suppress dissent, is now being hastily swept into other domains of life, particularly politics. This form of anti-Muslim, or Islamophobic, culture talk falls into a familiar pattern, not least because, as Edward Said long argued, “the question of Palestine” was embryonic to Orientalist—and subsequently American—securitization discourses and mechanisms centered on the “problem” of Arabs and Muslims. We are now witnessing the hypergeneralization of the well-worn, racist tactic of delegitimizing Palestinians and pro-Palestinian advocates as inherently antisemitic and thus irrational actors. If we are to save academic freedom and with it any hope of democracy, we must consistently identify the silencing of Palestinian human rights advocacy, denial of Palestinian suffering and devaluation of Palestinian life for what it is: a particularly pernicious and unquestioned form of Islamophobic bigotry.

Thus far, whenever Islamophobia has been mentioned in university statements and otherwise, it has been as a passing afterthought to antisemitism. Of course, it is important to acknowledge the frightening normalcy with which antisemitic speech and white supremacist conspiracy theories have re-entered public discourse in recent years and the legitimate fears that Jewish students feel as a result. But if we are properly attuned to the historically intertwined relationship between anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim dehumanization in the Western imagination, we can better recognize the current frenzy to root out supposed “antisemitism” as itself both antisemitic and Islamophobic in effect. In the racist logics of the GWOT, the extreme right has been given a license to act out xenophobic fantasies under the cover of performative antisemitism policing. This is wonderfully convenient for politicians known for promoting actual antisemitic views, like Elise Stefanik, who can at once deflect credible accusations of bigotry and project their anti-immigrant, white supremacist politics under the pretense of care for Jewish students’ safety. Stefanik’s seemingly contradictory behavior is actually quite coherent if we recognize that the real objective is shifting blame for growing antisemitism to “liberal” institutions like universities and in particular racialized students and faculty, thus drawing attention away from rampant anti-Jewish hatred on the far right.

Evidence of this can be seen in the congressional line of questioning in November that cast efforts to increase diversity and equity on campuses as inherently hostile to Jewish students. The message conveyed was clear: campuses are made dangerous by the mere presence of students and professors of color, portrayed as Trojan horses for terror. These types of willful mischaracterizations have already endangered not only the livelihoods and safety but the very lives of racialized students and faculty. We fear that this unhinged new phase of the GWOT will ultimately put many of our students and colleagues—whether Muslim, perceived as proximal to Islam, or Jewish (especially those involved in Palestine solidarity organizing)—in grave danger.

Mariam Durrani is a linguistic anthropologist and a professorial lecturer at American University’s School of International Service. Her scholarship and advocacy are located at the intersection of global racialization, Muslim youth identity, migration and critical education studies in the U.S., Pakistan and online. Sarah Ghabrial is an associate professor of history at Concordia University, in Montreal. Her research and teaching are centered around issues of race, colonialism, Islam and state and nonstate law, with particular focus on the modern history of the Maghreb.

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