I would like to start my commentary by pointing out to that aspect of Steven Salaita’s scholarship and the one I am working on developing which aims at comparing American Indian narratives to Palestinian ones. It is noteworthy that both Steven Salaita and I might agree, as well as the AIS faculty I have been working with and whose insight has been the most useful if not life-changing, that these comparisons are not made for the purpose of conflating the two, or creating good-looking parallelisms, but rather connecting them for the main purpose of finding ways to counter the colonial violence and policing these communities have been forced into. One similarity that stands out in the Steven Salaita affair that not only connects him to the American Indian, but also to other minorities that have been striving for their liberation, is how these groups have been loosely accused by the power that polices their bodies and minds of being complicit in and responsible for their own tragic living, deeming their actions of resistance as criminal and deserving of contempt and punishment. The discourse that has been employed against Steven Salaita is nothing short of atrocious and disgusting and has criminalized him in ways that need serious attention and repair. Looking back into statements written criticizing Steven Salaita, sadly enough sometimes those written in support of him, and the language used throughout the Board of Trustees meeting, a few examples stand out:
One: In one of the statements criticizing Steven Salaita and describing him as dangerous to the U of I community, his words are called “vulgar.” Vulgar being a kin to other words that have been in use against Palestinians, like “savage,” “barbaric,” “animal,” and “non-human” is a word that was used by the author very spontaneously, or maybe intentionally, with complete disregard of how words such as “vulgar” have been used to justify and further the occupation of Palestinians. In one of his speeches, Netanyahu references Israel as the only civilization in the middle of the jungle [reminiscent of Ehud Barak’s famous description of Israel as “a villa in the jungle"]. He also repeatedly referred to Arabs as barbarian and savage. We go back to how these words have been used against certain communities in the US, and though people, academics at least, now know better than describe an American Indian, scholar or otherwise, as “savage” or “barbarian,” in the neoliberal world the US has created, the image of the Palestinian remains easily accessible for a character assassination of the sort without the slightest shame, or even the slightest self-awareness.
Two: Most statements still dissociate Steven Salaita from the context he speaks from. He is a Palestinian living in diaspora, still has relatives who are subjected to persecution in Palestine, and whose tweets comment on one of the most atrocious crimes of 2014 if not of the 21st century that resulted in the killing of almost 2900 people. As we speak, Gaza’s patients in hospitals are losing fights against their wounds, people are taken into jail for protesting injustices, and many are trying to cope with mental and physical disabilities, re-build their homes, and provide good living for their families. Yet in the weird mess this has created, Steven Salaita commentating on crimes becomes the criminal, whereas people who killed these 2900 people, killed what amounts to a quarter of a million and displaced almost 8 million people are not criminal. Those sending military aid are not criminals. Those whose tax money pays for Israel’s weaponry are not criminals or even complicit. And this is how this logic goes.
Three: Even some of the discourse that has acknowledged the victimhood of Steven Salaita lacks enough or any engagement with who he is, the nation he belongs to, and their project of decolonization that has been ongoing for almost 80 years now, since the time of the British Mandate in the region. Some of his supporters have defended his tweets by calling them emotional— employing the notion that “he is writing these things because of how the conflict personally affects him and his emotions, and thus he has the right to be angry and use any language that comes out in the ‘spirit of the moment.’” The use of such discourse also goes in line with what has been used against Palestinians throughout history. They are not intellectual beings in control of their words and actions, but they are feeling-led, sensuous, and in some cases, stupid. The suicide-bomber is not an intellectual being. The protestor is not an intellectual being. The politician is not an intellectual being. The person whose house just got bombed is not an intellectual being. They need to be disciplined, in some cases, “civilized.” Israel did to the Middle East what no Arab has done—bring a civilization to the jungle. I go back to that statement because it is important to see what one should and should not say when talking about Palestinians and their culture that has always been creative, literary, and diverse, until it was usurped, deformed, and in some cases appropriated for the foundation of a new alien state. Palestine is more than Edward Said. It is Ibrahim Touqan, Mahmoud Darwish, Fadwa Touqan, Samih al-Qasem, Suheir Hammad, Rashid Khaldidi, Rabab Abdulhadi, Hatem Bazian, Tamim Al Barghouthi, Rasmeah Odeh, Naji al-Ali, Ghassan Kanafani, and Steven Salaita amongst many others. These are some of the Palestinians who have been targeted for their scholarship or literature— some of them held in house arrest, jailed, injured, and even assassinated (I am referencing here Naji al Ali, a caricaturist, and Ghassan Kanafani, a journalist and fiction writer).
Four: In the BoT meeting, one of those who requested public comment was an ex-trustee who said, without self-restraint, without shame, without raising eyebrows or causing a fuss that he does not want “Steven Salaita to be the face of this [“fine”] institution.” Nobody stood up and said “What is wrong with you?” “What is wrong with Steven Salaita’s face?” “Why can’t this institution have as one of its faces a brown, Palestinian face?” They did not. They did not call it racism or bias. They did not call it “uncivil” or “malice.” Instead, they applauded him. Chairman Kennedy screamed a “Thank you” that he did not use with any of the other speakers. His statement was celebrated. Nobody wants the face of a criminal to be the face of the academy after all. Isn’t that the way it goes?
Conclusion: I am sharing these little “nuances” to show their great damage. I think it is about time that the academy questions its discourse and realizes what horrible crimes its words produce. I am here to comment on academic freedom by saying that the reason why those in support of Chancellor Wise’s decision also employed a discourse of academic freedom is because it has always been the case that some people are excluded from that freedom anyways. Steven Salaita as a Palestinian is physically not free; he remains policed like me and everyone else who dares to criticize power. The fact that he is also not academically free should not only tie to his ethnicity but also tie to how the Academy, at times, functions like a state that permits, prohibits, and punishes without accountability and, as I said before, without shame or even the least bit of self-awareness.