"Just war" signature campaign and Said's response

Chella Rajan crajan at tellus.org
Tue Apr 2 15:21:17 MST 2002

Some of you may have seen the sanctimonious signature campaign supporting
the war against terrorism by a prominent group of scholars inspired by
Michael Walzer's notion of a "just war"
http://www.propositionsonline.com/html/fighting_for.html  (Walzer is a

This is Edward Said's response, which appeared recently in Al-Ahram:

Thoughts about America
Al-Ahram Weekly Online
28 Feb. - 6 March 2002
Issue No.575

I don't know a single Arab or Muslim American who does not now feel that he
or she belongs to the enemy camp, and that being in the United States at
this moment provides us with an especially unpleasant experience of
alienation and widespread, quite specifically targeted hostility. For
despite the occasional official statements saying that Islam and Muslims and
Arabs are not enemies of the United States, everything else about the
current situation argues the exact opposite. Hundreds of young Arab and
Muslim men have been picked up for questioning and, in far too many cases,
detained by the police or the FBI. Anyone with an Arab or Muslim name is
usually made to stand aside for special attention during airport security
checks. There have been many reported instances of discriminatory behaviour
against Arabs, so that speaking Arabic or even reading an Arabic document in
public is likely to draw unwelcome attention. And of course, the media have
run far too many "experts" and "commentators" on terrorism, Islam, and the
Arabs whose endlessly repetitious and reductive line is so hostile and so
misrepresents our history, society and culture that the media itself has
become little more than an arm of the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and
elsewhere, as now seems to be the case with the projected attack to "end"
Iraq. There are US forces already in several countries with important Muslim
populations like the Philippines and Somalia, the buildup against Iraq
continues, and Israel prolongs its sadistic collective punishment of the
Palestinian people, all with what seems like great public approval in the
United States.

While true in some respects, this is quite misleading. America is more than
what Bush and Rumsfeld and the others say it is. I have come to deeply
resent the notion that I must accept the picture of America as being
involved in a "just war" against something unilaterally labeled as terrorism
by Bush and his advisers, a war that has assigned us the role of either
silent witnesses or defensive immigrants who should be grateful to be
allowed residence in the US. The historical realities are different: America
is an immigrant republic and has always been one. It is a nation of laws
passed not by God but by its citizens. Except for the mostly exterminated
native Americans, the original Indians, everyone who now lives here as an
American citizen originally came to these shores as an immigrant from
somewhere else, even Bush and Rumsfeld. The Constitution does not provide
for different levels of Americanness, nor for approved or disapproved forms
of "American behaviour," including things that have come to be called "un-"
or "anti- American" statements or attitudes. That is the invention of
American Taliban who want to regulate speech and behaviour in ways that
remind one eerily of the unregretted former rulers of Afghanistan. And even
if Mr Bush insists on the importance of religion in America, he is not
authorised to enforce such views on the citizenry or to speak for everyone
when he makes proclamations in China and elsewhere about God and America and
himself. The Constitution expressly separates church and state.


A week ago I was stunned when a European friend asked me what I thought of a
declaration by 60 American intellectuals that was published in all the major
French, German, Italian and other continental papers but which did not
appear in the US at all, except on the Internet where few people took notice
of it. This declaration took the form of a pompous sermon about the American
war against evil and terrorism being "just" and in keeping with American
values, as defined by these self-appointed interpreters of our country. Paid
for and sponsored by something called the Institute for American Values,
whose main (and financially well- endowed) aim is to propagate ideas in
favour of families, "fathering" and "mothering," and God, the declaration
was signed by Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama, Daniel Patrick Moynihan
among many others, but basically written by a conservative feminist
academic, Jean Bethke Elshtain. Its main arguments about a "just" war were
inspired by Professor Michael Walzer, a supposed socialist who is allied
with the pro-Israel lobby in this country, and whose role is to justify
everything Israel does by recourse to vaguely leftist principles. In signing
this declaration, Walzer has given up all pretension to leftism and, like
Sharon, allies himself with an interpretation (and a questionable one at
that) of America as a righteous warrior against terror and evil, the more to
make it appear that Israel and the US are similar countries with similar

Nothing could be further from the truth, since Israel is not the state of
its citizens but of all the Jewish people, while the US is most assuredly
only the state of its citizens. Moreover, Walzer never has the courage to
state boldly that in supporting Israel he is supporting a state structured
by ethno-religious principles, which (with typical hypocrisy) he would
oppose in the United States if this country were declared to be white and

Walzer's inconsistencies and hypocrisies aside, the document is really
addressed to "our Muslim brethren" who are supposed to understand that
America's war is not against Islam but against those who oppose all sorts of
principles, which it would be hard to disagree with. Who could oppose the
principle that all human beings are equal, that killing in the name of God
is a bad thing, that freedom of conscience is excellent, and that "the basic
subject of society is the human person, and the legitimate role of
government is to protect and help to foster the conditions for human
flourishing"? In what follows, however, America turns out to be the
aggrieved party and, even though some of its mistakes in policy are
acknowledged very briefly (and without mentioning anything specific in
detail), it is depicted as hewing to principles unique to the United States,
such as that all people possess inherent moral dignity and status, that
universal moral truths exist and are available to everyone, or that civility
is important where there is disagreement, and that freedom of conscience and
religion are a reflection of basic human dignity and are universally
recognised. Fine. For although the authors of this sermon say it is often
the case that such great principles are contravened, no sustained attempt is
made to say where and when those contraventions actually occur (as they do
all the time), or whether they have been more contravened than followed, or
anything as concrete as that. Yet in a long footnote, Walzer and his
colleagues set forth a list of how many American "murders" have occurred at
Muslim and Arab hands, including those of the Marines in Beirut in 1983, as
well as other military combatants. Somehow making a list of that kind is
worth making for these militant defenders of America, whereas the murder of
Arabs and Muslims -- including the hundreds of thousands killed with
American weapons by Israel with US support, or the hundreds of thousands
killed by US- maintained sanctions against the innocent civilian population
of Iraq -- need be neither mentioned nor tabulated. What sort of dignity is
there in humiliating Palestinians by Israel, with American complicity and
even cooperation, and where is the nobility and moral conscience of saying
nothing as Palestinian children are killed, millions besieged, and millions
more kept as stateless refugees? Or for that matter, the millions killed in
Vietnam, Columbia, Turkey, and Indonesia with American support and

All in all, this declaration of principles and complaint addressed by
American intellectuals to their Muslim brethren seems like neither a
statement of real conscience nor of true intellectual criticism against the
arrogant use of power, but rather is the opening salvo in a new cold war
declared by the US in full ironic cooperation, it would seem, with those
Islamists who have argued that "our" war is with the West and with America.
Speaking as someone with a claim on America and the Arabs, I find this sort
of hijacking rhetoric profoundly objectionable. While it pretends to the
elucidation of principles and the declaration of values, it is in fact
exactly the opposite, an exercise in not knowing, in blinding readers with a
patriotic rhetoric that encourages ignorance as it overrides real politics,
real history, and real moral issues. Despite its vulgar trafficking in great
"principles and values," it does none of that, except to wave them around in
a bullying way designed to cow foreign readers into submission. I have a
feeling that this document wasn't published here for two reasons: one is
that it would be so severely criticised by American readers that it would be
laughed out of court and two, that it was designed as part of a recently
announced, extremely well-funded Pentagon scheme to put out propaganda as
part of the war effort, and therefore intended for foreign consumption.

Whatever the case, the publication of "What are American Values?" augurs a
new and degraded era in the production of intellectual discourse. For when
the intellectuals of the most powerful country in the history of the world
align themselves so flagrantly with that power, pressing that power's case
instead of urging restraint, reflection, genuine communication and
understanding, we are back to the bad old days of the intellectual war
against communism, which we now know brought far too many compromises,
collaborations and fabrications on the part of intellectuals and artists who
should have played an altogether different role. Subsidised and underwritten
by the government (the CIA especially, which went as far as providing for
the subvention of magazines like Encounter, underwrote scholarly research,
travel and concerts as well as artistic exhibitions), those militantly
unreflective and uncritical intellectuals and artists in the 1950s and 1960s
brought to the whole notion of intellectual honesty and complicity a new and
disastrous dimension. For along with that effort went also the domestic
campaign to stifle debate, intimidate critics, and restrict thought. For
many Americans, like myself, this is a shameful episode in our history, and
we must be on our guard against and resist its return.


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