Symposium Introduction

Humanity’s history is a history of wars and conquests, with one people conquering another only for them to be conquered themselves. Some conquests, however, aided by industry and technology, extended beyond internal infighting and natural geographic borders, reaching continents across oceans and leaving deep imprints on those who were conquered: Islam, for example, has been the religion of far-flung societies since the Muslim conquests that began in the eighth century C.E. The type of conquest, however, that interests George Fourlas (and many other scholars) is that of the colonialism by western Europe of Africa, the Americas, large parts of Asia, including the Middle East, and Australia. The people who inhabit these regions—or, in some cases, whoever is left of them—are now free of colonialism, but only “officially,” for their societies continue to struggle and live with colonialism’s impact on their lives. This raises many interesting questions, including the kind of cooperation—solidarity, if you will—that the peoples of these regions should forge so as to address the consequences of colonialism on their lives.

Enter George’s Anti-Colonial Solidarity: Race, Reconciliation, and MENA Liberation, with its focus on MENA peoples: people of the Middle East and North Africa, whether they reside in these regions or have immigrated elsewhere, especially North America. To Fourlas, MENA peoples continue to face and deal with social discrimination because of who they are, with colonialism being one crucial cause or, at the very least, a context in which such discrimination thrives. This kind of treatment is the subject of Edward Said’s Orientalism, a foundational book in this area. Indeed, one crucial thesis of the book is that such discrimination is a form of racism, meriting the label and the moral weight behind it. This thesis is important not only theoretically, as one supported by arguments and an analysis of the historical and social conditions of MENA people, but practically, because racism is a phenomenon that many people confront, thereby providing a unifying basis of solidarity among people, not just those oppressed by racism, but anyone, really, given the moral call and stakes.

George’s interlocutors in this symposium pick up various threads in the book. Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson points out that in some discourses whiteness is always being recalibrated. What were once considered non-white people (e.g., some eastern Europeans) are now considered white compared to others (Syrians). If so, then “both a refusal of invitations to whiteness and a disinvestment from whiteness appear difficult indeed,” so who is to be part of anti-colonial solidarity and who is to count as part of coloniality?

Falguni Sheth focuses on George’s re-thinking of race and racism as part of his project of forging the requisite conditions for anti-colonial solidarity as a form of meaning-making. Falguni wonders whether George’s rejection of call-out culture as part of his attempt to build reconciliation through meaning-making applies to all locations and groups. Falguni also wonders about the extent to which George’s long-term project is affected by and in a world that is “increasingly fractured by short-term visions.” Yet another question is the relationship between George’s project and the similar one addressed by many feminists of color—after all, they have similar concerns to those addressed by George.

Alberto Urquidez raises what might be a tension in George’s treatment of the concept of racism, which is reflected in the desire to both maintain its strong moral connotations and to integrate the person accused of racism into the moral community. The issue here is whether the moral force of “racist” can be retained without its shaming aspect. If this is difficult to pull off, then shaming might be a stumbling block for the integration of those accused of racism into the anti-racist community.

David Kim suggests that, contra George’s claim, anti-MENA attitudes are not just forms of racism, and that their xenophobic and Islamophobic parts make the underlying racism “more culturally and nationalistically inflected than what we might find in, say, anti-Black racism.” Whereas George thinks that xenophobia reinforces racism, David thinks that they can merge to form a separate phenomenon, something like xeno-racism. David also asks about which norms to use to forge MENA solidarity: their history and geographic breadth have too many intra-differences and too much strife to form substantive norms of solidarity. So are the norms simply strategic, to fight colonialism?

John Harfoush focuses on whether MENA identity is simultaneously too narrow and broad: if according to George, Arab identity has become a past, given its emergence in the shadow of, and against, Ottoman rule, what would George make of current Arab identity, continuously maintained in the face of Zionism? John’s worry is that using MENA instead of Arab identity might push the Palestinian issue into the background, and George might have overlooked the strategic use of “Arab” as a way to resist colonialist hegemony, be it past (Ottoman, British, French) or present (Zionist). But MENA might also be too narrow of an identity given that the emphasis of the Organization of Arab Students (OAS) on solidarity with other anti-colonialist movements around the world.

Sabeen Ahmed asks whether George’s use of orientalism and orientalization refer to a specific modality or to racial otherization, period, because one concern is “a kind of Orientalism without the Orient,” given that “what is unique to Orientalist-racism … is that it produces Orientalized subjects whose subjectivity is associated with a distinct set of historically and geographically contingent characteristics (the mystical, the submissive-exotic-erotic, the existential threat it poses to Christian empire).” Sabeen suggests instead the concept of imperialist-racism, which covers all otherized subjects, including orientalized ones.

Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson

Response

World White Supremacy and Anti-Colonial Solidarity

Russia’s most recent and ongoing aggression against Ukraine, whose beginning many date on February 24, 2022 but which really began on February 20,  2014, with Russia’s annexation of Crimea, triggered a massive refugee crisis in Europe. People reporting on this crisis quickly pointed out racial discrimination in the treatment of refugees. On the one hand, observers noted outright racism against African, Indian, and Romani people trying to leave Ukraine. On the other hand, they criticized the different policies, treatment, and portrayal of Ukrainian refugees, compared to Syrians, Afghans, and other refugees from the Middle East during the 2015 refugee crisis. As American journalist and NBC’s London correspondent Kelly Cobiella “put it bluntly: these are not refugees from Syria. These are refugees from neighbouring Ukraine. … These are Christians, they’re white.”

As I was reading these reports, I found myself somewhat perplexed by the unequivocal claiming of Ukrainians—those regarded as “properly” Ukrainian, anyway—as white Europeans. Having grown up in Austria, itself precariously situated at the periphery of what is unambiguously Europe, I vividly remember the rampant bigotry and vile racism against Turkish migrants who came from Turkey, the Balkans, and the Levant under so-called “guest worker” agreements, against Eastern Europeans before and after the fall of the “Iron Curtain,” and against refugees from the former Yugoslavia during the war in the 1990s. While whiteness wasn’t an explicit part of the conversation at the time, it was clear that the migrants were regarded as decidedly not European. So I was quite puzzled by the appeals to “white Europeanness” that framed representations of the purported crisis in 2022. The racial thinking expressed here appeared to me to be an imposition of U.S. centric frameworks of race and racism—what George Fourlas aptly characterizes as “practices of inclusion and exclusion according to a Black-white binary” (25)—onto a place with complicated histories, geographies, and identities that needs its own historically and contextually specific analysis.

Those of us who want to think about race and racialization beyond the limits of U.S. categories find a model for this kind of analysis in Fourlas’ terrific book Anti-Colonial Solidarity: Race, Reconciliation, and MENA Liberation. Fourlas is particularly interested in the racialization of MENA people in the United States, though his account situates the racism directed at them in a global history of Orientalist colonialism. And it is racism they experience, Fourlas insists, rather than merely xenophobia or Islamophobia. These latter terms, he argues, obscure the distinctively racialized experience of MENA people, who are institutionally categorized as white but socially treated as non-white. As a consequence, he claims that racism is the appropriate framework for making sense of MENA oppression, and he does so for both historical and conceptual reasons.

Fourlas’ conceptual argument appeals to the normative weight and strategic value of racism compared to Islamophobia and xenophobia. While xenophobia is a useful term to capture prejudice against foreigners, which certainly informs the treatment of MENA people, it does not track the distinct experience of “foreigners” who are unable to assimilate into whiteness. Xenophobia is, thus, too broad a term to precisely name MENA experience. On the other hand, Islamophobia is too narrow because the victims of Islamophobic prejudice are often neither Arab nor Muslim. Consequently, Fourals suggests that Islamophobia, too, is a misnomer of the kind of treatment directed at MENA people.

One might be tempted to object, here, that people can be victims of Islamophobia even if they are not Arab or Muslim. Scholars like Jasbir Puar or Muneer Ahmad have made this argument in the context of the racialization of terrorism. For instance, Ahmad argues that a reordering of racial positions in the United States was occasioned by 9/11 such that “Arab Christians, Muslim non- Arabs (such as Pakistanis or Indonesians), non- Muslim South Asians (Sikhs, Hindus), and even Latinos and African Americans” are aggregated by a logic of fungibility in an amorphous category of the “Muslim-looking person.”1 Puar similarly describes a “consolidation of new racial populations” and “a racialization of religion, implicating Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians and those mistaken for them (‘terrorist look-alikes’).2 Perhaps, then, Islamophobia is more capacious than Fourlas suggests and can be operationalized to analyze the social treatment of MENA people.

Fourlas’ historical argument for racism as the appropriate framework to understand MENA oppression offers a rejoinder to this sort of objection insofar as it is intended to demonstrate the co-emergence of colonialism, Orientalism, and racialization. Fourlas’ claim, as I understand it, is that U.S. racism is one historically and contextually specific form of tactics of colonial subjugation and division that are, despite their specificity, continuous with other such tactics. He accordingly charts a genealogy of various moments of emergence of Orientalist racism from the Reconquista to de las Casas’ vilification of Arabs, Greeks, Romans, and Turks as barbarians and to the construction of Greece as a seemingly unified entity at the dawn of the twentieth century. That U.S. racism is part of this genealogy, albeit with important modifications, is obscured by the emphasis on the Black-white binary so prevalent in the United States. Yet Fourlas argues that adequately understanding U.S. racism requires that we situate it in this global context to examine how Orientalism facilitates, at the same time as it is modulated by the historically specific forms of racism dominant in the United States. Diagnosing MENA oppression in this way thus not only redeems the framework of racism as the appropriate analytic lens but also suggests different responses to such oppression.

At the same time, reclaiming the language of racism in this way invites objections, which Fourlas discusses and ultimately rejects. On the one hand, critics might argue that accusing someone of racism tends to elicit defensive responses, thereby entrenching the problem and making the kinds of reconciliatory encounters Fourals envisages as an antiracist praxis difficult. On the other hand, the critic might object that because MENA people in the United States are officially categorized as white, they lack formal standing as targets of racism (though of course anyone in the U.S., not just formally recognized racial minorities, are legally protected from race discrimination).

Fourlas’ response is to call for an antiracist praxis that relinquishes colonial norms of condemnation, such as posturing and calling out, in favor of the collective work of reconciliation and meaning-making. He locates examples of such meaning-making labor in the pre-colonial practices of the MENA world, whose relational, reciprocal, and heterogeneous practices made possible, at the same time as they were covered over by an Orientalist, Western ideal of Greece as the cradle of European/Western civilization. Fourlas shows that this ideal is a recent invention that is, however, powerfully and consequentially retrojected into the distant past, thereby redacting a long history of shared meaning-making across differences. 

To remember and reclaim these practices, Fourlas claims the myth of Babel as a counter-myth against the myth of the Greek ideal and as a guide for anti-colonial solidarity. He also examines practices of solidarity in Cyprus and Rojava as concrete examples of other, anti-colonial modalities of socio-political relations rooted in mutual trust, respect, and a face-to-face encounter. These, he emphasizes, do not constitute a blueprint for anti-colonial solidarity but give us concrete strategies, tactics, and conditions of possibility in which real people are engaged and that, therefore, offer actual alternatives to Orientalist, colonial, and ethno-nationalist retrenchments with their concomitant intensification of violence. These examples offer important lessons in a time when what is at stake is our planetary future, and we would do well to carefully consider how to scale up practices of solidarity and what myths might help us do so.

But I want to consider, by way of conclusion and as an opening for conversation, whether the kinds of solidarity Fourals envisions aren’t precisely what causes a retrenchment of whiteness, creating a vicious cycle that seems difficult to break. To illustrate, let me return to the various refugee crises with which I began. To be sure, a full accounting of the purported crisis requires precisely the sort of grappling with Orientalism and colonialism Fourlas performs. This is particularly important in spaces that Fourlas describes as “interstitial” (65): regions characterized by rich and complex histories and presences of colonial violence, as well as relationality, exchange, and appreciation among people who together created shared practices and identities that are today submerged—though, I would argue, not eliminated—under national and linguistic borders. In his book White Enclosures: Racial Capitalism & Coloniality along the Balkan Route, Piro Rexhepi argues that these “peripheries of white supremacy, where processes of race and border making are intricately and historically tied to the ways in which whiteness and coloniality function within the inner core of Euro-American spaces” are particularly prone to anxieties about encroachments on whiteness, for instance in the form of “Arabization” ostensibly brought on by refugees.3 Put differently, it is precisely because the Balkans are a particularly intense site of coloniality that they are a premier space for the production and reproduction of whiteness and race. Viewed in this lens, claims that Ukrainians are Christian and white and, therefore, different from Syrians, Afghans, or African migrants is not really claims about their race but attempts to recalibrate whiteness in a space where it is fragile and porous. Indeed, Rexhepi argues that anxieties about refugees are “not so much about xenophobic racism” but about “refugee’s proximity and potential to resonate with the local racial other, the collaboration of which exposes the fragility of the supposed whiteness of the Bulgarian and Balkan people.”4 What is on display, in other words, is what Nicholas De Genova has described as “a variegated and contradictory nexus of racialized formations of whiteness that extend toward a series of ‘off-white’ or ‘not-quite-white’ borderland identities”5 that creates affective investments in whiteness.

If Rexhepi and De Genova are right, I wonder where this leaves us with regard to realizing the kinds of anti-colonial solidarity Fourlas recommends. For if whiteness is a flexible formation that is continuously recalibrated to suppress the very practices of solidarity that threaten its ascendancy, both a refusal of invitations to whiteness and a disinvestment from whiteness appear difficult indeed. Let me close, then, with a question Fourlas poses to his readers: “How do we uphold the anticolonial principle of non-domination and continue to strive toward anti-colonial solidarity when confronted by hostile forces?” (130). What concrete forms must unplugging and engagement take to produce possibilities for collective sense-making and solidarity rather than resentment, backlash, and a “possessive investment in whiteness”6 that would rather go extinct than make concessions? 

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    George Fourlas

    Reply

    Fourlas Response Part 1

    Many thanks to Raja Halwani for facilitating and participating in this exchange. Similarly, thank you Alberto, David, Falguni, John, Sabeen, and Verena, for your careful analysis and critiques of my book, Anti-Colonial Solidarity: Race, Reconciliation, and MENA Liberation. Here, I will do my best to respond to what has been said by all of these wonderful people, but it is also worth noting that we have been in conversation for some time and will, I hope, continue to engage for many more years. The longevity of this conversation is important because these contributions are formulated with a creative and affirmative intent, and in that sense I understand my interlocutors and this engagement as reflecting a certain iteration of anti-colonial solidarity. We are simultaneously resisting a given shared problem (in simple terms, the coloniality of power or violent domination more generally) and also reaffirming our small philosophical community for its own sake. Should we find ourselves in a brighter and better possible future where violent colonial domination has been sufficiently defeated such that we can live our liberation, I would hope to continue engaging with this community. In other words, meaning making is an end in itself, but one that is easy to lose sight of in our overdetermined philopolemical world. And, to be reductive and overly simplistic, if there is one thing that people should take away from the concept of anti-colonial solidarity, it is this: solidarities that are solely resistant risk replicating colonial norms. An anti-colonial solidarity requires a sense of collective meaning-making or collective-determination that is rooted in the affirmation of relational-life itself. My responses are formulated with this distinction between resistance-driven solidarity and relational-life solidarity in mind.

    The idea to engage in a symposium about Anti-Colonial Solidarity through Syndicate was first raised by Verena Erlenbusch Anderson at the Pacific APA in 2022. Verena participated in a panel with SAMENAT (Society for Anti-Colonial Middle East and North African Thought)—alongside Falguni Sheth, Alfred Frankowski, Mlado Ivanovic, and Sabeen Ahmed—that centered my book. Verena’s contribution, a variation of which is her contribution to this dialogue, repurposes my methods and redeploys them for critical, as well as Anti-Colonial purposes. Given this redeployment, I think it is useful to briefly discuss the method, or the after-the-fact rationale for why I create in a certain way. 

    My goal is not to offer an airtight argument about some given theme or topic (i.e. whether or not a prisoner knows the color red, which seems irrelevant in this era of perpetual crisis). I am offering a perspective that is rooted in an historical and ethical foundation, cultivated over many years and in the face of various phenomena that are distinct to my MENA American experience, and this perspective, when extended, affords possibilities that might not otherwise be recognized. Indeed, I understand this to be the central goal of a critical genealogical method, of which Verena is a skilled practitioner, and a fundamental attribute of anti-colonial thinking more generally: for a process or position to be anti-colonial then on some level it must afford possibility, rather than cut off the possible through rigid boundaries and objectifications. Put differently, non-objectified relational life is possibility. Along with Verena, the other interlocutors in this symposium have similarly pressed me to expand on the why and how of my claims, so my responses are in some ways also a further reflection on method. 

    With that said, I do my best to respond to the criticisms of my colleagues below which will hopefully also help those who have not yet encountered my work to make sense of what I am attempting. In some instances, where I see the critiques leveled as having sufficient overlap, I will cluster my responses. I understand these critiques according to the following groupings: (i) performative whiteness and the seduction of power; (ii) the relationship between shame, reconciliation, and solidarity; (iii) the social-political limits of the concepts of race and MENA; and (iv) the historical and geo-political limits of orientalism/racism as critical tools. I cannot possibly respond to every concern raised by my critics and so I invite further conversation. I also look forward to engaging others who may still have questions, concerns, or thoughts on other ways that we might creatively build a better future together, against empire and for the good of our communities in and of themselves.

    1. Performative Whiteness and the Seduction of Power

    Verena raises a useful tension in her critique, rightly emphasizing the general tendency for threatened groups to re-entrench themselves in already existing collective modalities insofar as those possible and already known ways of life seem to offer security. Here, Verena focuses on whiteness as the go-to identity formation—which is itself a certain form of solidarity (though by no measure anti-colonial or ethical)—that targeted and racially ambiguous bodies retreat to when their existence is once again threatened by principal colonial forces. I will refer to this as the problem of performative whiteness. 

    She specifically focuses on the interstitial Balkan worlds as “a particularly intense site of coloniality” and thus “a premier space for the production and reproduction of whiteness and race.” The claim being that coloniality values non-Black/non-white interstitial bodies because they can be used, especially in times of crisis, to entrench whiteness and sometimes Blackness. A similar sort of claim can also be made about nationalism, given the enmeshed relationship between race and the nation. 

    Here, I agree with Verena’s assessment of the Balkan world and former Ottoman territories more generally—what I refer to as the broader MENA world—as being a contested site that problematizes racial formation, racialization, and nationalism. Further, Verena rightly argues that the public contestation of an interstitial world, like Ukraine, is simultaneously an investment in affirming (or at least attempting to affirm) the reification of already “known” modes of existence (in this case Europe and its whiteness). Put differently, until somewhat recently I do not think it made sense to speak of Ukraine as European (though it was certainly Eurasian in the continental sense) or its peoples as white. But Ukraine is now a proxy war zone for world powers, and the narrative accompanying that war is akin to other historical moments wherein the political idea of Europe extended territorially. The formation of Greece/Turkey, which I discuss at length in the book, is another example of this sort of orientalist-racist whitewashing. 

    The problem remains, however, of the real lives of people who are caught in the churn of national and racial emergence. How do those caught in the colonial reorganization resist the pressure to perform whiteness, and thus nationalism, while also maintaining an affirmative sense of community?  It is on this point that Verena raises the following problem: 

    For if whiteness is a flexible formation that is continuously recalibrated to suppress the very practices of solidarity that threaten its ascendancy, both a refusal of invitations to whiteness and a disinvestment from whiteness appear difficult indeed. Let me close, then, with a question Fourlas poses to his readers: “How do we uphold the anticolonial principle of non-domination and continue to strive toward anti-colonial solidarity when confronted by hostile forces?” (130). What concrete forms must unplugging and engagement take to produce possibilities for collective sense-making and solidarity rather than resentment, backlash, and a “possessive investment in whiteness”1 that would rather go extinct than make concessions?

    First, I do not have an easy solution to Verena’s challenge. Quijano also recognizes this problem when he says “beyond repression, the main instrument of all power is its seduction.”2 And, I do not think that the seduction of power is unique to any population. Barack Obama gave into this temptation and enacted coloniality in ways that had not previously been witnessed, from drone strikes against innocents to secure western hegemony throughout the global south, to shamelessly drinking clean water in front of the poisoned people of Flint, Michigan, all brutal performances of whiteness. So, my second response to Verena’s problematization is to broaden the problem: Under coloniality, all people, regardless of their positionality, are afforded the opportunity to be brutal conquistadors because the system rewards violent domination at nearly every level of society. Nevertheless, being a dog for white supremacy is not a guarantee of security, so at the very least selling out affords the possibility of short-term reward with the long-term risk of being known throughout history as a traitor and enemy of the people. 

    Resistance is indeed difficult, but this is also why a relational or enactivist perspective coupled with real community is so crucial—that is, the problem becomes distributed and thus a shared burden. Indeed, even those amongst us who are dedicated to enacting a relational mode that does not replicate domination can and will, at some point, fail to resist the trappings of coloniality. And those of us who live in the so-called western world are unintentionally participating in domination of some kind in our basic ordinary activities—the materials powering the phone on which I am reading the final draft of this response did not come through a peaceful exchange or negotiation of resources that was mutually beneficial to all involved parties. 

    So the question is not just how do we resist a possessive investment in whiteness, but also how do we maintain a vigilant divestment from coloniality (and thus whiteness) once committed to resistance? Falguni Sheth echoes a similar concern that anticipates my response: “often populations emerge in unity because they are constrained (or made so intentionally) and are afforded scant resources. How do groups antagonized under colonial legacies find a way to reconcile?” I plan to unpack these claims and further respond to Falguni by saying more about the relationship between shame, reconciliation, and solidarity; but, it is also worth emphasizing that the specifics—of how groups pitted against themselves by colonial power reconcile—end up being contingent, which is why any useful theory of reconciliation must not be overly rigid lest it fail to account for the necessities of contingency.


    1.  George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics, Revised and Expanded Edition (Temple University Press, 2009).

    2. Quijano, Aníbal. “Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality.” Cultural studies 21.2-3 (2007): 168–178.pp. 169.

Falguni Sheth

Response

Rethinking Race as a Path to Anti-Colonial Solidarity

I appreciate the invitation to offer comments on George Fourlas’ book: it is an important part of the re-emergence of anti-colonial writing toward MENA liberation. His work joins the remarkable field already paved by a motley crew of new and old activists and thinkers: Frantz Fanon, Fayez Sayegh, Edward Said, Noura Erakat, John Harfouch, Eqbal Ahmed, Seloua Boulbina, to name a few. This book is a vast, wide-ranging, broadly schematized book. In the process of framing what anti-colonial solidarity could look like, George has reached way back, and looked way forward in order to crumple up the colonial map and recycle it anew.

Part of the method of anti-colonial thinking is to resist the temptation to go for the low-hanging fruit in order to aim for much slower, long-term, larger strategies. Accordingly, George’s work falls well within the realm of thoughtful, resistant, forceful anti-colonial thinking: in particular, in anti-colonial solidarity. As he frames this category, it requires a rethinking of a number of other terms: history, racial identity (of a broad swath of peoples who have been forced to be interpellated by long-standing colonial regimes), “intermural” obligations (which have been eviscerated by the antagonisms between colonized peoples whose lands that have been usurped), and accordingly MENA epistemes, unity, etc.  

In his first chapter, George argues along the lines of racialization and embodiment that take their lead from the standard of Whiteness: thus, the xenophobia against first generation immigrants can become diluted in future generations if they are read as white, as George points out—but that is not the case for non-Black, non-White populations. In this regard, poignantly, the sense of not belonging becomes transgenerational, and thus, as he says, security is always conditioned by that fear (Fourlas 2022, 26). But xenophobia and racialization are historically conditioned: that history is an intrinsic part of the history of colonialism—the history that the governors of Florida, Georgia, Virginia, and Texas, among others, are trying so hard to stamp out. Racialization is intrinsically embedded/embodied not only in visible perceptions, but perceptions that are conjoined with historical legacies and political narratives that condition our sense of what it means to be “Asian,” for example. In Georgia, the state in which I reside, then: being Asian is most often a reference (if Asians are even acknowledged at all) to East Asians, and rarely South Asians or Southeast Asians. Besides a history of attempted conquest, what do these populations have in common, besides attempts to colonize or rebuff by the United States or the British, and a sense that all of these tiny little countries are part of the continent of Asia? Asians from the North, the East, the South, the South East, have little (not nothing, but little) in common culturally, linguistically, culinarily, religiously.

Similarly, George approaches the issue of theorizing MENA liberation from specific histories in chapters three through six. One of his primary aims is to explore how to reconcile the differing stories that MENA peoples tell about their identities (Fourlas 2022, 55–56). Critical of the race-national conflation in telling the story of racialization, he wants to explore how the historical fluidity of different identities can be reconciled to form MENA solidarities. I think this is a crucial question, and a number of scholars, including myself, have tried to theorize an amalgam of amorphous identities (mostly other than MENA) through vehicles such as law (Lopez 1998; Gross 2010); phenemonology (Alcoff 2006; Sundstrom 2008; Al-Saji 2004); history (Montoya 2002); and anti-coloniality (Fanon 2004; 1988; 1965; Quijano 2000; Lugones 2010). I wonder how these approaches—to different populations, who were nevertheless colonized—compare to his approach to a similar topic.

I wonder if part of the answer to my query begins from the place where George is re-schematizing anti-colonial solidarity as that which should avoid domination. And in this sense, what strikes me is an almost casual comment: as he says, “anti-colonial solidarity” requires reconciliation. This is a casual sentence, but a profound insight. Reconciliation of what, of whom? As he says in the introduction, “reconciliation is the condition of the possibility of cooperative meaning-making and that same cooperative process for ongoing meaning making activity (Fourlas 2022, 8). As he suggests later on, anti-colonial solidarity is a defensive position, rather than merely active project of coalition-building. But often populations emerge in unity because they are constrained (or made so intentionally) and are afforded scant resources. How do groups antagonized under colonial legacies find a way to reconcile?

Some might say solidarity has to do with compromise, sharing some common priorities, all of which may be included in his account of anti-colonial solidarity. But George digs even deeper: he argues that anti-colonial solidarity requires a rethinking of a number of conditions:

  1. It requires a rethinking of race and the conditions under which racism is named and recognized.
  2. Reconciliatory approach to decolonization
  3. Rethinking decoloniality through the lens of MENA peoples

I want to explore George’s rethinking of race and racism as a condition of anti-colonial solidarity: he frames his discussion of race and racism by pointing to the absence of clear-cut racial contours for those who are affiliated with MENA, that is the “unknown” Middle Easterner, as this term emerges from National Security surveillance measures in the aftermath of 9/11. George refers to Edward Said’s coining of Orientalism as a term that highlights racism against those who are loosely affiliated; however, he correctly points out that the creation of the so-called Oriental imaginary was not a straightforward route: rather, it emerges from produced—read colonial—sense of what the Middle East is. Moreover, this term both overlaps but also stands at some distance from Islamophobia or “Arab American racial formations.” Similar to the quandary that many philosophers of race had in naming and identifying those who might have been understood as Hispanic, Latino, Latin American, since there was both some overlap, but also because, taking lead from the standard colonial categorizing of race through biology, kinship, or national boundaries did not function in helping to locate the contours of race in such a way that underwrote those who were Argentine, Mexican, Cuban, Salvadoran, Guatemalan. The standard colonial visions of Gobineau’s three races (Nordics, Alpines, and Mediterraneans) or Kant’s four races, from which all other peoples can be derived are: “They are: (1) the white race; (2) the Negro race; (3) the Hun race (Mongol or Kalmuck); and (4) the Hindu or Hindustani race.”

As we know, the conditions of racial identity—predicated on geology, climate, phenotypes, etc.—clearly don’t work when addressing peoples who have common interests or even common forms of exploitation, but radically different histories. Similarly, those who are named through the British empire as Indian, had little in common except their common subjugation by a sole imperial administration: areas now known as Burma, Indian, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, which if they do have something in common, emerges from histories of migration—and from a shared legacy of empire. These nations are quite antagonistic with each other in large part as the legacy of colonial interventions.

George quite insightfully points to the difficulty of resisting racism when those who are MENA do not see themselves as being directly interpellated through categories such as Islamophobia or anti-Arab, or anti-Muslim, or terrorist, or Middle Easterner: alternately, these terms may not apply to Lebanese Christians, or Iranians, whether they are Muslim or Zoroastrian or Jewish, but still interpellated incorrectly as Middle Eastern, or Indian Jewish—even as they are named Arab or Muslim. And so George asks: how do we handle racism in conflict with Orientalism? Therein begins George’ exploration of reconciliation as a form of meaning-making.

Reconciliation as a form of meaning-making is both about wholeness, as George borrows from Danielle Allen—not oneness, but acknowledging differences—through interactive practices as well as forging modes of give and take. And this requires overcoming another important obstacle—that of the intramural antagonisms of a broad swath of peoples who have been forced to be interpellated by a long-standing colonial regime, antagonisms that often emerge between peoples whose lands that have been colonized and dominated.

Here, George names several important impulses: the attempt to avoid being that “unknown” Middle Easterner (although, of course, this is an impulse that extends to many non-whites): by shirking the misnaming or misrecognition through self-identification as “one of the good guys,” as it were: I am not Muslim or Arab or Middle Eastern, but Christian, or South Asian, or Persian. In so doing, one does not necessarily avoid the wrath of the white supremacist or racist; since as George points out, racists don’t ever admit to being wrong (63) that is the hallmark of a racist identity: the foreclosing the possibility of curiosity or openness. Moreover, by avoiding being interpellated as the bad guy by stepping outside of the racial naming, one becomes complicit in racist violence—denying whiteness while affirming white expectations of non-whiteness (62). This kind of retreat into bad faith is certainly there and does not ensure that one will be able to avoid being the target of white violence; however I would be interested in what George thinks about the concern of being the target of the wrath of the state: certainly this is the other side of complicity with colonial impulses: and in a racial capitalist frame, designed to coerce and reward non-whites who are capable of ascending into whiteness to do so. How does one reconcile cultural pressure with fear of state-led violence?

For George, reconciliation can also be part of an antidote to “call-out” culture and anti-racist shaming. His analysis of call-out culture is a rare and brave one, in that he points out how much damage anti-racist allies can do by calling out racist impulses. Given that George and I taught at the same lefty liberal arts college, his analysis brought back many memories of well-meaning anti-racist impulses. Still, as I share this concern with George, but perhaps do not share his optimism that this is an impulse, if checked through shared meaning-making, as he argues, that will redirect the trajectory of shaming. In part, because this kind of calling out does not happen in many places in the world—such as at Emory, where I now teach—where shaming is not only avoided, but not even considered to be necessary. Thus the burden is unapologetically placed on faculty and students of color, for whom the ubiquity of deep, entrenched racism is acknowledged routinely by students, faculty, and administration of color. So then: is George’s analysis necessarily extendable to other cultural/institutional groups? I would love George to discuss further his thinking on shaming and its relation to call-out culture and anti-colonial solidarity.

Finally, after having read through George’ analysis of reschematizing how MENA identities might be reconceptualized, from understanding the arbitrariness of the distinctions between Turks and Greeks, Cypriots from Armenians, and other redrawing of lines, as well as perhaps the need to retain a founding myth, such as the myth of Babel to guide us, I wonder how we might take these ideas up in a world that seems increasingly fractured by short-term vision: the next election, the next right-wing domination, the next economic emergency, the next Trump? 

I would like to see his further engagement with feminist scholarship of color, transnational feminist scholarship, and post-colonial feminist scholarship that attempts to address similar decolonial concepts. Many of those scholars are speaking to these exact questions: Audre Lorde, Maria Lugones, Chandra Mohanty, Jacqui Alexander, Leila Ahmed, Seloua Boulbina, Uma Narayan, to name just a few. I say this not as a note of chastisement, but because they really have traversed similar questions, and I wonder how they do or don’t run up against George’s work.

And speaking of anti-coloniality, I’m wondering about the use of anti-coloniality in relation to a different discourse of decoloniality that has been invoked by Frantz Fanon, Enrique Dussel, Ranajit Guha, Gyan Pandey and Anibal Quijano, among others. Also, I want to urge the development of a transdisciplinary literature as an anti-colonial pushback to the myopia of philosophical approaches to race, providing a metaphorical antidote by engaging in collective collaboration with the texts by other scholars in other fields. Certainly George does this with his discussion of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and his invocation of religious mythos. But also he engages with scholars in interdisciplinary fields who recognize the gatekeeping of philosophers and other disciplines, and push forward by knocking down the gates.

Finally: What kind of world might unite those who could/should fit into an anti-colonial MENA cultural collective. What are the necessary re-visions to thinking solidarity?

Let me end here by reiterating that this book is exciting because it opens the path to thinking about how to think past the coloniality of philosophy of race, which has been re-energized by John Harfouch’s work on anti-colonial thought (Harfouch 2021).

Alcoff, Linda Martín. Visible Identities: Race, Gender and the Self. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Al-Saji, Alia. “Who Is the Muslim Woman? Towards an Intersubjective Theory. Part of a Panel Entitled ‘How Race Counts: Arabs, Muslims and the Politics of Visibility in the Diaspora.’” In Forty-Third Annual Conference of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. University of Memphis, Memphis, TN, 2004.

Fanon, Frantz. A Dying Colonialism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1965.

———.Toward the African Revolution: Political Essays. New Evergreen ed. New York: Grove Press, 1988.

———.The Wretched of the Earth: Frantz Fanon. Translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press, 2004.

Fourlas, George N. Anti-Colonial Solidarity: Race, Reconciliation, and MENA Liberation. Explorations in Contemporary Social-Political Philosophy (ESCPP). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2022.

Gross, Ariela J., and Ariela Gross. What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America. 1. Harvard paperback ed. Cambridge, Mass. London: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Harfouch, John. “Anti-Colonial Middle Eastern and North African Thought: A Philosopher’s Introduction.” Radical Philosophy Review 24.2 (2021): 169–97.

Lopez, Ian F. Haney. White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Lugones, Maria. “Toward a Decolonial Feminism.” Hypatia 25.4 (2010): 742–59.

Montoya, Maria. Translating Property: The Maxwell Land Grant and the Conflict over Land in the American West, 1840-1900. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002.

Quijano, Anibal. “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America.” Nepantla: Views from South 1.3 (2000): 533–80.

Sundstrom, Ronald Robles. The Browning of America and the Evasion of Social Justice. SUNY Series, Philosophy and Race. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2008.

Alberto Urquidez

Response

Orientalist Racism and the Politics of Inflated Definitions of Racism

A Commentary on George Fourlas’ Anti-Colonial Solidarity

George Fourlas’ Anti-Colonial Solidarity: Race, Reconciliation, and MENA Liberation is impressive in its many contributions across a range of subfields of philosophy.1 The contribution I focus on in this essay is from the first couple of chapters, and corresponds to my own area, the philosophy of race and racism. In this essay, I aim to clarify some aspects of Fourlas’ formulation of the problem of the fraught use of the terms “racism” and “racist,” contrast his analysis with Lawrence Blum’s influential account of fraught use, and argue for the superiority of Fourlas’ understanding. In making my case, I seek to extend my analysis from previous work on what I herein call “the politics of inflation.” I close by raising a tension in Fourlas’ analysis which I offer in the spirit of encouraging further dialogue.2

1. “Racism” is Fraught: Fourlas on the Colonial Norms Underlying Anti-Racist Posturing

In Chapter 1, “The ‘Unknown’ Middle Easterner: Post-Racial Anxieties and Anti-MENA Racism throughout Colonized Space-Time,” Fourlas problematizes the ordinary use of the terms “racism” and “racist.” According to him, we think of racists as morally flawed, but the language of racism, which carries with it a certain moral condemnation, “has become increasingly fraught to the point of sometimes seeming meaningless” (21). It has become “fraught” in the sense of losing its normative force on the racist—i.e., the power to motivate the sort of critical self-reflection and self-transformational change that seems necessary to enact broader social change. Fourlas does not explain what he means by “meaningless,” but it seems safe to assume he does not mean “cognitively meaningless,” i.e., a string of signs that purports to have sense but in fact lacks sense. Rather, consistent with an argument I have previously made, we should understand charges of “meaninglessness” in terms of “pragmatics problems,” such as communicative failures like generating confusion, controversy, vagueness, ambiguity, as well as cognitive speaker failures, as when one applies “racist” to some non-racial phenomenon (thus committing a category mistake).3 Indeed, Fourlas’ analysis is instructive in analyzing an undertheorized pragmatics problem, namely, that criticizing something as racist often sparks resistance, i.e., push-back not simply against the allegation of racism per se, but against the speaker’s linguistic competence (the speaker does not know what “racism” means), motivations (the speaker’s allegation of racism is self-serving or ill motivated), and moral framework (the speaker’s allegation of racism is itself racist).4 

Despite the fraught nature of ordinary use, Fourlas’ thesis in Chapter 1 is that the term “racism” ought to cover racial hostility and fear directed at MENA peoples, that is, people thought to be (descended) from the Middle East and marked by the imagined cultural characteristics of its peoples—what he terms Orientalist racism.5 In the United States, Orientalist racism is sometimes thought to be an impossiblility, a conceptual mistake of one sort or other. Against this position, Fourlas raises historical, conceptual, and normative arguments for the appropriateness of the term “racism.” These arguments are worth further examination, but given limited space I turn to an objection to Fourlas’ proposal that does not depend upon the criticisms he considers.

Against Fourlas’ proposal to extend “racism” to accommodate MENA objectification is the objection that expanding the scope of racism contributes to the fraught nature of racist/antiracist discourse. According to Lawrence Blum, the major source of the diminished meaning and normative force of “racism” is the overextension of the term, what he calls “conceptual inflation.”6 Some of Fourlas’ arguments nearly anticipate this worry. Consider his argument contrasting “blue racism” (racism against police officers) and “Orientalist racism.” While “blue racism” is an overextension of “racism,” argues Fourlas, “Orientalist racism” is not because it is plausible in light of historical, conceptual and normative considerations, including that “condemning the objectification of police is less morally forceful because the language lacks the historically situated weight that is found in the language of racism, and because the police are effectively the domestic militant force that maintains colonial power relations” (32). One reply to his argument is that expanding the scope of racism to encompass “Orientalist racism” would likely generate pragmatics problems of its own, including conceptual confusion, contestation, and resistance. Hence, the charge is that Fourlas’ proposed solution to the fraught use of “racism” is inadequate because the proposal to inflate the concept would facilitate fraught use.

Fourlas does not directly address the inflationist worry. I draw on resources from his analysis to articulate a reply. The first thing we might point out in response to it is that it misdiagnoses the problem of fraught use. Blum’s own diagnosis of fraught use is de-politicized insofar as it remains within (does not go beyond) the representational practice of using the term “racism.” The problem, on his view, is internal to the representational practice: in applying “racism” many tend to over-apply it. Blum does not say much beyond this slippage. In particular, he does not ask the further question of why the term is commonly overused. Fourlas, by contrast, offers a partial and plausible prima facie explanation which undercuts much of the force behind the inflationist objection.

His analysis begins with the notion of anti-racist posturing. In Chapter 2, “Changing Lenses: Anti-Racist Posturing versus Praxis, an Enactivist Critique,” Fourlas explains that much contemporary use of “racism” is invoked within call-out culture, also known as cancel culture. He notes that those performing racist call-outs aim at “condemning, shaming, and ultimately isolating the exposed actor” (or at least this tends to be the function of the performance) rather than motivating constructive personal change (39). Displaying one’s virtue as against the vice of the isolated wrongdoer is crucial to the anti-racist posture. Anti-racist posturing, or enacting the call-out, is largely a liberal practice, according to Fourlas, and conforms to a liberal script: “Typically, liberal actors posture as beacons of moral purity, such that they will cannibalize their own if moral failures are brought to light” (41). Fourlas notes another element of the script, as well. Sometimes the liberal posturer claims moral purity in the effort to stave off accusations of racism. In such cases, the posturer claims innocence by denying the racist mishap or by claiming it was unintended, unforeseen, misunderstood, or taken out of context. 

To illustrate, Fourlas considers the case of comedian Shane Gillis, who briefly worked at NBC. After making racist and homophobic claims, he attempted to justify his remarks by claiming to be morally innocent because his status as a comedian “is assumed to absolve him of responsibility, such that it is ridiculous for him to ever perform a serious utterance—he can’t be racist because he is merely a chuckling nihilist” (42). NBC responded by assuming “an equally innocent posture in the hiring and firing of Gillis, because they did not know what Gillis said, and when they found out, they did the right thing, they assume, by firing him” (42). Andrew Yang responded to the incident by condemning NBC for firing Gillis, arguing that current social standards are unfair and have become unduly vindictive and punitive.

Fourlas criticizes all parties in the dispute for their “atomistic” positions. By firing Gillis, NBC enacted an anti-racist posture, presenting itself as morally pure, by quickly acting to remove the impure blemish from its space. Presumably, this is problematic, for Fourlas, because reducing racism to the actions of atomized individuals side-steps the structural complexity of racism. Yang’s call-out of NBC also fails as an anti-racist gesture because it serves to display his own purity through the use of a shaming tactic that “mirrors” NBC’s punitive method—that is, he sought to shame NBC into apologizing and correcting its behavior. His call-out likewise minimizes the structural complexity of race/racism by treating the moral issue as one that’s limited to evaluating an atomized institution. 

For Fourlas, the problem with Gillis’ distancing himself from racism and the subsequent anti-racist posturing it inspired is that all three actors “[fail] to appreciate the nuances of power and the importance of social work, such that a blanket approach to moral failure has been taken that produces greater division among folks who ought to otherwise stand in solidarity” (38). In other words, “calling-out racism too often reinforces racism,” even if it is sometimes acceptable (Fourlas argues that the call-out is “an appropriate reaction to actors whose power positions them beyond sociality”) (38). He defends this assertion by situating the call-out within “the coloniality of power.”7 Consider the mechanism of colonial power known as the prison-industrial complex. The carceral system disempowers and enslaves those who are caught up in its machinery and disproportionately punishes racialized bodies (43). Its retributivist modality “responds to crime, conflict, and difference through violent retribution” (43). Because the carceral system is designed to punish, it fosters an ideological consciousness that Fourlas terms the “collective ethos” of retribution. 

One way in which this retributivist modality impacts sociality is by fostering an “atomistic notion of personhood and responsibility.” I understand him to mean that moral assessment is reduced to a simple rational procedure that involves applying a general moral principle to a particular act, irrespective of other contextualizing features such as the structures within which the individual acts. For example, “stealing is wrong” is taken as a moral imperative such that transgressing this norm calls forth retribution in order to rectify the harm. The retributive ethos thus mirrors the carceral state’s function of identifying wrongdoing, then punishing. Becoming ingrained in social consciousness, individual attitudes and interpersonal interactions are conditioned. For example, the anti-racist posturer lacks compassion for the racist wrongdoer and is quick to dismiss the “racist’s” rationale and any mitigating circumstances. In this way, living under the coloniality of power cultivates an “individualistic, objectifying, and ultimately carceral ethos” that overdetermines the conceptualization of value and personhood. This ethos and its attendant norms means that “despite the intentions or critical awareness of the condemning actor, the anti-racist posture and the shaming call-out can have devastating consequences for sociality—that is, more often call-outs reinforce racism. The anti-racist posture therefore seems to be just that, a positioning, a presentation, a superficiality that relies on and reinforces racism, thus maintaining the status quo while making the poseur seem morally superior” (39). 

I emphasize the richness and nuance of Fourlas’ political account of fraught use vis-à-vis Blum’s a-political account of fraught use. Blum informs us of the overuse of “racism” and the practical difficulties it raises, but he says next to nothing about the politics of overuse. The lesson I draw is that philosophical analyses of racism need to focus more on the politics of using the term “racism,” including the politics of inflation, as opposed to merely focusing on the content of particular uses. As to the objection that accommodating Orientalist racism inflates the concept of racism, perhaps the appropriate reply is that it is not the “inflation” of the concept per se that is problematic but the political contestedness of the concept. Said differently, failing to inflate the concept to accommodate Orientalist racism (and other legitimate forms) does little to end political contestation; instead, it makes it more difficult for anti-racists to engage the political debate about racism by willingly withdrawing their ability to forcefully condemn pernicious and oppressive racial wrongs. 

2. “Racism” is a Critical Tool; “Racism” is a Shaming Tool: On Fourlas’ Transition From Anti-Racist Posturing to Anti-Racist Praxis

I close with a question for Fourlas, in the spirit of prompting further elaboration of his political analysis of the ordinary use of the term “racism.” There is an apparent tension in Fourlas’ analysis of fraught use, and it is not clear whether this tension is merely apparent and has a viable solution. The tension is that Fourlas both wants to retain the moral opprobrium of “racism” and wants to move beyond the punitive, shaming and isolating function of the term. Is it possible to have it both ways? If so, how can “racism” condemn without shaming, particularly if “racism” is a term that connotes serious moral wrongdoing? The strong negative valence of the term is among Fourlas’ reasons for preferring “racism” over alternatives like “xenophobia” and “Islamophobia.” He argues that “racism” carries greater moral weight than these terms and that the oppression of MENA warrants greater moral opprobrium (31). While I hope that reconciliation is viable, initially at least it is arguably implausible.8

To give teeth to this tension, I draw on certain aspects of Fourlas’ discussion in Chapter 2. At one point, Fourlas considers whether it is possible today to fruitfully modify the call-out in a way that would exhibit good-faith intentionality on the part of the speaker and critical reflection and personal growth on the part of the accused. He introduces the term “reintegrative shaming,” which, according to John Braithwaite, “communicates disapproval within a continuum of respect for the offender; the offender is treated as a good person who has done a bad deed” (45).9 The idea seems to be to evoke shame with the intention of integrating the racist into the anti-racist community. Fourlas appears to consider this “the best form of call-out,” yet his analysis of the coloniality of power seems to suggest dim prospects for this approach to integration. 

Consider the case in which one college student calls out another in the classroom. The response is predictable: “Social divisions are solidified in this act, friends pick sides, and rather than actually solving a problem, the students have made the problem worse. Little concern is given to where the [opposing] students are coming from, what they have or have not experienced, whether or not they would be willing and able to learn with others” (48). The problem is that the integrative shaming tactic functions to stigmatize rather than integrate, which in turn tends to reinforce shameful behavior. Quoting Braithwaite’s analysis: “Stigmatization is disintegrative shaming in which no effort is made to reconcile the offender with the community. The offender is outcast, her deviance is allowed to become a master status, degradation ceremonies are not followed by ceremonies to decertify deviance” (45). Perhaps one contributing factor is the moral opprobrium connoted by “racism,” which naturally (if not invariably) results in shaming the accused. 

Despite the dim prospects of integrating the racist into the anti-racist community, Fourlas holds out hope: “The goals of anti-racist praxis, however, demand that it at least be theoretically possible for a racist to become a good person and ultimately become anti-racist themselves” (46). The question is whether Fourlas’ “theoretical possibility” is a viable practical possibility. Fourlas could argue that the dim prospects of integration presuppose the limiting conditions of the current state of anti-racist discourse under the coloniality of power. Perhaps “epistemologically decolonizing” our discursive practices would yield brighter prospects for integration (40). The prospects of epistemological decolonization are questionable,10 but my question would persist even under such conditions. Fourlas’ premise seems to be that integrating the racist requires moving beyond shame. This, in turn, seems to require removing the connotative (shaming) function of “racism.” But how can shame be removed without at the same time removing the term’s strong critical function? Can racist behavior be indicted without evoking shame? 

In fairness, this problem is not unique to Fourlas. Others, like George Yancy, conceive of the racist call-out as an open invitation for the racist to critically self-reflect and enact transformational change.11 Yet, it is unclear how the call-out might be heard as an invitation for the racist actor to not only work on their racist behavior but to join the anti-racist community. In short, can the term “racist” retain its critical function (its strong moral opprobrium relative to other terms like “xenophobia”) without retaining its shaming function? I take it this is more than a theoretical problem. After all, it seems that in order to enact anti-colonial solidarity, the discourse of racism and integrationist praxis must be reconciled. In closing, Fourlas’ book gives those of us in the philosophy of race a lot to think about and I look forward to continuing the conversation.


  1. In-text parenthetical references are to pages in Fourlas’ book. All other citations are relegated to notes.

  2. This paper began as a commentary on George Fourlas’ Anti-Colonial Solidarity for the 40th Anniversary Conference of the Radical Philosophy Association (2022). I subsequently presented these ideas at the 2023 Wayne State University Workshop in African American Philosophy. I thank the panelists and participants at both of these events for their lively engagement and questions. I also thank George Fourlas for his friendship and ongoing dialogue regarding the theory of racism.

  3. Alberto G. Urquidez, “A Revisionist Theory of Racism: Rejecting the Presumption of Conservatism,” Journal of Social Philosophy 51, no. 2 (March 20, 2020): 231–60, https://doi.org/10.1111/josp.12338.

  4. For helpful discussion of some of the vices underlying the political dynamics surrounding such resistance, see Grant J. Silva, “Racism as Self-Love,” Radical Philosophy Review 22, no. 1 (2019): 85–112, https://doi.org/10.5840/radphilrev201913193.

  5. Edward W. Said, Orientalism, 25th Anniversary Edition (New York: Vintage Books, 1994).

  6. Lawrence Blum, “I’m Not a Racist, But…”: The Moral Quandary of Race (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002).

  7. The notion of “coloniality of power” is from Aníbal Quijano. See Aníbal Quijano, “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America,” Neplanta: Views from South. 1, no. 3 (2000): 533–80.

  8. Fourlas raises a related practical problem against my own “linguistic” approach to racism in my book. See Alberto G. Urquidez, (Re-)Defining Racism: A Philosophical Analysis (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020); George N. Fourlas, “Something More Than Words: A Review of (Re-)Defining Racism: A Philosophical Analysis, Alberto G. Urquidez,” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, April 5, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-021-10179-3. Fourlas worries that “concepts and linguistic shifts alone will not bring about the sort of anti-racist future we want and deserve,” so he asks: “How do we move from saying, ‘that is racist’ and ‘you shouldn’t be racist,’ to actually getting the racist actor to not be racist or, more importantly, transforming an institutional arrangement that perpetuates racism? Indeed, calling-out the racist act can cause the actor to double down on their behavior thus undermining anti-racist ends, while institutions stand silent.” For my reply, which certainly does not resolve the problematics both he and I raise for one another, see Alberto G. Urquidez, “Reply to My Critics: (Re-)Defining Racism: A Philosophical Analysis,” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 24 (2021): 679–98.

  9. Braithwaite, John. 2000. “Reintegrative Shaming.” http://johnbraithwaite.com/wp-content/up loads/2016/05/2000_Reintegrative-Shaming.pdf.

  10. See Tommy J. Curry, “On Derelict and Method: The Methodological Crisis of African-American Philosophy’s Study of African-Descended Peoples under an Integrationist Milieu,” Radical Philosophy Review 14, no. 2 (2011): 139–64.

  11. George Yancy, “Dear White America,” New York Times 24 (2015).

  • Avatar

    George Fourlas

    Reply

    Fourlas Response Part 2

    1. Shame, reconciliation, and solidarity

    The problem of performative whiteness and the seduction of power is part of the reason that I work to reclaim the concept of reconciliation. Put simply, the cyclical nature of violence is not easy to disrupt. For those already committed to resisting the trapping of power, when failure occurs an emphasis must be placed on “rupture and repair.” Here, the concept of reconciliation as forgiveness gets a lot of play by scholars and activists, though I do not think that rupture and repair is the same as forgiveness. Owning one’s errors and admitting to mistakes in the presence of one’s community is not the same as expecting that community to forget or absolve those errors—and it is certainly not asking an abstract deity to absolve instead of the community. Indeed, what I am describing is closer to John Braithwaite’s notion of reintegrative shaming, which both Falguni and Alberto Urquidez challenge in distinct ways.1 Falguni raises the concern as follows: 

    Still, as I share this concern with George, but perhaps do not share his optimism that this is an impulse, if checked through shared meaning-making, as he argues, that will redirect the trajectory of shaming. In part, because this kind of calling out does not happen in many places in the world—such as at Emory, where I now teach—where shaming is not only avoided, but not even considered to be necessary. Thus the burden is unapologetically placed on faculty and students of color, for whom the ubiquity of deep, entrenched racism is acknowledged routinely by students, faculty, and administration of color. So then: is George’s analysis is necessarily extendable to other cultural/institutional groups. I would love George to discuss further his thinking on shaming and its relation to call-out culture and anti-colonial solidarity.

    And Urquidez frames his version of the concern as follows:

    The tension is that Fourlas both wants to retain the moral opprobrium of “racism” and wants to move beyond the punitive, shaming and isolating function of the term. Is it possible to have it both ways? If so, how can “racism” condemn without shaming, particularly if “racism” is a term that connotes serious moral wrongdoing? The strong negative valence of the term is among Fourlas’ reasons for preferring “racism” over alternatives like “xenophobia” and “Islamophobia.” He argues that “racism” carries greater moral weight than these terms and that the oppression of MENA warrants greater moral opprobrium (31). While I hope that reconciliation is viable, initially at least it is arguably implausible.

    And: 

    Fourlas’ premise seems to be that integrating the racist requires moving beyond shame. This, in turn, seems to require removing the connotative (shaming) function of “racism.” But how can shame be removed without at the same time removing the term’s strong critical function? Can racist behavior be indicted without evoking shame?…In fairness, this problem is not unique to Fourlas. Others, like George Yancy, conceive of the racist call-out as an open invitation for the racist to critically self-reflect and enact transformational change.2 Yet, it is unclear how the call-out might be heard as an invitation for the racist actor to not only work on their racist behavior but to join the anti-racist community? In short, can the term “racist” retain its critical function (its strong moral opprobrium relative to other terms like “xenophobia”) without retaining its shaming function? I take it this is more than a theoretical problem. After all, it seems that in order to enact anti-colonial solidarity, the discourse of racism and integrationist praxis must be reconciled.

    I generally agree with the concerns raised by Falguni and Alberto: The call-out is most common in immaterial space (i.e. Twitter) and on the occasion when it does occur in ordinary life, or when any attempt to bridge the divide between what Jessica Benjamin calls a doer-done-to modality is made, the effort is most often initiated by the subjugated actor.3 Put differently, victims are often expected to initiate reconciliation processes and this is itself a definitive, though deeply problematic, quality of asymmetrical power relations. Speaking to Falguni’s concern directly, I think that part of the reason this dynamic persists or why reintegrative shaming might not presently make sense across most college campuses is because the populations that occupy those worlds are not self-organized or collectively determined as a strong and thus meaningful community. The university is a corporation (and, since at least 2008, the university is a bank), the relation between faculty, students, staff, and administrators is oppositional at every level. In order to function, reintegrative shaming requires a strong community in place that both shames and reintegrates the shamed actor. 

    Similarly, speaking to Alberto’s concern, part of the reason that George Yancy’s gift to white america was met with such backlash is that it was offered at a meta-population level in the hyper fractured United States and also in the absence of a meaningful community—which is central to the problem of media more broadly and not somehow uniquely Yancy’s problem. And, to be fair, not everyone rejected Yancy’s plea, but the point is that context and community matter because what I am advocating is a materialist notion of reconciliation. 

    To condemn someone on moral grounds and also expect them to change, accept the critique, and be better only makes sense in certain, real material circumstances. If I walk down the street and just call-out random racist people, I will not change any minds and I might get assaulted. Even if I am correctly describing immorality in my call-out—which is likely—the call-out cannot succeed without a communal context wherein its performance is coherent and the condemned are able to be something more than their condemnation.4 I now live in a part of the country that is deeply conservative and I have built relations with people who casually say racist things that they often do not fully realize are racist, and if I call them out I can at least be heard because I am a meaningful member of the community in a way that I was not before establishing connections. And there are a lot of folks in the surrounding area with whom I cannot establish connections because of their ideological commitment to racism and fascism, which raises a different set of concerns that might be framed as follows: how do ideologically entrenched oppositional actors transform such that they might eventually reconcile with those they have harmed? I take this to be the more difficult problem—what motivates change—and a lot of the work I did before the book was focused on this problem space, whereas the book is explicitly focused on building solidarity amongst MENA people and people of color more generally. 

    Rupture and repair is, rather, a humbling reminder that we are imperfect beings, all of us, and to lose our grasp on this humility is a slippery slope. If I fail my comrades and siblings, and I own that failure before them, the ownership does not pass to the other; rather, I am recognizing my own failure and naming it, holding it, clarifying that I carry this burden—which takes many forms—and my ability to do so is made easier with the support of my community. I cannot be complete without my community. I-I/I-You/We survive together. Should I fail so horribly that my community exiles me, I still have to carry that burden, but it is significantly heavier in the absence of friends/family/comrades. Indeed, those most comfortable embodying coloniality seem to think of themselves as godlike beings, flawless and unaccountable to others. The opposite of humility is then idolatry, to borrow language from Enrique Dussel and Simone de Beauvoir, which is a lonely and ultimately sociopathic or narcissistic existence.5 Idolatry also happens to be at the core of the colonial ethos.6 And, returning to the question of the seduction of power, those who do perform whiteness are empty and scared—those who perform whiteness also overemphasize security for they live in fear of having their hoarded wealth re-appropriated—but that vacuous existence cannot be known as such if it is all that is ever known. So, the significance of strong communities is also that they serve as an exemplar, an alternative to push back against the temptation to stand on top of others. 

    This of course raises the question of how we might constitute a strong meaningful community, which is part of what I understand to be the long-term goal of reconciliation and anti-colonial solidarity, or at least the iteration of reconciliation that is being reclaimed as an anti-colonial mechanism. But even when a community is instantiated (which is no singular event), it can still be flawed, as is the case with nationalist formations. Hence, an anti-colonial principle is necessary to avoid the trappings of purely resistant “communities” where the term community is misleading because “whiteness” and nationalism more generally are imaginary formations.7 Moreover, for people who come from strong communal worlds, or who know what it is like to live through robust materialist meaning-making relations, then the abstract imagined identity can really only have power when it is articulated in resistance to a material threat. 

    The problem of whiteness or nationalism will be more easily dissolved or resisted for groups who have a strong materialist existence and historical memory. Again, if you know what it feels like to be in a real material community, then the temptation of performative whiteness is significantly weakened. Indeed, of the exemplary cases I discuss, Cyprus and Rojava, both collectives have a history of nationalist resistance to real material threats, but that nationalism is weakening as the previous threats appear to recede and former modalities that were not rooted in resistance are being reclaimed. And there were always those within the populations of Cyprus and Rojava who rejected coloniality (e.g. especially communists, anarchists, or religiously oriented folks who live the ethos of their traditions), and those groups were targeted for a long time by their so-called compatriots. Returning to Verena’s concerns for a moment, I am by no means an expert on Ukraine, and the amount of misinformation being circulated by Western and Russian media makes it difficult to grasp the truth of the situation, but the communist party was banned long before this conflict began which means in a very fundamental way the state of Ukraine has formalized its rejection of anti-nationalist and anti-fascist movements. Put differently, it is easy to slip into whiteness, idolatry, and anti-communal modes of existence when one’s immediate life-world affords no other alternatives.

    The capacity and need to visualize alternative possible worlds is why critical and ethical education of young people is so important, and it is also why education is under constant attack in the U.S., which shares with Ukraine and other neo-fascist societies a history of anti-communal policy and practice. As I look forward to the next set of critiques, it is worth emphasizing here a comment made by John Harfouch in his contribution: 

    In fact, when the Nixon administration convened the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest with the express aim of derailing these student organizations, their 1970 report remarked on the principled selflessness of student activists and the fact that “their beliefs and their protests clearly are founded on principle and ideology, not on self-interest” (60). That is to say, what they found troubling was the students’ principled lack of commitment to a single racial identity or a single cause, be it Arab, MENA, or otherwise.

    In other words, one of the most powerful anti-colonial acts is to merely think of others first, to live for others, to strive for inclusive, material, ethical, and meaningful community. If we want to resist the seduction of power, if we want our moral critiques to have force, then we need a committed community that acts as support and foundation. And we can begin this work within our own already existing communities, where the seduction of power also causes chaos and destroys life for countless people, especially people of color.


    1. Braithwaite, John. Crime, Shame, and Reintegration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    2. George Yancy, “Dear White America,” New York Times 24 (2015).

    3. Benjamin, Jessica. Beyond Doer and Done to : Recognition Theory, Intersubjectivity and the Third. Abingdon, Oxon ;: Routledge, an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, 2018.

    4. See, Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. Edited by J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisà. Second edition. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1975. Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Translated by Alan Sheridan. 1st American ed. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1972. Fairclough, Norman. Critical Discourse Analysis : the Critical Study of Language. London ;: Longman, 1995.

    5. Dussel, Enrique D. Ethics and Community. Eugene, Or: Wipf & Stock, 2008; Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. First American edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

    6. Ibid. Dussel 2008.

    7. Anderson, Benedict R. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Revised and extended edition. London: Verso, 1991.

David Kim

Response

Anti-MENA Racism and Norms of MENA Solidarity

Reflections on Fourlas 

As decolonial theory and critical philosophy of race make inroads into the philosophy profession, we see more people rallying around ideas like “global white supremacy” and “coloniality.” I join philosophers who applaud these analytical innovations. Like many of them, I am also daunted by what is exposed by these sources of illumination. But I do not refer simply to the horrors per se. When I move away from abstractions like “global white supremacy,” I balk also at the complex heterogeneity involved: the vast array of peoples of the Americas, Africa, the MENA world, Asia, and the Pacific Islands, toward whom the dominative elements of coloniality have been variously directed. I think one implication is that both our critical attention and our efforts at solidarity demand a great deal of theoretical work at the middle- or meso-level, and this requires careful consideration of particular communities affected. Philosophy has been slow to respond and is only now beginning to grasp the significance of anti-Black racism. Thanks to Fourlas’ new book, we have a compelling philosophical assessment of MENA realities and identities. It is rich in insights and explanations, and its scope is large both in diagnostic and liberatory aims. His treatment of this subject matter is also suffused with a generosity of spirit and hopeful determination that resonates with the themes of the book. 

I will relegate my discussion primarily to the first half of his book where he examines how coloniality’s racism is a central context for MENA social realities and why an expansive MENA identity is required for contending with racism. In the first part of my reply, I engage with the fine particulars of his account of anti-MENA racism. In the second section, I invite Fourlas to say more about the on-the-ground norms or principles by which meaning-making processes of MENA solidarity should be guided.

Fourlas’ Position in Brief

Fourlas argues that one of the central sociopolitical realities of MENA peoples is a vilifying and often violent form of racialization. Following some now standard work in critical race philosophy, he regards the overall context to be that of coloniality, wherein the processes of modern global unification originated in the “New World encounter” and developed into global capitalist white supremacist imperium-making.1 A crucial feature of coloniality—and perhaps one that does not reduce to transatlantic phenomena—is Orientalism as described by Edward Said, an historically consolidated white European process of defining and dominating MENA peoples. 

Two important ideas are salient here. First, Fourlas is keen to emphasize the importance of race as the “primary contradiction,” though without denying some form of intersectionality.2 In characterizing the racialization, he highlights important specificities that are unavailable in macro-level language about “Othering” and in meso-level discourse about Black-white relations: Middle Easterners are categorized as white in a strictly legal sense but culturally and politically racialized in terms of a historically-generated constellation of attributions—criminal, illegal, terrorist, fanatical, war-prone, and the like—that are moored to the Orientalist inheritance and, in the U.S., specific events like 9/11, two recent wars in the Middle East, and the imperialist discourse of the “War on Terror.” Second, Fourlas is sensitive to the special moral weight of race in our accountability practices: the ascription of racism has more political clout than that of, say, Islamophobia, and that force should be used for liberatory aims (Fourlas, 22). These two points are linked. Specifically, the liberatory use of the heavier accountability practice is hampered in the case of MENA peoples because they are legally designated as white and the charge of racism tends to be configured by a Black-white binary that leaves opaque MENA subordination. So the book is in part a diagnostic of MENA subordination as a product of Orientalist racism, and it is a case for the institutional recognition of anti-MENA racism and the application of anti-racist accountability on behalf of MENA peoples. It is also a call for what he calls cooperative meaning-making in the formation of MENA solidarity in the face of Orientalist racism. This meaning-making process must resist self-“whitening” and narrow nationalism, and look to models of reconciliation that can already be found in various parts of the MENA world.

I resonate with Fourlas’ framing concerns and find very many of his claims persuasive. So, in what follows, I offer two in-house criticisms, as it were, which really amount to a call for more elaboration and fine-tuning. 

A More Distinctive Racism?

First, I would like to suggest a partly modified diagnostic of anti-MENA racism that recognizes the seriousness of anti-MENA conditions, continues to offer a basis for MENA solidarity, but also clarifies further the distinctiveness of anti-MENA oppression. On Fourlas’ account, MENA American subordination, though primarily racial, is not exclusively so. As he describes it, MENA Americans have been subjected to xenophobia, as when they are persistently perceived as foreigners even if they were born in the U.S. In addition, he characterizes how MENA peoples have been subjected to Islamophobia and how Muslim affiliation is paradigmatic, even if problematically so, of the common U.S. understanding of MENA-ness. But he is firm that the racialization of MENA peoples and anti-MENA racism are central to MENA experience, with xenophobia and Islamophobia being secondary galvanizing elements. 

I think it is clear that despite what the law and the census say, MENA people have been racialized as non-white. Unsurprisingly, this has empirical backing.3 I also agree with Fourlas that the stakes are high: anti-MENA racism has taken a variety of vicious and dominative forms in MENA homelands (e.g. imperial wars and imperial neo-colonialism) and against the MENA diaspora in the U.S. But I would like to suggest that the role of xenophobia and Islamophobia are more potent than Fourlas’ characterization indicates. Specifically, they can have some surprising independent force, and partly in virtue of this, they bend anti-MENA racism to their forms making such racism more culturally and nationalistically inflected than what we might find in, say, anti-Black racism. 

Elsewhere I have argued that xenophobia should be conceived of as unjust civic ostracism based on the perceived cultural foreignness of the target. The harms of xenophobia can range from personal shunning (e.g. “Go back to your country!”) to institutional exclusion (e.g. Trump’s Muslim travel ban and Roosevelt’s Japanese American Internment). And the mechanism of vulnerability-making in xenophobia largely involves an approximation of the Arendtian idea that being stateless is conducive to being rightless. Many fundamental rights and social recognition generally are mediated through citizenship and other aspects of civic incorporation in the nation state, so xenophobia as civic ostracism obstructs the allocation or enforcement of rights and due social regard.4 

Now, one possible relation between xenophobia and racism is that they are operationally separable, that the former is a weaker social force than the latter, and that the former can converge upon and reinforce the latter. On this very last point, the convergence of xenophobia is regarded as largely additive with respect to racism. This seems to be Fourlas’ position. Another potential relation is that xenophobia and racism are operationally separable, but when they do converge, they morph into a more fused or entangled phenomenon, a kind of xeno-racism. I proffer this interpretation. Anti-Black racism classically posits behavioral or attitudinal tendencies, which is sometimes deemed to be “cultural,” that are very close to the body, as it were, and of course to a derogated animalized body. For example, stereotypes of Black people reference aggression, sexual drive, laziness, and the like. Although anti-MENA racism can also posit qualities that are more integrally bodily, it tends to elevate the cultural content even as it vilifies the subject. In this vein, consider the new words or twists on older ones that have emerged in the racialization of MENA peoples: “radicalization,” “sleeper cells,” “alienated Muslims,” and “homegrown terrorists.”5 In addition, problematic and distortive interest has deepened in the U.S. regarding veils and burqas, women’s rights, and religio-cultural conceptions of MENA gender relations, where this reaches even state-level reasons cited in international action, as when some Americans trumpeted the rescue of MENA women as a reason for U.S. intervention in Afghanistan.6 This congeries of ideas, which overlaps a great deal with the ascriptions of Islamophobia and has significantly gendered elements, seems integral to current anti-MENA racism and involves cultural attributions that civically ostracize MENA people and thus indicate a distinctive kind of xenophobic racism as opposed to a merely additive combination of racism and xenophobia. Relatedly, the xenophobic and Islamophobic character of the racism may help to explain more fully why anti-MENA racism resists absorption into conceptions of race and racism beholden to a Black-white binary, for these conceptions hew more closely to the body and are more deeply framed by natural kind thinking. 

Current anti-MENA racism aside, Fourlas also discusses a very early proto-racialization of MENA peoples when Bartolomé de Las Casas, in his defense of the indigenous of Latin America, seems to group together Greeks, Romans, Turks, and Arabs as a barbarian “natural kind.” This reveals an “Orientalist stance” that would later become a more discursive Orientalism of the sort that Said discusses (Fourlas, 24). But note that even in that moment, Las Casas depicts this grouping of peoples as being culturally and politically fairly sophisticated, where this is configured and distorted by their being, in Las Casas’ viewpoint, “effeminate” and decadent infidels. So, even at this early or incipient moment of MENA racial formation, a gendered xenophobic racism, as opposed to a racism-plus-xenophobia process, seems to have emerged.7

More Norms for Pragmatic MENA Transnationalism?

Second, I think the move from anti-MENA racism to MENA solidarity is somewhat underdetermined, as is the case generally in a transition from critique to corrective construction, so I am curious about what further guidance can be had in the form of on-the-ground norms or principles that shape MENA solidarity and identity. To begin, Fourlas cogently articulates how anti-racism forms a significant normative anchor point for MENA solidarity. He also offers a timely meditation on the nuances and pitfalls of accusations of racism and the need for communally integrative or re-integrative processes of “calling in” people. He even addresses fairly new phenomena, like the language of “blue racism” and the rise of anti-racist white allies who can only think in terms of a Black-white binary. In this same spirit and framework of conciliation, Fourlas persuasively highlights the need for an open, reciprocal, and trust-affirming hermeneutical and interpersonal process out of which MENA solidarity is built. Much of his theoretical focus is on what it is to create “conditions for the possibility” of new communal ties. His work here is creative, interesting, and important. But I would like to hear a bit more of the norms over which such conditions enable us to deliberate. In this vein, Fourlas rejects MENA peoples following the lead of the census and the law and thereby embracing that type of ascribed whiteness. Thus, as the conditions of possibility for MENA solidarity are fulfilled, MENA people should reject the norm of uniting as whites and instead unite as a non-white Orientalized people. He also insists that MENA peoples should reject the norms of narrow nationalism, like Assad’s recent Arab-ization project, pointing not only to their exclusive and non-dialogical effects but also to their colonial causation (Fourlas, 59-62). In fact, in his final chapter, where he sympathetically discusses Rojavism, he seems to cast doubt on nationalism altogether.

Fourlas persuasively rejects the norm of collective self-“whitening” and the norm of narrow nationalism. In many ways, his account is reminiscent of what Tommie Shelby calls “pragmatic Black nationalism,” a form of Black collectivity that is based solely on resisting anti-Black racism and not any kind of substantive Black identity, cultural or otherwise.8 Is Fourlas’ position, then, a pragmatic MENA transnationalism? I think it is. His book does not insist on any substantive unification norms, like a cultural core to MENA peoples, and it repeatedly appeals to the defense of MENA peoples from Orientalist racism. Given this parallel, let’s consider some important asymmetries between MENA and African American communities, the totality of which seems to require more norm positing for MENA solidarity. Specifically, Shelby’s account, by focusing on Black Americans, helps itself, generally speaking, to a shared language, a shared national history, a numerically fairly limited set of cultural, artistic, and religious traditions, and a central role in the civic narrative of national social progress (i.e., the slavery to civil rights liberty narrative).9 Hardly any of these apply in the case of a pragmatic MENA transnational solidarity. The collectivity that is MENA peoples is simply too vast and variegated. And,  historically, significant intra-MENA dissension in the form of sub-national subjugation (e.g., Kurdish subordination) and national wars (e.g., the Iran-Iraq War) has reached a level of discord and destruction that has no real parallel in the case of African Americans. 

I think that pragmatic Black nationalism, by benefitting from many shared structures in the social world of a single nation, can use anti-racism as a robust basis for solidarity. But pragmatic MENA transnationalism does not have the same collectivity-forming resources.10 This is not to say that there are none. I am simply pointing out a difference of degree, though a fairly large difference. Thus, are more unification norms—beyond anti-“whitening” and anti-narrowness—needed to produce a robust MENA solidarity? What might they be? For example, can there be a nuanced appeal to shared cultural development? Or is a common plight and commitment to anti-racism sufficient, after all? If we narrow our focus to MENA Americans, much of the same problem remains, but to a lesser degree. On the one hand, the frame of the nation-state reduces the cultural, linguistic, and historical possibilities or variability with potentially group-stabilizing effects in the incipient process of MENA American solidarity formation. On the other hand, insofar as a large proportion of MENA Americans are immigrants, which is indeed the case, the complexity and heterogeneity of the ancestral homelands persists in the adopted land, even if to a lesser degree. Without the socio-ontological “stabilizers” available in the case of African Americans, what further norms of solidarity can generate robust MENA American solidarity?


  1. Aníbal Quijano, “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America,” Nepantla: Views from the South 1.3 (2000), 533-580.

  2. George Fourlas, Anti-Colonial Solidarity: Race, Reconciliation, and MENA Liberation (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2022), 25.

  3. Neda Maghbouleh, Ariela Schachter, and René D. Flores, “Middle Eastern and North African Americans May not Be Perceived, nor Perceive Themselves, to Be White,” PNAS 119.7 (2022).

  4. David Kim and Ronald Sundstrom, “Xenophobia and Racism,” Critical Philosophy of Race 2.1 (2010), 20-45.

  5. Mustafa Bayoumi, How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?Being Young and Arab in America (NY: Penguin, 2009), 4-5.

  6. Falguni Sheth, Toward a Political Philosophy of Race (Albany: SUNY Press, 2009); Alia Al-Saji “The Racialization of Muslim Veils: A Philosophical Analysis.” Philosophy and Social Criticism 36.8 (2010), 875-902; and Saba Fatima, “Navigating the #MeToo Terrain in an Islamophobic Environment,” Social Philosophy Today 37 (2021), 57-74.

  7. In fact, though I assume Fourlas would reject this view, the Las Casas passage might even be read in a way that ascribes only xenophobia to him: Greeks, Romans, Turks, and Arabs, are not gathered into a natural kind but as a loose aggregate of peoples with shared perceived cultural traits.

  8. Tommie Shelby, We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).

  9. This is of course changing with African and Afro-Caribbean immigration to the U.S.

  10. I leave aside here Fourlas’ stance of suspicion toward identifying with a nation state. Correlatively, I leave aside questions about how one might identify as, say, an Iranian and a MENA person, or as an Iranian American and a MENA American, in a way that is consistent with Fourlas’ position.

John Harfouch

Response

The Arabs

Identity as Strategy

In my response to George Fourlas’ Anti-Colonial MENA Solidarity I will focus on the question of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) identity. There are notable similarities between Fourlas’ idea of MENA solidarity and the long history of pan-Arabism dating back to the nineteenth century. Here, I would like to give Fourlas the opportunity to elaborate on what is gained and lost in encouraging “MENA solidarity” vis-à-vis “pan-Arabism” or “Arab unity.” Specifically, I wonder if “MENA solidarity” might be both too narrow an identity and too broad. First, I will take up the work of Palestinian philosopher Fayez Sayegh, whom Fourlas references, to suggest that “MENA” might be too broad an identity to ground a certain kind of anti-colonial movement. Then, because Fourlas’ book is partly concerned with MENA diaspora, I will turn to another instance of political solidarity, namely the Organization of Arab Students (OAS), which was the premier political organization for Arabs in the United States during the 1960s. While Sayegh’s study suggests that perhaps the idea of MENA solidarity is too broad, the history of the OAS might lead one to conclude that “MENA” is too narrow. These two historical examples serve as a useful backdrop against which Fourlas might defend and extrapolate on the idea of MENA solidarity.

In his discussion of anti-colonial MENA solidarity, Fourlas asks, “On what grounds should we define ourselves?” (67). In his response, Fourlas hopes to avoid ethno-nationalism and a colonial mindset that defines a group through the negation of others. He goes on to write, that Arab nationalism “emerged as a direct response to Turkish domination,” and therefore, Arab national identity “tends to overdetermine sociality and prevent the realization of other liberated futures” (71-72). As I understand Fourlas’ argument, “Arab” “becomes a past form” because it is an exclusive nationalism based on opposition to Turkish colonial occupation. 

I would like to read these pages alongside Sayegh’s 1958 Arab Unity: Hope and Fulfillment, a book dedicated to documenting the history of pan-Arabism and offering suggestions for the future of anti-colonial Arab solidarity. In this book, Sayegh still very much wants to hold on to this Arab identity, and his reason for doing so stems from a very different history of the region than that which Fourlas advances. According to Sayegh, although the triumph of Ottoman over Egypto-Syrian Mamelukes in 1516 and 1517 did lead to the subjugation of all Arabs, “the political unity of the Arab peoples was nevertheless preserved under imperial Ottoman rule until the turn of the Nineteenth Century.”1 The dismemberment of the Arab world only begins with French and British partitioning, which reaches its zenith in the early twentieth century with Sykes-Picot and the Balfour Declaration. In other words, according to Sayegh, it was the British, French, and Zionist colonial occupations that spurred the idea of Arab unity, not that of the Ottomans. Whereas under the Ottomans, Arabs had achieved solidarity and then had to fight for freedom,2 under European colonial domination, Arabs were forced to live under an arbitrary partitioning of their land. It is especially important to note that ‘Arab unity’ was a response not only to this fragmentation, but also to the aggressive de-Arabization of a portion of the Arab homeland. Of course, Sayegh here is referring to the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Arab unity was not an ethno-nationalism,3 but rather the idea was used to reassert the land as an Arab territory in the face of an occupation that looked to eliminate Arabs from the land. In fact, it was the loss of Palestine in 1948 that spurred a demand for a more profound Arab unity than that offered by the League of Arab states, which only coordinated Arab states in manner that was too fragmented to overcome Zionist colonialism.4

My point here is that this question was asked by Arabs, as Arabs, in large part because they were colonized as Arabs. In this sense, Arab unity was an idea born from an explicitly anti-Arab ethnic-nationalist occupation. The coalition is then primarily among those who identify with the colonized as Arabs. The political solidarity of those who identify as Arab is forged in this very specific context. That is, a people lived on a land as Arabs, and it was stolen and declared no longer Arab. Asserting an Arab identity therefore has a strategic use in this context, or, as Sayegh says, it is an idea with “practical efficacy.”5

And so I ask Fourlas, how does “Arab” become a “past form” when the Zionist occupation rages on and stands, in my opinion, as the premier form of colonial apartheid in the world today? “Arab” has come to be defined in opposition to this occupation, which in its own way declares the Arab a “past form.” For instance, as Sarah Gualitieri notes, when the term “Arab-American” was coined in 1944, it meant in part that when we say we are “Arab-American” it means that whether we are Egyptian, Tunisian, Lebanese, or Iraqi, we are in the end Palestinian in our hearts.6 Given the historical and strategic importance of the Palestine question and Zionist colonialism, is something essential not lost in replacing the term “Arab” with “MENA”? Is “MENA” not so broad that the Palestine question gets pushed to the background? I appreciate the desire to define the region broadly to include non-Arab peoples, but has Fourlas overlooked the strategic importance of the term “Arab” in emphasizing Ottoman domination over and against British, French, and above all, Zionist colonialism which motivates Sayegh’s study of Arab unity?

Where Sayegh’s work leads one to ask if the idea of MENA solidarity is not too broad, on the other hand, one might look to the Organization of Arab Students and ask if it is too narrow. The OAS was the most important Arab student group in the mid-twentieth century. It played a major role in advocating for progressive Arab perspectives on American campuses. The ultimate goal of the OAS, as stated in its 1968 constitution, was the “recognition of and commitment to the cause of complete social transformation, inspired by the compelling need to end the suffering of Arab people that has been inflicted upon them by domestic and foreign exploitation.” In that regard, the organization came to be associated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Student Union at San Francisco State, the Third World Liberation Front, the Black Panther Party, and other student activist groups agitating against racism and imperialism around the world. The group’s slogan, “One Arab Nation”, signaled their commitment to pan-Arabism, and they always insisted on the significance of Palestine as “the most important single problem in the minds of Arabs everywhere, overshadowing any other problem.”7

The OAS is an interesting case study for Fourlas’ idea not so much because it was the organization of Arab students, but rather because in practice the group went well beyond the Arab world, and this transcendence of a regional identity makes the group an interesting anti-colonial movement. Of course, the group was certainly heavily invested in promoting the Palestinian cause. Yet, the OAS was an anti-imperial project not only because it advocated for an Arab point of view on the Palestine question. It was also deeply invested in anti-colonial activities all around the world including solidarity with African Americans, the National Liberation Front in Vietnam, as well as liberation movements in Africa, China, and Korea. The opening statement of the OAS’s 1967 Convention declared, “Our battle is an inseparable part of the imperialistic design being executed against the dynamic revolutionary voices in the Third World.” In this sense, the OAS advocated for a solidarity that went well-beyond both “Arab” and “MENA.” The OAS recognized, along with other student groups, that if they were going to succeed in their aim of decolonization, then they needed to coordinate with other oppressed peoples. The OAS enacts this kind of extra-MENA solidarity when, in 1968, they invited Stokely Carmichael of the Black Panthers to speak as their keynote. Carmichael took the time to educate the Arab audience on the history and peculiarity of anti-Black racism and then declared his opposition to Zionist colonialism in Palestine. When Carmichael went on to state, “We fight with the colonized world,” he was accepting the OAS’s invitation to make the Black student movement and the Arab student  movement part of one and the same revolutionary action (I have made Carmichael’s keynote address to the OAS available here).

I find this history interesting because it suggests to me that what made the OAS a serious challenge to colonialism was not so much that it was committed to Arab or MENA issues in isolation, but rather the group committed itself to a network of causes that were bound not by any specific identity but by their opposition to racism, imperialism, and colonialism. Perhaps one might even suggest that it was never “Arab” that made the group anti-colonial. Rather, it was the students’ commitment to non-Arabs’ struggle that most troubled imperialism because it created a coalition that went well beyond a few thousand Arab students. In fact, when the Nixon administration convened the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest with the express aim of derailing these student organizations, their 1970 report remarked on the principled selflessness of student activists and the fact that “their beliefs and their protests clearly are founded on principle and ideology, not on self-interest” (60). That is to say, what they found troubling was the students’ principled lack of commitment to a single racial identity or a single cause, be it Arab, MENA, or otherwise.

Given this context, one might ask if the idea of “MENA solidarity” is too narrow. Perhaps the only solidarity that matters is anti-colonial solidarity? While the OAS was focused on the liberation of Palestine, they would concede an exclusively Arab organization for an anti-colonial movement, such as when they asked Carmichael on anti-Black racism at their annual conference. Where, if at all, does MENA solidarity give way to anti-colonial solidarity? Does “MENA solidarity” not need to be discarded at times to accomplish anything anti-colonial? Again, as I noted above regarding Arab unity, is this not a strategic decision that very much depends on historical context? If so, are any identities ever truly “past forms,” or are they not fluid strategies that might prove more or less useful given the material circumstances?

In summary, I have posed two related questions concerning the idea of “MENA solidarity.” Sayegh’s work suggests that “MENA” might be too broad an identity for a certain kind of anti-colonial work. The history of the OAS suggests it might be too narrow. My point is not that “MENA solidarity” is either too broad or too narrow. Rather, these historical examples seem to suggest identities emerge strategically in response to very specific contexts and the forms of colonialism they are opposing. What form of colonization is MENA solidarity best suited to, since different forms of colonialism call for different strategic identities? How is that form of colonialism different from other instances?


  1. Fayez Sayegh, Arab Unity: Hope and Fulfillment (the Devin-Adair Company, 1958), 41.

  2. Fayez Sayegh, Arab Unity: Hope and Fulfillment (the Devin-Adair Company, 1958), 46.

  3. Fayez Sayegh, Arab Unity: Hope and Fulfillment (the Devin-Adair Company, 1958), 76.

  4. Fayez Sayegh, Arab Unity: Hope and Fulfillment (the Devin-Adair Company, 1958), 144.[footnote] Sayegh notes the significance of 1948 to the idea of Arab Unity, when he writes, “Millions of Arabs lived and moved and had their being, in those dark months of 1948 and 1949, under the shadow of the tragic loss of Palestine. In their conversations, Arabs asked but one question: Why did we lose Palestine?”[footnote] Fayez Sayegh, Arab Unity: Hope and Fulfillment (the Devin-Adair Company, 1958), 159.

  5. Fayez Sayegh, Arab Unity: Hope and Fulfillment (the Devin-Adair Company, 1958), 214.

  6. Sara Gualtieri, Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora (University of California Press, 2009), 165-68.

  7. Pamela Pennock, The Rise of the Arab American Left: Activists, Allies, and Their Fight against Imperialism and Racism, 1960s–1980s (University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 50.

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    George Fourlas

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    Fourlas Reply Part 3

    1. The social-political limits of the concepts of race and MENA

     

    I now turn to the question of the concept of race as a functional and appropriate demarcation for MENA phenomenal experience, and as a focal point for anti-colonial solidarity. David Kim, John Harfouch, Falguni Sheth, Alberto Urquidez, and Sabeen Ahmed are concerned about the concept of race and the MENA category, though in different ways that I will address in turn starting with David’s critique. I then respond to John and Falguni. My direct response to Sabeen and Alberto will be the focus of my next reply.

    In “A more distinctive racism?” David extends a conversation between his work and my own in the earlier chapters of the book where I defend race as the preferable concept for describing MENA colonial experience in the past and present, in contrast to Xenophobia and Islamophobia. David argues: 

    …xenophobia and Islamophobia are more potent than Fourlas’ characterization indicates. Specifically, they can have some surprising independent force, and partly in virtue of this, they bend anti-MENA racism to their forms making such racism more culturally and nationalistically inflected than what we might find in, say, anti-Black racism.

    David goes on to draw out some key differences in the racialization of MENA populations versus those who are perceived to be Black, specifically focusing on the relationship between the overemphasized/racialized quality and the body. The claim then is something like this: xenophobia or Islamophobia make more sense as ways of thinking through MENA experience because the way that MENA people are racialized focuses on cultural attributes, while anti-Black racism focuses on the body. There is a clear connection here between David’s claim and Verena’s claim about being able to “mask” or “choose” whiteness because of one’s bodily relation to the demonized object form. I conceded (both here and in the book) that the relationship between racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia is a tightly enmeshed one, so my disagreement with David is minor but worth spelling out—especially since it might rest on a foundational disagreement about bodies. 

    A possible line of response starts with a simple question: how do we understand the body? More specifically, where do we draw the line between the body and culture? If a racist says a MENA person smells bad—like curry, garlic, cheap rose water, or various other incense and spice blends—is that a critique of body or culture? Further, it is not difficult to imagine a MENA person trying to embrace whiteness—the first generation of migrants/refugees is often the most intentionally supportive of the new nation where they are attempting to settle: waving a flag, wearing shorts, refusing to speak in a language other than the standard of whatever Western space being navigated (at least publicly), and, if the subject is well off (because class always matters) perhaps they can afford to lighten their skin, get a nose job, or style their hair in ways that please the white aesthetic. And yet, despite these hyper nationalistic efforts, MENA people and many other perpetual foreigners remain designated as non-white in some form or another.  

    I do not make a hard distinction between the body-culture ecosystem. The thing that designates the MENA subject as object is first and foremost the body that is interpolated, no matter how intentionally white the racialized actor is attempting to be. And, when non-Black racialized peoples do try and achieve whiteness, it is not just a shift in belief: as mentioned, it is also hair straightening, bleaching, nose jobs, marrying white people, and adopting ‘white’ embodiment which might also be understood as cultural. 

    Put differently, plenty of white people appropriate Black and brown cultural modalities, but this does not lead to their being no-longer white, so why would the adoption of white ‘cultural’ modalities lead to a de-racialization of non-Black bodies? The idea that racialization applies to Black bodies and everything else is cultural only makes sense if we accept a Black-white binary way of thinking and if we treat bodies/cultures as distinct phenomena, and I fundamentally reject both the black-white way of thinking and a body/culture dualism. I am willing to grant that part of what matters in the racialization of MENA people is their perceived relationship to Blackness, and that different cultural-historical circumstances have afforded variation in how racialization operates on said populations, but I do not think that a distinction between bodies and cultures helps to clarify those differences. 

    Anti-MENA racism is hate or fear of an entire objectified body-culture web and the systematic effort to subjugate that web because it has been deemed inferior and a threat. Racist-xenophobia or racist-Islamophobia might make sense as possible qualifiers for explaining the relationship between racism and perceptions of foreignness or religious difference, but the racialized population matters such that white foreigners or white Muslims are not (mis)treated the same way, though they might experience xenophobia or Islamophobia respectively.

    Along with critiquing the use of race, David also asks to what extent the concept of MENA has the normative potential for solidarity that I attribute to it, especially in the absence of nationalist identities.

    I would like to hear a bit more of the norms over which such conditions enable us to deliberate…Fourlas persuasively rejects the norm of collective self-“whitening” and the norm of narrow nationalism. In many ways, his account is reminiscent of what Tommie Shelby calls “pragmatic Black nationalism,” a form of Black collectivity that is based solely on resisting anti-Black racism and not any kind of substantive Black identity, cultural or otherwise.1 Is Fourlas’ position, then, a pragmatic MENA transnationalism? I think it is. His book does not insist on any substantive unification norms, like a cultural core to MENA peoples, and it repeatedly appeals to the defense of MENA peoples from Orientalist racism….[but] pragmatic MENA transnationalism does not have the same collectivity-forming resources [as Black transnationalism].

    Here, I think one key difference between my view and Shelby’s would be that I do not think resistance is sufficient for anti-colonial solidarity, though it is certainly necessary. So, David is correct to note that I reject a singular or overdetermined substantive identity as a prerequisite for MENA-ness, and part of my rejection of a substantive identity as a prerequisite is that it would fail to include the various ways MENA people exist (which I think is also shared with Shelby vis-a-vis Blackness), but anti-colonial solidarity requires an affirmative attribute and for MENA people that might simply be the fact or our shared but distinct MENA-ness. So, when David questions whether or not MENA transnationalism has sufficient collectivity forming resources I am not sure what would constitute sufficient resources for a functional identity and solidarity. 

    When MENA people see other MENA people, the connection is there, we see each other, and, assuming the involved actors are not foaming-at-the-mouth nationalists, the ensuing conversation is typically an historical account: Where are you from, where is your family from, have you been to X place? More importantly, I do not want to set overly tight limits on the affirmative elements of our communities; I leave it open ended, because I want MENA people, and all people, to freely and collectively determine themselves—which, for MENA people, is what we have done for most of our historical existence and that tradition is itself part of our identity. In other words, MENA people also have a long shared history of co-existence that precedes colonization and nationalism to draw on, and MENA people know this to be true. The mythologized histories of Greek, Arab, Persian, Egyptian, and even to some extent Indian nationalism are shared histories for MENA peoples that are obscured by nationalist efforts to objectify and own an otherwise common past. 

    Similar to David’s critique, John raises slightly different concerns of the use of a MENA category through which we organize ourselves. John is worried that MENA may be misleading and asks that I say more about “what is gained and lost in encouraging ‘MENA solidarity’ vis-à-vis ‘pan-Arabism’ or ‘Arab unity.” Here, John offers an excellent historical account of the emergence of Arab identity as being “rooted in the loss of Palestine, not anti-Turkishness.” John goes on to argue:

    Given the historical and strategic importance of the Palestine question and Zionist colonialism, is something essential not lost in replacing the term ‘Arab’ with ‘MENA’? Is ‘MENA’ not so broad that the Palestine question gets pushed to the background? I appreciate the desire to define the region broadly to include non-Arab peoples, but has Fourlas overlooked the strategic importance of the term ‘Arab’ in emphasizing Ottoman domination over and against British, French, and above all, Zionist colonialism which motivates Sayegh’s study of Arab unity?

    Putting aside the history of Arab Nationalism, I wonder if having our hearts in Palestine is sufficient to be Arab? Does the Persian who stands in solidarity with Palestine become Arab? And, what of the Israeli-Jew who is trapped in a fascist state and is ashamed and outraged at the occupation? Do they too become Arab? I do not disagree with John, to be clear. I propose MENA in a descriptive effort to be inclusive of the massive diversity of the MENA world, which might include people who do not (yet) have their hearts in Palestine, or which might include non-Arabs who are rooted in the region and have various positions on Palestine (e.g. Turks, Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, Ethiopians, Jews, Kurds, Persians, etc.). MENA people are racialized and mistreated as MENA regardless of their political beliefs, though naming and recognizing that experience may support a certain type of politicization—so there are strategic reasons for being broadly inclusive. 

    At the end of the day, I think that people emerge and identify themselves in all sorts of complex ways that change over time, so perhaps being firm about the Palestine requirement is sufficient for a political identity. But I also worry, again, about having an identity that is rooted purely in resistance to colonial domination. I want Palestine to be free, I want Palestinians to live full and meaningful lives, but the core of my identity should not be destabilized when Palestine gets free. I will surely be overjoyed, but I will also still be MENA and perhaps Arab depending on how that identity persists into the future. So, I think that MENA is a broader category that includes Arab, and I think that one can be MENA or Arab and not necessarily anti-colonial (though, there are probably very few cases of this). On this point, John says: 

    Where, if at all, does MENA solidarity give way to anti-colonial solidarity? Does ‘MENA solidarity’ not need to be discarded at times to accomplish anything anti-colonial? Again, as I noted above regarding Arab unity, is this not a strategic decision that very much depends on historical context? If so, are any identities ever truly “past forms,” or are they not fluid strategies that might prove more or less useful given the material circumstances?…these historical examples seem to suggest identities emerge strategically in response to very specific contexts and the forms of colonialism they are opposing. What form of colonization is MENA solidarity best suited to, since different forms of colonialism call for different strategic identities? How is that form of colonialism different from other instances?

    Falguni raises a similar sort of concern when she says: 

    I think this is a crucial question, and a number of scholars, including myself, have tried to theorize an amalgam of amorphous identities (mostly other than MENA) through vehicles such as law (Lopez 1998; Gross 2010) phenemonology (Alcoff 2006; Sundstrom 2008; Al-Saji 2004); history (Montoya 2002); and anti-coloniality (Fanon 2004; 1988; 1965; Quijano 2000; Lugones 2010). I wonder how these approaches—to different populations, who were nevertheless colonized—compare to his approach to a similar topic.

    The historical grouping MENA does not have to be anti-colonial. In its most basic form, MENA merely demarcates a social-historical existence that has been racialized. I want my MENA siblings to be radical and anti-colonial, so the question is really about how to bring that about, which is the point of the latter two-thirds of the book. Realistically I think that historically colonized people, which is all MENA people, are more likely to be supportive of anti-colonial praxis and more likely to embrace other MENA folks by virtue of familial-historical commonality. But, anti-colonial solidarity still requires work and that labor has happened and is happening in the MENA world, and MENA people ought to at least recognize that the false narratives of nationalism and orientalist-racism, which frame the MENA world as a series of perpetual tribal wars, are not only wrong but actively working against a historical legacy that is the opposite in form and function. So, when I discuss anti-colonial MENA solidarities, I am discussing these past and present forms. When I discuss MENA as such, I am usually addressing the racialized population and its latent potential to emerge as a force of anti-colonial solidarity. 


    1. Shelby, Tommie. We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005).

Sabeen Ahmed

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March 1, 2024, 1:00 am

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