The Geography of Shahid Alam


One Shahid Alam, an economics professor at Northeastern University, has penned a splendid tissue of nonsense for Al-Ahram Weekly on the Bush administration's endorsement of the "clash of civilizations" toward the Muslim world. One doesn't know quite where to begin to pick apart his half-baked affirmations, preposterous generalizations and multiple contradictions.

I will stick to two choice passages, since any more would require more effort than the tiresome article merits.

This ideology [of the clash of civilizations] is problematic. First, there is its flimsiness. It uses an inane concoction to deflect the blame for the 11 September attacks from US policies in the Middle East: our craven pandering to Israeli aggression, our vital support for corrupt and dictatorial regimes in the Middle East, and the war and deadly sanctions against Iraq since 1990…

The clash thesis and the associated war on terrorism carry little or no credibility outside the United States. This was first demonstrated in massive worldwide protests against the planned US invasion of Iraq. Outside of the United States and Israel, the overwhelming majority of world opinion regarded this war as illegal and immoral. Now, more than a year after a failed occupation of Iraq, after the revelations of systematic torture by Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, after the erosion of liberties inside the United States, after the establishment of an American Gulag whose geographic expanse exceeds anything established by the Soviet Union, American prestige in the world has sunk to the lowest point in its history.

To the first passage one can only respond: So the masks are down: 9/11 was effectively caused by America's own actions, therefore it was, somehow, merited. Alam would surely protest against such an interpretation, but, bottom line, that's what he's saying. As for the question of supporting dictatorial Arab regimes, I'm rather lost. Are Alam and his like-minded friends angry because the U.S. once supported Saddam Hussein, or are they angry because the U.S. overthrew him? I never can seem to figure that one out, and the rules say it can't be both.

As for the second passage, I marvel at the clause, "the establishment of an American Gulag whose geographic expanse exceeds anything established by the Soviet Union." The operative word here is, of course, "geographic" since even a silly-billy like the good professor could probably compute that in terms of lives lost his comparison merely elicits contempt ? or hilarity.

So now we must go back to geography and picture this exotic scene: Professor Alam, ruler in hand, a wallpaper world map before him, measuring the distance between Cuba, Afghanistan and Iraq, and announcing with much gravity to the assembled dunces that it certainly surpasses the distance between Vorkuta and Karaganda.

The true irony here is that such intellectual debris is what really fuels the so-called clash of civilizations. Even after years in the U.S. (Alam speaks of "we" when referring to Americans), the professor can only spout reductionist clich?s, with no hope of ever being a bridge between his two cultures.