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Campus forum: Nezar AlSayyad

These are the prepared remarks delivered by Nezar AlSayyad at a forum of UC Berkeley faculty experts convened at Zellerbach Hall on April 1, 2003, to discuss the war with Iraq. AlSayyad is a professor of architecture and chair of the university’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. An active architect and planner in both the U.S. and Egypt, AlSayyad has authored and edited several books on urbanism and architecture in the Middle East; his most recent book is "Muslim Europe or Euro-Islam: Politics, Culture, and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization" (2002).

AlSayyad
'I have learned since September 11th that such free speech is not an equal right to all. National origin, skin color, and religion should not make a difference, but they do; often depriving some of us of this right while empowering others to say what they may ... Thank God we are different in California.'
-Nezar AlSayyad

Good evening. Thank you all for being here. These are difficult times and it is not easy to speak up in difficult times. When Harry Kreisler sent me an e-mail asking me to participate in this forum to talk about regional implications of the war, I smugly asked him which region: Iraq, Iran, the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Afghanistan, Indonesia or Europe. The war has indeed impacted all of these places. After some thought, I decided that I will speak about the region that concerns me the most: the United States of America, my country as it engages in a massive war in the Middle East, a world region with which I have intimate professional familiarity.

My argument is very simple. For us, this war is a war of choice and not necessity; and that those who exercise choice have to pay its price! The question is whose choice and what price?

Some have argued that this war has a noble intent, but I would suggest that it did not deserve a war; that it has a just purpose, but I would add that we are not going about it in a proper way; and that it has a right end-goal, and here I would insist that it is not being pursued by the right people or administration. Let me elaborate.

First, removing a dictator from power may be a noble intent but it is one that did not deserve a war. I find it difficult to believe that the greatest country on earth, the only superpower, could not achieve this objective without having to decimate the dictator's people and colonize their country. And why this dictator and not others? Libya, Syria, Pakistan and North Korea have dictators, some of whom boast of having weapons of mass destruction. Can we not see that the word is laughing at the hypocrisy of our position?

Second, "liberating" a people (if you accept this logic) may be a just cause, but we have not gone about it the proper way. Clearly we should have been able to do it without alienating the rest of the world and their people; without flouting international law and castrating the U.N.; and without being perceived as arrogant aggressors. On whose authority have we acted? And what is the price that we, as citizens, have to pay for this abuse in our name?

Finally, establishing a "democratic" government in Iraq may be the right goal but it is being pursued by the wrong people. It should have been pursued by the Iraqi people, not us, particularly after earlier American administrations spent years in the 1980s, supporting and arming their dictator. This war is being pursued by the wrong people because the president — regardless of how we feel about him, elected by a minority of the population, whose legitimacy was contested and was only confirmed through a court order — does not have a mandate from the American people to redraw the regional map of the Middle East, Central Asia, or any other part of the World, for that matter. This Anglo-American war is also being waged by the wrong individuals. "Individual" matters here, for clearly there should be more to this war than Cheney's Halliburton initially getting one of the first contracts for rebuilding Iraq the day the war started.

Faculty experts
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'UC Berkeley faculty analyze, criticize — and defend — Iraq war'

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For these reasons, I believe that we have to support our fellow countrymen and women sent abroad to fight a war not of their own making or choosing, but we also and equally have to protest the action and tactics of this administration. And let me be unequivocal here. To condemn this administration is not to deny support to our armed forces. As a compassionate human being (and it is about time that we as ordinary citizens reclaim this term from the fundamentalist American right), I worry about what is happening to Iraq and its people, but as an American, I worry more about what has happened to our country in the last two years under this current administration.

What has happened to our media that it will not show us what the rest of the world is seeing? How can a Pulitzer Prize-winning American reporter be fired from his network for repeating to Iraqi television what he has been telling us here on MSNBC about the progress of the war everyday? Not only is dissent being labeled unpatriotic, but the single act of having an opinion that does not simply repeat the official line of the administration is grounds for dismissal. How could we have acquiesced to this scaling back of our freedom of speech and our civil liberties? What is happening to our nation? How could we have descended so much so fast? When I hear the media speaking about the president and his two sons, I no longer know which president they are talking about, theirs or our former one. It is indeed an ironic situation. When did we become like them? When did we cease to self-question a system of inherited presidencies? How could we as citizens have allowed our political culture to disintegrate so rapidly?

I do not make these statements lightly, as I take a personal risk in making them publicly. We often hear conservative commentators come on television taking pride in the fact that we are a free society that protects freedom of speech. Yet I have learned since September 11th that such free speech is not an equal right to all. National origin, skin color, and religion should not make a difference, but they do; often depriving some of us of this right while empowering others to say what they may, allowing a distorted representation of this war as one that has unprecedented levels of support from the American people. Thank God we are different in California. We keep hearing that California is out of step with the rest of the nation on the war. I do not want to believe this, instead I will continue to cling to the idea that Californians simply speak up a lot more than the rest of the nation.

I am an urban historian and my stock in trade is the study of cities and people. As such, I am always trying to understand what happens when different societies and cultures come in contact with each other in different places. They say history happens twice, the first time it is tragedy and the second time it is farce. Perhaps. But in any case, I will spend the rest of my time talking about such history.

American involvement in the Middle East is more than 200 years old. Indeed one of our first foreign wars (1801-1805) as a nation was with the so-called Muslim Corsairs of the Pirate States of the Barbary Coast (what is today Algeria and Libya ). As Robert Allison reminds us in his wonderful book on the subject, it was a conflict that consolidated the idea of America patriotism, led to the establishment of the U.S. Navy and the first emergence of anti-Muslim sentiment represented in the language of good and evil in this country. This was 200 years ago. In fact some scholars recalled this episode in America history after the events of September 11, leading a few commentators to conclude that a return to colonization is the most effective solution to the problem of terrorism like it was with the piracy 200 years ago. One should mention that in this conflict, the U.S. prevailed militarily over what some may call in today's lingo "Rogue" States. But as Anouar Majid's work — and recent Chronicle of Higher Education article from which I borrow — has shown, this was also achieved at the expense of weakening a fundamental aspect of American life, free and equal citizenship for all. Measures that we took back then to protect our national security included the toughest immigration laws of the time; the random stopping and searching of "suspicious" individuals; and the arrest and deportation of Muslim aliens. Today, these measures sound eerily familiar. But there is a difference. Back then the guardians of liberty and justice spoke up. The Virginia legislature passed an act originally written by Thomas Jefferson to protect the religious freedom of Muslims and to prevent their deportation en-mass. Where are we now from these times? Who has the courage to look at the tyranny and the piracy at home? Who is our Jefferson today?

Our conflict with the Pirate States of the Barbary Coast allowed us to come into close contact with another alien culture and what we saw as its barbaric practices. But in doing so, it also changed us as well. As our sailors were being captured by these African Muslims and sold into slavery, we had to come to terms with the hypocrisy of our own system that had enslaved millions of black people. The famous congregation minister, Samuel Hopkins, used the pulpit of his church in Newport, Rhode Island, to argue that "If Americans did not condemn slavery at home then the African Muslims have good right to make slaves of our children."

This history necessitates a reflection on the current moment, and I say that not because I worry about the Middle East, but because I worry about us. I worry about the kind of nation we are becoming, a nation that does not respect international law, the sovereignty of other nations, or the will of other people. But I have faith because the citizens of this county have always been strong, not strong in their desires to colonize other countries — an impression that is emerging from the media polls today, but strong in their capacity to adjust course and return our country to a just path. As the events of Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the divestment campaign against the former apartheid regime of South Africa have taught us, periods of ignorance and indifference always come to an end. Perhaps this is the good lurking under the evil of this war, one that will allow us to reclaim our country. I can only hope that we will return to this high moral ground.

With globalization and the compression of space and time, the geography that separated Americans and Muslim Corsairs 200 years ago has now disappeared. But this new confrontation, again, one about different values and different lifestyles, requires us to always question the traditions we want to uphold.

Read the complete remarks by:
Chancellor Berdahl
Nezar AlSayyad
Thomas G. Barnes
David D. Caron
Laura Nader
Steve Weber
Janet Yellen
Q&A with audience

I do not believe that what we are witnessing is a clash of civilizations. Instead, I believe it is a clash of societal stereotypes. Accepting stereotypes makes war justifiable, even inevitable. We must understand that we have a lot to learn about others in the world if we are to peacefully live with them. We must accept that the study of other peoples and other cultures is a fundamental exercise that we should embrace for our own well-being, not even for theirs. We must also understand that we cannot learn about "them" without first knowing ourselves. But we must understand that we will not be able to learn about them without changing our ways and means and what is within our hearts.

I support those who want to see this change now but I am realistic so perhaps it will not happen until 2004. I hope it will not happen any later. Until then, I will not only weep for my country like Senator Byrd, but I will also follow the course charted by the documentary filmmaker Michael Moore to use every public occasion to pledge allegiance to this nation while condemning its current administration. Thank you.