Curricular Activism and Academic Freedom: Representations of Arabs and Muslims in Print and Internet Media

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IN THIS ARTICLE, I WILL ARGUE that movements to restrict academic freedom--a term I will clarify momentarily--are pernicious independently of their political affiliations, but most concretely identified and usefully contested when we investigate their strategic character, both tacit and explicit. This article will investigate and assess that strategic character. Today a number of small but persistent interest groups endeavor to reorganize university structures and to alter universities' relationships with funding sources. These groups would not be as numerous or effective without their political affiliations, which influence their strategic choices through a tropological representation of Arabs and Muslims. Such groups capitalize on particular forms of anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, using those sentiments to rationalize and justify the sort of restrictions they favor. The groups, then, are partly commodities of a nationalistic disposition that existed before 9/11 but one that gained widespread validation afterwards.

I deem pressure groups pernicious independently of their political affiliations because I believe it is useful to remember that ultimately they desiderate a certain material outcome, one that will affect nearly all academics regardless of whatever political affiliation each happens to inhabit. Despite this emphasis on desired outcome, however, it is necessary to examine more closely these groups' motivations and how they transform those motivations into methodologies. As a point of clarification, when I invoke pressure groups I am speaking of specific organizations and of the more general dissatisfaction about so-called faculty radicalism that now seems an integral part of American campus culture. Because specific organizations are easier to quantify and assess, I will focus mainly on them, in particular David Horowitz's enterprises (,, and, Campus Watch and its offshoot Islamist Watch,, and The National Association of Scholars. These organizations are by no means exhaustive, but they adequately represent the strategic purview of academic pressure groups.


Academic freedom, often the object of slogans and multifarious activism, is neither a fixed nor an intuitive concept. An exchange between Robert Post and Judith Butler in Beshara Doumani's edited collection, Academic Freedom after September 11, is instructive of its complexity. Post conceptualizes academic freedom as the basis of social and professional relationships that supplies a necessary precondition of conducting academic work, not merely as an individual constitutional fight related solely to unfettered speech. Invoking academic freedom's original usage in the early twentieth century, Post notes that "we can scarcely recall that the ideal of academic freedom was formulated precisely to transform basic American understandings of the employment relationship between faculty and their university or college." (1) Butler does not disagree with this premise, but points out that "[a]lthough Post proposes to turn us away from an individualist model of rights toward an institutional model that is pervasively social, the social field he describes is structured by a version of academic freedom that appears impervious to social change." (2) Doumani, for his part, suggests, "When talking about academic freedom, one needs to be specific about the institution and the kind of activity in question and the location of the individual within the institution." (3)

The primary thing we learn from these exchanges is that academic freedom is not static legally and should not be enacted statically by those invested in it either as commentators or practitioners. In popular--and to a slightly lesser degree, professional--discourse, academic freedom is shorthand for the right to free speech and is thus often debated solely within a first amendment context. …