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Empire-building 101

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Last week the U.S. Department of Education released a letter to the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies, informing the Consortium of their potential misuse of Title VI funding. Title VI funds are administered by the Department of Education to support “foreign language and area or international studies” programs. A collaboration between the Duke Middle East Studies Center and the UNC Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies, the Consortium is under investigation for the specific subject matter their programs cover. In particular, alleged wrongdoings include too few graduates working in government positions, too much “emphasis placed on understanding the positive aspects of Islam,” and too little “serious instruction” regarding U.S. geopolitical and economic needs. This comes directly on the heels of recent tweets by the President, hinting at the possibility of a new American-involved conflict in the Middle East. 

For most current undergraduates, and even many graduate students, American invasion and imperialism in the Middle East has been a fact of life. As imperialism can be understood as the process by which a nation extracts the wealth of another nation or people for their own enrichment, there is an obvious imperialist logic the stance the letter takes. It declares, in no uncertain terms, that the Middle East exists only as a vector for the acquisition of political power and economic wealth by the United States. Any knowledge or instruction that does not serve to further these interests, the Department of Education has decided, is ineligible for financial support. After all, a program that does not provide graduates eager to work on state projects, that portrays other cultures as worthy of attention and inquiry, and that shies away from geopolitics is useless in building an empire. 

Critical to imperial logic and clearly implied in the letter to the Consortium is the construction and maintenance of an “American” identity juxtaposed against a threatening, oppositional “Other.” American (interests) to the Department of Education is not Muslim. “American” means white, and sometimes Black, but always Christian, and always wholly committed to the United States. This exclusionary understanding of “American” permeates our country—erasing the experiences of millions and enabling the immense harm and murder of hundreds. The Department of Education actively perpetuates this deadly understanding in their reprimand of the Consortium for teacher training programs that explore “issues of multicultural education and equity” and create more welcoming classrooms. This white nationalist understanding of who belongs in the United States inspires white supremacist mass murders and attacks continually in the United States. 

We see this white nationalist ideology continually on campus as well. Shortly after 9/11, three Pakistani students were intially denied jobs by a professor who understood their nationality only as equivalent to terrorism (read: un-American). Much more recently, the Duke College Republicans planned an event entitled, “The American Muslim: Patriot or Insurgent?” That such an absurdly dichotomous understanding of American Muslims permeates Duke’s campus begs not only the question ‘what is it that we’re learning here?’ but also ‘who is education for?’ 

The Consortium may not have produced a significant number of government employees or focused enough attention on projects of national interest, but our University has been more than willing to further both of those goals. Our engineers received millions of dollars to design security aparati for the Department of Homeland Security, and a current course is offered in partnership with the Department of Defense. The class, entitled, “Hacking for Defense,” is also inexplicably, and somewhat laughably, advertised as service-learning. The Duke Program in American Grand Strategy hosts events on the Middle East, but in keeping with an oppositional framework, uses language such as “crisis” and “turmoil.” Meanwhile, in our interactions with ourselves and our peers we continue to reproduce neoliberal logics

Though UNC responded directly to the Department of Education in a letter just a few days ago, Duke has been noticeably silent on the topic. Meanwhile student groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine at Duke and UNC have been mobilizing against the Department’s censorship and in an effort to deconstruct the imperialist assumptions of the investigation. Clearly, we cannot allow the University to position itself as the neutral arbitrator of knowledge. While Duke is positioned as the antithesis of Islamophobia and the champion of intellectual engagement in this situation, we know that to not be true. Duke actively perpetuates othering Islamophobic and Orientalist logic through partnerships with the Department of Homeland Security, programs such as American Grand Strategy and within most classroom instruction. 

We must demand more from our academic communities and institutions of higher learning. And, while defending programs from funding threats, we must also be willing not only to name nationalist or imperialist or colonial logic in our instruction and thinking, but also to actively work towards deconstructing the Others which we are continually taught to imagine.

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