What need be said of a professor at a large American university who declares that to be called an anti-Semite is “a sign of distinction” for an academic or an activist? That he is crudely and arrogantly heedless in his biased declamations? That the American academy manifests a profound sickness in dealing with Jewish, Muslim, Israeli, and Arab issues?
Muhammad Shahid Alam, a tenured economics professor at Northeastern University in Boston, has professed openly his belief that accusations of Jew-baiting are evidence that he is “working for the right side, for the just cause.” Alam has followed a path that combines teaching in his recognized field from a leftist posture, which is unsurprising, with an exaggerated sense of grievance against the United States and Israel, and outsized intellectual pretensions. Away from the classroom, his main platform is a radical periodical, CounterPunch.
The year Bangladesh was freed from Pakistan, in 1971, Alam received his baccalaureate degree from the University of Dhaka, in the city that would become the capital of the new country. He then earned an M.A. at the University of Karachi in Pakistan in 1974 and a doctorate from the University of Western Ontario in Canada in 1979. He was employed by universities in Pakistan and Canada, as well as, in 1987-88, at Colgate University in New York, before landing an assistant professorship at Northeastern in 1988 and a full professorship there in 1993.
Alam is a sloppy thinker and writer who epitomizes the polemical scurrility of CounterPunch, which was dominated until his recent demise by the unapologetic Stalinist Alexander Cockburn. In a particularly noxious book, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism, published in 2009 and excerpted in CounterPunch under the title “Zionism: An Abnormal Nationalism,” Alam asserted speciously, “Jews were a religious aggregate, consisting of communities, scattered across many regions and countries, some only tenuously connected to others, but who shared the religious traditions derived from, or an identity connected to, Judaism.”
That statement betrayed a striking ignorance of Jews and Judaism, denying facts even non-Jewish scholars and experts recognize as unchallengeable. Jews were, indeed, dispersed throughout much of the world, and borrowed aspects of local non-Jewish culture. But Jews were not a “tenuously connected” people. Nor were their religious practices “derived from,” or their “identity connected to” Judaism, as if their relationships were arguable (with the exception of a very few isolated communities such as that in Ethiopia). The manner in which Alam refers to “the Jews” as a single category of people discredits his fantasies of demolishing their unifying heritage. This was not a traditional Islamic view, which recognized Jews as a historically attested “People of the Book.”
Alam denies the continuity of Jewish history and, therefore, the Jewish association with the land of Israel, to justify the destruction of the Jewish state. In the text cited above, he wrote:
In the 1890s… a small but determined cabal of European Jews proposed a plan to abrogate the history of global Jewish communities extending over millennia. They were determined to accomplish what the worst anti-Semites had failed to do: to empty Europe and the Middle East of their Jewish population and transport them to Palestine, a land to which they had a spiritual connection — just as Muslims in Bangladesh, Bosnia, and Burkina Faso are connected to Mecca and Medina — but to which their racial or historical connections were nonexistent or tenuous at best.
Apparently, Alam does not consider Israel to be within the Middle East. But at the same time, the comparison of the Jewish link to Palestine with that of Muslims in Bangladesh, Bosnia, and Burkina Faso to Mecca and Medina is absurd. Jews as a people originated in Palestine, recorded their religious history there in the Torah and Talmud, and survived as a remnant there throughout their history, until the founding of Israel in 1948. After the expulsion of the Iberian Jews from Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century, they were invited to settle in the Ottoman empire by the Turkish sultan. Palestine, which was ruled by the Turks, saw a Jewish religious revival through new metaphysical works of Kabbalah and a revised compilation of religious law. By contrast, Bengalis, Bosnians, and the people of Burkina Faso did not come from Mecca and Medina to south Asia, the Balkans, and central Africa; rather. Islam came to them, by conquest and conversion.
In much of Alam’s writing, the same tone, technique, and themes appear repetitiously: the Jews are illegitimate colonizers in Israel, an allegation supported by Alam’s characteristic mixture of fanciful inventions and conspiracy theory. In an even more bizarre excursus from his Israeli Exceptionalism, published in the Pakistani newspaper The News International in 2010, Alam wrote, “the Jews of the world were loosely united by their religious heritage, but they shared their languages, cultures and genes with their neighboring communities.” Ever the slapdash improviser, Alam seems not to be aware that genetic evidence has shown the consistent and distinct lineage of the Jews throughout their history.
Further, Jewish assimilation of a kind that would allow him to claim they “shared their cultures” with their neighbors is a development that began only in the 19th century with their emancipation in Europe. Alam appears ignorant of the enclosure of Jews in ghettoes, their restriction to the Russian-Polish “pale of settlement,” and other examples of segregation imposed upon them by their Christian and Muslim “neighbors,” who are better described as “rulers.” He continued, in The News International excerpt from his book, to fabricate crackpot theories that Jewish identity is a recent invention, as if “the Jews” who went to Israel as Zionists and refugees from the Holocaust were not really Jews at all, but disparate individuals plucked out of their legitimate homelands and renamed for political purposes. This is a gross, racist hoax.
Alam’s affiliation with Islamist ideology is eccentric, but always intended to provoke, in the style of the radical leftist cohort at CounterPunch. In 2004, he published an essay titled “America and Islam: Seeking Parallels” in CounterPunch, wherein heproclaimed that the Al-Qaeda attacks against America on September 11, 2001:
[W]ere an Islamist insurgency: the attackers believe that they are fighting — as the Americans did, in the 1770s — for their freedom and dignity against a foreign occupation/control of their lands…. [T]hese attacks were the result of a massive political failure of Muslims to resist their tyrannies locally. It was a mistake to attack the US.
Alam is distinguishable from many previous academic defenders of Islamist ideology by his attempt to ride two horses — radical Islam and radical leftism — at once. This trend has become noticeable in American academic life since 2001, and is growing, with Alam as one of its chief exponents. He is a glib, narcissistic man who, were it not for his venomous Jew-hatred, would merit nothing but disregard. His ideological journalism is profuse, but almost comically superficial, and would require more a psychological study than a survey of his ideas. His contributions as a “public intellectual” are stuffed with fantasies and incoherencies that must first be disentangled before he can be thoroughly answered.
But Alam is an outstanding specimen of another and larger problem in the Western academy — a native of a Muslim country, trained and employed in a field long disengaged from Middle Eastern, Islamic, or comparative religious studies, who presents himself as an expert on all things having to do with Middle Eastern history and society. His work in economics is undistinguished, and he would be ignored were it not for his penchant for demagogic rhetoric.