- Inter/Nationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine by Steven Salaita
The arc of Steven Salaita's words has not been without "controversy," especially in public discussion in the United States. In 2014, in the midst of being offered a significant position at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana and then having that offer revoked, the chancellor of the university stated that Salaita's tweets represented "disrespectful words … that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them." He was labeled anti-Semitic and the controversy pointed to what Salaita argued was a nefarious tenor in the academy: critiques of Israel would not just get you called names, they could get you fired. In 2016, the search that was set to renew Salaita's position at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon was abruptly cancelled and the position was functionally eliminated. He has yet to be reappointed, anywhere in the academy.
It is into this set of conditions that his 2016 book, Inter/Nationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine, was released. I consider it possible that as a [End Page 412] result, some reviews of this text take particular aim at Salaita himself, before the work. For example, Diana Muir, in the review of Inter/Nationalism published in Middle East Quarterly (summer 2017) argues that Salaita "allows his personal perspectives to get the better of him" and "veers into conspiracy theory and innuendo."
As a result, I aim here to interrogate Salaita's mission in Inter/Nationalism, to parse its arguments and take its central claims seriously outside of the overwhelming exteriority that has attached itself to Salaita, the scholar. And he argues, in the introduction of the text, that the goal of the work is substantial. He aims to develop "a theory of inter/nationalism, an amalgamation of what is sometimes called solidarity, transnationalism, intersectionality, kinship, or intercommunalism" (ix). This mission is one that the book repeatedly returns to throughout its arguments and theoretical assertions. He also does serious inter- and trans-disciplinary work that attempts to blend academic and socio-political boundaries in acknowledging "inter/nationalism demands commitment to mutual liberation based on the proposition that colonial power must be rendered diffuse across multiple hemispheres through reciprocal struggle." This assertion alone marks this work as powerful, and in tandem with Frantz Fanon (who he draws from a great deal throughout), Salaita facilitates theoretical roads that make his work here mandatory reading for those interested in post-colonial perspective, historical analysis, critical interpretation, or cross-cultural study (which Salaita addresses directly).
The nation state is a point of departure for Salaita here, and he goes to lengths to explain why. He argues that inter/nationalism is a term "to emphasize action and dialogue across borders, both natural and geopolitical—not the nationalism of the nation-state, but of the nation itself, as composed of heterogenous communities functioning as self-identified collectives attached to particular land bases" (xiv). His specificity on language, theoretically, gestures to why his work will be of interest in particular to readers of The Comparatist: "Whereas 'internationalism,' without the slash, connotes cosmopolitan modernity or an epistemology of worldly experience, 'inter/nationalism,' with its typographical emphasis on the complex and volatile term 'nationalism,' encourages the possibility of putting nationalisms into conversation or, more ambitiously, into collective practice" (xv–xvi). All the theory building that follows this setup is responsive, as he notes, to Fanon's understanding of decolonization (xii).
The idea of putting American Indian studies in conversation with Palestine is also elucidated in the introduction of Salaita's work. This is one of the features of the text that will be most valuable and controversial to those approaching the book for its "cross-cultural" efforts. As he argues, "[the nation] retains profound value to Natives and Palestinians as a subject of cultural practice, not merely as a geopolitical, historical, or discursive entity" (xvi–xvii). From here Salaita moves into [End Page 413] his first chapter, which presents his case for why Palestine should be important to those in American Indian studies.