Meeting Asian/Arab American Studies: Thinking Race, Empire, and Zionism in the U.S.
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Meeting Asian/Arab American Studies
Thinking Race, Empire, and Zionism in the U.S.

I am the witness of the massacre I am the victim of the map I am the son of simple words . . .

—Mahmoud Darwish, from "Poem of the Land"1

Speak, your lips still have their liberty Speak, still yours is the spoken word . . . Speak, for the truth is alive even now Speak, say all you wish you had said.

—Faiz Ahmed Faiz, from "Speak" (1941)2

Why link Asian and Arab American Studies?

Why should we speak of Arab American studies in Asian American studies, or have a conversation in ethnic studies about points of convergence and divergence between these two areas? Is it in order to recognize an emerging ethnic studies field in the U.S., with all the limitations that a politics of recognition based on multiculturalism entails? Is it to extend a comparative ethnic studies approach that is increasingly transforming Asian American studies while raising questions about the definition of ethnic and racial boundaries? In our view, the answer is all of these, but much more. We argue here that speaking of Arab and Asian [End Page 117] American studies in the same breath is ultimately valuable because it illuminates a broader and more urgent issue: the need to develop a fuller analysis of U.S. empire.

The meeting of Asian American and Arab American studies has been increasingly highlighted in discussions after 9/11 as it has become apparent that Asian American—particularly South Asian—and Arab American communities as well as Muslim Americans more generally, have similar experiences as targets in the "war on terrorism" waged by the United States. The question of how to produce intellectual and political knowledge to respond to the everyday crisis of empire is urgent at this particular moment, but we want to point out that it has always been so—the conjuncture between Asian/Arab American studies helps to situate U.S. empire in a much longer historical trajectory that links movements in, and out of, Asia and the Middle East. Imperial power operates by obscuring the links between homeland projects of racial subordination and minority co-optation and overseas strategies of economic restructuring and political domination. This link between the domestic and global fronts of empire can be exposed only if we expand our frame of analysis to consider the ways in which categories of subjects such as "Asian American" and "Arab American" are positioned in relation to U.S. empire.

Ethnic studies has focused in large part on documenting, understanding, and challenging the construction of ethnic and racial boundaries as they intersect with other axes of domination, such as gender, sexuality, and class, within the nation. However, there has also been a movement in Asian American studies to acknowledge the transnational dimensions of Asian communities and histories, on the one hand, and the paradoxes and pitfalls of a multiculturalist identity politics, on the other. So the meeting of Arab/Asian American studies highlights the question of borders, and the political and epistemological work of boundaries in shaping our understanding of power and resistance. It helps us to locate the issue of ethnic and racial borders within the larger frame of U.S. empire, and to understand that the question facing Asian American studies today is how to intellectually and institutionally confront imperial, not just national or ethnic, politics. This has always been the challenge for ethnic studies, which has often remained confined within a national frame. [End Page 118]

The purpose of linking Asian and Arab American studies is not to colonize Arab American studies within an ever-expanding rubric of pan-Asian ethnicity, but to do the opposite: to challenge the ever-expanding borders of an imperial project that operates through direct as well as proxy wars, neo-colonial occupation, and client states. Ultimately, it is for Arab Americanists themselves to decide where they want to be situated in the academy and how Arab American studies should be introduced into the curriculum. Research on Arab Americans is growing and gaining more academic recognition through new faculty hires and programs, though it continues to occur in...