- Critical Historicism
On 4 November 1979, a few months after I arrived in the US for my senior year of high school, radical Islamic students in Iran stormed the American embassy and took dozens captive, holding 52 hostages for 444 days. As part of its initial response, the US government adopted a comprehensive, disciplinary policy of tracking Iranian students in American high schools, colleges, and universities. Students like me were contacted by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and told to report to ad hoc security centers to be interviewed, photographed, and fingerprinted. After enduring protracted interrogation sessions during which we were questioned about our religious beliefs and political views, the INS officers instructed us not to travel out of state without first obtaining permission from immigration authorities. Throughout those long, harrowing days of the hostage crisis, not only did the US government fail to provide protection as many of us suffered angry attacks by patriotic hooligans, but it also subjected us to oppressive restrictions—enabled by the eager cooperation of academic institutions across the country. As the situation progressed, many of us came to feel that we, too, were being held hostage as we waited out the crisis in our dorm rooms, often afraid to venture out and always uncertain of our future in this hostile nation.
I begin this essay with a reminder of the mostly forgotten, inhospitable treatment of Iranian students in the US during the hostage crisis both as a way to challenge the now-familiar privileging of 11 September 2001 as a threshold moment for the reconfiguration of racial, ethnic, and religious dynamics in the US, and also as a way to make a broader claim about the underlying structures of disavowal which, I believe, have led to the frequent depiction of official responses to 9/11 as historically unprecedented. In so doing, my point is not to challenge claims about the significance or singularity of 9/11, at least in certain respects, but [End Page 286] rather to suggest the value of positioning 9/11 and its aftermath—both in scholarly conversations and in the classroom—not as an exception, but rather as an occasion for exploring longstanding social and cultural tropes surrounding questions of nation, immigration, and belonging that have circulated in the collective imaginary of this country since the founding.
It has become a truism among intellectuals on the left that in the post-9/11 era, Muslim and Middle Eastern immigrants have been subject to novel forms of regulation and vilification. The legal scholar David Cole, for example, contends that Arab and Muslim immigrants have been singled out in a new way in being labeled enemy aliens by the federal government, a designation that enables authorities to engage in such otherwise unconstitutional practices as racial profiling, unwarranted surveillance, and detention without access to legal representation.1 In highlighting the unconventional means by which Muslims and other Middle Easterners have been disciplined since 9/11, authors such as Cole may inadvertently play into the rhetoric of American exceptionalism and contribute to a forgetful form of historiography that obscures from view a past in which racial, ethnic, and religious minorities have periodically been deprived of their civil liberties in the name of protecting the security of the majority. In this regard, my own story of America's inhospitality offers only a belated encounter with nativism and disciplinary power when considered in relation to the detention and exclusion of Chinese immigrants at Angel Island in the late nineteenth century; the mistreatment of Jewish, Eastern European, and Southern European immigrants at Ellis Island in the early part of the twentieth century; and the internment of Japanese residents and citizens during World War II. In remembering earlier eras in which immigrants and minorities have been treated with hostility and subject to disciplinary measures, one is reminded that the anti-Moslem crusade inaugurated by the events of 9/11 is not an exception to the rule of hospitality in the US—a rule that too often has been honored only in the breach in this country. Similarly, viewed from a historical perspective, one begins to doubt claims that the 9/11 attacks precipitated the...