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Is Musa Al-Gharbi the Last Academic Who Can Tell the Truth?

The superstar Columbia grad student was canceled by Fox, an experience that only strengthened his belief in convincing his opponents

by
B. Duncan Moench
May 04, 2021
Ezra Adams
Musa Al-Gharbi Ezra Adams
Ezra Adams
Musa Al-Gharbi Ezra Adams

Following last November’s election, exit polls appeared to convey some shocking news: Relative to four years before, Donald Trump didn’t just improve his performance with ethnic non-Europeans—he actually improved his performance with nearly every major ethnic (and gender) category except one: educated white males. Clearly, a post-victory reassessment of some of the basic premises of U.S. political coverage was in order. Four years of Trump had actually convinced a greater number of Hispanics, women, and African Americans to vote for a man that the left had labeled an aspiring dictator, a white supremacist, and a Russian agent.

Given the current demographic voting trends that most in America’s punditburo completely misunderstand, it’s entirely possible that Trump or his successor in the 2024 race could make enough headway with Americans of non-European origin—so-called “people of color”—to tilt the electoral balance of power.

Why? One answer is that Americans of non-European origin are much more likely to label themselves religious than American “whites.” In fact, in nearly every major election cycle since 2008, more people of faith—no matter their ethnicity—have left the Democratic Party. Whether it’s President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s establishment retirement camp, or Sen. Bernie Sanders’ pseudo-social democratic youth version, Democrats are alienating almost all religious groups—including devout Muslims. That says something, given that Trump attempted to ban the entire religious faith from entering the country.

Then there is the system of overt racial and group preferences that the Democratic Party wishes to embed into law, which even many voters who would supposedly benefit from such a system find to be misguided or repulsive. Proposition 16, the elite-backed attempt to reinstate legal affirmative action policies in California, went down in flames 57% to 43%.

After four years of Trump and 50 years of affirmative action, a surprising percentage of the racially and economically underserved groups that the establishment left purports to champion increasingly said to themselves: Intra-elite politics isn’t about us—it makes things worse, not better—so why not give America’s most prominent anti-elitist a shot? The more the elite attacked Trump, the more the supposed fascist’s stock rose among the groups he was said to be marginalizing.

This seemingly counterintuitive result should not in fact be surprising. Since the collapse of the New Deal coalition in the late 1960s, the incompetence of the boomer political class in fighting for better working conditions—and its support for exporting working-class jobs overseas—has driven American working people further to the cultural right, regardless of race, sexual preference, or other identity issues that white American leftists obsess over.

He’s not a household name, but Musa Al-Gharbi is one of the very few commentators in the mainstream media or academe who has been capable and daring enough to publicly recognize how political correctness alienates America’s ethnic minorities. The former communications director of the Heterodox Academy, a group that advocates for greater viewpoint diversity on college campuses, Al-Gharbi is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Columbia University and an academic superstar in the making. For the past four years, Al-Gharbi tried to tell anyone who would listen that Trump supporters did not in fact fit the sociological profile offered on The New York Times opinion page or on MSNBC’s nightly pearl-clutching roundtables.

Tall and thin with brow-line spectacles, Al-Gharbi has a calm way about him. We first met at a conference at Arizona State two years ago. A day later, on an oddly cold night in Tempe, we met for the Southwest’s version of sushi-to-go. Despite the differences in our demeanors, ethnicity, and religion, after about 10 minutes, it became clear we had an unusual amount in common.

We’d both been raised in highly conservative areas in the mountain West, where we’d become critical of the region’s contradictory libertarian-communitarian streak. However, unlike most American Westerners who relocate to New York, New England, or the Bay Area for graduate school, neither of us succumbed to the constant bashing of our roots in order to assert our belonging in a new culture. Instead, we became more fascinated with the complicated populist cultures of our origins.

Between bites of a raw fish burrito, a modern Southwestern specialty if there ever was one, Al-Gharbi and I discovered another similarity. At various points in the early 2010s, we were both blacklisted by the faculty of our respective graduate programs. Just as it did for me, the process forever altered Al-Gharbi’s way of thinking about academe and the superficiality of its ever-expanding social justice industrial complex.

Weirdly enough, for Al-Gharbi, it all started with a Fox News story about him from 2014, which portrayed him as an Islamist fanatic. “If you would have gone to the Fox News website, the first thing you would’ve seen is my face: Radical Muslim professor corrupting the youth,” he would later tell me in a podcast interview. “They talked about me on air too, more than once. It was horrible. All of the departments and institutes I was affiliated with got flooded with hate mail and threats.”

The Fox News story derived from two essays Al-Gharbi had written almost a year before. In one dialogic (as opposed to snide) piece, Al-Gharbi wrote, “It would not be a stretch to say that the United States is actually a greater threat to peace and stability in the [Middle East] than ISIS.” His argument was more nuanced than the anti-imperialist routine common among the academic pseudo-left: Al-Gharbi clarified that the United States was a threat to Middle East stability precisely because its “policies in Iraq, Libya and Syria have largely paved the way for ISIS’s emergence as a major regional actor.”

At first, no one took much notice of Al-Gharbi’s relatively uncontroversial takes about U.S. Middle East policy published in an academic journal and a somewhat obscure left-wing website. But that changed when Al-Gharbi got into a Twitter spat with an activist associated with Campus Watch, a right-wing organization that clumsily opposes the radicalization of higher education.

“Basically, what happened was: I published this essay in this journal, Middle East Policy,” Al-Gharbi told me.It’s the No. 1 cited journal for Middle East studies, it was a big deal … it was exciting … but there’s sort of a cottage industry of anti-Muslim Muslims—people who are ex-Muslims who go on right-leaning media and say something like ‘Muslims are horrible, I would know.’ So one of the people who’s part of this industry tried trolling me on Twitter about my article, which was about ISIS, and I pretty much demolished the guy. It was great in the moment. I felt super proud of myself, in part because as he started losing the empirical argument, he tried shifting to talking about things like ‘liberty’ and stuff like this. I’m guessing he assumed I didn’t know a lot about American political theory, but I actually graduated from one of the top programs in the world for political philosophy. I went on his own home turf and just demolished him there as well. It really got under his skin. Looking back on it now, I wish I would have tried to spike the ball less. Basically, he started this smear campaign to try to get me fired from my positions [at University of Arizona].”

A short time later, Al-Gharbi found himself opening rejection letters from both of the Ph.D. programs he applied to at the University of Arizona—despite already holding the titles of outreach scholar and research fellow at the institution. “It just seemed like I’d become persona non grata. In fact, I did find out later that I had been blackballed, at least where hiring is concerned.” Al-Gharbi spoke about this episode with a remarkable lack of bitterness or anger.

Al-Gharbi put forth a leftist position, for which he was pilloried by Fox News. He is an African American Muslim, which presumably should have given him intersectional identity cred. Yet before America even had the term “cancel culture,” he became one of its casualties. How that happened helps illuminate a general misunderstanding about cancel culture, and the nature of the university system where it largely originated.

Conservatives claim that American universities are bastions of left-wing radicalism, but the reality is far more complicated, and ridiculous. At its core, America’s higher education industry is neither left nor right, per se. Like the Wall Street investment firms its graduates pour into after graduation, elite American higher education prioritizes risk aversion above all else. By necessity, its decision-makers hold the worldview of a fretful public relations manager: Avoid bad press. Don’t make waves. Keep the ship afloat. 

It’s true that universities are dominated by a niche version of radical social thought, but it’s generally the kind of “leftism” Goldman Sachs can endorse—a transhumanist love affair with machines (and data) combined with calls for representational correctness, all to the accompaniment of the declining arts, which dance around in the background, flailing its limbs and speaking in tongues, compelled by the god of anti-racism.

When the corporate mind combines with the scarcity of tenure-track career stability, nearly all university employees become terrified of stepping outside the boundaries of acceptable thought. Who would dare risk losing a chance at tenure, or the lifelong rewards of administration ladder-climbing? As a result, the norms of many academic disciplines are now upheld with the kind of fanatical reverence that used to be reserved for Marxist cells, fascist militias, and cults.

In Al-Gharbi’s case, faculty and administrators at the University of Arizona received a barrage of threatening phone calls and emails, and were forced to read local press coverage questioning whether it was appropriate for a “radical Muslim” to be educating innocent Arizonans. For the most part, the hysterics did not attack Al-Gharbi’s character. Instead, they attacked his “radical” political beliefs and ideology. Did the many left-wing groups and departments of the university stand by his side? They did not.

Unsurprisingly, the university’s powerbrokers quickly tired of the maelstrom. Not only was Al-Gharbi refused admission to the university’s Ph.D. programs despite unassailable credentials; its various administrators canceled his existing funding streams at the departments and centers where he worked. A few months later, Al-Gharbi found himself selling shoes at a local Dillard’s.

To make matters worse, Al-Gharbi was told he wouldn’t get promoted to shoe department supervisor because the Dillard’s district manager declared him overqualified. Reflecting on a dismal time in his life, Al-Gharbi recalled what the man told him: “I wouldn’t stick around.”

Struggling to provide for his family, he found himself reenacting the Book of Job (a version of which also appears in the Quran). He’d spent his entire adult life educating himself, but through no foreseeable fault of his own, he could no longer find work in his field, nor earn a halfway-reasonable income in retail. Caught between a rock and a bigger, sharper rock, Al-Gharbi contemplated joining the military. An ironic turn, to say the least, but he explained it in our 2019 podcast interview, and later again in more detail over the phone.

“I’m from a military family going back generations,” he told me. “My grandfather fought in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Both of my parents were in the Army, my father was deployed to the Middle East during Desert Storm. I had siblings and cousins who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. My twin brother was killed in Afghanistan in June 2010.”

“Your twin?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“Oh my gosh.”

“His death was the reason why I started doing work in national security and foreign policy stuff in the first place—to help avoid other families having to suffer from having to go through what my family was going through. And, I grew up in a military town in a military community, so to portray me as somehow being anti-troop or something is not only ludicrous, it’s actually repugnant.”

On the verge of enlisting in the military, despite the earlier loss of his brother, Al-Gharbi made one last gasp of effort to salvage what only a year earlier had been a promising academic career. He drove back to Tucson and met with one of his former graduate school advisers at the University of Arizona. She gave him advice that would change his life, he recounted for me in a phone interview:

“‘You should just go for the absolute top,’ she told me. The middle- and second-tier schools you think are ‘safe’ aren’t for a Ph.D. candidate like you. Those second-tier schools are not interested in diversity of thought or even background. They want people from a very similar background who all think the same way. Those middle-of-the-road schools are trying to produce a very specific type of person who masters a specific way of talking, writing, and thinking—someone they can mold into their perfect gingerbread academic. … Someone like you—with this bad press, and all these publications—you’re preformed. Can they mold you? Probably not. On the other hand, some of these Ivy League schools and institutes, they have the money to take risks.’”

His adviser was right. In his second round of applications, Al-Gharbi got into Yale, Columbia, Emory, Howard, and a host of other top schools (he ended up at Columbia). By March of 2021, so many Ivy League academic presses were interested in publishing his first book that they had to organize an auction for its rights—an unheard-of event for someone still completing a doctorate.

Since arriving at Columbia’s Department of Sociology in 2017, Al-Gharbi has published more than 90 essays for outlets like the Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, the Conversation, Salon, The Baffler, Chronicle of Higher Education, and more. Nearly 100 public intellectual pieces while still a graduate student is positively bonkers, not to mention his central role in the formation of the Heterodox Academy. He’s done interviews with NPR, CNN, the Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and his scholarly work has been cited by an equally long list of outlets. I’m exhausted just trying to compile a list of all the things Al-Gharbi’s done as a public intellectual these last few years. Nearly all of his work questions the emerging orthodoxy in some way.

Al-Gharbi’s great accomplishment is that he went from being ignored by outlets like The New York Times and CNN to entertaining requests from them without ever changing his politics. His cancellation at the University of Arizona by the likes of Fox News and Campus Watch didn’t transform him into a bitter, angry crusader intent on “exposing” the American right (which is probably what some of his new suitors envisioned). While the Ivy League admissions committees and national editorial boards were certainly correct in identifying his top-notch talent and intellect, they also underestimated his ability to resist the coastal contempt for Middle America.

If I’m trying to convince people not to bomb Syria, then I should be writing to people who do want to bomb Syria—not to people who already agree with me.

Donald Trump and his supporters are part of a fascist tradition. Racism is a uniquely American problem. All men are complicit in “rape culture.” Like a bad penny, these are the kinds of “truths” that keep cropping up in university discourse today—a new flavor of abject conformism that has become just as dominant in state universities and community colleges as elite private universities. To question any or part of the new academic catechism risks social and professional ostracism, and often being brought up on charges before star chamberlike academic courts.

Despite this growing viewpoint intolerance, Al-Gharbi has worked as hard as any sociologist or data-driven writer to expose the gaps in contemporary social justice assumptions. He does so in an ingenious manner, designed in advance to be palatable to elite audiences.

Since the twin blows of his brother’s death in Afghanistan and his sacking at the University of Arizona, Al-Gharbi has responded in an honorable and, dare I say, almost saintlike manner: After reflecting on what truly motivated the people who canceled him, he’s dedicated himself not simply to provoking them, but to work that, he hopes, will potentially change their minds.

“Everything I write about now is on some level a practical problem with real world consequences,” he told me. “And I’ve seen how these consequences can play out in very serious ways, and that helps me leave my own pride at the door. The question I begin with is: What do I have to do? What will it take to get people to hear this? If I’m trying to convince people not to bomb Syria, then I should be writing to people who do want to bomb Syria—not to people who already agree with me.”

That’s not an easy undertaking. Nearly all of today’s aspiring intellectuals either cave to the left’s mandatory identitarianism or else somehow make peace with what James Antle III and Frank Meyer called fusionist conservatism—a contradictory ideological pairing best embodied in Ronald Reagan’s embrace of libertarian economics and socially conservative “family values.” Despite Trump’s trashing of most of its tenets, the fusionist mindset still dominates almost all of America’s ostensibly right-wing think tanks and the very small number of conservative institutions of higher learning that do exist, like Hillsdale College or Liberty University. Meanwhile, the gates of higher learning and elite media have closed to those pursuing the “vital center,” as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. famously termed it. Aside from a handful of intellectuals like Michael Lind, it is hard to find anyone who offers a voice to counter the social justice delusions of the left and fusionist confusions of the right—unless they’re successful foreign writers or carry the requisite intersectional “get out of jail free card,” as Al-Gharbi calls it. As with everything, he is incredibly thoughtful in terms of what his “identity” does for him.

“I’m allowed to say things other people aren’t and I’ve never been clearly on the left or right,” he told me. “If I was going to put myself on a political map, I skew more towards populism socially and left on economic things. But also I’m very sensitive to the kinds of things libertarians criticize about government overreach. I’m kind of a mess ideologically, really,” he laughs.

As it happens, a plurality of Americans reside in almost precisely the same headspace—supportive of New Deal-like interventionism, but not at all thrilled with strange elite belief systems like the social construction of gender and critical race theory. While this portion of the electorate has grown tremendously, it hasn’t seen much in the way of mainstream or national political representation.

As the ethnic makeup of America changes, it turns out that ethnic minorities tend to embrace the ideological pairing of the New Deal’s vital center—social democratic economic preferences combined with social traditionalism—even more than the “white working class,” a moniker that serves as cover for long-standing WASP disdain for all working people and the working poor, including those of non-European origin.

“I wouldn’t put things the way you do,” Al-Gharbi said kindly, a statement that is undoubtedly true, and likely speaks to virtues that he possesses and I lack. “When I was attacked, I became really motivated to reach people in a new way. I wanted to understand how people who didn’t know me could believe such insane things about who I am, what I’m about, and what I’m trying do. I’m always trying to frame my work in terms of other people’s values, but I’m never disingenuous about it. I never say or write things I don’t believe. Rather, I say things I do believe but in another way.”

Al-Gharbi’s approach is admirable, but also very difficult to pull off, which is why there aren’t many others like him out there. Long term, it’s worth contemplating whether liberalism—a system of political economy that prioritizes the individual in almost all considerations—can function Al-Gharbi’s way. If we’re ever to get past America’s latest cultural hysteria—the great “white scare” of the 2020s— intersectional voices like his that don’t mimic party lines will play a central leadership role.

“There’s this big division between elites of color and other people of color,” Al-Gharbi said. “It’s especially true at universities, in particular prestigious ones. They usually support diversity, equity, and inclusion because it gives them an advantage in intra-elite competitions. It helps them get a leg up on other aspiring elites who happen to be white, or men, or whatever. So, there’s a very direct material advantage to them. Similarly, you see that the Black writers or Latino writers doing work for The New York Times are onboard with all of this, but it breaks down to what Chomsky has argued about elite education: It serves as a tool to filter out people who aren’t willing to say the ‘right things’ or don’t know how to avoid saying things which anger elites. Critics at The New York Times have clapped back at Chomsky’s argument and said, ‘Well, no one tells me what to write.’ To which Chomsky replies, ‘If you didn’t already know what the right things are to say, you wouldn’t be at the Times at all.’”

Liberal Anglo-Saxon Protestant (LASP) elites are training non-LASPs in “faculty lounge” identity rhetoric, encouraging them to walk at the front of the progress parade while they sit on the float blowing kisses, wearing the crown of diversity. One of the consequences is that Democrats and Ivy League elites have convinced themselves that Americans of non-European origin don’t know or care enough about economics to notice the prioritization of empty culture-war gestures over genuine economic reform. Al-Gharbi doesn’t buy it.

“Black people are not culturally liberal or woke,” he said in our phone call. “The same with Hispanic voters. They vote with Democrats because they’re perceived as better allies on civil rights, basic social safety nets, but not because they support all the culture stuff. One of the problems that Democrats have been seeing: As they lean into the cultural stuff, which is unpopular with Muslims, African Americans, and Hispanics, and then they deemphasize the stuff that these voters do care about—bread and butter economics issues—the more they do, the more they alienate these groups.”

Just as our call was ending, Al-Gharbi asked for my thoughts on something: He’d recently been offered a major job with a nonprofit. I agreed not to write about the specifics of the organization or the position, but when he told me, I let out an audible yelp of approval.

Despite my encouragements, he immediately tempered my enthusiasm. Al-Gharbi wants to stay in elite academe. We briefly debated whether the kind of renegade work he wants to do can actually be done in an Ivy League setting, or in any prestigious institution for that matter. We came to no agreement.

“The amount of resources that are at your disposal in Ivy Leagues ... the credibility that’s at your disposal ... the ability to shape people, it’s all different,” he argued.

I told him he would probably know more than I do about the state of higher education, and whether he’ll find what he wants there. But I thought it would be a couple of years, if not a decade, before he would be truly allowed to do what he wants: escape the absurdities of higher education to challenge its orthodoxies from a high perch. As soon as I said it, though, I remembered how unique Al-Gharbi is, and realized I was talking primarily to myself.

B. Duncan Moench (@DuncanMoench) is a Tablet contributing writer and a scholar of political thought and American character studies.

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