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Faculty In The Spotlight:
Dr. David McDonald

by CSME Staff

 

In the autumn of 2011, CSME sat down with Assistant Professor of Folklore and Ethnomusicology and Near Eastern Languages & Cultures Dr. David McDonald, recipient of a New Frontiers grant from the Office of the Vice President for Research. The interview is transcribed below and covers McDonald's experience at Indiana University and his recent work with the Palestinian-American Community of Dallas, Texas.

 

How do you see your relationship with CSME?

 

David McDonaldI'm extremely supportive of CSME. I'm very grateful that Amb. Istrabadi was able to secure the Title VI grant to put it together. It brings together many things on campus, acting as kind of a node of integration with several different departments, bringing us all together in ways that we probably wouldn't have eitherwise. NELC, for example, the Islamic Studies Program, Folklore and Ethnomusicology, Cultural Studies, CMCL, Anthropology, language instruction, etc.. When you factor in the very inclusive way the center is conceptualized, with Central Eurasian Studies and even Hebrew from Jewish Studies, it all offers an incredible opportunity to reorient the study of cultures across this campus. I was very celebratory of the opportunity to participate in its creation. I did all that I could to help Amb. Istrabadi secure funds. I would see IU's CSME become one of the cornerstones of area studies in the region. My role in that is to handle arts, humanities, cultural, and musical performative type activities and research. That's my background, and everyone brings their own to the table. My research deals with music and performative culture of the Middle East.

 

What can you tell me about the New Frontiers Fellowship you were awarded by the University?

 

Recently I was awarded a New Frontiers Fellowship here at IU. It's an amazing opportunity for me to pursue a second book project. My first book's manuscript is now finished and is off to the publisher. It's a demographic study of Palestinian resistance movement through protest song throughout the 20th century. This next book project which this New Frontiers grant is allowing me to pursue is basically an ethnography of Palestinian-Americans living in Dallas, Texas, specifically post-9/11. What is it like to be Palestinian-American living in the heart of Texas after 9/11? And this in a state that has had a significant amount of Islamophobic, xenophobic approaches to cultural difference.

 

Why Dallas?

 

Dallas, Texas, was the location of the largest terrorism financing trial in US history, in which the leaders of the Holy Land Foundation were tried, and later convicted, of supporting terrorism. The Holy Land Foundation was a charitable organization that donated close to $12 million to various zakat committees. These committees were in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. They also donated to similar charitable organizations in Eastern Europe and even charities in the US following the Oklahoma City Bombing.

 

So, what's the connection between Zakat charity and Terrorism?

 

That's the spurious nature of the government's research that needs to be ferretted out. These organizations had tenuous ties to Hamas. Now, mind you, these same organizations funded by the Holy Land Foundation were also funded at the same time by USAID, which continues to donate to these and similar organizations. However, this particular charitable organization was singled out for donating to these zakat committees and all five defendants were sentenced to what amounts to life sentences. During the trial, music played an important role in the government's prosecution of one of the defendants. Also, video tapes of various music performances was used as evidence of their affiliation of various terrorist organizations. That's where I came in, as an expert witness in the trial, because of my expertise in Palestinian protest music.

 

Are these video tapes wedding performances or public venues?

 

They are from fundraisers for the Holy Land Foundation, usually at community centers, theaters, and mosques. There they would perform wedding songs, folk songs, dance songs - in general, what is considered to be Palestinian 'traditional' music. The lyrics of these pieces of music were interpreted by the Federal Prosecutors as being evidence of terrorist inclinations. So here is a very interesting example where music was used as a means to try to convict someone of conspiring to support terrorism.

 

Sucessfully.

 

Yes, they sucessfully convicted them, so far. Their appeal has been heard and is under deliberation. During this trial, this Palestinian community in Dallas became the focal point for much of the xenophobia where people were trying to find terrorists among us. They did so by isolating Palestinians particularly, and Arabs and Muslims more generally. This community was at the nexus of the court trial, but also reflected the larger forces at work in America more generally. Asking, essentially, "Who is, and who is not, an American? A real American?" so to speak. So, people like Bill O'Reilly were doing remote spots from Dallas during the trial talking about terrorists hiding among us. A kind of 24-esque senationalism.
Many of these Palestinians were born in America and know no other country.

 

They also know Keifer Sutherland. I mean, they know they're being 24-ized.

 

Yeah, basically, and what was so fascinating to me was that these families of the defendants and the community members more generally were targeted in many ways after 9/11. The day before the terrorist attacks they were American, the day after they were not. And to me, that's an interesting process that took place. All of a sudden, Muslims, Arabs, and Palestinians in particular, were excluded from the American Imaginary. I'm really interested in what it was like for them. What are the experiences, living in that post-9/11 community in Dallas, with the shadow of this trial looming over them?

 

What is the factual disconnect between the 9/11 events and the Palestine/Israel conflicts? Why Palestinians, and not, say, the Lebanese-Americans of Dearborn, MI?

 

It's important to distinguish the Dearborn area population from the other Arab-American populations of LA, New York, Dallas, and Washington, DC. Whereas the Dearborn population are the so-called "Good Arabs," largely Christian, largely integrated into the framework of the greater Detroit community, and in many ways largely blue-collar workers indistinguishable from other ethnic communities in the area's auto factories. They were not singled out as potential threats. It's important to see that there is also a critical mass there that is hard to find in other places. You can't just shut down a mosque in Dearborn and control that population.


The other thing is that after 9/11 there was a rush to strategically attach the US and Israel as both fighting a common enemy in Terrorism. The reactions in the Israeli media following 9/11 were, "Now you know what it's like. Now we're together in this fight. Now you're confronting the same terrorist threat we are."  That was a very strategic ploy, lumping together two disparate groups.

 

At the same time, you have the ascendance of Hamas as a geo-political reality. Their tactics of warfare helped this Islamophobia on the rise in the US. They are singled out as being the representative of Palestinian politics, rather than the peripheral extreme.

 

Can you tell me more about the process of your New Frontiers Fellowship?

 

Basically I wanted to put this book together. I needed money to do the necessary fieldwork in Dallas. I needed the necessary flexibility to get the project finished. IU is amazing in its resources for this kind of research. A colleague of mine suggested I apply for a New Frontiers grant. I'm on teaching leave next semester, so I was able to coordinate this funding with my department, so that the same semester I'm on teaching leave I could be away from campus doing my research. IU's generously funded this project. This is a very politically sensitive project, let's not forget. That reflects a larger attitude in IU which doesn't scur away from political sensitives, but rather wants to push in new directions. I consider it very fortunate to be able to be at a university like this doing this project.

 

Do you feel some connection with Prof. Kinsey?  IU has a history of supporting politically sensitive professors, no?

 

That's what universities are for. Let's be honest. If there wasn't a university environment with which to pursue new ideas that maybe go against the mainstream, than what is left? What else do we have? IU has, and is proud of, its reputation of not being afraid or backing down from unpopular and politically senstive research. In that sense, I've been very fortunate to be here, to do my research here.


CSME is a great example of IU's willingness to expand in new directions and not be complacent in its international studies. CSME is doing such interesting projects that bring together the humanities and the professional/trade schools - the [Kelley] School of Business, SPEA, and the [Mauer] Law School. That's something that hasn't been done.

 

How long have you wanted to write this book?

 

I was an expert witness in the trial. When I was part of the trial, I spent a good year analyzing the exhibits from the trial. While testifying down in Dallas I was exposed to the defendants and their families. I was fascinated by the community members who showed up daily at the trial in support of the defendants. It pointed at an interesting and provocative phenomenon ongoing in American society, one worthy of the kind of researched study that I want to do. That planted the seed that this was a book that needed to be written.


After the defendants were convicted, it became a matter of, "How can I do this?"  I needed the funding, the time, the resources to make it happen. That's when I started, you know, shaking the tree to see what fruit might fall. The New Frontiers grant was the most sizeable contribution towards getting this book done. Both my department and CSME have been extremely supportive, for which I am very grateful. No one has ever said, "That's too politically sensitive. You should be worrying about tenure, not these other things." No one has ever said that. That's huge.

 

How did you come to be named an expert witness in the trial?

 

The Federal Prosecutors put forth 55 DVDs of performances of Palestinian music as evidence of their affiliation with terrorist organizations. The defence then needed an expert witness to give cultural context to those videos, to explain, to present them from a researched point of view. As everyone knows, music is highly contextual. The meanings we take from music reflect more of who we are than what is in the music itself. One can't watch a video and blithely assume that we understand what's going on. The attorney for the defense contacted me based on my research on Palestinian protest song and the larger issues of music and violence. The attorney asked if I would be willing to take a look at the videos. I said I would be willing, but was not expecting the amount of material that they sent, a considerable amount that I had to wade through. I went through translations, I analyzed the music, I transcribed the videos, I discussed the way in which the music was performed, what the artists were wearing on stage and about the dancing and styles of singing - all to give a more complete picture of what these performances meant for the people who were there.

 

Can you tell me more about how the DVDs were used in the trial?

 

The prosecution would play the videos with translation and the lyrics would contain calls for justice, calls to fight, "pick up the rifle," "pick up the sword," those kinds of things. Several of the songs also mentioned Hamas specifically. However, those performances all took place prior to Hamas being designated a terrorist organization. After that designation, the group changed its music dramatically. I was then brought in to say, "This kind of folksong rhetoric is common throughout wedding songs, calendric festivals, and folksongs in general." If you look at our own folksongs, you see this same kind of imagery and when we sing them we aren't making a claim to fight for anything. The other thing is that, in this country, you should be able to sing a song and have it mean whatever you want and not have it interpreted as proof of affiliation with terrorism. Hip Hop artists sing some things that are very difficult to hear and no one throws them in jail for it. My job was to keep the jury from just going off of translations of lyrics and jumping to conclusions about those lyrics by providing cultural context. The prosecution offered no rebuttal witness to my testimony.

 

With the awarding of the New Frontiers grant, what wheels have already started to turn?

 

I have a lot of materials I've already collected, both from the trial as well as interview data from over this past summer. Not having to teach next semester allows me to devote all of my time to writing and travelling back and forth to Dallas if need be, for followup interviews. In other words, the next step for me is the writing stage. I'm sure there may be some followup research, but I have enough gathered where I can begin to put things together on the page.

 

What are the key consequences of this book?

 

These larger discourses of terrorism and "you're either with us or against us," my job is to show how these things manifest in the lives of ordinary folks, everyday Americans. This is, after all, an American story, and a story that needs to be told. We're all, in some way, implicated here, we're all responsible.


More than anything, what I'm hoping this book will accomplish, will be how music performance and media structure our ideas of Self and Other, our notions of National Self and Other. How do  we define ourselves as American? In many ways, that is interpreted through performance. There are many kinds of performance: musical performance, media performance, etc. We need to attend to these consequences. For those that are all of a sudden excluded from the American Imaginary, who, in other words, are no longer "American," but are "Terrorists," because they practice a different religion or wear a headscarf or are from a particular place on the Earth, that needs to be examined and dealt with. I'm hoping this book will accomplish those goals.