Dabashi v. Bishara: how Arabs and Iranians misread each other’s politics

The continuing upheaval in Iran has demonstrated an extremely interesting, and somewhat unfortunate, propensity for Arab and Iranian intellectuals to project their own emotional and political agendas on the other society and, consequently, talk past each other. The most interesting case in point has been an exchange between Palestinian activist Azmi Bishara and the Iranian Columbia University Professor Hamid Dabashi. Both men are influential and serious left-wing commentators and analysts, and their mutual misreading is very instructive and symptomatic.

Dabashi has been one of the most insightful and principled commentators in the United States on the election dispute in Iran and the upheaval in its aftermath. Most significantly, he has been among the most persuasive in arguing (as is quite clearly the case) that the Iranian opposition that took to the streets following the election fraud was not simply an elite group of disgruntled, pampered and westernized bourgeoisie, but represented a wide swathe of the Iranian society. This is a crucial point, especially in left circles, since if a class analysis of events in Iran suggested that the ruling forces better represented the popular sentiment, and more importantly the interests, of the agrarian and working classes, then support for the protesters would be invalid. This mistake has been made not only by some of the Western left, but also by some on the Arab left. In a rather convoluted article on the Iranian crisis in al-Ahram, Bishara made precisely this error, which seems to be the decisive issue for him, arguing that the Iranian protesters “are not the majority of young people but rather the majority of young people from a particular class,” and that, "most of the youth from the poor sectors of society support Ahmadinejad." He did not cite any evidence for this, of course. To cap it all off, he demonstrated his contempt for the Iranian protesters by accusing them of demonstrating "an arrogant, classist edge," and of believing that, "that their votes carry more weight qualitatively than the numerically greater votes of the poor."

Dabashi powerfully responded to Bishara in an article of his own in al-Ahram, writing that, “The problem with the false impression about this mysterious ‘middle class’ is not only that it distorts the reality of what we are observing in Iranian cities, but that it also inadvertently fuels the conspiratorial theories among certain segments of the North American and Western European left that take this observation one delusional step further and believe that CIA (on behalf of neoliberal economics) is behind this ‘velvet revolution.’” I’m not so sure it’s as inadvertent as he hopes. Dabashi should consider the possibility that Bishara and others who make this argument are perfectly happy to fuel conspiracy theories that would blame the West for unrest in Iran and provide highly qualified but also extremely pointed and effective support for Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. Bishara’s article presents an Ahmadinejad of the Arab imagination, who is less of a conservative and more of "a rebel," has personal "austerity" and "probity," “distributes oil revenues among the poor,” and has "succeeded in reviving national pride by making Iran a central player in the international arena" by confronting the West. It is this final point, of course, which is really decisive for Arab defenders of Ahmadinejad. Indeed, Bishara describes the removal of the ruling regime as "the Western alternative." Virtually every sentence in Bishara’s article shows the extent to which he views events in Iran primarily through the lens of confrontation with the West. Therefore, the conspiracy theory fostering may not be as inadvertent as Dabashi thinks, since many may think in conspiratorial terms.

Dabashi has been absolutely right to warn everyone to avoid this ridiculous idea that the protesters in Iran are effectively tools of the West or some sort of bourgeois counterrevolution. He has called it a "civil rights" movement, and I think thus far that’s exactly what it has been. But for some Arabs on the far left and right, Ahmadinejad appears a populist figure going forward with a bold and laudable confrontation with the Western imperialists and Zionist colonialists, and therefore his domestic opponents must be dismissed as an effete group of arrogant, classist, corrupted and westernized bourgeois. There is no question that such Arabs are projecting their own emotional/political fantasies onto the Iranian screen, and seeing what they want to see regardless of the fundamental realities.

Sadly, Dabashi seems to fall into precisely the same trap when looking at the Arab world. He speaks of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nassrallah as if he were somehow the bearer of the "Lebanese cause," and seems surprised that Hezbollah would openly align itself with Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. Of course, it is unthinkable for them to do anything else. They are not independent actors as such, and their politics as well as their client-status lead them directly to align themselves with the most reactionary of Iranian right-wingers. His admiration for Hezbollah’s "tolerating the principle of democratic dissent" by accepting the results of the Lebanese election is to misread pragmatism for principle. It is not in Hezbollah’s interests to challenge the recent Lebanese elections in which its faction was defeated, but no one should imagine for a minute that this organization embraces "the principle of democratic dissent" among its core values, any more than their ultra-right Iranian patrons and mentors in the Pasdaran who are the force behind this new wave of repression in Iran.

Dabashi contrasts what he calls "corrupt collaborationists" in the Arab world with the "visionary leadership" he seems to have expected and was disappointed not to find coming from Hezbollah. Everything he writes about the Arab world in his response to Bishara suggests that Dabashi more or less buys into the mythology of a grand struggle between “the martyrs and the traitors” in which the Islamist ultra-right represents popular will and liberation, and Arab governments and the PLO represent treachery and collaboration. A few years ago at the New Left Forum at the Cooper Union in New York City, I gave a talk at a panel on the Arab left in which I first started voicing my concerns about that element which had discarded all other principles in favor of simplistic nationalism and had therefore degenerated into simply serving as handmaidens to the Islamist religious right. Dabashi moderated the panel, and though he was, as always, gracious and polite, he made it clear that he took profound exception to this analysis — indeed he was plainly annoyed by it. Even now, as the crisis in Iran has caused what he rightly calls "an epistemic shift in our received political culture” and seems to have caused an epistemic shift in his own attitudes about Iranian domestic affairs, Dabashi does not seem inclined or able to extrapolate these insights to the Arab world and reconceptualize the Arab Islamist ultra-right as a major political threat to Arab societies and left forces that support the ultra-right as profoundly misguided and deeply confused.

Just as some Arab intellectuals like Bishara look at Ahmadinejad and see a populist friend of the poor and a noble anti-imperialist warrior, Dabashi seems to harbor analogous illusions about the Arab Islamist ultra-right. Arab governments — all of them — deserve and require profound criticism, but that doesn’t mean that anyone should have the least illusions about the nature, ideology and intentions of the Arab Islamist movements, whether Shiite or Sunni. The fundamentalist and reactionary ultra-right is exactly that, and it cannot and will not serve as a vehicle of liberation, social advancement or any other noble causes in the Arab world, Iran or anywhere else. Arab and Iranian intellectuals need to stop projecting their emotional/political fantasies onto each other’s societies and nurturing illusions about each other’s extreme right-wing forces. A much better place to start would be thinking seriously about the actual effects such political forces have on their own societies, and not casting such principled and practical concerns aside in favor of some grand, and often imaginary, regional and international causes.