Monthly Archives: July 2009

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.

Interview with Hussein Ibish on growing anti-immigrant and Islamophobic hate crimes

KPFK, 90.7 FM Los Angeles

In Orange County, two neo-Nazi suspects are at large after robbing and stabbing a Latina custodian at a community center on July 4th. One of the suspects had a swastika tattoo on his left shoulder and reportedly told the woman, “Mexicans do not belong in this country,” after yelling racial slurs. According to hate crime experts, violent attacks by white supremacist extremists are on the rise.

Dan Fritz filed this report. LISTEN NOW

LISTEN NOW to the extended interview with Hussein Ibish, Executive Director of the Foundation for Arab-American Leadership, on the growing number of violent hate crime attacks.

Economic development in Palestine is possible, but ultimately requires independence

A reader takes issue with my encouragement of efforts to promote investment in Palestine when I wrote that “it would not be at all inconsistent with the imperative of transforming the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic into a win-win equation in which what is good for Palestinians does not threaten Israel and vice versa." He points out that “what is good for Palestine does in fact threaten Israel, or at least some of the benefits it currently enjoys. The occupation is not a series of fumbling, short-sighted errors; it is the result of a deliberate policy to increase the totality of material goods for Israel, water and land, for starters. How is it not a huge problem for Israel to cede these resources to their rightful owners?”

Of course if Israel could come up with a workable solution that would allow it to completely annex all of the occupied territories, it would do, and already have done, so. But the fact is that the occupation is completely unworkable and untenable. No amount of brutality has broken the Palestinian will to resist, and the international community has remained steadfast in refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the occupation or Israel’s maximalist claims on Palestinian lands. Indeed, resistance of all forms to the occupation has only intensified over the years, not diminished. There is no constituency in Israel that embraces the status quo as workable or acceptable. The reality is that ending the occupation is the only way for Israel as a whole to achieve its fundamental national interest of peace, security and generalized acceptance and diplomatic normalization in the Middle East. The alternative is endless war, bloody occupation and continued illegitimacy in the eyes of the rest of the peoples and most of the states of the Middle East. There is no doubt a powerful collection of constituencies in Israel that have a vested personal and economic interest in maintaining the occupation, but the broader interests of the state and society require that the national interests trump the special interests. If the Israelis follow their manifest self-interest, they will agree to end the occupation. Of course, societies sometimes refuse to follow their manifest of interests and engage in self-destructive behaviors over long periods of time, sometimes until it is too late. Both Israelis and Palestinians face this choice, and it’s up to all of us to help both of them make the painful but rational decision on a compromise that no one will like but both parties can live with. The essence of this is ending the occupation.

The reader further points out that, “while I agree in the abstract that building Palestinian infrastructure would be a terrific immediate-term goal, how on earth do you suppose one could interest investors in a place where the transport of goods and the reliability of services depends upon the whims of hostile IDF teenagers carrying out the wishes of a expansionist government?”

Here we have a really important observation and a serious objection. The reader is absolutely right: serious economic development, in the long run, is absolutely impossible under conditions of occupation. In particular, even limited economic development and institution building efforts depend on access and freedom of movement, which the occupation has specialized in constricting in a most outrageous manner. I certainly think Palestinians should follow the lead of Salam Fayyad in his constructive suggestion that they focus on building state institutions, insofar as possible, in preparation for statehood. However, the reader is correct that economic development in particular, and even institution building, are seriously impeded by the nature and the reality of the occupation. For this reason, economic development and institution building are not and cannot be a substitute for serious diplomatic efforts and real political progress. This is why Netanyahu’s initial proposals when he recently resumed the position of prime minister about “economic peace,” whatever that means, as opposed to a political peace were utterly ludicrous.

On the other hand, this doesn’t mean investment or limited degrees of economic development are impossible, even under current conditions. There have been successful efforts at both, and what is crucial is that the political process quickly yields greater access and freedom of movement for Palestinians that can allow them to move forward with economic development, understanding that a full program depends on independence. Wages in the West Bank are reported up by 24% in the past year, and unemployment is down, although the PA is undergoing a financial crisis due to the failure of international and Arab donors to meet their pledges to the Palestinians.

One of the developments that has allowed promising economic activity to proceed in the West Bank in recent months has been the creation of the new professional Palestinian security forces, much maligned in some quarters, but by almost all accounts successful in restoring law and order to cities like Jenin and Nablus and in helping to ease the pressure of occupation forces on the Palestinian population. Developments such as the new Herbawi department store in Jenin reflect what some, probably exaggeratedly, call an "economic boom” in the West Bank. But it does show that improvements in living conditions and economic activity are possible with improved security, and insofar as a dynamic political process can increase access and freedom of movement leading to real independence, investment and economic development in Palestine are by no means preposterous fantasies.

The Left must be the Left, in the Arab world and the West

Two recently published articles come insightfully and incisively at the same problem from two completely different directions, and both are worth carefully considering by anyone concerned with questions involving the contemporary political Left around the world. First, in a article, “Iran and Leftist Confusion,” Reese Erlich expresses amazement and bewilderment at the tendency of some of the Western Left to express support for Ahmadinejad and Khamenei and oppose or denounce the protesters. In fact, this is only the latest manifestation of a very common phenomenon plaguing the Western Left: being guided by the idiotic assumption that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," and that therefore any political actors in the developing world that oppose US foreign policy must somehow or other be worthy of support. This has extended in some circles to include fascists like Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic and others, theocratic fanatics like the above-mentioned Iranian thugs, Hezbollah and Hamas, and in some extreme cases even involves passing flashes of regard for nihilistic monsters like bin Laden, Zawahiri and Zarqawi.

In an article entitled “What it means to be a Palestinian leftist,” from the June 30 edition of the Palestinian newspaper al-Ayyam (now translated into English by ATFP), Hassan Khader takes aim at an analogous phenomenon among Palestinian leftists, describing how much of the Palestinian Left has essentially abandoned its social, economic and other principled positions in favor of a simplistic nationalist line that can easily degenerate into the support of right wing fundamentalist reactionaries like Hamas. Khader pointedly asks, “if challenging the right-wing fundamentalism is not a responsibility and task of the left, then how can it be worthy of that name?” and “if secularism and the issues of poverty, corruption, and civil rights, and especially and above all the issue of women’s rights, are not central concerns of the Left, then what exactly are its issues?” I have made similar points about the state of the Arab left many times in the past.

These positions are analogous for a number of reasons, most notably in their logic. In both cases, most traditional leftist values are pushed to the side and one principle is raised to primacy enabling the embrace of forces that should be utterly anathema to any respectable incarnation of the political Left. In the case of the Western leftists who find themselves in sympathy with the Iranian ruling elite, it is a fixation with battling Western imperialism and supporting all those who would confront US foreign policy. This support is adopted at all costs, and without regard for the other issues at play in Iran, or in the other cases I cited. If the international approach of the Western Left were simply to degenerate into a reflexive and knee-jerk policy simply in automatic opposition to any and every aspect of US foreign policy and automatic support for any forces that oppose it, it will be adopting an entirely unprincipled, and indeed incoherent, position.

As for the Arab and Palestinian Left, if all other values are abandoned or subordinated to the cause of nationalism, then the Left has in effect ceased to exist, and will simply become, as Khader describes, the handmaidens of more malevolent, conniving and capable forces of the political Right and religious extremism. Khader correctly maintains that for Palestinians, there is no contradiction between the confrontation with the occupation and the need to confront a plethora of unacceptable social conditions, especially on women’s rights. He is absolutely correct that if the Palestinian Left cannot stand up to the forces of extreme right wing reaction and robustly defend causes such as women’s rights, it isn’t a worthy of the name. In the West and in the Arab world, the Left must be the Left, or there will be no earthly reason for anyone to give it a second thought.

What makes anyone think that free Qurans are the answer to Islamophobia?

I see that the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has decided to spend a great deal of time and money distributing 100,000 free copies of the Quran to significant figures in the United States, apparently in an effort to combat Islamophobia. For the life of me, I cannot fathom why anyone thinks giving away free copies of the Quran could possibly be an effective response to Islamophobic bigotry. First of all, like all important holy books, and perhaps more than most, the Quran is a difficult text, particularly in translation. It is poetic, powerful, evocative and generally nonlinear. It is extremely difficult to read and understand even for the most erudite, and has been the subject of an extraordinary range of interpretations, exegeses and readings over the centuries. Muslims themselves have proved that, as with the Bible, it is possible to justify almost anything by referencing or privileging certain parts of the Quran or interpreting its passages in one way or another. Islamophobes rely as much on their own pet passages and interpretations of the Quran as the most devout Muslims. It is therefore extremely unlikely that reading or flipping through the Quran is likely to change anyone’s attitudes towards Islam and the Muslims.

Even more significantly, this effort can certainly look like proselytizing, even though CAIR insists that’s not what they are doing. Obviously, any such impression is not only unhelpful, it is downright counterproductive. This effort is, of course, extremely unlikely to win many new converts to the faith, as CAIR acknowledges. However, by simply sending out the most essential religious text of Islam raw, as it were, CAIR seems to be operating from two deeply flawed assumptions: first, that Islamophobia is driven primarily by ignorance of Islam, and second, that teaching non-Muslims about Islamic beliefs and traditions is best accomplished by handing them a copy of the Quran.

The correlation between ignorance about Islam and hatred of Muslims is not at all clear. Some of the most dedicated Islamophobes are quite knowledgeable about Islamic texts, theology and traditions, although they certainly spend a great deal of effort misrepresenting them or rather focusing on the most problematic and indefensible elements of those traditions and ideas. Ever since the days of Johann Andreas Eisenmenger, author of the crucial 1748 anti-Semitic screed “The Traditions of the Jews,” those well-versed in the traditions of a given religion have shown how such knowledge can be successfully deployed to promote bigotry, fear and hatred. Education in the details of the faith and traditions is plainly not enough to combat such prejudice.

Furthermore, it is deeply questionable whether simply providing people with copies of the Quran constitutes educating them about Muslim beliefs and practices. It strikes me that books explaining these beliefs and practices rather than difficult and in many ways esoteric holy texts, would be more effective, especially insofar as such books emphasize the heterogeneity of the world of Islam. It seems to me that the most important single misrecognition committed in contemporary Islamophobia in the United States is the belief in a monolithic Islamic world and Muslim community, the sense that there is a discrete unit known as “Islam,” as opposed to its binary opposite, “the West.” This way of looking at human realities is an absurd reduction, and in the case of the Islamic world it crucially elides the kaleidoscopic heterogeneity of Muslim traditions, societies, civilizations, beliefs and practices. In reality, there is no such thing as simply “Islam,” there is a multiplicity of different Islams, since Islam as a social phenomenon and a social text has manifested itself in such an extraordinary range of differing and sometimes contradictory incarnations. Simply giving people a copy of the Quran and saying, in effect, “this is what the Muslims believe,” not only doesn’t correct this misapprehension, it might even reinforce it.

Another sort of book that would probably have a lot more impact on the audience CAIR is trying to reach through its free Quran program would be one that deals directly with two of the biggest problems facing American Muslims today: first, the questions about Islamic beliefs and practices that so Americans continue to ask and that remain largely unanswered, and second, existing and sometimes even prevalent interpretations of the faith that are inconsistent with what is essential for Muslim communities to thrive and become empowered in the United States. A book that takes on both Islamophobic bigotry and obscurantism and extremism among Muslims simultaneously would be a very powerful intervention indeed. However, this would require considerable effort and is a lot more complicated than simply buying large numbers of Qurans and mailing them around the country. More significantly, it would involve making choices and taking stands on controversial issues that most people in the Muslim American community continue to try to duck in the name of solidarity or for fear of alienating potential allies and constituents.

And, of course, the deep pockets in the Arab world are as seized with religious fervor as much of the rest of their societies, and only seem to be interested in funding efforts they perceive as promoting Islam. I have no idea how this free Quran campaign is being funded, but the tendency on the part of many people in the Arab world to conflate the political and the religious and to fail to understand how efforts that may be perceived as proselytizing can be entirely counterproductive in the United States might well be part of the explanation for why this mass Quran distribution project is being done as opposed to other measures that would be more effective.

In the final analysis, the most important thing that has gone missing here, as usual, is that Islamophobia is not about Islam as a religion at all – it is about Muslims and is an assault not on abstract ideas, faith or theology, but on individuals and a community who are misperceived as hostile, dangerous and threatening outsiders. Efforts to combat Islamophobia, to be effective, must begin with this premise, and be based on defending people and their basic rights, and not promoting religion or getting into some kind of theological colloquy. Ever since the 1997 report by the Runnymede Trust, most efforts to deal with Islamophobia have been based on the inverted analysis that the prejudice is based on a hatred of a religion which then spills over into discrimination against the faithful. This is absolutely backwards. Islamophobia, like anti-Semitism, is based on a fear and hatred of a people and a community, and attacks on the religion are merely the rationalization for attacks on the community. This is entirely obvious, but it requires a degree of dispassion about religious ideas (of whatever variety) and an understanding that Islamophobia is a political phenomenon to grasp it. Anti-Semitism was never about Judaism, it was about the Jews. Islamophobia is not about Islam, it is about the Muslims. The difference is vast and crucial.