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Islam, Colonialism and U.S. Foreign Policy

Publisher: Transaction Publishers (2005)

Publisher: Transaction Publishers (2005)

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies, the chair of the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures Department, and the director of Graduate Studies at the Center for Comparative Literature and Society, all at Columbia University.

Professor Dabashi's research interests include the comparative study of cultures, Islamic intellectual history, and the social and intellectual history of Iran, both modern and medieval.

Professor Dabashi's publications include Authority in Islam: From the Rise of Muhammad to the Establishment of the Umayyads (1989), Theology of Discontent: The Ideological Foundation of the Islamic Revolution in Iran (1993), Truth and Narrative: The Untimely Thoughts of Ayn Al-Qudat Al-Hamadhani (1999), Staging a Revolution: The Art of Persuasion in the Islamic Republic of Iran (with Peter Chelkowski, 1999), and Close Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, Future (2001).

In this interview with The Asia Society, Professor Dabashi discusses, among other things, colonialism and religious violence, Iranian cinema, activism in the academy, American foreign policy towards Iran, and the long-term consequences of the military invasion of Iraq.

You have said that trying to understand religion (notably Islam) in the context of terrorism is a red herring, since those perpetrating acts of terror are waging a political struggle against the perceived effects of colonialism simply veiled in the language of God. Could you elaborate on this claim?

My position is this: it is impossible to understand not only modern Islam but any other religion in modernity outside the context of colonialism. This is simply because colonialism has been the single greatest source of power in modern history and has had a catalytic effect on every culture and every religion.

Historically, Islam has always been in conversation with a major interlocutor; that interlocutor could be Greek philosophy, or Buddhist asceticism, or Christian monasticism, or Jewish theology. In conversation with these moral forces, or with political forces such as the Sassanid and Byzantine empires, Islam has articulated itself.

However, over the last 200 years, what we call 'Islam' has articulated itself in conversation with colonialism. It is because of this fact that it is impossible to understand Islam outside colonialism.

What I argue has happened over the last 200 years is a systematic corrosion of the multiplicity of sites and visions of Islam as a religion and as a culture, narrowing it exclusively to a site of ideological resistance to colonialism. Let me elaborate: If you go back to pre-modernity, before the rise of colonialism, Islam is: (i) poly-vocal (it speaks with many languages); (ii) poly-local (it is located in South Asia, Western Asia, North Africa), and (iii) poly-focal (it has any number of focal points: juridical, philosophical, literary). All these narratives have existed simultaneously, although of course sometimes one discourse was more powerful than the other.

I also name these narratives "logo-centric" when the basis of Islamic self-definition is Reason, or nomo-centric when it is Law, or homo-centric, as in mysticism, which is human-based. All of these multiplicities start a process of corrosion when Islam begins a conversation with colonialism. Islam then mutates into a site of ideological resistance to colonialism.

The paramount figures and the most vocal, articulate Muslim public intellectuals from Sayyid Ahmed Khan in South Asia to Mohammed Abdou in North Africa begin to converse with colonialism. As a result, they translate and mutate a multifaceted Islamic intellectual history into a single site of ideological resistance to colonialism.

In your book, Theology of Discontent you argued that what animated the revolutionary movement in Iran was a theological language of discontent, involving the construction of a homogenized, hostile "Other" poised against an injured "Self". Is this ideological formation unique to the Iranian revolution? Do you think this prognosis could equally be applied to the present global configuration?

First of all, this ideological formation is not exclusive to Iran, it is endemic to Islamic societies. However, in Iran, it has an added momentum by virtue of the Shi'i component of the Islamic Revolution. I understand Shi'ism not exclusively as a sectarian, sub-division of Islam (constituting 15 per cent of the world's Muslim population), I understand it, as I argued in Authority and Islam, as the unfulfilled dream of Islam. Shi'ism remained a paradox: the institutionalization of an uninstitutionalizable charisma (that is, Mohammad's charismatic authority is transmuted into Ali, and from Ali, descends into twelve saintly, infallible figures).

With the disappearance of the twelfth Imam, going into occultation, as the Shi'is believe, history is at a standstill, in a state of expectation (for whenever the twelfth Imam will reappear). This gives Shi'ism the character of a religion of protest. As a religion of protest, it is predicated on a paradox: it will always have to remain in a combative position (speaking truth to power); however, as soon as it comes to power, it negates itself. This happened to the Safavids in Iran, to the Fatamids in Egypt, to the Hamdanids in Syria, and now to the Islamic republic in Iran: Shi'ism comes to power, it negates itself immediately, it is no longer Shi'ism.

This fact is best represented in Tazi'eh, which is a theatre of protest; this characterization of Shi'ism I propose is actually a kernel of Islam itself, in its entirety. As a result, if you look at the Iranian scene, immediately after the coming to power of Khomeini, Shi'ism loses its combative energy. While Saddam Hussein is in power or with the American and British colonial occupation in Iraq, Shi'ism is in its combative posture, as it was in southern Lebanon during the Israeli occupation between 1982-2000. In fact the Hezbollah in southern Lebanon were the only force that defeated the expansionist policies of Israel.

So this ideological formation is exclusive to Iran. However, by virtue of this description of Shi'ism as integral to the rest of Islamic doctrinal history, I propose it is endemic to Islam.

What precisely is the shape of this ideological formation?

It is this self/Other that I spoke of and the paradoxical generation of revolutionary energy. It has something in common with liberation theologies in Latin America, obviously.

The notion of "the West" as an iconic reference to colonial power has now, in my judgment, dissipated and disappeared. The recent bifurcation between the US and Europe is only one indication of this. Because Islam has lost its colonial interlocutor called "the West", it has now entered a different phase. But in what particular revolutionary posture Islam will re-articulate itself remains to be seen because globalized capital at this stage has an amorphous hegemony (it has not yet articulated its hegemony). The West was the hegemonic constellation of colonialism in its classical form in the 19th century. This has been dissolved.

Right now what we have in the shape of the emerging American empire does not have an identifiable hegemony because the capital that it tries to control is amorphous. The center-periphery bifurcation that we had in classical colonialism - capital based in the so-called West, colonies dispersed around the world - has disappeared. The process of globalization has shown that the centre-periphery divide was a smokescreen. The very assumption of colonialism concealed the fact that colonialism was nothing other than abused labor. Abused labor domestically generates a proletarian class vertically and colonial side effects generate the same horizontally. It is this vertical abuse of labor and colonial abuse of labor - one called colonization and one called working class - that have dissolved into one single abuse of labor by capital; the generation and accumulation of capital by abuse of labor. Whether this is done horizontally across the globe or vertically is incidental to the project. It doesn't matter if you have a sweatshop here in Manhattan or in Guatemala, it is the same abuse of labor.

As a result of the process of globalization, massive labor migrations have dismantled that center and periphery and created, what in the 1980s was horrifying people as multiculturalism: South Asians in England, North Africans in France, Turks in Germany, and all of them in the United States. They did not come here for good weather, they came here looking for work. That has now accelerated the labor migration and made capital amorphous; electronic capitalism means there is no center.

As a result, the World Trade Center was an entirely symbolic signifier without the signified. "World trade" does not take place in the World Trade Center; world trade does not have a center.

In your book on Iranian cinema, Close Up, you say that "Iranian cinema took the world by surprise simply because the world got a glimpse of our cinema only after it had decided the character of our culture through the prism of the Islamic revolution." Does this account for the continuing appeal of this genre to audiences in the West?

No, it has now assumed an entirely different momentum. Embeddedalready in Iranian cinema was a worldly conversation - to use Edward Said's language. Cinema has its own republic and Iran has been in conversation with this republic: from Satyajit Ray in Bengal to Akira Kurasawa in Japan to Souleymane Cissé in Mali, with Italian neo-realism, French new wave, Japanese masters, Russian formalism.

The emerging masters of Iranian cinema were already aware of these global masters of their craft and in conversation with them. At the popular level, people talk about the humanism of Iranian cinema. But the reason that Iranian cinema so quickly found its niche was that already embedded in its visual vocabulary was a worldly conversation with the best of world cinema. If you speak to Amir Naderi, and ask him where he learnt to direct, or where he learnt to film an exterior, or how to close a door, he will point to Ozu and Kurosawa, or he will say how he is influenced by John Ford. So when people in Cannes or Berlin see Iranian cinema, it is not a terra incognita, the sights and visions are new but the visual vocabulary is not entirely new at all.

There are other factors when considering the global reception of Iranian cinema, especially for instance in the United States, where there has been an aggressive and universal demonization of Iran since the hostage crisis. When audiences are suddenly confronted with sweet kids running around, and how cute they look and so forth, they like it; it is almost a guilty conscience over-compensating for all the harsh things that were said before.

That aspect of welcoming Iranian cinema had its phase and generated some ghastly films, in my view, because directors began to cater to it (in films like "Color of God"). But now the more genuine parts of Iranian cinema - things that were in conversation with the world - are what have proven to be more enduring and versatile.

There are other developments that have made the genre so dynamic. More recently, the emergence of women filmmakers, like Manizheh Hekmat's "Women's Prisons," or the addition of minority directors like Bahman Ghobadi, who has two incredible films on Kurdish issues. There are political questions that are also being raised, for instance in the films about Afghanistan or Iraq, or about the Kurdish predicament. These have added political momentum to the genre and injected new life into Iranian cinema. So it is a constantly changing mechanism, there is not just one factor.

Global attention also has a downside. The downside is that inexperienced people who come into the market start to cater to the worst stereotypes of Arabs, Iranians, and Muslims in the emerging American empire. These films will get immediately accepted to film festivals and propagated and bought by TV, etc. This is something we all have to be wary about.