Islam, Colonialism and U.S. Foreign Policy

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.

You have recently gained notoriety by being listed on Campus Watch, a project of Daniel Pipes' Middle East Forum, which closely monitors academics and Middle East Departments throughout the country perceived to be critical of Israel, and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and/or Islam. What do you think the implications of these kinds of initiatives are on academic freedom in this country?

There are two rather contradictory responses, but they are both true. There are negligible or no repercussions for recognized scholars who have established their teaching and academic career long before this charlatanism emerged. Certainly in my own experience here at Columbia, there have been no repercussions whatsoever in terms of my career.

However this does not mean that I have not created a headache for my university. Especially after I organized the Palestinian Film Festival in January 2003, a three-pronged attack began to take formation. One was the intelligence arm that began to collect things about me and what I do. This was accompanied by two contradictory but complementary actions: one was the lunatic fringe who hacked my computer, spammed my email, subscribed me to obscene websites, and basically disrupted all my communications. The other was to mobilize the 'Millionaires' Club' among Columbia University Alumni, so they began to bombard the President's office, and the University Development and Alumni Relations Office, with attacks against me and what it is they thought I was doing. At official university functions such as a recent John Jay Award, an alumnus attacked my department and myself. It is a nuisance more than anything else; but perhaps it is just an occupational hazard.

For junior faculty, however, it has serious repercussions. Graduate students, those who are just beginning their career, are of course the most vulnerable. When they look at the horror that comes the way of those who remain loyal to certain political and moral convictions, it may dissuade them from doing the same.

In addition, people whose names are associated with "creating trouble" will have problems. Even the way your question is framed suggests that people acquire a certain reputation associated with political activism of a particular kind; this explains why you used the term 'notoriety'. I used to be a very respectable scholar, and I tend to think I am still a half-decent one, but my academic credentials become overshadowed by the reputation I have acquired as a public intellectual.

Ironically enough, when I speak out against the depredations of the Iranian government or any Arab government or the Indian government, I am applauded and told how courageous I am. But the minute I begin to criticize the United States and Israel in conjunction, and speculate about the relationship between these sorts of colonialism - the US in Iraq, Israel in the Occupied Territories - then I am maligned and my name is added to these websites and so on.

The other problem is that the trouble that comes my way can have a negative catalytic effect on my junior colleagues. I have extremely courageous young colleagues who put their careers on the line to speak their mind. But the fact remains that they are professionally much more vulnerable than I am.

How would you respond to widespread claims that the positions you take on the Israeli-Palestine conflict are tantamount to anti-Semitism?

I think these claims are too ludicrous to deserve a response.

I will simply respond by looking at the spectrum of political sentiments and activities of which I am a part, and those whom I count among my comrades. These include not only progressive Jewish intellectuals in this country but also the most progressive Jewish intellectuals from Israel. They are all my comrades so if I am anti-Semitic, then they are anti-Semitic as well -- which is obviously silly.

First my critics separate me from my comrades in this way; markme as a Muslim, and can then say I am a pro-terrorist, anti-Semite. I have comrades throughout the world, including and particularly in Israel. So if you place me in my natural habitat, I am with progressive intellectuals globally and in Israel, so it would be rather absurd to accuse me of anti-Semitism.

That said, I think there is anti-Semitism both in Europe and in the United States and it is an extremely dangerous factor that one has to keep in mind. We have to always be careful that a legitimate criticism of the Israeli government is not identified with that anti-Semitism.

The so-called pro-Israel lobby - I do not even believe they are pro-Israel, because their activities in the long-term will only harm the Israeli state - cannot see what Israel now represents. They cannot see that Israel over the past 50 years as a colonial state - first with white European colonial settlers, then white American colonial settlers, now white Russian colonial settlers - amounts to nothing more than a military base for the rising predatory empire of the United States. Israel has no privilege greater or less than Pakistan or Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. These are all military bases but some of them, like Israel, are like the hardware of the American imperial imagination. Some are software, like Jordan or Kuwait or Pakistan or Tajikistan. There is clearly a division of labor in the rising empire.

And who pays the price? Israeli mothers, who have lived for 50 years with perpetual war and bloodshed. The pro-Israeli ideologues live in very wealthy houses in suburban New Jersey, they have nothing to do with the miseries that Israelis have to endure. They are integral, all of them, to this predatory empire and I for one never credit them with "pro-Israeli" sentiments. I am pro-Israel, but I am against a Jewish state with the same logic that I am against an Islamic state or a Christian state. I believe in one secular state with equal rights for all its citizens. And this is bracketing out for the moment the historical fact that over the last 50 years the Israeli state has systematically, in broad daylight, swiped the land from under the feet of Palestinians.

It is clear that the formation of a Jewish state in 1948 has had a catalytic effect in the sustained rise of religious movements, not only in the Islamic world, but also with this ghastly Hindu fundamentalism in South Asia. It is wrong to attribute all religious fundamentalisms in the region to a Jewish state. The Jewish state was formed in 1948, and it was only three decades later, in 1979, that an Islamic republic was founded. I am opposed to a Jewish state in the same way that I am to an Islamic republic or a Hindu fundamentalist state in South Asia.

How would you explain the politics involved in participating in public sphere debates in the West where you are frequently expected to represent -- both in the sense of characterizing and speaking for -- Muslims or Iran? Since the Western public sphere, and especially, one might argue, the US public sphere, is permeated with the demonisation of Third World societies in general, and Muslim societies in particular, how should the diasporic postcolonial intellectual negotiate this aspect of the Western public sphere while articulating criticism of these societies?

There are two complementary ways of doing this. One: there are certain strategic moments that require one to speak as a postcolonial, Third World intellectual. I have no problems with that but at the same time this can sometimes degenerate into an identitarian political position which is not at all what I am interested in.

Second we must remain cognizant of the fact that because of massive labor migrations, cultures are in a state of flux, and as a result, I would be equally ignorant of the fact of my own biography - a Gramscian inventory of my own identity - if I forgot that I have lived in this country for more than a quarter of a century. As a result it is as integral to my critical apparatus as anything else may be. So I do not always speak as a postcolonial Muslim intellectual; I have to speak from the location of my culture and the location of my culture is New York.

Of course people do expect that I will speak as a Muslim, or as an Iranian, or some combination of the two. I will always correct them, though, and sometimes, depending on the context, I will abrogate the fact of representation. I will stress that I represent nothing at all, or that I am as representative of Iranians, or Muslims, or Shias, as I am of New Yorkers.

I am downplaying the importance of this because there is still a public perception that I will say this or that, and constantly, even if inadvertently at times, I am reduced to a native informant. But other than saying I am not, there is little I can do.

There is also an added complication that nobody addresses, which is the professional pacification of intellectuals in the academy. The disappearance of public intellectuals has its own history, especially in this country. Public intellectuals became compromised and institutionalized intellectuals, which inhibited public activism, and continues to do so now.

Right now the problem I face is how to combine my status as a public intellectual with that of a teacher. I have been forced to say that when I enter my classroom, an entirely different animal emerges. I am far more fascinated by a close-up or a long-shot in a film, or with a literary passage in a novel, irrespective of its politics, than with what is happening in the world on that day.

The US-led military intervention in Iraq has been portrayed as a success in sections of the American media. Do you think this conclusion might be premature?

It is very premature. There have been massive civilian casualties in Iraq, to this day we have no statistics of how many people were killed there. Who is supposed to tell us? Not only has it been a failure in terms of its stated objectives, it is a catastrophic failure in terms of its whiplash effects domestically, i.e., in terms of our civil liberties in the United States. These liberties have been systematically corroded to the point that the combined effects of the Homeland Security Act, the USA Patriot Act, and the specter of Patriot Act II are devastating and create political conditions worse than those found in the Islamic Republic.

The massive tax-cuts that Bush is now proposing will leave millions of American kids without protection and basic needs while increasing money for millionaires. It is a failure not only in terms of its target (creating democracy under the barrel of a gun) but also in terms of its effects: creating more resentment and hatred against innocent Americans both at home and abroad, creating an even more dangerous situation in terms of possible terrorist attacks globally, and equally important, the corroding of our civil liberties, destroying our environment (Patriot Act II would have all sorts of ghastly environmental consequences), and the cutting of social services for the underprivileged.

The recent ceasefire between American military forces in Iraq and the Iraqi-based Iranian opposition group, People's Mujahideen, has been interpreted in Iran as part of a pattern of escalating aggression by the Bush administration. How do you see American-Iranian relations unfolding in the future?

It is a mixed bag. The Americans kept the People's Mujahideen intact as a stick so that if Iran were to mobilize its 10,000-strong Badr battalion under the control of SCIRI (the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, ruled by Ayatollah Hakim), they would let the Mujahideen loose. In and of itself, this is a tragic turn of events for the Mujahideen because once they were a progressive, revolutionary movement. They then degenerated into a mercenary army that Saddam Hussein used against the Kurds and other opposition groups. And now they have become an instrument of American imperialism; it is a horror.

In terms of the Iran-US relationship, there is not much of a relationship. We have to take a step back and look at it globally. The point for the US in the region is absolute and unconditional control of the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, through which a considerable volume of world oil passes. In my judgment, Europe is now emerging as a second superpower: with a population of 265 million, with the euro now as strong as the dollar, with a potential alliance with Russia, and trans-Siberian oil pipelines through Siberia all the way to Japan and China and Korea. This together can in fact globally engulf the US and prevent its drive towards global control.

Major European opposition - French and German (the British are tangential, and the Spanish and Italians don't count) - made the Iraqi war in fact a proxy war between the US and Europe. The US wants to have total and unconditional control over the Persian Gulf. Iraq is now occupied and pacified, Saddam Hussein is no longer a problem. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan are all under US control. Iran and Syria are two important players who are not. Syria is not related to this area but is important for controlling the Hizbollah in Lebanon and the Hamas in Palestine in order to facilitate and pacify resistance for this roadmap to peace that Bush has in mind.

Iran however is part of the same scenario (control of the Persian Gulf, that is) but this does not mean that the Americans will do in Iran what they did in Iraq. That is not the solution. The solution is that Iranians themselves are already scared and have initiated conversation with the Americans. There are now more aggressive, secret conversations going on between the US and Iran. The US just requires the following from Iran: flow of oil, open markets for its goods, and security for the Persian Gulf. If these three items are provided, the US does not care at all about progressive, reformist movements inside Iran one way or another. If Khatemi and the progressive movement he represents win, fine, if he loses, fine, as long as these three objectives are met.

Given the perceived success of the US invasion of Iraq, at least in the short-term, what do you think the prospects are for another American military intervention in the Middle East, in Syria or Iran for instance?

Very few prospects, if any, I should think. If the Iranians fulfill the three conditions I mentioned above, the Americans will not bother them about anything at all.

I also believe that the size of the US army does not allow it. The entire size of the US army is one million. When they deployed 250,000 in the Persian Gulf for the Iraqi operation, the North Koreans were waving their nuclear weapons around, and the Americans could not redeploy to East Asia from the Gulf.

It is in the nature of this particular empire that it has in fact begun to model itself on what it calls Al-Qaeda. There is nothing called Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is the blueprint on the basis of which the Pentagon is now remodeling itself. It is a force that is presumed to be omnipotent and can strike at any moment and the Pentagon is using it to reshape itself.

I do not think the US has the military capacity for another massive invasion à la Iraq. First of all the Iranian population is 60 million, the land is infinitely more diversified, and within the Islamic Republic, there is a democratically elected government. If you ask me, Khatemi has more claim to legitimacy as a president than Bush does.

There are a couple of other factors. Democracy, until and unless it emerges from the soil of a culture, is entirely useless. Islamic Revolution was a nightmare of Islamic theocratic forces coming to the fore. In Algeria, in Turkey, we were always afraid of this nightmare coming to pass. In Iran, it came to pass and the country witnessed a decade of sacred, charismatic terror perpetrated by Khomeini.

From the dirt and ashes of that experience, we are beginning to have budding institutions of democracy, full of flaws and problems, but nevertheless, endemic and constitutional and native to that culture. That is the experience that the US is afraid of.

In addition, this thing about nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction is a bit misleading. As you know, biological, chemical and nuclear research have perfectly viable, legitimate, and peaceful uses that can in fact help to diversify these economies away from being entirely oil-based. The catastrophe of Iraq is that economically it is 95 per cent oil-based. In Iran, over the last two decades, they have started to diversify, as a result of which the economy has been reduced to 85 per cent oil-based.

In addition, without having a genuine middle-class and labor class, you cannot institutionalize democratic institutions. How is it possible? It does not make sense. Oil-based economies are capital-intensive. Capital-intensive economies are not conducive to democratic institutions. All you need is a marine battalion in Basra to pump the oil and off they go.

After this catastrophe of the looting of cultural heritage, you realize that for the people in Washington, there is no culture, there is no civilization, there is no heritage, there is no need for domestically cultivated institutions of democracy in Iraq or elsewhere. There are just oilfields with flags on them.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of The Asia Society.