Nettime — Hamid Dabashi — Left is wrong on Iran

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Al Ahram Weekly
16 – 22 July 2009
Left is wrong on Iran
Who are and who promoted these leftist intellectuals who question the
social uprising of the people in Iran, asks Hamid Dabashi*
When a political groundswell like the Iranian presidential
election of June 2009 and its aftermath happen, the excitement and
drama of the moment expose not just our highest hopes but also our
deepest fault lines, most troubling moral flaws, and the dangerous
political precipice we face.
Over the decades I have learned not to expect much from what
passes for “the left” in North America and/or Western Europe when it
comes to the politics of what their colonial ancestry has called “the
Middle East”. But I do expect much more when it comes to our own
progressive intellectuals — Arabs, Muslims, South Asians, Africans
and Latin Americans. This is not a racial bifurcation, but a regional
typology along the colonial divide.
By and large this expectation is apt and more often than not met.
The best case in point is the comparison between what Azmi Bishara has
offered about the recent uprising in Iran and what Slavoj Zizek felt
obligated to write. Whereas Bishara’s piece (with aspects of which I
have had reason to disagree) is predicated on a detailed awareness of
the Iranian scene, accumulated over the last 30 years of the Islamic
Republic and even before, Zizek’s (the conclusion of which I
completely disagree with) is entirely spontaneous and impressionistic,
predicated on as much knowledge about Iran as I have about the mineral
composition of the planet Jupiter.
The examples can be multiplied by many, when we add to what Azmi
Bishara has written pieces by Mustafa El-Labbad and Galal Nassar, for
example, and compare them to the confounded blindness of Paul Craig
Roberts, Anthony DiMaggio, Michael Veiluva, James Petras, Jeremy
Hammond, Eric Margolis, and many others. While people closest to the
Iranian scene write from a position of critical intimacy, and with a
healthy dose of disagreement, those farthest from it write with an
almost unanimous exposure of their constitutional ignorance, not
having the foggiest idea what has happened in that country over the
last 30 years, let alone the last 200 years, and then having the
barefaced chutzpah to pontificate one thing or another — or worse, to
take more than 70 million human beings as stooges of the CIA and
puppets of the Saudis.
Let me begin by stating categorically that in principle I share
the fundamental political premise of the left, its weariness of US
imperial machination, of major North American and Western European
media (but by no means all of them) by and large missing the point on
what is happening around the globe, or even worse seeing things from
the vantage point of their governmental cues, which they scarcely
question. It has been but a few months since we have come out of the
nightmare of the Bush presidency, or the combined chicaneries of Dick
Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and John Ashcroft, or of the
continued calamities of the “war on terror”. Iran is still under the
threat of a military strike by Israel, or at least more severe
economic sanctions, similar to those that are responsible for the
death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis during the Clinton
administration. Iraq and Afghanistan are burning, Gaza is in utter
desolation, Northern Pakistan is in deep humanitarian crisis, and
Israel is stealing more Palestinian lands every day. With all his
promises and pomp and ceremonies, President Obama is yet to show in
any significant and tangible way his change of course in the region
from that of the previous administration.
The US Congress, prompted by AIPAC (the American Israel Political
Affairs Committee), pro-war vigilantes lurking in the halls of power
in Washington DC, and Israeli warlords and their propaganda machinery
in the US, are all excited about the events in Iran and are doing
their damnedest to turn them to their advantage. The left, indeed, has
reason to worry. But having principled positions on geopolitics is one
thing, being blind and deaf to a massive social movement is something
entirely different, as being impervious to the flagrant charlatanism
of an upstart demagogue like Ahmadinejad. The sign and the task of a
progressive and agile intelligence is to hold on to core principles
and seek to incorporate mass social uprising into its modus operandi.
My concern here is not with that retrograde strand in the North
American or Western European left that is siding with Ahmadinejad and
against the masses of millions of Iranians daring the draconian
security apparatus of the Islamic Republic. They are a lost cause, and
frankly no one could care less what they think of the world. What does
concern me is when an Arab intellectual like Asad AbuKhalil opts to go
public with his assessment of this movement — and what he says so
vertiginously smacks of recalcitrant fanaticism, steadfastly insisting
on a belligerent ignorance.
On his website, “Angry Arab”, Asad AbuKhalil finally has
categorically stated that he is “now more convinced than ever that the
US and Western governments were far more involved in Iranian affairs
during the demonstrations than was assumed by many.” He then tries to
be cautious and cover his back by stipulating, “Let us make it clear:
the US, Western and Saudi intervention in Iranian affairs does not
necessarily implicate the Iranian protesters themselves. And even if
some of them were involved in those conspiracies, I do believe that
the majority of Iranian protesters were motivated by domestic issues
and legitimate grievances against an oppressive government.” This
latter stipulation is in fact worse than that categorical statement
about the conspiratorial plot behind the movement, for it seeks to
play fancy speculative footwork to cover up a moral bankruptcy — that
he dare not take a stand, one way or another. AbuKhalil’s final edict:
“I was just looking at US and Western media coverage of Honduras,
where the situation is rather analogous, and you can’t escape the
conclusion that the US media were involved with the US government in a
conspiracy the details of which will be revealed years from now.” In
other words, since the US media is not covering the Honduras
development as closely as it does (or so AbuKhalil fancies) the
Iranian event, then the US media is in cahoots with the US government
in fomenting unrest in Iran, and thus this movement is manufactured by
US imperial designs with Saudi aid; and though we may not have
evidence of this yet, we will learn of its details 30 years from now,
when a Stephen Kinzer comes and writes an account of the plot, as he
did about the CIA- sponsored coup of 1953.
One simply must have dug oneself deeply and darkly, mummified
inside a forgotten and hollowed grave on another planet not to have
seen, heard and felt for millions of human beings risking their brave
lives and precious liberties by pouring into the streets of their
cities demanding their constitutional rights for peaceful protest.
Thousands of them have been arrested and jailed, their loved ones
worried sick about their whereabouts; hundreds of their leading public
intellectuals, journalists, civil and women’s rights activists,
rounded up and incarcerated, harassed and even tortured, some brought
to national television to confess that they are spies for “the enemy”.
There are pregnant women among those leading reformists arrested, as
are such leading intellectuals as Said Hajjarian, who is paralysed
having barely survived an assassination attempt by precisely those in
the upper echelons of the Islamic Republic who have yet again put him
and his wheelchair in jail. Three prominent reformists, all heroes of
the Islamic revolution (Khatami, Mousavi, and Karrubi: a former
president, a former prime minister, and a former speaker of the house
to this very Islamic Republic) are leading the opposition, charging
fraud, declaring Ahmadinejad illegitimate. The senior most Grand
Ayatollah of the land, the octogenarian Ayatollah Montazeri, has
openly declared Khamenei illegitimate. The Iranian parliament is
deeply divided and in turmoil. A massively militarised security
apparatus has wreaked havoc on the civilian population: beating,
clubbing, tear gassing, and plain shooting at them. University
dormitories have been savagely raided by plainclothes vigilantes and
students beaten up with batons, clubs, kicks, and fists by oversize
thugs. Millions of Iranians around the globe have taken to the
streets, their leading public figures — philosophers like Abdul-Karim
Soroush, clerics like Mohsen Kadivar, public intellectuals like Ata
Mohajerani, filmmakers like Mohsen Makhmalbaf, pop singers like Shahin
Najafi, footballers of the Iranian national team, countless poets,
novelists, scholars, scientists, women’s rights activists, ad
infinitum –coming out to voice their defiance of this barbarity
perpetrated against their brothers and sisters.
Not a single sentence, not a single word that I utter comes from
CNN, The New York Times, Al-Arabiya or any other sources that Asad
AbuKhalil loves to hate. None of these people means anything to Mr
AbuKhalil? Can he really face these millions of people, their best and
brightest, the mothers of those who have been cold- bloodedly
murdered, tortured, beaten brut ally, paralysed for life, and tell
them they are stooges of the CIA and the Saudis, and that CNN and
Al-Arabiya have put them up to it? AbuKhalil has every legitimate
reason to doubt the veracity of what he sees in US media. But at what
point does a legitimate criticism of media representations degenerate
into an illegitimate disregard for reality itself; or has a sophomoric
reading of postmodernity so completely corrupted our moral standards
that there is no reality any more, just representation?
Asad AbuKhalil dismisses a mass social uprising that is unfolding
right in front of his eyes as manufactured by Americans and the
Saudis. What else does AbuKhalil know about Iran? Anything? Thirty
years (predicated on 200 years) of thinking, writing, mobilising,
political and artistic revolts, theological and philosophical debates
— does any of it ring a bell for Professor AbuKhalil? Do the names
Mahmoud Shabestari, Abdul-Karim Soroush, Mohsen Kadivar, among scores
of others, mean anything to him? Has he ever listened to these young
Iranians speak, cared to learn the lyrics of their music, watched the
films they make, gone to a photography exhibition they have put
together, seen any of their art work, or perhaps glanced at their
newspapers, journals, magazines, weblogs, websites? Are all these
stooges of America, manipulated by CIA agents, bought and paid for by
the Saudis? What depth of intellectual depravation is this?
In his most recent posting, AbuKhalil has this to say about Iran:
“For the most reliable coverage of the Iran story, I strongly
recommend the New York Times. I mean, they have Michael Slackman in
Cairo and Nazila Fathi in Toronto, and they have ‘independent
observers’ in Tehran. What else do you want? If you want more, the
station of King Fahd’s brother-in-law (Al-Arabiya) has a correspondent
in Dubai to cover Iran. And according to a report that just aired,
Mousavi received 91 per cent of the vote in ‘an elite neighbourhood’.
I kid you not. They just said that.” The Iranians have no reporters,
no journalists, no analysts, no pollsters, no economists, no
sociologists, no political scientist, no newspaper editorials, no
magazines, no blogs, and no websites? If AbuKhalil has this bizarre
obsession with the American or Saudi media that he loves to hate, does
that psychological fixation ipso facto deprive an entire nation of
their defiance against tyranny, their agency in changing their own
What a terrible state of mind to be in! AbuKhalil has so utterly
lost hope in us — us Arabs, Iranians, Muslims, South Asians,
Africans, Latin Americans — that it does not even occur to him that
maybe, just maybe, if we take our votes seriously the US and Israel
may not have anything to do with it. He fancies himself opposing the
US and Israel. But he has such a deeply colonised mind that he thinks
nothing of us, of our will to fight imperial intervention, colonial
occupation of our homelands, and domestic tyranny at one and the same
time. He believes if we do it then Americans and the Saudis must have
put us up to it. He is so utterly lost in his own moral desolation and
intellectual despair that in his estimation only Americans can
instigate a mass revolt of the sort that has unfolded in front of his
eyes. What an utterly frightful state for an intellectual to be in: no
trust, no courage, no imagination and no hope. That we, as a people,
as a nation, as a collective will, have fought for over 200 years for
our constitutional rights has never occurred to AbuKhalil. What gives
a man the authority to speak so cavalierly about another nation, of
whom he knows nothing?
Ten years I spent watching every single Palestinian film I could
lay my hands on before I opened my mouth and uttered a word about
Palestinian cinema. I visited every conceivable archive in North
America and Western Europe, travelled from Morocco to Syria, drove
from one end of Palestine to another, was blessed by the dignity of
Palestinians resisting the horror of a criminal occupation of their
homeland, walked and showed bootlegged videos on mismatched equipment
and stolen electricity from one Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon to
another; then I went to Syria and found a Palestinian archivist who
knew infinitely more about Palestinian cinema than I did, and I sat at
his feet and learned humility, and I still did not dare put pen to
paper or open my mouth about anything Palestinian without asking a
Palestinian scholar — from Edward Said to Rashid Khalidi to Joseph
Massad — to read what I had written before I dared publishing it.
This I did not out of any vacuous belief in scholarship, but out of an
abiding respect for the dignity of Palestinians fighting for their
liberties and their stolen homeland, and fearful of the burden of
responsibility that writing about a nation’s struggles puts on those
of us who have a voice and an audience.
For people like Zizek, social upheavals in what they call the
Third World are a matter of theoretical entertainment. It is an old
tradition that goes back all the way to Sartre on Algeria and Cuba in
the 1950s, down to Foucault on Iran in the 1970s. That does not bother
me a bit. In fact, I find it quite entertaining — watching grown up
people make complete fools of themselves talking about something about
which they have no blasted clue. But when someone like AbuKhalil
indulges in cliché ridden leftism of the most banal variety it speaks
of a culture of intellectual laziness and moral bankruptcy so
outrageously at odds with the struggles of people from which we
emerge. Our people are not to conform to our tired, old, and
cliché-ridden theories. We need to bypass intellectual couch potatoes
and catch up with our people. Millions of people, young and old, lower
and middle class, men and women, have poured in their masses of
millions into the streets, launched their Intifada, demanding their
constitutional rights and civil liberties. Who are these people? What
language do they speak, what songs do they sing, what slogans do they
chant, to what music do they sing and dance, what sacrifices have they
made, what dungeons have they crowded, what epic poetry are they
citing, what philosophers, theologians, jurists, poets, novelists,
singers, song writers, musicians, webloggers soar in their souls, and
for what ideals have their hearts and minds ached for generations and
A colonised mind is a colonised mind whether it is occupied by the
European right or by the cliché-ridden left: it is an occupied
territory, devoid of detail, devoid of substance, devoid of love,
devoid of a caring intellect. It smells of ageing mothballs, and it is
* The writer is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies
and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.
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