TitleBook review: Hamid Dabashi, Brown Skin, White Masks

Informing empire: comprador intellectuals in the age of Islamophobia

1 Apr 2011

■ Peyman Jafari
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Informing empire: comprador intellectuals in the age of Islamophobia
Book review: Hamid Dabashi, Brown Skin, White Masks (Pluto Press)

Hamid Dabashi is a prolific writer and an engaged scholar. He has written extensively on Iran (Iran: A People Interrupted, and Iran, the Green Movement and the USA: the Fox and the Paradox), on Islam (Theology of Discontent, and Sjiism, A regligion of Protest) and on cinema (Masters and Masterpieces of Iranian Cinema, and Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema). Recently, many have come to know Dabashi through his relentless support for the pro-democracy struggle in Iran against its authoritarian rulers.

Dabashi’s writings and political engagement, however, do not fit in the categories of ‘exile’, ‘diaspora’ or even ‘migrant hybridity’. This is not a minor point if one really wants to understand his most recent book, Brown Skin White Masks, and especially the anger that has compelled Dabashi to write it. Towards the end, Dabashi explains the very mundane and yet consequential reason why he and many others ‘not any longer’ belong to these categories. ‘Not when – immigrant or citizen – your tax money builds bombs and drops them on your brothers and sisters halfway around the globe, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. “Theoretical hybridity” dissolves in the face of the income-tax reports one must file every April 15. (…) I am here [US], and here is home – unfetishized, deromanticized, cut loose from all nostalgia – and I am here to stay, for my children are here, and here I have a fight to fight.’ For Dabashi, home is where you ‘above all raise your voice in defiance and say no to oppression.’

Dabashi has made himself feel at home in the US by resisting the belligerent empire building of its rulers. This, and of course not his opposition to the autocrats in Tehran, has earned him a place among the ‘101 most dangerous academics in America’, a list compiled by the neoconservative supporter of Israeli crimes David Horowitz. This situational context is what Dabashi calls the ‘politics of geography.’ Hence, I would argue that home is not only the place where one raises her voice against oppression in general, but especially the site where the oppressor resides. Thus one will never really feel at home in Iran by merely denouncing the crimes of the US and Israel – what one should do indeed – but by raising her voice against her own government as well. Dabashi operates within this logic of the ‘home’ (it is no coincidence that the ‘Dabashi reader’ published last year is titled ‘The World Is My Home’) and is thus not indifferent to and certainly not disengaged from the struggles against the evils in his immediate surroundings.

Every sentence in Brown Skin White Masks is an indictment of one of the greatest injustices of our times

Hence every sentence in Brown Skin White Masks is an indictment of one of the greatest injustices of our times – the dehumanization and humiliation of Muslims and Arabs in order to justify imperialist wars waged by the US and its allies. To hammer his point home, Dabashi begins by contrasting the reactions in the American media to two terrorist events at the end of 2008. When a violent group murdered at least 173 people in Mumbai in November, the media and politicians reacted with outrage. Many blamed Islam as a driving force behind this act of violence, and stigmatized and criminalized 1.5 billion Muslims. Assuming collective guilt, many demanded that Muslims denounce publicly what they called ´Islamic terrorism.´ However, when in December 2008 Israel started a bloody war against Gaza and murdered more than 1400 Palestinians in three weeks, the media and mainstream politicians showed no indignation. No one talked about ´Jewish terrorism´, neither demanded that all Jews publicly denounce it – and rightly so as Dabashi stresses.

Dabashi asks: ‘What could account for this discrepancy – outrage at criminal acts when the perpetrators are Muslims, yet complacency toward far worse acts when they are aimed against Muslims? How would one understand this systematic dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims – as being capable only of criminal acts (when a mere handful have perpetrated them), coupled with disregard for their sufferings when millions of them are victims?’

His answer is that ‘in present-day North America and Western Europe – and by extension the world they seek to dominate – brown has become the new black and Muslims the new Jews.’ This involves a recodification of racist power relations which no longer revolves around color, but mainly around an Islam as the essential, unchanging hallmark of a whole people. Dabashi dissects this ideological construction, which dehistoricizes and dehumanizes Muslims in order to justify the expansion of the American empire by means of war and occupation. His main focus lies on how the creation of this ideology is assisted by a group of ‘native informers’ and ‘comprador intellectuals,’ which include Azar Nafisi, Ibn Warraq, Fouad Ajami, Irshad Manji, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, Abbas Milani and Salman Rushi.

Dabashi’s critical narrative is built on three intellectual sources, which he further develops to analyze a reality that has changed due to transformations in the in the functioning of global capitalism. First, taking his cue from William Kornhauser’s ‘mass society’ and Guy Debord’s ‘society of the spectacle’, he asserts that we have arrived in an ‘ideological society,’ which designates ‘America and her allies’ systematic consensus building for military adventurism around the globe on the threshold of the twenty-first century.’ According to Dabashi, the ‘ideological society’ is ‘unprecedented by history’ and is hold together by ‘ideological convictions and assumptions.’ The main assumption is that we live in the era of the ‘clash of civilizations,’ as formulated by Huntington, an ideology that sanctifies everything in the West and vilifies everything in the Muslim countries. Add to this the centrality of Carl Schmitt’ notion of ‘the enemy’ for neoconservative and you will understand why ‘Muslims’ has emerged as the Other. Although Dabashi is totally right to recognize the ‘clash of civilizations’ as the ideological foundation under the dehumanization of Muslims, I think he exaggerates the role of ideology, which has played an important role in legitimizing imperialism, in its anti-communist form during the Cold War for instance. His focus on ideology also tends to orient him towards Toni Negri and Michael Hardt’s flawed concept of Empire as capitalist power without a center, and disregard Marxist analyses provided by for instance David Harvey (The New Imperialism) and Alex Callinicos (Imperialism and the Global Political Economy). However, these are secondary issues as Dabashi’s main goal is to analyze ideological aspects.

Dabashi´s second intellectual source is Franz Fanon´s Black Skin White Masks (1952), which he uses to reevaluate the relationship between racism and colonialism in its new manifestations. Fanon argued that the colonial apparatus ‘successfully manufactures a profound sense of inferiority in the colonized subjects that leads them – actively or passively, consciously or unconsciously – to identify with and seek to reserve the colonial agency.’ The subject of of Dabashi’s critique, however, is not those intellectuals in colonial countries who helped legitimize colonialism. He sets out to explain how those who emigrated to the heart of empire, assists it in a certain mode of knowledge production that justifies imperialism and criminalizes resistance to it – thus continuing the orientalist project identified by Edward Said. Dabashi thus extends Fanon’s insights to the age of ‘War on Terror.’

This brings me to the third intellectual source of Brown Skin White Masks. Writing about the US, Edward Said had identified the “exilic intellectual” as a locus of dissent at the heart of empire that had managed to squash critical public intellectuals. Dabashi, however, sets out to explore the ‘darker side of intellectual migration.’ Thus he writes about how from ‘the selfsame cadre of exiles are recruited native informers who are no longer telling their imperial employers what they need to know but rather what they want to believe in order to (…) convince the public that invading and bombing and occupying the homelands of others is a good and moral thing.’

Dabashi calls these immigrants who service empire ‘native informers’ and ‘comprador intellectuals.’ After developing these concepts in reference to anthropological and historical studies, Dabashi explores in some detail the modus operandi of comprador intellectuals. A chapter on ‘Literature and Empire’ concentrates on Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, while another chapter on ‘The House Muslim’ delves into the writings of Ibn Warraq who has been celebrated in the media as a ‘dissenting voice’ and an ‘ex-Muslim.’ Tapping into his extensive knowledge of literature and the history of Islam, Dabashi provides a devastating critique of these comprador intellectuals.

At times Dabashi’s (justified) sense of irritation hampers the flow of his argument, when for instance he repeats a point too often or sneers at what he takes for granted instead of explaining. Overall, however, Brown Skin White Masks is a well structured, eloquent and worthy continuation of the intellectual tradition of Franz Fanon and Edward Said that provides a timely cultural criticism. It is also a powerful reminder that despite the dominant presence of the comprador intellectuals in the Western media, there are those who chose not to inform the rulers of the American empire, but those who want to resist it in order to bring an end to war, occupation and racism.

Tehran Review
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  1. ismail yurdakok says:

    , excellent excellent only truthes

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