Behind the masks

Issue: 131

Peyman Jafari

Hamid Dabashi, Brown Skin, White Masks (Pluto Press, 2011), £14.99

Hamid Dabashi is a prolific writer and an engaged scholar. He has written extensively on Iran, Islam and 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” or “diaspora”. 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 no 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… I am here [the US], and here is home—unfetishised, deromanticised, 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 Israel David Horowitz. 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. Dabashi operates within this logic of the “home” (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—the dehumanisation 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 terrorists. When a violent group murdered at least 173 people in Mumbai in November 2008, the media and politicians reacted with outrage. Many blamed Islam as a driving force behind this act of violence, and stigmatised and criminalised 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” or demanded that all Jews publicly denounce it—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 dehumanisation 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 colour but mainly around an Islam as the essential, unchanging hallmark of a whole people. Dabashi dissects this ideological construction, which dehistoricises Muslims in order to justify the expansion of the American empire by means of war and occupation.

Dabashi’s critical narrative is built on three intellectual sources, which he further develops to analyse a reality that has changed due to transformations 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 held together by “ideological convictions and assumptions”. The main assumption is that we live in the era of the “clash of civilisations”, as formulated by Samuel Huntington, an ideology that sanctifies everything in the West and vilifies everything in the Muslim countries. Added to this is the centrality of Carl Schmitt’s notion of “the enemy” to neoconservatives—a role fulfilled by “Islam”.

Although Dabashi is right to recognise the “clash of civilisations” as the ideological foundation of the dehumanisation of Muslims, I think he exaggerates the role of ideology, which has played an important role in legitimising 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 centre, and to disregard Marxist analyses provided by, for instance, David Harvey and Alex Callinicos. However, these are secondary issues as Dabashi’s main goal is to analyse 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 colonised subjects that leads them—actively or passively, consciously or unconsciously—to identify with and seek to reserve the colonial agency”. The subjects of Dabashi’s critique, however, are not those intellectuals in colonial countries who helped legitimise colonialism. He sets out to explain how those who emigrated to the heart of empire assist it in a certain mode of knowledge production that justifies imperialism and criminalises resistance to it. Dabashi thus extends Fanon’s insights to the age of War on Terror.

Edward Said, Dabashi’s third intellectual source, 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”. He writes about how from “the selfsame cadre of exiles…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 presence of the comprador intellectuals in the Western media, there are those who chose not to inform the rulers of the US empire, but those who want to resist it in order to bring an end to war, occupation and racism.