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 destiny?
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 centuries?
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 nauseating.
* The writer is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.