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New Texts Out Now: Hamid Dabashi, The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism

[Cover of Hamid Dabashi, [Cover of Hamid Dabashi, "The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism."]

Hamid Dabashi, The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism. London and New York: Zed Books, 2012.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Hamid Dabashi (HD): As you well know, a massive set of revolutionary uprisings are sweeping across North Africa and Western Asia, from Morocco to Syria and from Bahrain to Yemen. This is all happening in the aftermath of an equally important uprising code-named the Green Movement in Iran. While the Arab uprisings were under way, the Eurozone crisis and civil unrest swept across Europe from Greece to Spain, and before that was completely registered the Occupy Wall Street movement started in the US. Like everyone else, I was mesmerized by these events and wanted to understand them. I had just finished my book on the Green Movement, Iran, the Green Movement, and the USA: The Fox and the Paradox (2011), when the Arab Spring started, and it was only natural for me to continue that reflection into a wider domain. The Arab world is a second homeland to me. For the decades that I have not been able to go back to Iran, the Arab world, from Morocco to Lebanon and Syria down to Egypt and the Persian Gulf states, have been like home to me. Palestine in particular is central to my moral and imaginative geography. So everything—from my scholarship to my politics—came together for me to write this book.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?

HD: At least since the Iranian revolution of 1977-1979, I have been thinking and writing about revolutions. My book Authority in Islam: From the Rise of Muhammad to the Establishment of the Umayyads (1989) was my first attempt to try to understand the nature of charismatic leadership. My Theology of Discontent: The Ideological Foundation of the Islamic Revolution in Iran (1991) was an extensive treatment of the ideological build up of that cataclysmic event in Iran. The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism is thus in effect the culmination of more than three decades of thinking and writing on mass social protests.

Here in this book I work with a number of ideas, among them the ideas of delayed defiance; open-ended (as opposed to total) revolutions; the articulation of the public sphere; and the notion of revolutions unfolding like a Bakhtinian novel rather than a Homeric epic. There are also, of course, classical sociological question of race, gender, and class that I raise, particularly in the globalized context of labor migration. But perhaps the most important idea is that of the end of postcolonialism, which I treat in detail. The book is very much under the shadow of Hannah Arendt’s thoughts on revolutions—for example, her comparison of the French and the American revolutions—as well as her emphasis on political space as a haven from violence rather than a systemization of violence, unlike the way that Max Weber, for example, thought of politics.

The Arab Spring is a fast-paced book, following the unfolding events very closely, in order to generate a theoretical space to think about the historical significance of this moment, in comparison with other transnational revolutions, going back to the European revolutions of 1848—which were also called the “Spring of Nations,” or “Springtime of the Peoples.” 

How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?

HD: It is most immediately connected to Iran, the Green Movement, and the USA, but also to my Post-Orientalism: Knowledge and Power in Time of Terror (2008). You may in fact say that the endings of these two books anticipate The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism. The particular excitement of this book has to do with the transnational disposition of these revolutions, so that you need to edit your thoughts, between long shots, medium shots, and close ups, to use a film metaphor. So I aim a laser beam on Egypt, or Libya, or Syria, for example, and then I pull back and look at the larger geopolitics and see what are the side effects. It provides an amazing theoretical chess game to play and see how history and theory interface.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

HD: Well, everyone and anyone who is, like me, concerned about the future of democracy and justice in our world. The book emerges from a longstanding reflection on the nature of social uprisings and is deeply committed to these Arab revolutions. I am very optimistic about these revolutions, though I am of course concerned about the counter-revolutionary forces that have now gathered force around the US-Saudi-Israeli axis regionally, and the military-Muslim Brotherhood machinations in Egypt. But unlike some unfortunate voices on the left, I do not dismiss all these revolutions just because the former alliances are falling apart and a criminal regime like Assad’s is exposed for the terror it has perpetrated on Syrians for decades. These regimes will all fall, and it is impossible for the combined counter-revolutionary forces of the Saudis, or Israel, or the US to micromanage these revolutions and legislate their consequences. This is a marathon, not a one-hundred-meter sprint, and our people will be the beneficiaries of the formal destructions we are witnessing as they unfold apace. As for the impact of the book, I really hope for nothing more than for its ideas to be part of our conversations about these historic moments. I hear and read lots of pessimistic voices and visions. I follow them closely in order to adjust my own very upbeat and optimistic reading.

J: Could you talk a bit about the book's subtitle? In what ways do the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring signal what you describe as "the end of postcolonialism"?

HD: There are a number of themes that are quite paramount in the book and that could have been its subtitle—one was “delayed defiance,” another “open-ended revolutions,” and yet another, which I really like, was “liberation geography.” But we (my fantastic Zed editor Tamsine O'Riordan and I) finally opted for perhaps the most provocative, “The End of Postcolonialism,” which is indeed the single most challenging idea I put forward.

My proposal, put very simply, is that what we are witnessing in these Arab revolutions is in fact the end of the ideological production that we ordinarily identify with the postcolonial period. In the aftermath of European colonialism, a series of political regimes came to power, predicated on the assumption that European imperialism had ended and we had now entered the phase of national sovereignty and postcoloniality. This was the period associated with the sorts of ideological formations that finally resulted in authoritarian figures like Hosni Mubarak or Muammar Qaddafi—the political progenies of such leaders as Gamal Abdel Nasser or Omar Mukhtar. I identify this period of postcoloniality, in pure ideal-types, with the active formation of three sorts of ideologies: Third World socialism, anticolonial nationalism, and militant Islamism. My point is that these ideologies have, as epistemes, exhausted themselves, so that the new regimes that will come to power will not enjoy the sorts of regimes of knowledge that we identify with these ideologies. This is the phase that Asef Bayat has correctly identified as “post-Islamism,” but I have expanded this to “post-ideological” because I don’t think it is just Islamism as we have known it that has run its course; the two other forms of ideological formations I just identified have also epistemically exhausted themselves. This is not to say that socialism, or nationalism, or Islam will have nothing to offer these post-ideological events, but that the modus operandi of ideology-production as we have experienced it over the last two hundred years—in the course of the colonial and postcolonial episodes of our histories—has finally run its course as a matter of paradigmatic exhaustion.

This reflects a deeper epistemic shift, which I identify as the end of the “Islam and the West” binary, something I dealt with in great detail in Post-Orientalism. My suggestion is that this binary has collapsed, not just in “The West” itself, but also by extension in any other context that this “West” had entailed. This is because the false ideological assumption that the operation of capital had a center (code-named “the West”) and thus a periphery (delegated to “the Rest”) has been effectively dissolved. The emergence of globalized capital and massive labor migrations around the globe have necessitated an amorphous mode of imperialism that Hardt and Negri have sought to theorize in their Empire and subsequent two books.

The whole notion of “the West,” I thus argue in geopolitical terms, has imploded in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the formation of the European Union, and the major rift between the United States and its European allies. This was most evident in the course of the US-led invasion of Iraq, when the then-secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld had to speak of a “new coalition of the willing.” The rise of China in particular has marked the Pacific Rim as the new site of contestation between US on its western frontiers, and thus the whole Atlantic theater is being dissolved into a EU-Russian operation. This means that Israel may find it necessary to cater more to Russia, or to play even more effectively with the European Holocaust guilt, rather than remain a US client state, in order to continue as a settler colony garrison state—or “a villa in the jungle,” as the racist Defense Minister Ehud Barak puts it. I read the publication of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy (2007) entirely within the framework of the so-called “realist” school of American diplomacy, in which Israel has increasingly become a liability for emerging American foreign policy. AIPAC thus spends all its might and money to prevent that realization on Capitol Hill.

This shift has been in the making for quite some time. The formation of the European Union already posited a different set of priorities that were not always automatically conducive to US strategic, global, and imperial interests. So this idea of “the West” in binary opposition with “the Rest” doesn’t have the same potency that it did from the early nineteenth century to the height of the Cold War. Look at the current Eurozone crisis, the rise of neo-Nazis in Greece and the far right in France, or mass murdering Islamophobes in Eastern (Ratko Mladic) or Northern (Anders Breveik) Europe. Look at the desperate narratives of historically outdated and intellectually outmaneuvered historians like Niall Fergusson. Read the magnificent dismantling of Fergusson’s historiography by Pankaj Mishra. These are all signs of the anxiety of the thing that termed itself “the West” on a tight rope between Western Europe and North America—and the rest of their former colonies (blindly) followed suit.

This dissolution of the nasty term “the West” to me is the most liberating moment of our recent history, which began perhaps with Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt and has now ended with the open-ended Egyptian—and by extension Arab—revolutions. So what I mean by “the end of postcolonialism” is a narrative marking of the commencement of this liberation geography, accentuated by an even playing field in which our people can define the terms of their own history, no longer in conversation with a dead interlocutor called “the West.” So this argument about “the end of postcolonialism” has a very carefully constructed genealogy in a central chapter of the book, one that I very much hope people will read and consider closely.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

HD: Many other projects—but mostly I am reading now and following the news of the Arab revolutions very closely, as I do regarding the mass rallies against austerity measures in the Eurozone crisis, and of course the Occupy Wall Street movement. A lot is happening, but we also need to read and think with a bit of distance from these urgent events. Right now I am reading an advance copy of Pankaj Mishra’s fantastic new book, From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia. It will be released in August, and it will mark a new era of continental thinking for us. My weekly columns for Al Jazeera keep me happy and busy, and reading Jadaliyya closely is a constant source of inspiration. We need to be both very close to these ongoing events and yet manage to find a theoretical distance from them at the same time.

Excerpt from The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism

The world keeps discovering, keeps inventing, keeps overcoming itself. Because of the Arab Spring, the world is once again pregnant with better and more hopeful versions of itself. The crescendo of transnational uprisings from Morocco to Iran, and from Syria to Yemen, is turning the world upside down. The task facing us today is precisely to see in what particular way our consciousness of the world is in the midst of transforming itself—by force of history. The world we have hitherto known as “the Middle East,” or “North Africa,” or “the Arab and Muslim world,” all part and parcel of a colonial geography we had inherited, is changing, and is changing fast. We have now entered the phase of documenting in what particular terms that world is transcending itself, overcoming the mystified consciousness into which it was colonially cast and postcolonially fixated.

In understanding what is happening in North Africa and the Middle East, we are running out of metaphors. We need new metaphors. Even the word “revolution”—understood anywhere from Karl Marx to Hannah Arendt—needs rethinking. Such a new language of the revolution will cast the impact of “the Arab Spring” on national and international politics for generations to come. These uprisings have already moved beyond race and religion, sects and ideologies, pro- or anti-Western. The term “West” is more meaningless today than ever before—it has lost its potency, and with it the notion, and the condition, we had code-named postcoloniality. The East, the West, the Oriental, the colonial, the postcolonial—they are no more. What we are witnessing unfold in what used to be called “the Middle East” (and beyond) marks the end of postcolonial ideological formations—and that is precisely the principal argument informing the way this book discusses and celebrates the Arab Spring. The postcolonial did not overcome the colonial; it exacerbated it by negation. The Arab Spring has overcome them both. The drama of this delayed defiance Arabs have now called their spring; and I will use the occasion to make a case for our having entered the phase of the end of postcoloniality, delivered from exacerbating a historic trauma.

The transformation of consciousness, and precisely not through dogma or violence, is the inaugural moment of discovering new worlds—not by willing what does not exist but by seeing what is unfolding. As I write, the Arab revolutions, each with a different momentum, are creating a new geography of liberation, which is no longer mapped on colonial or cast upon postcolonial structures of domination; this restructuring points to a far more radical emancipation, not only in these but, by extension, in adjacent societies and in an open-ended dynamic. This permanent revolutionary mood has already connected the national to the transnational in unexpected and unfolding ways, leading to a reconfigured geopolitics of hope. That the Arab revolutions are changing our imaginative geography is already evident in the interaction between the southern and northern coasts of the Mediterranean in terms of modes of protest, with the spread of Tahrir Square-style youth uprisings evident from Greece to Spain, and indeed to the United States and the Occupy Wall Street movement—with even Aung San Suu Kyi comparing her campaign for democracy in Burma to the Arab Spring. These revolutions are not driven by the politics of replicating “the West”—rather, they are transcending it, and thus are as conceptually disturbing to the existing political order as to the régime du savoir around the globe. The ground is shifting under the feet of what self-proclaimed superpowers thought was their globe. These variations on the theme of delayed defiance hinge on the idea that the revolutions are simultaneously a rejection not just of the colonial oppression they have inherited but, a fortiori, of the postcolonial ideologies that had presented and exhausted themselves as its antithesis in Islamist, nationalist or socialist grand narratives.

The mystical consciousness our world has inherited hangs around the binary of “The West and the Rest,” the most damning delusion that the European colonial map of the world manufactured and left behind, with “Islam and the West” as its most potent borderlines. It is precisely that grand illusion that is dissolving right before our eyes. But that is not all: the challenge posed by these revolutions to divisions within Islam and among Muslims—racial (Arabs, Turks, Iranians, etc.), ethnic (Kurds, Baluchs, etc.), or sectarian (Sunni and Shi'i in particular)—has at once agitated and (ipso facto) discredited them. These revolutions are collective acts of overcoming. They are crafting new identities, forging new solidarities, both within and without the “Islam and the West” binary—overcoming once and for all the thick (material and moral) colonial divide. The dynamics now unfolding between the national and the transnational will, as they do, override all others. The synergy that has ensued is crafting a new framework for the humanity they have thus embraced and empowered. Those dynamics are checked, to be sure, by counter-revolutionary forces that are now fully at work—and that have much to lose from these revolutions.

The world, and not just “the Muslim world,” has long been dreaming of these uprisings. Since at least the French Revolution of 1789, the European revolutions of 1848, the Russian Revolution of 1917, since the British packed their belongings and left India in 1948, since the French left Algeria, the Italians Libya, the world has been dreaming of the Arab Spring. From the time the colonial world began lowering European flags, and as the postcolonial world was raising new ones, the world has been dreaming of the emblematic slogan, now chanted by people from one end of the Arab world to another: Huriyyah, Adalah Ijtima'iyah, Karamah, “Freedom, Social Justice, Dignity.”

To pave the way for an open-ended unfolding of these revolts, the public space has been expanding for a very long time, and the political act is now being charged and redefined to accommodate it. But the public facade of unity across social classes and between different political tendencies, which has characterized the uprising from the very outset, has been and will continue to be fractured. But these fractures will expand the public space, not diminish it. That societal expansion of the bedrock of politics will not be along ideological lines. In the world beyond Christian dogma, people are not born in a state of sin, for this to be forgiven by way of communal declaration. As there is no original sin, there is no final forgiveness—and thus no grand illusion, no master-narratives of emancipation. The ideals remain open and grand, as they must, but demanding and exacting their realization require painstaking and detailed work by particular voluntary associations beyond the reach of the state—labor unions, women's rights organizations, student assemblies—all by way of forming a web of affiliation around the atomized individual, thus protecting her, thus enabling him, to resist the ever increasing power of the emergent state.

The specter of that emerging state will keep the democratic muscles of these revolutionary uprisings flexing—for a very long time, and for a very simple reason. The world we have inherited is mystified (Marx's term) by the force fields of power that have at once held it together and distorted it. Fighting the military and economic might of counter-revolutionaries goes hand in hand with deciphering the transformed consciousness that must promise and deliver the emerging world. The colonial subject (now revolting beyond the mirage of the postcolonial state) was formed, forced, and framed as the object of European imperial domination, with multivariate modes of governmentality that extended from the heart of “the West” to the edges of “the Rest.” Europe colonized the Arab and Muslim world from one end to the other precisely according to the model of power by which it was itself being colonized by the self-fetishizing logic of capital. It was, by way of partaking in the making of the fetishized commodity, being alienated from itself as it was forcing that massive alienation on the colonial world. Postcolonialism was instrumental in conceptually fetishizing colonialism as something other than the abuse of labor by capital writ large. It is not, and never has been.

The postcolonial subject, which was none other than the colonial subject multiplied by the illusion of emancipation, was thus released into the force field of that very same colonial history on a wild goose chase of ideological certainty before and after political convictions. For more than two hundred years—the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—colonialism begat postcolonial ideological formations: socialism, nationalism, nativism (Islamism); one metanarrative after another, ostensibly to combat, but effectively to embrace and exacerbate, its consequences. As these postcolonial ideological formations began epistemically to exhaust themselves, the position of “subalternity” travelled from South Asia and became a North American academic fanfare, before it was politically neutered and soon turned into the literary trope of a “native informant.” Thus colonialism and postcoloniality combined to place the Arab and the Muslim (as its supreme and absolute other) outside the self-universalizing tropes of European metaphysics, where the non-Western (thus branded) was never in the purview of full subjection, of full historical agency.

The world was thus sealed in a self-sustaining binary that has kept repeating, revealing, and concealing itself. Finally coming to full historical consciousness in terms of their own agential sovereignty and worldly subjection, “the Arab” and “the Muslim” are now exiting that trap, having identified it as the simulacrum of a renewed pact with humanity—beyond the European entrapping of “humanism.” Arabs and Muslims in revolt have no crisis of the subject, no problem with their cogito.

“The work of our time,” Marx rightly declared, is “to clarify to itself the meaning of its own desires.” Indeed—and in that spirit I have written The Arab Spring

[Excerpted from The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism, by Hamid Dabashi, by permission of the author. Copyright © 2012 Hamid Dabashi. For more information, or to purchase this book, please click here.]

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