Hamid Dabashi, Brown Skin, White Masks. New York and London: Pluto Press, 2011.
JADALIYYA: What made you write this book?
HAMID DABASHI: This book is very much a product of the Bush era (2000-2008) — a record of my fears and trembling at the sight of a criminally delusional man at the helm of an imperial killing machine and lacking any moral conception of what it was he was doing when he ordered the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, two catastrophic decisions that Afghans and Iraqis continue to pay for with their lives. I was aghast at the sight of the mass frenzy that accompanied those invasions, the barefaced banality of those who supported it (even some of the most progressive American intellectuals considered the Afghan invasion as a case of “just war,” as in fact later some leading Arab intellectuals were duped into supporting the US/NATO invasion of Libya), and above all the criminally complicitous comprador intellectuals like Fouad Ajami, Kanan Makiya, Ibn Warraq, Azar Nafisi, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, ad nauseum who were aiding and abetting in manufacturing consent for those wars. They were doing so in the name of criticizing militant Islamism, or misogynist patriarchy, or undemocratic practices and human rights abuses that their American and European employers — and by “employers” I mean the lucrative market that was receptive to their treacheries and made them bestsellers in Bush’s America — were in fact partially instrumental in causing, conditioning, and sustaining.
I recall reading about a panel in Washington DC in which Azar Nafisi had come together with one neocon illiterate or another to discuss one thing or another about “Islam” that set my antennae up and got me thinking about the duet they were singing. This was before the events of 9/11, or the US-led invasion of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), and before she wrote and published the now infamous Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), which prompted my al-Ahram essay on it, “Native Informers and the Making of American Empire” (2006) a couple of years later, which then became the basis of Brown Skin, White Masks.
So in short I wrote this book to understand a particularly pathetic aspect of the manufacturing of consent at the heart of the Bush imperial project through the active participation of comprador intellectuals (Arab, Iranian, Pakistani, Indian, etc.), who are in fact drawn from the ranks of the exilic intellectuals, a condition which from Theodore Adorno to Edward Said has been celebrated as the condition of dissent. I wanted to show the underbelly of this celebration — that not all exilic intellectuals become like Adorno and Said; that Fouad Ajami and Azar Nafisi are in fact more representative specimen of exilic, comprador intellectuals, or guns for hire, as I call them. At the same time, I wanted to shift the color-codification of racism that Fanon had theorized in his Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and that I thought needed to be pushed into a more supple reading of race and racism as the foregrounding of imperial hegemony.
So my Brown Skin, White Masks is written and located somewhere between Edward Said’s take on exilic intellectuals and Frantz Fanon’s color-coded critique of colonized minds. The title of my book is obviously an homage to one of these two great thinkers, and the content of it you might consider a dinner table conversation with both of them, imagining our two great comrades with us today as we face the horrors of globalized imperialism.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
HD: Well, you put Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Fouad Ajami, Azar Nafisi, Ibn Warraq, Irshad Manji, Salman Rushdie, et al together on one side and Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, and Theodore Adorno on the other and you can pretty much imagine what “topics, issues and literatures” I address! The principal topic is the role of comprador intellectuals in the ideological formations of a globalized imperialism — both in its North American and Western European contexts. The main issue is the rise of a group of exilic intellectuals who have no emotive connection to any home or moral principle by which they do what they do. They are aye-sayers to power, as Edward Said used to categorize them, or borrowing from Malcolm X, “House Muslims,” as I call them. They have immigrated into the bosom of power. They have realized that the fastest way to cut corners and get successful and prominent is to tell the dominant imperial power something or another about their “native” culture that facilities their subjugation. They are native disinformers. They don’t tell their employers what they need to know, but what they want to hear.
The literature that I cover is basically their writings and interviews — a ghastly read, I tell you. It was cruel and unusual punishment to sit down and read so much banality. My salvation, I tell you now, was Ella Fitzgerald. Without her I would have gone mad reading so much gibberish. I listened to a lot of Sister Ella to keep my soul and sanity clean. Otherwise these people pull you down if you spend too much time with them. I would read them and write in the morning and listen to Ella Fitzgerald in the evening to restore my soul and sanity. So when I was done and got the book out of my system, all I could remember was the glorious Ella whispering to my ear, smiling:
Oh, the shark has pearly teeth, dear
And it shows them pearly white
Just a jackknife has MacHeath, dear
And he keeps it out of sight . . . .
So my strong recommendation to all those who do critical writing is that when you must read much horror in order to criticize it, do make sure you have some solid source of beauty, eloquence, and truth by your side.
[Hamid Dabashi. Photo by Golbarg Bashi.]
J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?
HD: This is a work that comes perhaps most directly from my al-Ahram essays; soon after I started writing these about a decade ago (following Edward Said`s suggestion), they assumed a narrative and punch of their own. But theoretically, Brown Skin, White Masks is more deeply rooted in my Post-Orientalism: Knowledge and Power in Time of Terror (2008), where I am entirely preoccupied with the manner of knowledge production in our own time, in the aftermath of Edward Said’s magisterial Orientalism (1978), which as you know is a touchstone text for my generation.
But I also wrote the book by way of clearing the path for the future course of thinking and actions beyond our current concern with imperial adventurism. In my Post-Orientalism, I had historicized the practice of Orientalism into various phases — before and after the phases that preoccupied Edward Said — corresponding to shapes and forms that imperialism assumes. But here in Brown Skin, White Masks, I was looking forward towards the newer forms of relationship between knowledge and power — extending from Foucault and Said and more immediately into the operation of “disposable knowledge” in manufacturing transitory consensus. Here I came to the conclusion that these comprador intellectuals and the sort of disposable knowledge they have produced are now already outdated. Not just because of that astonishing insight of Tocqueville in his Democracy in America that mass democracies deal with their writers the same way that kings deal with their jesters: they enrich and despise them at one and the same time. But also because of these magnificent revolutionary uprisings we witness today and call the “Arab Spring.”
This is what scandalizes these comprador intellectuals — that whatever nonsense they have been selling their employers over so many years is now outed for the sheer charlatanism that it is. Not just the gibberish of these comprador intellectuals, but in fact the whole civilizational thinking staged by Fukuyama and Huntington, who are infinitely superior figures in these imperial games, is now exposed for its vacuous banality. These comprador native informers had some usefulness for a very short period of time, and it is now over.
So I hope my book will also clear the way for the next phase of our reflections, where we in fact need to think through the whole category of “intellectuals” (back to Gramsci) and particularly “exile” (where for me a monumental figure like Juan Goytisolo is seminal), all towards a renewed conception of citizenship with thinkers like Etienne Balibar and Seyla Benhabib. Towards the end of my Brown Skin, White Masks I in fact challenge the whole notion of “exile” and propose that we need to abandon it altogether, for it makes us doubly marginal, whereas we need to be actively amphibians.
In this context, we need to come to terms with the pathology of Ayaan Hirsi Ali et al precisely as a pathology. She and her ilk are symptoms of a disease. They are not to be confused with the disease itself. The actual ailment is the North American and Western European racist supremacist trauma that manifests itself in support for the apartheid state of Israel one day and asks for Obama’s birth certificate in the same breath. My reading of this racist trauma is this: the aging population of North America and Western Europe looks at the phenomenon of the labor migration of colored people with fright. Lou Dobbs in the US and Geert Wilders in Europe are symptomatic representations of this ailment. It is imperative for European and American progressive thinkers and activists to realize that the targeting of Muslims, and thus the Islamophobia in their countries, is part and parcel of the xenophobia and hatred of the foreign labor migration, and that is integral to an aggressive turn to Neoliberalism as we see it both in Europe and the US/Israel with the rise of right wing politicians — from Geert Wilders to Michele Bachmann to Avigdor Lieberman — to power.
My thoughts now, after writing Brown Skin, White Masks, is that role of the intellectual is to work towards a renewed organicity — and that organicity in my judgment is towards citizenship. Getting away from the anxiety of authenticity, identity politics, and dual marginality, we must start reconsidering the inorganic categories of “exile” and “diaspora” — as in fact I start doing towards the end of my Brown Skin, White Masks, arguing that we must feel and be at home wherever we are, for there is no home other than where you are. I argue that after more than sixty years of the persistent armed robbery of Palestine in the broad daylight of history, all of us have been made into the simulacrum of the homeless Palestinians, living in refugee camps, stripped of citizenship, reduced to our bare life, to our zoë without bios, as Agamben would say. There and then all nation-states have become camps, from which camps new homelands may in fact emerge in the aftermath of the current uprisings around the Mediterranean Sea. I look at these magnificent flotillas going to Gaza and I think those are the floating islands of what is best in our humanity. The whole world thus looks like freedom flotillas to me — upon which we must start reconciling our renewed pact with our own humanity. So as you see, the book is rooted in much of my previous work and yet directed towards a new thinking about these issues in the context of our unfolding future.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
HD: Funny you should ask this question. I start my book with this quotation from Fanon: “Why am I writing this book? Nobody asked me to. Especially not those for whom it is intended.” Fanon’s point is obviously rhetorical. I very much doubt Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Fouad Ajami will go to bed with a copy of my book, or Fanon’s for that matter. They are beyond repair — and they don’t really matter. One should not fret over or fetishize them. What matters is for us to keep our eyes on the ball — where the battles are fought and where we must stand with our people in their historic struggles against domestic tyranny and globalized imperialism alike.
With that in mind, I have obviously written the book for our own comrades in the field, thinking out loud with them as we map out the way ahead for our continued encounters with the ideological foregrounding of warmongering, invasions, conquests, and all their murderous consequences. But I have also written the book for a larger audience, hoping to expose these charlatans who take advantage of muddy waters for a quick buck. The most immediate impact I hope my book will have is to combat this vicious Islamophobia that these comprador intellectuals have helped bring forth — an Islamophobia that to me is merely a particularly nasty manifestation of the xenophobia that is rampant in both Europe and North America targeting migrant laborers. I shiver with anger when I see the so-called Iranian or Arab expatriate “left” rallying shoulder to shoulder and siding with the European Neo-Nazis against Muslim immigrants and what item of clothing their women and girls may wear. Islamophobia in Europe is first and foremost a matter of reaction to labor migration, where, as everywhere else, the aging European population needs the labor of these immigrants but does not like the laborers, whether the color of their skin, or the scarf some of their women and girls may opt to put on their heads, or else the long minaret they wish to raise up to their heavens.
But I believe that deeper than this fear of the young and muscular immigrant is the fear of the self-Christianized Europe that has successfully camouflaged itself as secular and now detests the fact that Islam, just like Judaism before it, has come along and exposed its lie, forcing it to come face to face with its own religious fanaticism. Here the fear transforms itself into the nightmare of a black, Muslim, scarf-clad Europe. The prospect of a Muslim Europe exposes the Christian anxieties of Europe that since the Reformation have been successfully packaged, wrapped, and concealed as secularity or laïcité — and exposes itself in either anti-Semitism or now Islamophobia — which to me are identical.
J: What led you to use Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks as the framework for this book?
HD: The immediate affinity that I have had with that groundbreaking book. I in fact first read that book in my teenage years in its Persian translation in Iran — and it did not much speak to me then. It was much later, in the context of Bush era, that the book suddenly began assuming an astonishing contemporary resonance. But even after Bush, today, under Obama’s mask of conquest, I believe the book continues to be relevant — though more in an organic than a mechanical way.
Learning both from Said and Fanon, we need to push forward to continue with what I suggested was the necessity of dismantling the whole notion of “exilic intellectual” and shift our attention towards a more global configuration of resistance. Exilic intellectuals are prone to become guns for hire precisely because they have no moral or normative standing as citizens. Native informers as comprador intellectuals are exilic intellectuals par excellence, as I said. To resist them we must enter the domain of active citizenship — wherever we are. It is as citizens that we become the nightmare of Lou Dobb and AIPAC alike. They both want to keep us as “aliens.” That is why in my book I propose the whole notion of “exilic intellectual” needs to be interrogated and discarded — not just the notion of exile but in fact even the category of the “intellectual” itself. We are not in exile, in diaspora, or immigrants, or refugees — we are where we are, and we are as powerless and powerful precisely where we are.
You might even say that in Brown Skin, White Masks I began a critical encounter with two of my most enduring intellectual heroes, Frantz Fanon and Edward Said, wondering if the color codification in the relationship between the capital and the colonial was chromatically fixed. My answer was no: capital was and remains color blind and gender neutral — black can become brown, and white blue, as well as heteronormativity autonormative in relation of productivity — what remains constant however is the relation of power that spins the world in its own relation of domination. It is here that I question Edward Said’s notion of the exilic intellectual being the primary site of the rise of an oppositional consciousness to the relation of power, an assumption that Said had shared with Adorno, going back to C. Wright Mills. I think this conception of the intellectual is alienating, disempowering, dispossessing. I think we must occupy the space where we are, claim it and talk back as occupiers of our location in our history, and not as transitory guests.
["You might even say that in Brown Skin, White Masks I began a critical encounter with two of my most
enduring intellectual heroes, Frantz Fanon and Edward Said." Images from Google Images.]
It is now time, I believe, to go deeper and farther and tackle both the question of exile and that of the intellectual. This I have now started doing, after I finished my Brown Skin, White Masks, via conversations with the magnificent Catalan-Spanish novelist and essayist Juan Goytisolo, so far as the question of home and exile is concerned, and then revisiting Gramsci regarding the social identity and political function of the intellectual. So you might say I am taking Said back to Gramsci and Fanon forward to Goytisolo.
J: How do you view the significance of the argument you make in this book in light of recent events, including the attacks in Oslo and the media coverage of these attacks?
HD: My book, as I said at the beginning of our conversation, is a product of the Bush era, a reflection on the role that colonized minds and comprador intellectuals have played in facilitating US and Israeli imperial and colonial conquests by way of portraying Muslims as devils incarnate and Islam as the very blueprint of evil in the world. When I call ignominious guns for hire like Ibn Warraq or Ayaan Hirsi Ali “comprador intellectuals” and “native informers” — whom have they been compradoring for and informing to, you may ask. Now you just look at this Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik and the ideological foregrounding of his heinous crime and ask yourself who has been feeding his blind hatred of the Left and Muslims combined. Here is a clue — you just look at the title of these bestselling books in North America: Unholy Alliance: Radical Islam And The American Left (2004) by David Horowitz, The Enemy At Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11 (2007) by Dinesh D`Souza, The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America (2010) by Andrew C. McCarthy. The BBC, the world authority on British royal weddings whom we must also trust for accurate and fair reporting on other less royal events around the globe, is now leading a “crusade,” as they are fond of saying, to prove that this blonde Norwegian mass murderer is “insane” — meaning blocking the necessary investigative journalism that will unearth and publicize the structural link between the European terrorist and the ideological formation of right wing Christian Zionism and its systemic hatred of the Left and Muslims.
A right-wing, racist, Christian fundamentalist who hates the Left (for “allowing” — in his corrupted estimation — Muslims into Europe and polluting his race, and Muslims just for being Muslims) goes on a rampage and kills dozens of mostly teenagers on a summer camp in an island in Norway, and others in a bombing of an Oslo building — and the cerebral, instinctive, reaction of both European and American racist journalists, columnists, anchorpersons, terrorism experts they have fished out of some think tank in Philadelphia or Washington DC and invited to their shows, as well as newspaper editors, radio talk show hosts, etc is that this was a Muslim terrorist act. Why? How many years of tacit or explicit collaboration between career opportunist charlatans like Ibn Warraq or Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Azar Nafisi or Irshad Manji and racist neocons and Zionists like Bernard Lewis, Niall Ferguson, Dinesh D’Souza, ad nauseum have you had to transform Muslims into devils incarnate? In Brown Skin, White Masks I have laid the theoretical foundation of this diagnosis.
You just imagine the fears and terror that Muslim children around the globe must have experienced in those initial hours after the Norwegian massacre, thinking that the perpetrator of this heinous crime was a Muslim terrorist — which is exactly what the BBC, the Financial Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, chief among an entire industry of bigoted, racist, news organizations based in Western Europe and North America, reported, without a single fact being known about the blue-eye, blonde, Norwegian right-wing terrorist who hates Muslims, hates women, hates the Left, hates multiculturalism, but loves Israel and all the American and European supporters of the Jewish apartheid garrison state.
Fortunately we are no longer at the mercy of these ghastly news organizations that used to write our history. Within hours Shiva Balaghi had exposed their racism in Jadaliyya, Juan Cole bamboozled them on his blog, Glenn Greenwald shamed them at Salon.com, soon to be followed by magnificent essays by Michelle Goldberg at the Daily Beast exposing the Christian Crusader’s misogyny and fascism chapter and verse. This was all before Stephen Colbert mopped the floor with them in one of most memorable pieces on Colbert Report.
This time around we are infinitely more ready to respond to these outdated, corrupt, backward, and racist news organizations than in the aftermath of the Oklahoma bombing of 1995, when they did precisely the same thing and exposed their own racism. This is the age of the New Media. The whole assumption of these news organizations being the “main” or the “major” outlets, in my opinion, is entirely false and flawed. The entire architecture of mass media has been subject to a magnificent democratic upheaval. From Wikileaks to Jadaliyya — we are free, free from the terrorism that the New York Times and the Washington Post and their ilk perpetrated on masses of millions of Muslims in and out of the United Sates when a horrid event happened and they had manufactured such a criminal picture of the very word “Muslim” that Arab, Iranian, Pakistani, or Afghan children went to school that day trembling with fear for who and what they were. The contempt that I have for the editors of the Wall Street Journal, or columnists like Thomas Friedman, or bloggers like Jennifer Rubin, is now transformed to the odd curiosity of looking at the skeletal remains of extinct dinosaurs who have no clue how they have been run over by history, while they are still around watching their repulsive racism exposed and their “journalism” superseded. If you were to ask me to give a name to this world-historic moment of celebration, I will sing: “the Arab Spring!”
Excerpt from Brown Skin, White Masks:
HD: Here is an excerpt from early in my book that might interest readers and give them the gist of my argument:
My principal argument in this book 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 is because a recodification of racist power relations is the modus operandi of an ever-changing condition of domination in which capital continually creates its own elusive cultures. My concern, as a result, is with the manner in which ideologies are formed at the heart of the entity that comprises the American empire and its allies. My goal is to foreground an ongoing discrepancy between fact and fantasy that dehistoricizes the criminal events of September 11, 2001, in the US, or July 7, 2005, in London, or March 11, 2004, in Madrid, or November 26–29, 2008, in Mumbai, into political events (with blatant racist implications against Islam in general and Muslims in particular), while at the same time sanitizing the United States’ imperialist adventurism (most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq) and the armed robbery of the Palestinians’ homeland by a band of European colonialists that calls itself Israel — a process by which the Western imperialist powers have come to appear as legitimate and even innocent bystanders, and even, victims of a global barbarism targeting their Western civilization. This inversion of facts by fantasy, of truth by politics is of central importance to my argument. My purpose is to develop a critical inroad, which I will call “native informer,” into the workings of an ideological society perhaps unprecedented in history.
[Excerpted from Hamid Dabashi, Brown Skin, White Masks. © 2011 by Hamid Dabashi. Reprinted with the permission of the author. For more information, or to purchase the book, click here; for Hamid Dabashi`s website, click here.]