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A review of Hamid Dabashi’s book “Brown Skin, White Masks”


Frantz Fanon was (probably) compelled to write "Black Skin, White Masks" in 1952 after the publication of Mayote Capecia's "I am a Martinican Woman" (1948); Hamid Dabashi was compelled to publish his "Brown Skin, White Masks" in 2011 after the publication of Azar Nafisi's "Reading Lolita In Tehran" (2003). Dabashi has compared the political atmosphere of the present-day to that during Fanon. According to Dabashi, in Fanon's time the world was divided into West and East, North and South, and between the white colonizers and the color-coded colonized. In current times, the world is no longer divided around any axis of West-East, or South-North. "The world today is more than ever divided between the overwhelming majority who are abused by capital and the very few who are its beneficiaries," Dabashi says. The more advanced form of colonization, neocolonial globalization, has made the world geographically amorphous. However, the oppressed people still get invaded, occupied, expelled and at the same time they fight back, subvert, and organize. Fanon wrote his book right before joining the Algerian National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale, or FLN). Hamid Dabashi has written his book in New York City. It's no longer necessary to be in Algeria to understand the subjugation and oppression, there is an Algeria in Louisiana; "the reporting of Hurricane Katrina has made this better known," Dabashi states.

 

In "Brown Skin, White Masks", Dabashi has sought to expose the ideological foregrounding of American imperial project, and its extended European shadow, by way of analyzing the nature and function of comprador intellectuals that he calls native informers. The native informers have hugely contributed to the collective criminalization and de-historicization of Islam, Muslims, and Arab people into subjugated political objects.They have also helped in propagating such imperial ideas as "the clash of civilizations," and in the dichotomization of "Islam and West," or "center and periphery." The false imagination of center and periphery has shifted the racism against Jewish people to Muslims, and has constituted Islam as the demonic other of the white Christianity.

 

Collective criminalization of Muslims and sanitization of imperialist adventurism

 

The book starts by questioning the discrepancy of the US mass media's mourning for the victims in Tel Aviv, Bombay and London and its reduction of the victims of Baghdad, Kandahar and Gaza to numbers and faceless byproducts of imperialist "humanitarian" invasions and occupations. For instance, Dabashi points out that the word Palestinian is sometimes not even mentioned in reports of Israel's invasions of Palestinian cities in the US mass media. The book discusses that the rampaging criminal acts in NY, London, Tel Aviv, and Bombay have been de-historicized to political events and the Western imperialist powers have been portrayed as innocent bystanders whose Western civilization has been the target of global barbarism and Islam. On the other hand, the imperialist adventurism has been sanitized. In this process Islam and Muslims, collectively, have been implicated in the criminal acts that have occurred in Western countries. In such views, Islam is no longer a cosmopolitan religion practiced by people with different sociopolitical beliefs. Islam is de-historicized and its cosmopolitanism is completely ignored in such distorted narrations. Muslims are collectively considered guilty and held responsible for the criminal acts of fundamentalist groups for whom they have never voted nor elected, and for whom they are often obliged to apologize. Dabashi points out that the citizens of imperialist powers have not been asked to condemn their elected leaders for systematic criminal acts against Muslim and Arab countries.

 

Justifying imperialism and demonizing resistance to it by native informers

 

The imperialist adventurism of the last decade has been based on claims about the improvement of women's rights and democratization of politics in targeted countries. The citizens of such countries have, throughout their histories, endangered their lives for the improvement of women's rights and the opposition to tyrannical governments and institutions. But such struggles are completely denied in the empire's narrative; targeted countries are painted as history-less nations that need the neocolonial empire's armies to rescue its female citizens from the atrocities of their male compatriots and the backwardness of Islam, as Dabashi has discussed in the book. The female citizens of targeted countries become agent-less subjugated victims and the male citizens become monstrous non-civilian figures who threaten Western civilization and use Islam to oppress women. As a result, the job of the empire's soldiers is to free these powerless brown women from their brown men. Men of such targeted countries are not considered civilians. In many cases, only women-and-children are counted as the civilian victims of imperialist invasions and occupations. "This inversion of facts by fantasy, of truth by politics is of central importance to my argument," Dabashi says.

 

Such distorted narratives and racial codification of a religion and all of its followers have assisted the delegitimization of national resistance movements to imperialist occupations and invasions. According to Dabashi, "The aggressive politicization of the criminal acts of militant Muslims (by their neoconservative American counterparts) was inevitably accompanied by the criminalization of the legitimate political acts— so that national liberation movements like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Mahdi's Army have been ipso facto criminalized. In other words, the criminal acts of Osama Bin Laden and his followers were politicized so that the political projects of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Mahdi's Army could be criminalized— and that is the principal distortion that needs to be corrected. The first step in confronting the recodification of racism in the United States, and through it racism in general, is to begin divorcing criminal acts from Islam— or any other religion, for that matter …"

 

In fact, resistance movements against imperialism, from socialist to Islamist, have been demonized and ridiculed throughout history.

 

The question remains: who has assisted the imperialist powers in dehumanizing Muslims, Arabs and Islam and portraying them as powerless and de-subjected. Who helps justify such atrocities in the Arab and Muslim world to the citizens of the imperialist countries? Hamid Dabashi comprehensively discusses the huge role that the native informers and comprador intellectuals play in assisting the empire in deluding the citizens of the US and Western European countries to make possible the project of de-humanizing and de-historicizing Muslims, Arabs, and Islam. "The Arab and the Muslim have replaced the black and the Jew as the demonic "other" of the white Christianity self," Dabashi says.

 

Comprador Intellectuals:

 

Dabashi in "Brown Skin, White Masks" has reconsidered and vastly expanded on the ideas of exilic intellectuals by Edward Said, house and field negro by Malcolm X, colonized people's mentality toward white supremacists by Fanon, comprador intellectuals by Kwame Anthony Appiah, the native informant by Adam Shatz, and so on.

 

Said's exilic intellectuals are not necessarily in Exile, they can be in their own country and metaphorically be in exile. Exilic intellectuals are the nay-sayers to power and refuse to submit and be silenced by the authorities. Consequently, they are outsiders and are not entitled to privileges and honors as the yea-sayers or insider intellectuals are. Examples of such intellectuals are Said himself and Hamid Dabashi. In fact, Dabashi is among the 101 dangerous professors in the US, and cannot return Iran, his home country.

 

A group among the yea-saying intellectuals of Said can be identified as comprador intellectuals. Kwame Anthony Appiah has diagnosed them as "Relatively small, Western-style, Western-trained group of writers and thinkers, who mediate the trade in cultural commodities of world capitalism at the periphery." Dabashi criticizes Appiah's definition because there are no longer axes dividing the world into West and East, and into center and periphery. In Dabashi's description, the physical locations of the comprador intellectuals are no longer important, but their imagined residences are.

 

Dabashi mentions that Malcolm X's description of the house-negro in his "Message to the Grass roots" (November 10, 1963) gives an accurate account of the comprador intellectuals. A house-negro has completely surrendered to his white master and identifies with his master more than the master identifies with himself. The house-negro wears the old clothes of the master, eats his left-overs, lives in the basement of the master or in the slave's quarters. Thus he is close to the master and exchanges (mis)information about the field-negro with his master. He doesn't tell his master what the master needs to hear but what he wants to hear. Dabashi explains, "just as Said's exilic intellectual may be in actual or metaphoric exile, the comprador intellectual can actually be in the field or metaphorically there, or alternatively, he can move into the house. Whichever way, he is always located on the side of power. The advantage of Said and Malcolm X's combination of insights is that, in an increasingly amorphous and boundary-less world, it no longer requires us to divide intellectuals along a fictitious center-periphery axis."

 

The book gives Foad Ajami as an example of a comprador intellectual who lives in the US. Foad Ajami essentializes Arab people, not from the South of Lebanon, but from the US, as follows: "We Americans ought to understand how the mind of these Arabs works!" The book gives Ibn Warraq as another example of a comprador intellectual.  Dabashi doubts whether Warraq, a pseudonym, represents a real person. Warraq could be used by several people in systematic project. "His [Ibn Warraq's] comparadorial courtship of anti-Muslim sentiment is exceptionally valuable to the "clash of civilizations" proposition," Dabashi says.

 

"The comprador intellectual is a by-product of colonialism, not a character trait of any given culture… the defining function of the comprador intellectuals is to shore up that relation of commerce to power. Birthplace, nationality, religion, creed, and color are irrelevant. Capital will use whatever and whoever is convenient for each particular time, place, and situation," Dabashi states.

 

Native Informers:

 

Native informant, a particular kind of comprador intellectual, is a term that was first used by Adam Shatz to describe Foad Ajami. Dabashi has replaced the term native informant with native informer because "informant credits comprador intellectuals with the knowledge they claim to possess but in fact do not, informer suggests the moral degeneration specific to the act of betrayal," Dabashi explains. The native informers that Dabashi discusses in "Brown Skin, White Masks" are comprador intellectuals who have emigrated to the US and mostly speak English with an accent. The accent is supposed to authenticate and exoticize them and make their (mis)information about their home-country believable for US audiences. The US mass media introduces native informers as representatives of people whose resistance culture native informers, in fact, mock. "With the services they are eager to provide, the native informers present a paradoxically positive aspect, for they become caricatures of themselves by caricaturing the cultures they represent or misrepresent," Dabashi says.

 

Native informers (ab)use just causes such as women's rights and democracy to assist the empire in its expansionist policies, wars, and occupations. While there are struggles perpetuated by the citizens of the empire's targeted countries, the native informers do not extend their hands to such actual struggles happening in their home-countries. Such struggles have been carried on through cinema, poetry, novels, paintings, music, plays, the women's rights movement, the students' movement, labor movement, and so on. Instead the native informers utilize "Western literature," Lolita by Nabokov in the case of Azar Naifsi, or "demonization of Quran and Muslims," in the case of Ibn Warraq, as emancipatory tools lent to powerless Muslims and Arabs by the white men. Dabashi explains that in a climate of collective global historic amnesia after 9/11, native informers have been very important in publicizing the propositions of "the end of history", "clash of civilizations" and demonization of Muslims, Arabs, and Islam.

 

The native informers' agenda is not to reflect the voices of dissent in Muslim and Arab countries, inform the world about the pro-justice movements in such countries, or to put Muslim and Arab people's anti-colonial struggles into the historical context of imperialist atrocities. In contrast, native informers' agenda is to ridicule Muslims and Arabs' anti-colonial struggles and culture of resistance. Their aim is to dichotomize Islam and West and to paint Muslims as backward subjugated people who need Western civilization for emancipation. As Hamid Dabashi says, "criticizing the calamity of the Islamic Republic—and recognizing the heroism of a nation that first invested its hope in it and now is fighting it to the bitter end—is a legitimate and even urgent project. But shamelessly joining the neoconservative takeover of the democratic institutions of the United States by helping to build a literary canon for a predatory empire is an entirely different matter."

 

The native informers have another use for the US and European audiences: making them believe that they have a superior culture and progressive Christian religion as opposed to inferior Arab and Muslim cultures and backward Islamic religion. Thus, people in the US are to believe that they have an imperative job to rescue the Muslims from their backwardness and inhumanity. Consequently, a more advanced form of racism can be built as it's not formulated by the white supremacists but by people of color who have emigrated from the targeted country, speak with an accent and claim to have first-hand experiences. The imperialist and neocolonial adventurism outside of the US comes back home in forms of oppression against immigrants and economic and political repression against the US citizens. The job of native informers is to assure their US audiences that the US invasions and occupations are moral and thus to distract the US citizens from the inevitable backlash of the US emancipatory invasions and occupations. Dabashi has explained the blowback of the European colonial atrocities: "When the victims of European barbarism were in faraway Asia, Africa, and Latin America the European Hockkultur did not mind, only once its wrath turned inward toward the Europeans (especially Jewish Europeans) themselves did they begin to wonder where the monster had come from. In Cesaire's formulation, 'they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them.'"

 

Home, exile, and diaspora:

 

As Dabashi diagnoses, the racial delusion that white man is the fictive center of the world and the rest of humanity is his periphery has made it possible for native informers to exist and profit. To be able to fight against the native informers and racialized incarcerations, we must no longer imagine ourselves at the periphery of any man or power, or in exile or diaspora, for that matter. The notions of exile and diaspora, the immigrants being the burdens of the white man, will no longer be correct if we stop assuming that a white man is at the imagined center of the world. "The transitory transmutation of black into brown and jew into Muslim more than anything else exposes the transparency of the fictive white man who stands at the center of this radicalized imagination," Dabashi states. However, Palestinians in refugee camps and millions of illegal migrant laborers, deprived of their basic human rights, are in exile and diaspora. Many illegal migrant laborers do not pay taxes, contrary to legal immigrants whose tax money helps the war-crimes in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq, Dabashi explains. Palestinian exile and diaspora persists as long as the Palestinians are deprived of their right to return. The white master demolishes their homes to make a racialized center there, protected by an iron fist and a racist wall.

 

Home is defined, according to Dabashi, by one's angle toward the power. "Home is where … above all [you] raise your voice in defiance and say no to oppression," Dabashi says. Thus compatriotism is embodied in the voice of dissent and refusal to submission. "I feel at home here because this is where Malcolm X was born and raised and gunned down. In his homeland I feel at home," Dabashi says. People who oppose injustice, regardless of where, by whom, and against whom it is perpetrated, must feel at home in the whole world. Hamid Dabashi himself has titled one of his recent books "The world is my home."

 

But how about the people who, for instance, live in the US and oppose the US government's crimes but denigrate the resistance movement in Iran? How about, for instance, Iranian people who live in Iran and oppose imperialist powers' crimes but justify Iranian government's atrocities? Should we oppose injustice globally, or is it sufficient to oppose the crimes of our government, in order to feel home in the place we reside? I think we need to oppose injustice globally, otherwise our home is defined based on opposition to some kind of tyranny at the expense of conformity to some other forms of oppression. For instance, Saddam oppressed Iraqi people and a byproduct of that oppression was the US and Britain's occupation and invasion of Iraq. On the other hand, the imperialists who imposed sanctions on Iraqi people and encouraged Saddam to attack Iran also helped Saddam to monopolize power and further disempowered the Iraqi people. Thus tyrannical forces all over the globe are interconnected and they help each other in their crimes and in their disempowerment of the people. It's contradictory to oppose one but justify the other ones, or to support some voices of dissent but to ridicule and denigrate the other ones.

 

The native informers "are everywhere, because they are nowhere in particular, and they are no where in particular because they try to keep close to the mobilized center of power," Dabashi says. Consequently, native informers are homeless as a result of their servitude to power in the empire's land and their lack of meaningful support of the actual resistance movements to imperialism and domestic tyranny in their home-countries. One can not claim to support a resistance culture that one mocks and demonizes, regardless of whether the resistance is against imperialism or domestic tyranny.

 

George Galloway is an example of someone who discredits a resistance movement against domestic tyranny but claims to be anti-imperialist. George Galloway opposes oppression in his place of residence. However, George Galloway has become the voice of propaganda for Iran's government and tries to discredit the anti-tyrannical movement of Iranian people from the Press TV in London. Can George Galloway feel at home in London? I strongly doubt so because denigration of Iranian people's resistance not only helps their domestic oppressors, it also helps the imperialist powers in their oppression against Iranian people. The domestic atrocities of Iranian government against the citizens of Iran has helped enable imperialist economic sanctions and the threats of war. It's not anti-imperialist to dismiss the self-empowerment movement of the people who sacrifice their lives and freedom to emancipate themselves from the domestic tyranny. The domestic tyranny survives in international crises such as the economic sanctions and the threats of war, of which Iranian people suffer enormously. Thus George Galloway, and people with politics similar to his, would not feel cozy where they reside even though they claim to oppose imperialist powers' atrocities.

 

The imperialist oppression and domestic tyrannies are interconnected. Consequently, we can't support one and claim to be against the other one. Thus for being at home at the place of our residence we first need to make the whole world our home, or we are in exile and diaspora.

 

 

The effect of the recent North African and Middle Eastern resistance movements on the native informers

 

At this current moment in history we can ask how the movement in Iran (started from 2009 and still going on) and other North African and Middle Eastern revolutions and uprisings have affected the native informers from these countries and if other unexpected collaborators of native informers have been forming.

 

After the formation of the pro-democracy movements and revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East, the propositions "the clash of civilizations" and "history has ended" have been greatly challenged and falsified. It has now become much harder to war and fear monger against people who stand up against the tyrannical forces in uprising countries. People of these countries have perpetuated different struggles during at least the last one hundred years in the forms of labor movement, anti-colonial movement, women's movement, students' movement, pro-independence movement and so on. However, as Dabashi says in the book, we globally suffer from amnesia, and this is an era of spectacular imagery. Systematic colonial projects have also whitewashed the history of struggle in the brown countries. But the recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East have been recorded and documented by the citizens themselves. This is not to say that the imperialist powers will stay static for the people to take control over their fates and that their revolutions can not be hijacked and manipulated. But the universalism expressed and manifested in the struggles of the last two years has enormously challenged the binaries of West vs. Islam, and Muslims vs. Western civilization. Consequently, the native informers have been forced to support these pro-democracy movements, the emancipatory self-empowering people's projects. Indeed, native informers will have a tremendously harder job to demonize the people whose movement the native informers support and their culture of resistance.

 

The leftist collaborates of native informers

 

After the formation of the movement in Iran, June 2009, new collaborators of native informers came to being whose tireless job has been denigrating, ridiculing, and discrediting the resistance of the people in Iran. They have mockingly made baseless accusations against Iran's protesters. These new collaborators of the native informers fancy themselves to be leftist and anti-imperialist but they are in fact even more colonized in their minds than native informers. Some of them have accused the movement in Iran of having received pen cameras smuggled by the US government. The only two news-agencies who have actually come up with this propaganda are Fox News and one run by Iranian monarchists. The native informers and their new collaborators even share the same news-agencies when it comes to demonization and humiliation of the Iranian people's resistance movement.

 

These leftist collaborators of native informers haven't missed a minute to mock Iranian protesters and to emasculate and humiliate them by pretending that they are nothing but powerless agents of the empire. The main agenda of leftist collaborators has actually been the same as the native informers: to portray a nation as powerless.

 

"In much of the dismissals and derisions heaped on Iran's Green Movement, Massad's insight has been on full display. Iranians in this estimation have in effect been considered to be too feminine, too pretty, too weak, too middle class bourgeois, too chic (look at all those pretty women and their hairdos and sunglasses) to have their own uprising, and like all other women they needed help from the superpower." (Hamid Dabashi, De-racializing revolutions, published in Aljazeera online)

 

The leftists' colonial denigration of the Islamic aspects of a revolutionary culture

 

The leftist collaborators of native informers often oppose the empire but display a love-hate relationship with the government of Iran. They openly claim that they are against the government of Iran but they don't support the opposition to it either. The leftist collaborators' position is nothing close to critical support of the opposition. Instead, their job is to make propaganda against the opposition movement and to feed the accusation machine of the regime. These new collaborators have often distanced themselves from the empire's native informers but then all of a sudden started helping the native informers by de-historicizing Iran as a nation, taking the Iranian people's struggle out of its historical context and refusing to recognize Iranian people's long history of resistance (two revolutions during the last century). Some of them even stirred anti-Islamic sentiments in the US and Western Europe to discredit the Iranian people's movement. They claimed that a movement that shouts Allahu Akbar can not be pro-democracy. The root of such a claim is the proposition that "the Western values are incompatible with Islam." Again, it's very similar to the purpose of the native informers: to reduce Islam to Sharia. In fact, Islam is also a cosmopolitan religion and sociopolitical culture lived by 1.5 billion Muslims all over the world. Such collaborators, by mocking the Iranian protesters for shouting Allahu Akbar and for not having anarchist forces within them, were entering into an imagined competition with Iranian protesters over the approval of the fictitious white masters. The imagined competition was to prove who has endorsed whiter values. The fact that a Muslim population was shouting Allahu Akbar, demanding their votes, and sacrificing their lives for democracy and dignity shows the falsehood of the dichotomy of progressiveness and shouting Allahu Akbar. It is not just native informers who believe Western liberal democracy is the way to follow, but their leftist collaborators denigrate revolutionary uprisings if they do not follow the colonial formula that they have code-named as "secular." These "leftist" intellectuals are not native informers. They are worse than native informers, for in the guise of being in opposition they in fact carry their colonized mind into revolutionary uprisings and by ridiculing and denigrating them seek to subvert them from within.

 

The native informers wear white masks to hide their brown or black colors. But their leftist collaborators walk among the oppressed brown people with brown masks that have covered up their white masks. "I feel pain in giving these names, for the figure of the native informer the fictive white man presiding in their mind and soul has stolen me from me. He has owned up to robbing me from me and now can talk back to me in my own language, the language I thought I had successfully hidden from him so that I could speak freedom," Dabashi says. In case of leftist collaborators of the native informers, not only the fictive white man presiding in their minds and souls speak in our language, or in English with accents similar to ours, but he has also abused our anti-imperialist terminology and views to mock, ridicule, stigmatize our sisters and brothers' struggle for human dignity. He or she not only humiliates us in our struggle against our domestic tyranny but also caricatures our anti-imperialist resistance by abusing our suffering from imperialist oppression against ourselves.

 

The brown people who write letters from inside the prisons, who block their roads, who go on dry hunger strikes, who sew their lips in refugee camps, who smoke cigars in each other's faces to survive tyranny's tear gas, who shout slogans and record a few seconds or minutes of their chants, have no voice when it comes to the interpretations of their revolutionary uprisings by the leftist collaborators of the native informers. Such interpretations are predicated on Western conducted polls, or on Western media's (mis)reporting of the uprising, rather than on the people themselves. Any representation of the brown people is more reliable than brown people themselves in the leftist collaborators' colonized minds.

 

Hamid Dabashi says in Back Skin, White Masks: "The black man who dares to speak—as did Fanon, Said, Malcolm X, Leopold Sedar Senghor, and Aime Cesaire—is called anything from passionate to angry, but never 'reasonable.' He may have a point, he is repeatedly told, but he is so angry he defeats his own purpose. Reason and composure, of course, are white."

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