Postcolonialism, Islamism and the Arab Revolution

In every drop of rain
A red or yellow color buds from the seeds of flowers.
Every tear wept by the hungry and naked people
And every spilt drop of slaves' blood
Is a smile aimed at a new dawn,
A nipple turning rosy in an infant's lips
In the young world of tomorrow, bringer of life.
And still the rain pours down
These words from the “Rain Song” were written by Bader Shaker Al Sayyab in 1960 at the height of a postcolonial nostalgia for a “young world of tomorrow” in his native Iraq. It has been a blustery rain storm, indeed, perhaps better described as a raging hurricane for the last decade, for people of the Middle East and North Africa, and 2011 has found us in the eye of what Hilary Clinton and Angela Merkel both have diagnosed as  a “perfect storm”. Clearly there is a tectonic shift in a region ruled by neo-colonial regimes, foreseen by Frantz Fanon several decades before. In a recent article, Hamid Dabashi, loyal friend of Edward Said, expressed optimism that we are at a crossroads of postcoloniality:

After Gaddafi's speech on February 22, the discourse of postcoloniality as we have known it over the last two hundred years has come to an end — not with a bang but with a whimper.  After that speech we need a new language — the language of postcoloniality, having had a false dawn when the European colonial powers packed and left, has just started.  After forty-two years of unsurpassed banality and cruelty, he is among the last vestiges of a European colonial destruction of not just world material resources but far more crucial of a liberated moral imagination.  There are a number of these relics still around.  Two of them have been deposed.  But still the criminal cruelty and the identical gibberish of many more — from Morocco to Iran, from Syria to Yemen — are to be taught the dignity of a graceful exit, an ennobling silence. 

   Dabashi went on to argue that what we are witnessing in the recent revolutions across the Arab world is a “deferred postcolonial defiance” and the liberation of the Arab states, particularly North Africa, from the oppressive remnants of postcolonialism will open “a new imaginative geography of liberation, mapped far from the false and falsifying binary of "Islam and the West," or "the West and the Rest." He rightly argued that this liberating geography goes far beyond the Arab and even Muslim world: “From Senegal to Djibouti similar uprisings are brewing.  The commencement of the Green Movement in Iran almost two years before the uprising in the Arab world has had far-reaching implications deep into Afghanistan and Central Asia, and today as far as China there are official fears of a "Jasmine Revolution."

   No doubt Dabashi’s observations are right on target, even predicted through the work of both Said and Fanon who drew their extensive theories of postcolonialism largely from case studies on Palestine and Algeria.  But one critical point needs to be added to Dabashi’s observations: political Islamism will, no doubt, play a defining role in the “new imaginative geography of liberation” and has the historic opportunity of transforming the binary which has dominated Orientalist politics between “Islam” and the “West”. The realities of the past decade have shown that a true contrapuntal discourse between the “West” and Muslim societies cannot take place through the interpretations of Western Muslim interlocutors and academics alone, who are confronted with the dilemma of articulating the demands of Muslim societies to a rather secular and unsympathetic audience. As long as the category of “bad” Muslim remains so broad based, and includes all Islamists from Al Qaeda to the Muslim Brotherhood in the same ferocious tribe, genuine engagement between Muslim and non Muslim societies, and even between Muslim thinkers themselves, will not be fruitful. And the moment for Dabashi’s “new imaginative geography of liberation” will once again be deferred. 

On this point, Olivier Roy’s categorization of four major ideological players in the Middle East is particularly useful.  These categories contain Islamists who campaign for a political entity; “fundamentalists” who want to establish Shariah law; jihadists who undermine the pillars of the West through symbolic targeted attacks; and cultural Muslims who advocate for multiculturalism or community identity (51). Roy has pointed out that the four movements often contradict each other, reflecting “a tension between deterrorialization and deculturation on the one hand (terrorists and multiculturalists), and reterrorialization and acculturation on the other (Islamists and fundamentalists)” (52).  Globalization carries with it both the desire to deculturate and become part of a more expansive and universal community, and the opposing desire to position identity and culture as paramount in the face of the homogenizing cultural effects of globalization. Thus, the real division is not between secularism and Islam, but between the forces pulling between deculturation, which takes the form of a universalism often associated with secularism and global capitalism, and acculturalization, which argues for a delinking from the universal of globalized liberalism and a revival of indigenous knowledge.   It is this natural dialectical process that best explains the current tensions within Muslim, and numerous other, societies. As Roy has succinctly argued “In short, there are countless examples, but nowhere in the Middle East is there a war with Islamists on one side and the secular democrats on the other, whereas media debates in Europe give the impression that this is the main difference” (60). 

Unless this unproductive binary is deconstructed, Muslims will never be accepted as equal partners in the global political landscape. It is interesting to note, for example, that the first three of Roy’s groups are all cast as “bad” Muslims, with no differentiation between them. This construction of a rather large group of “bad” Muslims is a fabrication that endlessly defers a genuine engagement with arguments coming from Muslim majority countries –  claims that Islamic ethics can indeed offer an alternative or an “oppositional politics”. In this regard, Alastair Crooke’s Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution   is a unique and valuable contribution as it concentrates on systematically analyzing the philosophical, ethical, cultural, religious, economic, psychological, national and political values of Islamism. Crooke has focused on philosophical and ethical differences between Islamism and Western traditions which have been translated into operational politics by a number of powerful personalities that have included Sayyed Qutb, Mohammed Baqer al-Sadr, Musa al-Sadr, Ali Shariati, Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadallah, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, and Khaled Mesha’al. Crooke has argued that Islamists seek to recuperate an alternative consciousness – one drawn from its own intellectual traditions that would stand in opposition to the Western paradigm and as such represents a complete inversion of secular capitalist liberalism. For Crooke the Islamist revolution is much more than politics; it is an attempt to shape a new consciousness – arguably, a postcolonial consciousness.
Yet, amongst post colonial interpreters, there is a lack of willingness to engage with political Islam. Anouar Majid, for example, has noted that Islam has not been involved in the debate on postcoloniality because this debate is based on the secular premises of scholarship that have increased “the remoteness of Islam” and as such has imposed limitations on theories of inclusion and prolonged the belief that global harmonies remain elusive not because of capitalist relations but because of culture conflicts (3).  He has argued the fact  “that postcolonial theory has been particularly inattentive to the question of Islam in the global economy, exposes its failure to incorporate different regimes of truth into a genuinely multicultural global vision” (19).
Indeed, there is a long legacy of leaving Islam out of post colonial theorization.  In Covering Islam, first published in 1981 and  reprinted in 1997,  Said painted a dreary portrait for political Islam: in Algeria, be blamed political Islam for the  “thousands of intellectuals, journalists, artists and writers [which]have been killed”; in Sudan, he referred to Hassan al Turabi  as “a brilliantly  malevolent individual, a Svengali and Savonarola clothed in Islamic robes”; in Egypt he wrote of the Muslim brotherhood and the Jamát Islamiya, as “one more violent and more uncompromising than the other”; in Palestine he argued that Hamas and Islamic Jihad “have metamorphosed into the most feared and journalistically covered examples of Islamic extremism”(xiii). All in all, Said’s  list of Islamists was a homogeneous group of violent tribalists – hardly a promising collective of activists who could affect real social change.  For example, the broad strokes with which he painted the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamát Islamiya as one and the same is startling and simply false as the ideologies of the two groups are quite divergent, particularly in regard to the use of violence.  Said’s anti-Islamism is especially evident in the attitude and the language he used to talk about Hamas. Consider his first written reference to Hamas in 1993: 

In 1992 when I was there, I briefly met a few of the student leaders who represent Hamas: I was impressed by their sense of political commitment but not at all by their ideas. I found them quite moderate when it came to accepting the truths of modern science, for instance….their leaders neither especially visible nor impressive, their writings rehashes of old nationalist tracts, now couched in an "Islamic" idiom (The Politics of Dispossession 403). 

Later, he would call Hamas’ resistance “”violent and primitive forms of resistance. You know, what Hobsbawn calls pre-capital, trying to get back to communal forms, to regulate personal conduct with simpler and simpler reductive ideas” (Power, Politics, and Culture 416). In yet another interview, also printed in Power Politics and Culture, Said responded to the question of whether or not it bothered him that his work was often cited by Islamists:

Certainly, and I have frequently expressed my concern on this subject. I find my opinions misinterpreted, especially where they include substantial critiques of Islamic movements.  First, I am secular; second, I don’t trust religious movements and third I disagree with these movements’ methods, means, analyses and values (437). 

Clearly, even though Said defended Islam from imperialist and nationalist attacks, it was difficult for him to see any progressive alternatives in Islamic resistance movements.  To be fair, however, Said’s terminology did become more nuanced in his final book Humanism and Democratic Criticism; clearly, the post 9/11 world changed Said’s terminology but not his central position – that of defending Islam from a secular point of view but not engaging deeply in the contribution Islamism could make to scholarship or social change. 

It is no accident that Said considered Fanon an intellectual hero, even if he was not as enthusiastic as Fanon about the role of violence in revolution. Fanon, however, had a much more interesting relationship with Islamism which has been suppressed through the institutionalization of the postcolonial theory which was generated from his work. Though a secular revolutionary, Fanon edited the FLN’s paper El-Moudjahoid, thereby basically championing a revolution which had been articulated as a jihad. In a letter to Ali Shariati, the intellectual behind the Iranian revolution and translator of both Che Guevara and Fanon, Fanon expressed concerns that religion could become an obstacle to third world unification but also encouraged Shariati to exploit the resources of Islam for the creation of a new egalitarian society: “breathe this spirit into the body of the Muslim Orient” (qtd in Slisli). Fanon was clear about the Islamic influence on his ideas and actions in one of his lesser known booksA Dying Colonialism, first published as L'an cinq de la revolution algerienne in 1959. It was in this book that he wrote directly of his “Moslem comrades” (165) and recounted an interesting meeting he had with Muslims and Jews in Algeria which provoked the development of his ideas on violence as an “excess made possible by the excess of colonialism” (165).  Fanon recounted his inner struggle with accepting violence as a necessary part of the Algerian struggle and how, in the end, he was convinced by a Jewish speaker at the meeting  who seduced him with a “profession of faith” that was “patriotic, lyrical and passionate”  (166).  Interestingly, Fanon also reflected on his own biases and the fact that he was more easily convinced by a Jew than a Muslim, noting “I still had too much unconscious anti-Arab feeling in me” (166).  Throughout A Dying Colonialism, Fanon elaborated how his theory of the necessity of violence deepened through his discussions with Muslims and referred to their “conscientiousness and moderation”, noting that “little by little I was coming to understanding the meaning of the armed struggle and its necessity” (167). Reflecting on his inner struggle in becoming a member of the FLN, Fanon wrote: 

My leftist leanings drove me toward the same goal as Muslim nationalists. Yet I was too conscious of the different roads by which we had reached the same aspiration. Independence yes I agreed, but what independence? Were we going to fight to build a feudal, theocratic Moslem state that was frowned on by foreigners? Who would claim that we had a place in such an Algeria? (168) 

The answer to this question came brilliantly from a fellow comrade of the FLN who retorted that it was up to the Algerian people to decide.  And this is indeed the same answer the Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa need to articulate today.

It is interesting to note that parallels have recently been drawn between the Arab revolution and the Eastern European, Central and South American revolutions in the 1980’s.  We should recall, however, that moves towards democracy throughout Central and South America were deeply engaged with Catholic liberation theology.  In Brazil, for example, religious institutions played a key part in its transition and the Workers Party (PT), which currently holds power, was formed in 1978 as a union between labor agitators, religious activists from the Catholic Church and human rights groups. Likewise, the revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe can be traced to Poland where, throughout the mid-1980s, Lech Walesa’s Solidarity Movement was solidly supported by the Catholic Church. It has been proven over and over again that Marx’s assertion that religion is the opiate of the people was simply wrong.

And no doubt Marx’s famous assertion will be proved wrong again as revolutions sweep the Middle East and North Africa. There is an unprecedented opportunity for Muslim societies to have a debate on the role of Islam in the formation of their civil and political life, a conversation which has been deferred since their break from their colonial masters. We must not forget, as well, the role of the “war on terror” has played in stifling this conversation since all of the autocrats now being deposed were partners in the CIA's controversial “extraordinary rendition program” and used the threat of insecurity to suppress political expression. For example, Martin Scheinin, the UN special rapporteur on the protection of human rights, has detailed how Tunisia's counterterrorism laws and policies played a central part in the former government's crushing of political opposition. The same arguments used by Ben Ali were employed by Mubarak and, more recently, Qaddafi in discounting the popular revolution, accusing radicals, Islamists and al Qaeda of brainwashing and drugging the youth into action. It is evident that the shameful and awkward baggage of the “war on terror”, particularly in North Africa, is coming to haunt the West.

There is evidence in Egypt and Tunisia, that the people, having come this far, will not accept the replacement of one dictator with another, compliant to American interests, and are eager to explore diverse alliances which include political Islamists. In Egypt protests are continuing with the populations demanding accountability and justice and the Muslim Brotherhood has become a vocal part of this negotiating process.  In Tunisia Rashid Ghanooshi’s Al Nadha Party has been legalized. The situation in Libya is much more complex because of the absence of a strong civil society, like that promoted and sustained by the moderate Islamist politics of the Brotherhood in Egypt for example, due to the extreme suppression of Islamism of all sorts by Qaddafi.  For this reason Libya runs a greater risk at falling prey to the agendas of more radical Islamic and jihadist factions. And certainly we can predict that any acts of violence or bigotry by splinter groups of radical Islamists in the region are bound to be highlighted as evidence that Muslims are simply too medieval and infantile to determine the destinies of their own societies.

As neo-colonialism is threatened, Muslims will now finally have the conversations they need to have in order to create “the young world of tomorrow” which Al Sayyab prematurely envisioned.  It is important that Muslims hold etched in their memory the hypocritical stance of America and Europe, which is obvious to even the most bewildered observer, as the “international community” tries to redeem itself in the eyes of Muslim communities by claiming a reluctant support for democracy in the region, which, in fact, is being attained against the will of the deposed autocrats who America and Europe supported, and through the sacrifices of the lives of the people of the region. It will be interesting as well for Muslims to reclaim and articulate the global contributions which Islam has made to post colonial political activism and to query how post colonialism, when it found a safe home in Western academic institutions, forgot that its father, Frantz Fanon was an active member of the FLN was buried in Algeria under the name Ibrahim Fanon in a graveyard for shahid.   Is Islam an invisible “trace” in radical postcolonial theory? How then can it reclaim its place in theories of resistance that are applicable to international communities?

As Muslims become more and more articulate at introducing their vocabularies, aspirations, and political and philosophical frameworks to the West, and since the West is now pushed into a corner where it is forced to listen, perhaps genuine democracies can emerge.These democracies require engagement with Islamic concepts that underlie the basis of daily life in the region, and do not entail a blind acquiescence to the radical Islamist politics of groups like Al Qaeda, which is itself a remnant of postcolonial blowback.  But such an engagement must refuse to leave Islam out of the discussion about the future of the Arab revolution, the formation of genuine post post-colonial states, and indeed the brewing universal revolutions yet to be born as the rain continues to pour down.

Crooke, Alastair.  Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution. London: Pluto Press, 2009. Print.
Dabashi, Hamid.  “Delayed Defiance”.  Al Jazeera. 26 February 2011. Web. 01 March 1011. http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/02/2011224123527547203.html . Web
Fanon, Frantz. A Dying Colonialism. 1959. Trans. H. Chevalier. New York: Grove Press, 1965. Print.

 Majid, Anouar. Unveiling Traditions: Postcolonial Islam in a Polycentric World. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000. Print.

Roy, Olivier. The Chaos of Politics in the Middle East. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. Print.
Said, Edward.  Covering Islam. 1981. Revised Edition. New York: Vintage, 1997.Print.
—. Humanism and Democratic Criticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.Print.
—. Peace and Its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process.  New York: Vintage, 1996. Print.
—. Power, Politics and Culture: Interviews with Edward Said. Ed. Gauri Viswanathan. 2001. New York: Vintage , 2002. Print.
—.  The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination 1969-1994. 1994. New York: Vintage, 1995.Print.
Scheinin, Martin. “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion andprotection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism”.  United National General Assembly. A/HRC/16/51. 04 22 December 2010.  Web. March 2011.  http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G10/178/98/PDF/G1017898.pdf?OpenElement. Web.
 Slisli, Fouzi. “Islam: The Elephant in Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth”. Critical Middle Eastern Studies 17.1 (March 2008). Web. 10 February 2011.

Jacqueline O’Rourke is a consultant in research and communications who lives in  Qatar and Canada. She has written academic materials for language acquisition, recently published a book of poetry and is currently awaiting the publication of her PhD thesis titled Representing Violence: Jihad, Theory, Fiction. She can be reached at [email protected]

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