An Interview with Hamid Dabashi

In your Iran: An Interrupted People you put "colonial modernity" as the main paradox of the history of Iran. According to you this paradox means that the principles of the Enlightenment were introduced to the non-western world via the process of colonization, which denied agency from the colonized people. A typical type of opposition to that "colonial modernity" has taken the form of "tradition" i.e. an essentialist understanding of the cultural/religious tradition against modernity or East against West. What is the major weakness of such an approach that is based on binary such as East/West or modern/traditional?

The weakness of such binaries is that it traps citizens of a nation-state in between two false choices. It means that they have to choose between one of two wrong options. They have to choose either colonial modernity or a fabricated, essentialised tradition. As a result they are robbed of their historical agency to a crippled agency that does not enable them to assert their autonomy and authority over history. In more specific terms they either become "westernized" or "Europeanized" and thus deny who and what they are or they accept very categorical, very essentialized, very monolithic conceptions of their own history, of their tradition, of their culture, religion etc. As a result the freedom with which any human being needs to confront history and pick and choose aspects of a past or a purposeful future in a manner that gives the individual a political agency is denied. This is the principle problem of that binary. The history of the colonized world, in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America and also in the so called Islamic world is precisely that. The fact is that in Iran, or in Turkey, or in the Arab world, or in Africa we have a two-hundred-years old history of anti-colonial nationalism or transnational socialism. But once you trap a people inside say Islamism and Westernism it simply blocs and denies them their very historical experiences that do not fit these binaries.


In this respect another concept that you use is "anti-colonial modernity". Could you briefly explain what do you mean by "anti-colonial modernity"?


What I mean by anti-colonial modernity is to acknowledge the agential purposefulness of modernity but also recognize how we in the colonial world have achieved it. I do not believe in the modernity that has come to the colonized world through the gun-barrel of colonialism. That modernity is not historically productive.  It in fact robs people of their agency.  The principle objectives of modernity are conceptions of public reason, public space and historical progress. I believe that the colonized world has achieved those conceptions of modernity not via colonialism but by fighting against colonialism. Through the history of fighting against colonialism that agency has been, de facto, generated, the public space has been generated, public reason has been articulated and notions of historical progress has been sustained. This is what I call anti-colonial modernity. It is not something in the line of aping or mimicking Europe but in fact by resisting colonialism.


Can we say that this is the most important point that differentiates you from the postcolonial criticism?


Yes, this is the principle distinction between me and much of what is happening in postcolonial theory. Because in postcolonial theory I still believe that it is European Enlightenment and a European modernity that determines the course and the language of critical thinking and action. But my objective is to place my critical apparatus on the colonial site and to see in what way for example in India, in Iran, in Turkey, in Africa, in Latin America notions of public space, public reason and historical progress have been articulated.


Let’s move to another concept in your study: "cosmopolitanism". Your depiction of cosmopolitanism as an approach that transcends the binary opposition between tradition and modernity resembles the concept of "reflexive modernity". In the sense for example Ulrich Beck employed. However theories of reflexive or alternative modernity seems to detach modernity as a cultural phenomenon from capitalist social relations. What do you think about such critiques?


I do not have any place in my thought for any notion of modernity that is detached from globalized capitalism. Anything that I say, any conception of modernity, anti-colonial modernity, or cosmopolitanism that I have developed is deeply rooted in my firm belief that globalized capitalism is the material condition in which we think and we act. Yes I know the literature on reflexive modernity or alternative modernity or multiple modernities. But my conception of anti-colonial modernity is rooted in the anti-colonial struggles. It is not a purely theoretical construction—in the same way that my conception of cosmopolitanism is not a "potential" cosmopolitanism or an "ideal" cosmopolitanism. Seyla Benhabib for example talks about an emerging cosmopolitanism. Anthony Appiah speaks about an ideal cosmopolitanism. But I speak about an actual cosmopolitanism. Namely in the late Ottoman period I look at the spectrum of the states that extend from Central Asia coming to the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire going all the way down to North Africa in which you have Arab, Iranian, Turkish and Indian intellectuals getting together particularly in Istanbul. And in Istanbul they form multicultural, multilingual, and cosmopolitan cultures in which they meet with the most progressive and revolutionary ideas that was coming from Europe, such as those of Marx or Darwin, etc, then they translate these into Turkish, into Persian, into Arabic and help in the discursive and institutional formation of a cosmopolitan culture that includes European ideas but is not limited by them. So the cosmopolitanism that I am speaking of is not something that I wish to happen. It is something that in my judgment has been a historical experience.


There is a rather negative legacy of many anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles regarding cosmopolitanism. Many anti-colonial struggles had an exclusionary or sectarian basis. The last example was the rapid degeneration of the Iraqi resistance to sectarian violence. What do you think on the relation of anti-colonial struggles and national liberation movements with cosmopolitanism?


My sense is that first of all sectarian violence is something that was manufactured by colonial power and given significance much more that it actually had within the cosmopolitan context. Take the example of Iraq. The American governor of Iraq after the US occupation, Mr. Paul Bremer, wrote the constitution of Iraq, with the appointment of Noah Feldman as his legal advisor, in a manner that consolidated sectarian divisions within Iraq. The division of Iraq along sectarian lines of Kurds, Sunnis and Shias is the colonial construction of Paul Bremer. Another military strategist of the United States, Mr. Vali Reza Nasr, later theorized that sectarianism and made it universal in the Islamic world.  But the main struggle in the Islamic world is not between the Sunnis and Shias. For me this is absolute nonsense. These two sects of Islam, the Sunnis and the Shias, have always coexisted. But the way that the sectarian violence is agitated always has to do with an external military force, which in this case is the American imperialism. What American militarism is doing in Iraq regarding sectarian divisions is very similar for example to the way the caste system was systematized by the British in India. Of course the caste system existed before the British colonialism. But the caste system was systematized and solidified by British colonialism for its own colonial benefits. Or the hostility between the Protestants and Catholics in Ireland was again consolidated by British imperialism for its own benefits. The French colonialism did the same thing in Africa by consolidating tribal divisions in a way that will consolidate their own rule. It is the old colonial trick of "divide and rule". Iraq has been one of the most cosmopolitan nations in the region for the last 200 years. In its literature, poetry, arts, architecture etc, this cosmopolitanism is perfectly evident. The fact that a tyrant like Saddam Hussein ruled them does not mean that this cosmopolitan culture had disappeared. It means it was in opposition. But after the occupation of Iraq by the US forces they get rid of Saddam Hussein but they consolidated sectarian lines and thus created a condition for sectarian violence.


You wrote that nation-state is the most appropriate seedbed for cosmopolitanism. That it is the most appropriate space for cosmopolitanism to flourish. However the historical evidence seems to suggest the opposite since many nation-states were based on an exclusionary identity formation. Take for example the case of Turkish nationalism and nation-state. We would like to ask the relation between the formation of nation states and national identities and cosmopolitanism.


There are legitimate criticisms of cosmopolitanism raised by many people. Among them Timothy Brennan for example has a wonderful book on the critique of cosmopolitanism, At Home in the World:  Cosmopolitanism Now (1997). What he says is that the national state is a unit of resistance to imperialism and notions of cosmopolitanism are complicit with American imperialism. He is correct if any notion of cosmopolitanism were to disregard the significance of national state. But in my judgment, the way that I use cosmopolitanism, I do not deny or underestimate or dismiss the significance of the national state. To me in fact the national state is the optimum unit of anti-colonial resistance, or resistance to globalized imperialism. However, my argument is that the source of cosmopolitanism is already embedded in the national political consciousness. In fact the case of Turkey is a perfect example. I will give you two examples, Turkey and Spain, at the two ends of the Mediterranean basin. Both Turkey and Spain are strategically and geographically located in a way that they are beneficiaries of multiple political cultures, historical consciousness, literary imagination, artistic traditions etc. If you look at Turkey, it does not have to make a choice between Islamism and so-called Westernism. Turkey itself has a unique experience, it is beneficiary of multiple cultures that extends from Central Asia, from the Arab and Islamic world, and includes Europe. Turkey has to offer itself as a model of historically anchored cosmopolitanism rather than debate whether it is Islamic or European. Here I disagree with the distinguished Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk who seems to be entirely beholden to the European culture and I compare him with the great Spaniard historian Americo Castro who is exactly the opposite. Americo Castro was very much conscious of the way that Spain was inheritor of multiple cultures, Islamic culture, African culture, European culture etc. which has given Spain its unique cultural heritage. This is what I call cosmopolitanism, cosmopolitanism within the context of the national state. What has not happened in Turkey unfortunately is systematic theorization of the Turkish unique historical experiences before, during and after the Ottoman Empire. To me this is the terrible legacy of Kemalism. Kemal Ataturk was beholden to European modernity and recast Turkish society in European model. Changing the alphabet, the dress code etc. And after him Reza Shah in Iran in fact followed Mustafa Kemal’s model. Through the policies of Mustafa Kemal and Reza Shah, we were forced to choose between either Islamism or so-called Westernism, while our actual historical experiences are far more complicated, far more cosmopolitan and far more exemplary for the contemporary life. We do not have to choose between two false binary abstractions, Islamism or westernism, two abstractions without history.


Contrary to an essentialist and ahistoric understanding of Islam you have stressed the plural and polyvocal tradition of Islam. Can you briefly explain this position?

Islam is a generic categorical appellation.  It conceals much more than it reveals.  Muslims have politically and intellectually coagulated around any number of focal points, spoken a variety of languages, and a conflicting set of epistemics has divided their faith and loyalties. Muslims have been nomocentric about their law, logocentric about their philosophy, or homocentric in their mysticism. None of these discursive forces has ever succeeded to be singularly dominant in exclusively claiming Islam.  It is only under specific colonial conditions that the juridical language and the clerical institution of Islam have taken over and assumed the false authority to speak for the entirety of Islam.

In your book "Islamic Liberation Theology" you argue that the Islamic ideology as the organizing principle of political resistance to colonial modernity has ended. What do you mean with that? Does Islam ideologically failed in its confrontation with imperialism?


What I mean is that the notion of "the West" was the principle interlocutor of the Islamic ideology over the last 200 years. Muslim activists kept arguing against "the West" and thus paradoxically consolidated the notion of "the West". Then my argument is that the notion of "the West" imploded internally especially in the aftermath of 9/11. And even before 9/11 with the unification of Europe and the emergence of the European Union. The population of the EU is almost 300 millions. Euro until very recently was more powerful than dollar. So you have a major schism between North America and Western Europe—so far as an emerging imperial rivalry is concerned as to how to rule the world. With this split the notion of "the West" has in fact imploded internally. Because it has imploded it is no longer the principle interlocutor for that Islam that was formed in dialogue with it. So now Islam does not have an interlocutor with which to re-articulate itself. I do not of course dismiss the role of Islamism in anti-colonial modernity over the last two centuries. Though Islamism is not the only mode of anti colonial struggle. Anti-colonial Nationalism was equally powerful in such figures as Nehru in India, Gamal Abdul Nasser in Egypt, or Muhammed Musaddiq in Iran. But equally important has been the role of translational socialism. For example in Turkey what would you do with the great poet Nazım Hikmet, if you were to be trapped between Islamism and "Westernism"?  Nazim Hokmat was neither an Islamist nor a Kemalist. He is the product of a transnational third world socialism that is in line with Pablo Neruda or Vladimir Mayakovski. So we would become alienated from our own historical experiences if we were to fall into the trap of Islamism versus "Westernism". So Islamism in my judgment during the 19th and 20th centuries was one among a number of other anti colonial struggles. The problem with Islamism for example in the Islamic Republic of Iran is that it has brutally eliminated its ideological and political rivals, namely anti colonial nationalism and transnational socialism and created a theocracy. That is something from which we should learn our lessons and move on. So I do not deny the significance of Islamism nor do I think that Islamism is the only mode of anti colonialist struggle. 


Your use of the term "liberation theology" immediately reminds the Latin American Christian-Socialist movement that was called the same way. In that sense do you propose a reordering of Islam that would more clearly identify Islam with socialism?


Absolutely. In fact if you see I am very much in conversation with such great Latin American liberation theologians as Gustavo Gutierrez.  I am not of course the only one to use the Latin American liberation theology as a model what can happen in Islamic liberation theology. But more significantly I replace the word "theology" with "theodicy," meaning that Islamic liberation theology in these renewed conditions has to accept non-Islamist ideologies such as t anti colonial nationalism. (Not religious or ethnic nationalisms. As much as I am for anti colonial nationalism I am against ethnic nationalism.) Equally important is transnational socialism. For me this is the only way to form a regional coalition against American imperialism, which would make any sense. We should not fall into the trap of ethnic nationalisms or to the trap of categorical Islamism but we should recognize the multiplicity of these voices and create democratic spaces in which these multiple voices can have a share. 


What do you think for example about the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas? Do you think that they have a view that can recognize this multiplicity?


The significance of these examples is that Hamas is one of a number of other equally important components of Palestinian national liberation movement. Both demographically and ideologically Hamas is not the only aspect of the Palestinian national liberation movement. So is Fatah, or PFLF, DFLP, etc. There are at least a dozen other components of the Palestinian liberation movement in addition to Hamas. So I have nothing against Hamas. In fact I am a supporter of Hamas as one of a multiple set of organizations working towards the liberation of occupied Palestine. But as so far it recognizes that it is just one component of the Palestinian liberation movement. The same is with Hezbollah and the same is with Mahdi’s Army in Iraq. Demographically they are integral to anti-colonial struggles of the people of Palestine, of Lebanon, of Iraq, but (and this exceedingly important) they are not definitive to it. In Iraq, the Shias have to come to terms with the Sunnis or with the Kurds, and the same is true about Hamas in Palestine or about Hezbollah in Lebanon. But more importantly my objective is to change the terms of the discussion. We should no longer talk about this sectarian component of these cultures.


You mean that they should be more cosmopolitan?


Here is again the distinction between my notion of cosmopolitanism and people like Seyla Benhabib or Anthony Appiah’s notion. I am not in a position to preach to Hezbollah to be cosmopolitan. But I am in a position to point out that Hezbollah is in the cosmopolitan context of Lebanon as is Hamas in Palestine and Mahdi’s Army in Iraq.


"Empire" has become a catchword. We would like to ask you if you use the term in a loose or descriptive manner or in accordance with the concept’s theoretical usages, for instance Negri and Hardt’s approach.


No, I am in between. I use this term, first of all, as a reference to a practice.  When you look at the books of somebody like Chalmers Johnson, who has three volumes on American Empire, you have the details of the infrastructure of an imperial operation. That is the basis of my use of the argument "empire". Now, I am in agreement with Hardt and Negri to some extent. But still their conception of empire is western-centric and that bothers me. Because my conception of capitalism is global, it is not western-centric. But as you know the US-led invasion of Iraq challenged the theory of Hardt and Negri. Because Hardt and Negri say that we can no longer talk about imperialism in the old fashion way but we can talk about Empire because institutions like the World Bank, the IMF and so forth have replaced old fashioned imperialism. But then what do you do with the actual imperialist operations in Afghanistan, in Iraq, etc. So Hardt and Negri have come back and in their recent work trying to address this discrepancy. Despite the fact that I recognize what Negri and Hardt are arguing I am not completely convinced with their argument. My basis of understanding of the empire is the imperial infrastructure of the military industrial complex that since Eisenhower (this was a term that was first made popular by Eisenhower) has been in operation and the contingency of the American national economy on this military industrial complex that makes imperialism somehow written into the DNA of the American economy over the last 200 years.


Your latest book on post-orientalism seems as an attempt to update and revive Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism. In what sense you reevaluate and criticize Said?


First of all I historicize orientalism and I do not deal with it as Edward Said did more or less exclusively as the literary and cultural questions of representation. The starting point of Edward’s Said’s notion of orientalism is representation. I understand and sympathize and I am in agreement with that but my objective is somehow different from that. First of all, I want to historicize orientalism. To me, there is a fundamental difference between the orientalism of say the Greek towards the Persians, which was an imperialism of fear and loathing, and then the orientalism of say the Austro-Hungarian Empire vis-à-vis the Ottomans as manifested in orientalistic paintings or in Mozart’s operas which is an orientalism of rivalry, and then the orientalism which emerged in the heyday of European colonialism which was an orientalism of domination. So first of all we need to historicize various types of orientalism. Second I take the question of orientalism and the Foucauldian notion of the relationship between knowledge and power back to a very powerful sociology of knowledge tradition all the way back to Marx in 19th century. As a result I argue that what we are criticizing is the epistemic formation of a relationship between knowledge and power. And then after I thus historicize both the concept and the theory I come forward and I say that during the Cold War we no longer have old fashioned orientalism but we have the emergence of area studies in such areas as Eastern Europe, the Middle East, the Far East which are the peripheral areas around Soviet Union when the US wants to generate knowledge about these countries that surrounded the Soviet Union to combat Soviet socialism. And then my argument is that in the aftermath of the collapse of Soviet Union and the rise of such theories like Fukuyama or Huntington’s, that mode of knowledge production, the area studies mode of knowledge production, also came to an end. So now we have entered to a third stage which is neither orientalism nor area studies but what I call a "disposable knowledge"—namely when the US wanted to attack Afghanistan it generated knowledge specifically for that operation and then it discarded that knowledge when the US attacked Iraq. So we no longer have epistemic continuity or epistemic consistency in any mode of knowledge production compatible with imperial projects, which is evident also in the fact that the former departments of oriental studies or area studies are no longer producing the type of knowledge for American imperialism that they used to, but in fact think tanks have now emerged as the sites of knowledge production. Think tanks are increasingly more important for the US imperial operations than universities.


You criticized very harshly Obama’s position on Palestine but you also voted for him. Many critical intellectuals shared an optimism about Obama. Do you share such an optimism?


The reasons that I voted for Obama has to do with domestic condition, namely 280 years of slavery in the United States. The election of the first African American to the highest political office of this country has profound and enduring implications for all minorities in the United States. Not only for African Americans, but also for Asia Americans, Latino Americans etc. So there is a domestic cathartic moment in the US especially for the minorities, for legal and illegal immigrants, which is very very enabling. And as somebody who lives in New York I share that responsibility of redefining the political culture of this country in a way that enables and empowers immigrants and minorities. But I have no illusions about Obama. He is the new face of the American imperialism. He uses a soft language. He came to the Turkish parliament and said for example that Islam is not the enemy. But as I said earlier, expansionism, militarism and imperialism are written into the DNA of the US and that is not something that Obama can change. Moreover, in more immediate history the center of American politics since 1980 when Ronald Reagan became president has moved so consistently to the right that it will take generations to create a meaningful center. And Obama can not perform miracles. Nevertheless there are important and positive developments in some aspects of domestic politics, such as preventing torture, but none of these things means that the American imperialism will come to an end tomorrow. American imperialism has its own logic, its own infrastructure and American national economy and America national political culture are so contingent on that imperialism that no Obama can change it.


Your book on the Palestinian cinema has just been published in Turkish. Your central idea in that book is that the Palestinian cinema will become part of the world cinema as long it deals with Nakba which is the main trauma of the Palestinian people. Could you explain that assessment?


National cinemas or national cultures are predicated on national trauma.  Examples include Soviet cinema that emerged in the aftermath of the Russian revolution, or Italian neo-realism that emerged in the aftermath of fascism and 2nd World War and the massive poverty and destruction that Mussolini had left behind -from which ruins Italian neo-realism emerged. Or in the 1950’s and 1960’s the rise of French New Wave which was predicated on French intellectuals coming to terms with their own colonial past in Africa, or the emergence of New Cinema in Germany which was again predicated on the German soul searching of their atrocities during the 2nd World War, particularly the Jewish Holocaust. That definition of national cinema predicated on national trauma is evident also throughout the world, inn Latin America, in Africa etc. The same is true for Palestinian cinema. Nakba remains the central trauma of the Palestinian people and as a result the Palestinian cinema is consistently evolving around the ways of addressing that trauma that defines it as a national cinema. And then in the course of writing my on essay and editing the volume I tried to see in what particular way the varieties of ways that this national trauma has given rise to this national cinema despite the fact that the Palestinians do not have their national state yet. The central issue that I am addressing in this book is the issue of what I call "mimetic crises". Because the trauma is so overwhelming that there is no way of expressing it and as a result Palestinian filmmakers are facing a challenge of how to represent the unrepresentable or how to visualize the invisible. This is my central concern in this book.


Do you think that we can translate this perspective of national trauma to the Kurdish case? Since lately we see many examples of Kurdish cinema which deals with the Kurdish issue.


Yes we can. Central to Kurdish cinema is obviously the absence of a nation-state for people who so obviously see themselves as a nation.  There are many similarities between the Kurdish and Palestinian cinema because they share a central trauma in the formation of their nationhood.  There are also differences because the Kurds keep producing their films in multiple cultural settings, most significantly in Iran and Turkey.  So much so that a filmmaker as Qobadi is both a Kurdish and an Iranian filmmaker or Yilmaz Guney is both a Kurdish and a Turkish filmmaker. In other words multiple identities claim Kurdish filmmakers in their immediate region. So while the central trauma of Nakba holds the Palestinian cinema together, Kurdish cinema is aesthetically divided into multiple visual regimes. This makes the emerging Kurdish cinema as much visually rich as politically complicated.



* This interview was published in the May 2009 issue of critical review Mesele (The Quest) printed in Turkey.

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