There is a phase in child development, horribly familiar to every parent, known colloquially as the “terrible twos”. Around the two-year mark, the terrible truth will start to dawn on the infant mind that the world doesn’t, after all, revolve around their every whim; that not everyone they come into contact with is, in fact, a slave created solely for their pleasure and entertainment; in short, that the world is inhabited by other people over whom they have very little control. As this traumatic realisation takes hold, the child’s frustration is typically manifested by a violent lashing out against the world it once thought it owned.
This is precisely the stage of development in which Europe (and Euro-America/ Euro-Australia) now finds itself. It is slowly dawning on Europeans that the rest of the world has a mind of its own, philosophies of its own, and increasingly an economy of its own to boot – and it is a traumatic realisation. Unwilling to take this reality lying down, the US has been leading its ‘allied’ clients into a permanent of state of war with the planet and its inhabitants which has now been raging across various battlefields for at least 15 years, and continues to grow.
The world of academia, too, has seen Europeans ‘lashing out’ at the suggestion that they are not, after all, the sole and divine arbiters of what constitutes social, political and philosophical thought: witness, for example, Slavoj Zizek’s famous “Fuck you, Walter Mignolo” response to a suggestion that there might be more interesting philosophers than him in the (non-European) world!
Hamid Dabashi’s book, Can Non-Europeans Think?, opens with this Zizek quote by means of introducing a debate (triggered by his essay “Can non-Europeans think?”) that raged on the Al Jazeera website recently, on the growing challenge to the idea that European epistemological assumptions are the only valid foundation for philosophy. Dabashi positions himself as one of a growing number of a diverse range of ‘decolonial’ scholars including Mignolo himself, Ramon Grosfoguel, Enrique Dussell and many others, who argue that (in Dabashi’s words): “The world we inhabit, planet Earth, has many imaginative geographies”, with the one typically inhabited by European scholars just one amongst many. This new decolonial tradition is, in my opinion, at the cutting edge of radical scholarship today, asking precisely the questions that need to be asked about the nature of the ‘colonial matrix of power’ (Mignolo’s phrase) and insisting on the need to expose, critique and develop alternatives to this matrix in every sphere of thought and practice. Yet, whilst there is much food for thought in this book, a collection of Dabashi’s recent essays, the book demonstrates the clear political dangers of reaching a premature conclusion that the West is now ‘irrelevant’ to world affairs.
At his best, Dabashi is a passionate advocate of justice, dissecting and lambasting Islamophobia in the media, castigating racist military anthropology, or mocking the self-importance and egoism of ‘European’ philosophers. He writes thought-provokingly on the urgent need to overcome the false divisions between ‘Islamic’ and ‘secular’; divisions which are perpetuated on both sides, but whose only beneficiaries are the imperial strategists. The best pieces are those that directly address the title of the book – pieces such as “Slavoj Zizek and Harum Scarum”, which are searing critiques of the (more or less overt) white supremacy of so much European philosophy past and present.
Particularly fascinating are his discussions of the relationship between knowledge production and power. His starting point is a materialist position that “historical conditions are the bedrock of ideas”, and that, for example, the “the mode of knowledge production called ‘Orientalism’ was commensurate with the European imperial project”, producing knowledge (in all academic fields) which served the interests of the imperial powers. Today, the most-feted “knowledge producers” in the West continue to serve the interests of “globalised capital”, as “the public sphere at the disposal of propagandists like Harris, Hitchens, and Rushdie generates and sustains a regime of knowledge that seeks to gloss over a vast history and a multifaceted culture of which they are frightfully ignorant, connects their decidedly vested interests to the ideological priorities of the time, and seeks to keep the formal structure of power that privileges them intact” .
However, as I read on, I cannot but help to wonder how the ‘knowledge production’ of Dabashi himself is connected to the “vested interests” and “ideological priorities of the time” and how his work, too, serves to “keep the formal structure of power that privileges [him] intact”. Dabashi is featured regularly on CNN and Al Jazeera, who originally published the vast majority of the articles that make up this book. What is it about what Dabashi is saying that makes his work so attractive to the British imperial relics of the Qatari royal family or the multi-billion US entertainment conglomerate Time Warner who own his two major publishers? Once he moves out of the realm of critiquing Eurocentric philosophy, and into the concrete analysis of ongoing political events, the answer to this question sadly becomes increasingly clear.
For a start, whilst he is scathing about the Islamophobia of the Western media, or the warmongering of the US, his most passionate invective is reserved for leaders of third world countries targeted for destruction by imperialism. Thus, in an article written on the eve of the NATO bombardment of Libya, Gaddafi was depicted as the “bastard son of [European colonial] militarism, charlatanism and barefaced barbarity”, a “dying beast”, and – of course! – a “mad colonel”. The first of these was particularly pernicious. Just as Europe and Euro-America was gearing up for another round of neo-colonial mass slaughter, Dabashi was calling the very existence of imperialism into question, citing colonialism as a purely historical phenomenon, with Gaddafi posited as its malingering after-effect. Thus does, in the words of Malcolm X, the press “make the criminal look like the victim and the victim look like the criminal”. Does Dabashi not understand that European ‘news’ outlets use such dehumanising terminology in order to demonise, not just the leaders, but the entire populations on which they rain their hellfire missiles? Does he have no compunction in his role as an echo chamber for colonial arrogance, lending a veneer of non-white credibility to imperial massacres?
Elsewhere, Dabashi talks of the “murderous ruling regime in Syria” and the “ghastly opportunism of Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran”. Third world leaderships are constantly equated with their imperial attackers – all the better to discourage any kind of solidarity or defence against such attacks. The BRICS countries – Russia and China in particular – are constantly disparaged throughout Dabashi’s writings, for example, and almost always referred to in the same breath as US imperialism. “The Saudis and the Islamic Republic, along with the US and the Russians/ Chinese, can perform all their machinations, but the Syrian people will remain resistant and defiant…They say you can conquer a land on horseback, but you must descend in order to rule it. The same can be said about Syria: from the US and Israel to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, and from Russia and China to the Islamic Republic and Hezbollah, there certainly are many machinations at work to conquer Syria”. Really, I wonder? Who wants to conquer Syria? Russia doesn’t want to ‘conquer’ Syria – they seek a return to the status quo ante in which Syria was a functioning peaceful, independent state, broadly ‘allied’ with Russia, perhaps, but certainly no vassal state. And nor, in fact, does the West aim at ‘conquest’. Rather, the West’s involvement aims to destroy Syria, to crucify it, leaving its bloody corpse as a reminder of what happens to states who snub their nose at Israel and the US and harbour Palestinian freedom fighters. Which brings us to Israel. Even the Zionist settler state – which Dabashi himself admits follows a policy of what Ilan Pappe calls “incremental genocide” – is apparently no worse than the Iranian government. Thus we learn that “Zionists in Israel think and act precisely like the Islamists in Iran”, that “there is not one iota of difference” between “propagandists” in both countries, and, most shockingly, that the Iranian government’s repression of the ‘Green Movement’ protests in 2009 constitutes “a Nakba of no less catastrophic consequence that that of the Palestinians” – the one, that is, which saw thousands killed and 750,000 evicted from their homes in a war which continues to this day. This – whether Dabashi intends it or not (and I am 90% certain he does not) – is war propaganda for the anti-war movement; Zionism for the anti-Zionists.
On Syria, Dabashi’s delegitimisation of the government employs an ingenious ‘lose-lose’ catch-22 logic – “Any government, first and foremost, must both represent and protect its citizens; that is its very raison d’etre” he writes. “The ruling regime in Syria does neither”. Thus, the terrorism sponsored by the West against Syria becomes its own legitimation – this terrorism has resulted in deaths the Syrian government has been unable to prevent; unable to prevent them the state has lost legitimacy; and therefore the ‘fight against Assad’ becomes legitimate. Thus terrorism creates its own, post-hoc, justification. Of course, this logic is implied rather than openly stated; indeed, elsewhere he denounces elements of the insurgency. But the overall effect is to equate the two sides, painting a picture of there being nothing worth defending in the Syrian state against its would-be assassins – a ‘curse on both their houses’ position. The real nature of the war in Syria – of Western-sponsored sectarian death squads being imported into Syria to wage a war of annihilation against an independent third world state – is thus obscured by an analysis that puts an equals sign between both sides of the war. Rather than seeking a defeat for the West’s strategy of destruction – from whichever quarter – we are told, rather, that “the terms of engagement with the future of democracy in our world are not any longer merely political but in fact entirely ethical”. Our “engagement” should be limited to “ethical” concerns about the way the wars which the West is waging on one independent state after another are conducted, rather than “political” opposition to those wars themselves. In effect, we are back in William Hague-Angelina Jolie territory – not opposing the launching of wars as such, but rather supporting vacuous campaigns against the violence, rapes, and murders that are their inevitable corollary.
But it is on Libya – subject to the bloodiest bombing campaign since the invasion of Iraq – that really belie Dabashi’s claims to be a ‘decolonial’ scholar. Several articles from shortly before, during and after NATO’s bloodletting are reprinted here. The fact that the usual lies of the time rear their head is not surprising; what is more noteworthy is that they are reprinted without so much as a footnote of correction (at least not in my review copy; I have raised the issue with the publisher, so we shall see). Thus we read that Gaddafi has “carpet-bombed Libyans”, a particularly sickening lie given that not only has it been debunked time and again, but more so because it was precisely carpet-bombing that this lie aimed – and succeeded – in bringing about. Kim Segupta in the Independent, on the ground in Libya at the time, noted recently that “Many of us who covered the Libya conflict noted just how few people were killed or injured by Gaddafi’s air force before the imposition of the no fly zone… Libyan pilots appeared to go to great effort not to hit civilians or even rebel fighters” – and an excellent summary of the (lack of) evidence for the ‘Gaddafi bombing own people’ claims can be found at http://libyancivilwar.blogspot.co.uk/2011/08/bombing-his-own-people-really.html. The credulous could perhaps have been forgiven for believing the lurid pro-war propaganda at the time; but to reprint them verbatim in 2015 is, bluntly, unforgivable.
Interestingly, one article does discuss the anti-black pogroms that were such an integral part of the ‘anti-Gaddafi revolution’, and which, for Dabashi, served to “mar the most noble moments of our collective uprising”. Yet the troubling details are never mentioned again, and apparently have no bearing on the author’s enthusiastic support for the “noble…uprising”. Indeed, this oversight is overtly justified on the grounds that “the roots of Arab and of Iranian racism, both toward each other and toward “black Africans”, are too horrid and troubling to justify full exposure at this magnificent moment in our histories”. But the overall depiction of these massacres as somehow ‘peripheral’ to the ‘Libyan revolution’ is belied by not only the ethnic cleansing of the entire town of Tawergha, but by the justification given to it by the new Libyan government, whose leader Mahmoud Jibril gave the green light for the massacres, and whose Law 38 granted immunity from prosecution to the perpetrators. Are the people of Tawergha, and the country’s other two million black-skinned citizens subject to impunity and massacre, part of the “emancipated people” of Libya to whom Dibashi refers? It is hard to see how they can be, with thousands upon thousands still rotting in illegal militia dungeons.
The Latin American leaderships also get it in the neck from Mr Dabashi. Chavez’s attempts to forge South-South unity with Iran is described as an “obscenity”, and Daniel Ortega’s expression of solidarity with the Libyan Jamihiriya in the run up to NATO’s blitzkrieg dismissed an “absurd banality”. His hatred for the Iranian regime is thus transferred to all independent third world leaderships – always, of course, wrapped up in a supposedly decolonial rhetoric in order to differentiate his words, otherwise often indistinguishable, from the likes of a David Cameron or a John McCain.
This shared hatred of all of the Empire’s current targets all goes a long way to explaining Dabashi’s popularity amongst the ruling elites in control of CNN and Al Jazeera. But it is his portrayal of the Arab Spring that most effectively “sustains a regime of knowledge” serving the “ideological priorities of the time” and keeping the “formal structure of power that privileges them intact”.
Thus, the US is portrayed as somehow intrinsically opposed to destabilisation, on the fallacious grounds that the whole region was, apparently, sewn up before the Arab spring came along: “Revolutions are destabilising. The United States, as an imperial project with vast material and strategic interests in the Arab world, is not happy with these revolutions that destabilise the region, endanger its allies, and potentially embolden its adversaries. Israel has even more at stake to thwart the revolutionary tide. For the entire duration of its colonial project, Israel has relied on corrupt Arab potentates like the ones the Arab revolutionaries are overthrowing. The apartheid state prefers a tyrant like Assad over messy unfolding democratic movements like those in Egypt and Tunisia”. Funny then, that Israel’s frequent interventions in the Syrian war have all been on the side of the insurgents, either targeting Syrian state forces directly or their allies Hezbollah, and never the insurgents Dabashi claims are such a threat to their interests. Funny also, that the ‘Arab Spring’s ‘successes’ have been solely against the region’s republics, whilst the British-installed and US-funded monarchies have remained relatively untouched.
Dibashi repeatedly claims that the Arab Spring is the “third Palestinian intifada writ large”, a bizarre claim, given that the biggest victims of the Arab Spring – Libya and Syria – were the region’s strongest anti-Zionist states before 2011, and that Israel’s biggest regional headache, Hezbollah, is one of the main targets of the anti-Assad insurgency. Indeed, even Hamas – the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood – has long since started backpeddling on its early support for the ‘Syrian Spring’. If this an intifada, it is one from which Palestinians are almost entirely absent.
Of course, the dovetailing of positions between the US billionaires and Qatari royals who bankroll Dabashi’s writing and himself does not mean necessarily mean either that those positions are wrong, nor that they are motivated by the same goals, nor that they follow the same logic. Indeed, Dabashi would, I suspect, argue that to reject a position simply on the grounds that it serves the vested interests of European/ Euro-American power is itself an example of Eurocentric logic – defining oneself in relation to Europe, its interests and its standpoints (albeit from a position of opposition).
Yet here we come to the danger of positing the West as altogether irrelevant. It is becoming irrelevant, certainly. But the very awareness of that fact by its ruling elites is what makes it so dangerous at this historical moment. Its economic inducements, cultural appeal, hegemonic philosophy…all this is collapsing, has even perhaps collapsed already. Even its military power – at least its power to control, if not to destroy – is collapsing, as illustrated by the almost daily angst-laden reports coming out on Western armies’ readiness to mount large-scale ground operations. But this destructive power cannot be ignored. The ongoing fallout from the NATO assault on Libya – evidenced every day in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Mali, Cameroon, Egypt, not to mention Libya itself – should surely remind us of that.
We are not yet in a post-colonial world, let alone in the post-post-colonial world imagined by Dabashi. And to propagate the myth that we are, serves primarily to disguise the very destructive, and sadly highly effective, efforts of the West to stymie the very real moves that are being made towards that world by the very powers Dabashi so despises.
As far as imperialism is concerned, with enemies like Dabashi – who needs friends?
Dan Glazebrook is author of Divide and Ruin: The West’s Imperial Strategy in an Age of Crisis
This article first appeared in Middle East Eye