Review of Hamid Dabashi's "Brown Skin, White Masks"
Hamid Dabashi, Brown Skin, White Masks, Pluto Press, 2011, 172 pp.
(Intro., 4 Chapters, Conclusion, Glossary, Notes & Index.)
Our world has changed significantly since the early 1950s when Frantz Fanon penned the first book of his trilogy that concluded with the Wretched of the Earth. Back then the Western politico-industrial elite's civilizational plague was Marxism and Marxists which today has been replaced (and with equal angst and fury) by Islam and Muslims as the civilizational enemy number one of Western Capital and its self-perceived 'manifest destiny' to shape the world in its own image of unequal banality, cultural impoverishment and spiritual bankruptcy. Yet even though the world has changed since the 1950s of Fanon's heyday, nevertheless many of the effective/affective mechanisms and guiding assumptions behind neo-colonialism's function of cultural hegemony remain fundamentally the same, especially where the role and function of comprador intellectuals in writing the colonial master's narrative of the Other is concerned (of which these comprador intellectuals remain an ethnic and cultural part themselves). Black Skin, White Masks was written by Fanon in 1952 while he was still living in Paris and before he joined the Algerian Revolution. In it he employed, first, psychoanalytical theory to detail how colonialism affected the self-perception of the colonized (especially black and African) peoples and their being-in-the-world. Next he delineated the role of native informers, the comprador intellectuals and literary figures, who in their impulse to ape and become acceptable (even the the 'same as') the colonialist master, as an act of self-hatred, effectively collaborate with the colonialist master's continued hegemony over their cultures by perpetuating his narratives with their own compromised native voices.
I have been reading Hamid Dabashi since the early 1990s. The first edition of his Theology of Discontent: The Ideological Foundations of the Islamic Revolution in Iran was the first book length work of his I read when it first came out in the mid 1990s: a book I found to be the most significant study of the Iranian Revolution so far penned. I have not changed my mind about this, although some of his conclusions I do not necessarily agree with. His articles on Islamic philosophy and mysticism, particularly one on the Sufi concept of the Perfect Man (insan kamil), together with his chapters on 'Ayn'ul-Qudat Hamadani and Mir Damad in Leaman and Nasr's Routledge History of Islamic Philosophy, I literally devoured. In the early part of 2011 Hamid Dabashi and I had the pleasure of finally making each other's virtual acquaintance on facebook. We hit it off right away and immediately had a long, informed discussion on his page regarding Babism, Hurufism, Islamic philosophy and Henry Corbin. Although I disagree with some of Dabashi's takes on Babism in his recent Shi'ism: A Religion of Protest, nevertheless from within the Academy his angle on this subject is a unique and refreshing perspective which does not suffer from the crypto-apologetic, pro-Bahai ideological banalities of an Abbas Amanat or Juan R.I. Cole. Having my personal Dabashi collection somewhat at an incomplete disadvantage by lacking a copy of his monograph on 'Ayn'ul-Qudat Hamadani, which for some years I had found virtually impossible to locate, Hamid soon graciously sent me an author signed copy of it which then accompanied me on my three month long trip to the UK.
Hamid Dabashi's Brown Skin, White Masks is, per one of its own introductory comments, Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks updated for our times. I will confess that I have not read a piece of contemporary, analytical (and much deserved) learned polemic as much as I enjoyed reading Brown Skin, White Masks. On one significant level this book validated my own decade and a half long public ideological struggle against the Haifan Baha'i establishment given how I located this establishment in the early part of last decade as fundamentally a comprador establishment of Western neo-colonialism, together with its narratives of Islamophobia being informed by the very same set of assumptions which Dabashi lays bare regarding a few of the subjects of his Brown Skin, White Masks. My further online experiences from 2009-2010 with the cacophony of thugs on the site Iranian.com only reinforce my conviction that Dabashi is on to something potently significant in this book. If it were up to me, I would be making Brown Skin, White Masks mandatory reading for every Cultural/Literary Studies and Political Science university department on the planet because what this book underscores and highlights needs to be taken on board far and wide if the questionable credibility given by the mainstream to the false polarities, civilizational arrogance and cultural paranoia presented by the Francis Fukuyamas and Samuel Huntingtons of the world (which, no need to mention, have been playing themselves out in real time since the '90s) is to be conclusively invalidated and ideologically smashed!
In many ways Brown Skin, White Masks is a pithy abridgement (and somewhat augmentation in a few places) of Dabashi's earlier Islamic Liberation Theology: Resisting the Empire which Dabashi explained in the introductory comments of that book as being a 'radical counter-intuitive rethinking of [Huntington's]...clash of civilizations'. The difference between these two books is, one, more in the presence of Fanon in the latter book; second, the sublime and condensed, incisive invective poured in Brown Skin, White Masks that is more spread out and less pointed in the former; and, third, the remedy advocating for a reformulated, future Islamic Liberation Theology proposed in the former which is not conspicuous in the latter. Nevertheless in many ways these two books need to be read together because they are talking about the same trajectory of issues. That stated, what Dabashi proposes as an Islamic Liberation Theology, especially in the prologomenon conclusion, could use some healthy reading and engagement with the oeuvrage of Henry Corbin because, whether Hamid recognizes it or not, using a somewhat different lexiographical and paradigmatic point of departure, Corbin had proposed fundamentally the same thing in his dialogue of the Abrahamic (esoteric) monotheisms of the Book, particularly in the proposition of Gnosis qua 'Irfan (a word in its contemporary lexiology Hamid Dabashi does not like) as a Weltreligion. My own typology of Theophanocracy also goes a long way in addressing what Dabashi is proposing at the end of Islamic Liberation Theology. In short, what I am proposing - and which these two works of Dabashi will help me better formulate - is the possibility of a fruitful dialogue between, and so a melding and synthesis of, leftwing politics (and specifically Anarchist political theory) with the high esotericism and gnosis of the world of islam iranien.
Back to Brown Skin, White Masks. Without doing a chapter by chapter thematic review here, there were several instances where the book stood out for me in significant ways. Addressing the Orientalist representations of the Islamic world, on p.85, Dabashi says,
"..Over the past 200 years, the Orientalist project has reduced these multifaceted societies to Islam, and Islam to Islamic law (Shari'ah). In part because the Orientalists themselves were anything between pious and fanatical practitioners of their own religion (mostly Christianity), and in part because the capitalist modernity they were serving had posited itself as the Hegelian (rational) end of history in search of its pre-historical (irrational) moments, they went after the specifically doctrinal and juridical dimensions of the cultures they studied at the heavy cost of disregarding or dismissing their multicultural, polyvocal, artistic, literary, poetic, philosophical, and mystical dimensions—and to the degree that they did study these aspects they always reduced and gauged them in doctrinal and juridical terms entirely alien to their very raison d'etre, foreign and in fact hostile to their innate hermeneutics of alterity..."
He next ties the motivations of this Orientalist discourse and its actors to the role of comprador intellectuals, or native informers, and says,
"True to the historic services they are now performing for their white masters, our native informers are particularly adamant in reducing both the historical and the contemporary polyvocality of Muslims to an essentialist conception of Islam, and then summarizing this Islam with a number of key iconic insignia (Prophet Muhammad and the Quran in particular); and then denouncing or ridiculing Muhammad and the Quran and seeking to embarrass Muslims at large by appealing to the superior authority of "the West" and Enlightenment modernity. The 10 million plus Muslims who live in the United States (about 3 percent of the total population) and the 20 million plus Muslims who live in Europe (about 5 percent of the total population) are the principal target, with the 1.5 billion Muslims around the globe as a secondary target, mostly via the racist and imperial foreign policies of Europe and the United States. In any film, fiction, or "documentary" about Muhammad or the Quran one is almost certain to find these native informers—ex-Muslims, as they often proudly call themselves—ridiculing Muhammad and disparaging the Quran. What they are selling their white audiences has little to do with the realities of Muslim societies. They are creating a Muslim enemy (reduced to a few manufactured icons) they can dehumanize and subjugate by assuming a superior civilizing mission—before they begin dropping tons of bombs..." pp.85-6.
Addressing the dubious Neo-Con lackey Ibn Warraq (whom I believe to be not a Pakistani ex-Muslim as he/she/it says she/it/he is but either one of the many aliases of the Iranian-Canadian ex-Muslim, but actually Canadian-Iranian Baha'i, "Ali Sina" of Faithfreedom.org or a very close collaborator), Dabashi later says,
"There is not a community anywhere on earth without a sense of inviolable sanctity to its collective identity, history, culture—all resting on certain iconic sets of evidence, from the Hebrew Bible to the American Constitution. It is that sanctity, integral to a people's sense of dignity, that Ibn Warraq wants to steal from Muslims—thus preparing them to become what Giorgio Agamben calls homo sacer, "naked life", so that when they are massacred in multitudes, not even the dignity of the word "Palestinians" will be attached to their slaughtered numbers," p.105.
Regarding the recodification of racism in North America and the Anglo-European world as the operative guide of Islamophobia, Dabashi says,
"The most significant lesson in the current recodification of racism in America is that racism as a phenomenon stays constant while its signifiers change visual and affective registers—from black to brown, from Jew to Muslim, at the center of which bifurcations remains a fictive white Christian interlocutor who demands and exacts racialized superiority. Islam is the new Judaism, Muslims the new Jews, Islamophobia the new anti-Semitism, and brown the new black—all in the racialized imagination of a white-identified supremacy that must first alienate (both in itself and of itself) in order to rule," p.128.
Nail, hammer and head!
I enjoyed reading this book tremendously because it completely validated my own perspective on quite an extensive list of contemporary questions. There are still places where I think Hamid Dabashi could have ratcheted the polemic even further, but overall I believe Hamid Dabashi has loyally re-written for contemporary times a piece by Frantz Fanon the latter would be quite proud of. No need to mention I will be using this book in my own ongoing Bahaism: Counter-Tradition of (Post-)Modernity because, I believe, this book addresses several significant arguments regarding the mechanics of Islamophobia and Western (post-)modernist/globalist and instrumentalist triumphalism that guides the vision of Baha'ism throughout.
Two thumbs up!
In an endnote to the first chapter of his Islamic Liberation Theology, Dabashi notes,