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De-racialising revolutions
Revolutionaries often struggle to reconcile their accomplishments against those of competing 'others'.
Last Modified: 14 Mar 2011 15:09
The roots of Arab and Iranian racism towards each other, as well as towards
'black Africans', are troubling [GALLO/GETTY]

Soon after the brutal crackdown on Iran's post-electoral uprising in June 2009, rumours began circulating in cyberspace and among ardent supporters of the Green Movement that some of the Islamic Republic's security forces, recruited to viciously attack demonstrators, were, in fact, not Iranians at all, but "Arabs".

Snapshots began circulating with red circles marking darker-skinned, rougher looking members of the security forces, who it was said were members of the Lebanese Hezbollah or Palestinian Hamas. Iranians, like me, who come from the southern climes of our homeland, look like those circled in red and remember a long history of being derogatorily dismissed as "Arabs" by our whiter-looking northern brothers and sisters, were not convinced by the allegations.

We also recalled that in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the massive influx of Afghan refugees into Iran all sorts of crimes and misdemeanours were attributed to "Afghanis", with that extra "i" carrying a nasty racist intonation in Persian.

Cut to almost two years later, when "the mercenaries" who were deployed by the Gaddafi regime to crush the revolutionary uprising engulfing Libya were reported to have been "African". "As nations evacuate their citizens from the violence gripping Libya," Al Jazeera reported, "many African migrant workers are targeted because they are suspected of being mercenaries hired by Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader." The Al Jazeera report further specified: "Dozens of workers from sub-Saharan Africa are feared killed, and hundreds are in hiding, as angry mobs of anti-government protesters hunt down 'black African mercenaries', according to witnesses." 

Revealing the 'other'

These travelling metaphors of racially profiled acts of violence - that violence is always perpetrated by "others", and not by "oneself" - now metamorphosing as they racialise the transnational revolutionary uprisings in our part of the world are a disgrace, a nasty remnant of ancient and medieval racism domestic to our cultures, exacerbated, used and abused to demean and subjugate us by European colonialism to further their own interests, and now coming back to haunt and mar the most noble moments of our collective uprising against domestic tyranny and foreign domination alike. 

The manifestations of this racism are multifaceted and are not limited to the revolutionary momentum of street demonstrations or the anonymity of web-based activism. It extends, alas, well into the cool corners of reasoned analysis and deliberations.

The racist identification of certain "Arabs" among the security apparatus of the Islamic Republic by some pro-democracy activist Iranians was in turn reciprocated by some leading Arab public intellectuals (by no means all) who are still on the record for having dismissed the massive civil rights uprising in Iran as a plot by the US and Israel and funded by Saudi Arabia, condescendingly equating it with the "Cedar Revolution" in Lebanon.

That astonishing sign of barefaced inanity was in turn reciprocated by equally (if not more) inane reactions on the part of some Iranian activists who have ridiculed and dismissed the Egyptian or Tunisian revolutions as a "glorified military coup" or else boasted that "Arabs" were doing now what "we" did 30 years ago, concluding that "they" are backward at least by a factor of a 30-year cycle. 

This closed-circuit cycle of racism feeds on itself, and its cancerous cell must be surgically removed from our body-politics.

The Arab 'other'

The roots of Arab and Iranian racism towards each other, and of both Arab and Iranian racism towards "black Africans" are too horrid and troubling to deserve full exposure at these magnificent moments in all our histories. Aspects and dimensions of these pathologies need to be addressed only to the degree that they point to a collective emancipation from the snares of racism transmuting into cycles of racialising violence. 

On the Arab side, as Joseph Massad has demonstrated in his Desiring Arabs (2007), in the course of Arab nationalism, the trope of "Persian" was systematically racialised and invested with all sorts of undesirable and morally corrupt and corrupting "sexual perversions", and thus a "manly" and "straight" heteronormativity was manufactured for "Arabs".

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.

The "real revolution" was what "the real men" did in the "Arab world", not only without American help but in fact against American imperialism.

As the Iranian Green Movement was thus feminised (by way of dismissing it as feeble, flawed, and manipulated by "the West"), the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions are assimilated aggressively into a pronouncedly masculinist Arab nationalism.

The homophobic anxieties of the Arab masculinist nationalism, if we were to extend Massad's crucial insights, thus protest too much by dismissing the Green Movement as something effeminate, soft, middle class, bourgeois, and above all supported by the "superpower".

The Iranian 'other'

The pathology of Iranian racism has a different genealogy. Engulfed in the banality of a racist Aryanism, a certain segment of Iranians, mostly monarchist in political disposition, has been led to believe that they are in fact an island of purebred Aryans unfortunately caught in a sea of Semitic ruffians, and that they have been marred by Arab and Muslim invasion and need to reconnect with their European roots in "the West" to regain their Aryan glory.

Predicated on the historic defeat of the Sassanid Empire (224-651) by the invading Arab army in the Battle of al-Qadisiyyah (636) in particular, this national trauma has always been prone to xenophobia of the worst kind.

Not just "Arabs" but "Turks" and "Mongols" - corresponding to successive invasions of Iran from the seventh to the 13th century - have been the repository of Iranian racism. This racism also has an internal manifestation in the derogatory and condescending attitude of self-proclaimed "Persians" towards the racialised minorities like Kurds, Azaris, Baluch, etc.

The external and internal racism then comes together to manufacture a fictitious "Persian" marker that is the mirror image of its "Arab" invention. The binary Persian/Arab, rooted in medieval history and colonially exacerbated, in turn becomes a self-propelling metaphoric proposition and feeds on itself. 

Racialising revolutions

Predicated on these dual acts of racialised bigotry, pan-nationalist political projects have been the catastrophic hallmark of our post-colonial history over the last century.

As pan-Iranism has competed with pan-Turkism in Central Asia and exacerbated pan-Arabism in West Asia and North Africa, their combined calamity, mimicking "the West" they have collectively helped manufacture to loathe and copy at one and the same time, comes together and coalesces in an identical act of bigotry against "black Africans". 

The current proclivity towards the racialisation of transnational revolutionary uprisings in our world partakes in that ghastly history and if we do not surgically remove it, it will send us on a goose chase precisely at the time when we think we are being liberated.

As the Zimbabwean journalist and filmmaker Farai Sevenzo has noted:

"In the violence of the last fortnight [mid-February 2011 in Libya], the colonel [Gaddafi]'s African connections have only served to rekindle a deep-rooted racism between Arabs and black Africans. As mercenaries, reputedly from Chad and Mali fight for him, a million African refugees and thousands of African migrant workers stand the risk of being murdered for their tenuous link to him."

Farai Sevenzo also reports: "One Turkish construction worker told the BBC: 'We had 70-80 people from Chad working for our company. They were cut dead with pruning shears and axes, attackers saying: 'You are providing troops for Gaddafi. The Sudanese were also massacred. We saw it for ourselves.'"

This ghastly manifestation of racialised violence is not exactly why millions of people from Senegal to Djibouti, from Morocco to Afghanistan, and from Iran to Yemen are dreaming for better days for their children.

Racialising violence

Racialising violence is the very last remnant of colonial racism that knew only too well the Roman, and later Old French Republic, logic of "divide and conquer", or "divide and rule" (divide et impera or divide et regnes), a dictum that was ultimately brought to perfection by Machiavelli in his Art of War (1520).

The criminal record of European colonialism in Asia and Africa is replete with this treacherous strategy. Germany and Belgium both put the dictum to good use by appointing members of the Tutsi minority to positions of power. The Tutsi and Hutu groups were re-manufactured racially, an atrocity at the heart of the subsequent Rwandan genocide. The British had similar use for the colonial maxim when they ruled Sudan and sustained a divide between the North and the South, which in turn resulted in successive Sudanese civil wars.

The colonial history of the rest of Africa is replete with similar divides, as is the history of Asia - particularly in India where the British were instrumental not only in re-inscribing the caste system to their colonial benefits, but also in fomenting hostility between Muslims and Hindus, which ultimately resulted in the catastrophic partition of India and Pakistan along religious lines. 

The old colonial adage has renewed imperial usages. Soon after the US-led invasion of Iraq, a US military strategist, Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, wrote an off-the-cuff analysis on the Sunni-Shia divide, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam will Shape the Future (2006). He effectively blamed the carnage in Iraq on ancient Sunni-Shia hostilities and linked it to the strategic hostility between the Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia - a well thought out strategic intervention that turned the US, in the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, into a good Samaritan and entirely innocent bystander.

The strategy was so successful that the book became a bestseller in the US, while its author was subsequently recruited into the US diplomatic meandering to find a similar lullaby out of the continued fiasco in Afghanistan.

Solidarity of a younger generation

But these tired old clichés are the dying metaphors falling behind the trails of a liberated world, free to map itself out into different, more embracing, horizons.

Today beyond the reach of these colonial and imperial treacheries, we as a people have a renewed rendezvous with history - and if these revolutions are allowed to be assimilated backward into outdated and dreadful racialising elements evident in pan-Arab, pan-Iranian, pan-Turkic, ad nauseum frames of references, we will all be back where we were two centuries ago and all these heroic sacrifices will be for naught.

Fundamental demographic and economic forces are driving these revolutionary uprisings from Asia to Africa to Latin America and even to Europe and North America. Events we have seen in Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, with vast and variegated resonances from Morocco to Bahrain and from Afghanistan to Yemen, are changing the very planetary configuration of who and what we are.

We cannot allow these nasty colonial vestiges to cloud the horizon of where and whence we are headed. And we will not: Not everything in our midst attests to our worst fears. Quite to the contrary: The younger generation of Arabs, Iranians, and Africans speak and act an entirely different language and sentiment. The transnational solidarity is what has ignited these uprising in the first place and what will sustain them for years to come. Evidence of that fact and phenomenon is abundant in the streets and squares of our Tahrir Squares and Meydan-e Azadi alike.

In reaction to the anti-Arab sentiments in the Green Movement, other activists wrote articles on the Palestinian artist Naji al-Ali's Hanzala and soon the Palestinian figurative hero appeared with a green scarf keeping demonstrators company in Tehran; and the day Hosni Mubarak left office, the first young Egyptian that the BBC interviewed said in solidarity with his Iranian counterparts that Iran would be next, as indeed Wael Ghoneim, the young Egyptian internet activist, sporting a green wristband when addressing the rallies in Tahrir Square, said he was delighted to know Iranians interpreted it in solidarity with their cause.

From their economic foundations to their political aspirations, these revolutionary uprisings are the initial sketches of a whole new atlas of human possibilities - beyond the pales of racialised violence, gender apartheid and, above all, obscene class divisions.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York, and the author of Post-Orientalism: Knowledge and Power in Time of Terror.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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Al Jazeera
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