Scholarship and the imperial native informers

What happens when a scholarly idea developed for the public good ends up in the hands of a native informer?

A supporter of former presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi holds a placard while attending a rally in Tehran, June 15, 2009 [Morteza Nikoubazli/Reuters]

Over the last half a century I have been a witness and a close observer of multiple social uprisings. In the last decade, two particular social uprisings have been the focus of my sustained critical thinking: The Green Movement in Iran (2009-2010) and the Arab Spring throughout the Arab world (2011-2012).

Two main ideas informed my sustained course of reflections on these two historic events: I identified the Green Movement as a "civil rights movement," and the Arab Spring as a case of an "open-ended revolution", a case of "delayed defiance" that ended the postcolonial course of ideology production. These two historic events, I have argued, sought to remedy what the postcolonial history of nations had promised but failed to deliver. 

I would like to use the case of one of these two ideas, the proposition that we read the Green Movement in Iran as a "civil rights movement" by way of an example as to how, with what combined synergy of perils and promises, do we venture to read a massive social uprising and theorise its particularity - and once we do so who may falsely seek to be the unintended beneficiary of our critical thinking. 

Whence a 'civil rights movement'?

With the outbreak of the Green Movement in Iran, I was among scores of other Iranian scholars who began publicly reflecting on the nature of what was happening in our homeland.

This was 2009 and the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were raging and the June presidential election was one way of assuring Iran as a nation would be left to its own devices rather than targeted by the US neocons and Zionists alike for yet another war in the region to distract attention from the Israeli theft of Palestine. 

Among my earliest observations was that what we were witnessing in Iran was more akin to a "civil rights movement" than a revolution in the classical sense of the term. At this time, I had spent most of my academic career writing many books and articles (in both English and Persian) about the Iranian revolution of 1977-1979 and I was making a concerted effort to see the differences between the two events.

My starting point for considering this uprising a "civil rights movement" was its chief slogan: "Where is my vote?" which I read both literally and figuratively, meaning the absence of public trust in the electoral process and a general statement on the absence of civil liberties in Iran.

Whether or not the officials had rigged the election, I argued in a piece I published at CNN soon after the protests broke out, was irrelevant to the more compelling reality that it was now a "social fact" that it had.

"The assumption that the government has rigged the election," I wrote, "has become a 'social fact' that millions of Iranians believe. On the basis of that belief, they have put their lives on the line, with reported casualties of dozens injured and at least one, perhaps up to nine, people killed."  

I continued to write on this topic and develop the idea for various media outlets, including the Jewish Peace News,Peyvand, and the New York Times; I also appeared on CNN and Democracy Now.

I subsequently wrote two books and contributed chapters to other volumes on the Green Movement, expanding on my idea of a civil rights movement.

I eventually became more and more engaged with the Green Movement and, by the fall of 2009, I even hosted a whole internet-based series of TV talk shows, "Week in Green," the very point of it was this notion of civil rights movement, in which, among others, I interviewed world-renowned icons of the civil rights movement like Cornel West

This train of thought about the Green Movement as a "civil rights movement" stayed with me up until my most recent book on Iran, Iran: The Rebirth of a Nation (2016), in which I devoted an entire chapter to this issue. 

Transmigrating theories

I was reminded of all this succession of work when I learned recently that the idea of the Green Movement as a "civil rights movement" had transmigrated, like a body without soul, into an intelligence gathering outfit in the US State Department.

Almost a decade after those dramatic days, during the recent protest in Iran that began late in 2017, I chanced upon an article by a native informer who in 2009 was employed by the US State Department. I read the following in the piece: 

"Revolution or civil rights movement? That's the question I've been asked repeatedly as the latest round of protests in Iran commenced. But it's not the first time I've tried to explain what even many inside Iran had trouble explaining. In 2009, I served in the Office of Iranian Affairs at the State Department and was one of a small handful of people who covered the post-election protests from start to finish. Days in, we were asked to clarify how things would end - an impossible question to answer. However, after taking a step back and examining the situation dispassionately, we gave our superiors an assessment that proved correct."

This piece of bizarre news came as a complete surprise not because its author is a well-known native informer, but because of the location of his services to the US empire. This paragraph grabbed my attention, therefore, not because of what it decidedly seeks to conceal but because of what it inadvertently reveals. 

I asked myself: How did the idea of the Green Movement as a "civil rights movement" which I had worked on for years had made it to an outfit called "the Office of Iranian Affairs at the State Department" and was owned by a task force of native informers?

We know, of course, from Edward Said's pioneering essay, Traveling Theory, that theories do travel and, in the course of travelling, they change character and purpose. But we did not know theories transmigrate, too, and leave their soul and author behind and resurface in another body in the US State Department at the service of US imperialism. 

Al-Ghazali's wisdom 

Over the last two decades, I have had multiple occasions and reasons to reflect on and theorise the character of "the native informer" and the manner in which they seek to inform but in effect badly misinform the empire that has employed them.

Initially, in Native Informers and the Making of the American Empire, I mapped out in some details the manner in which bona fide literary prose dwells in the dominant imperial narrative.

Then, I expanded on this idea in my book, Brown Skin White Masks, in which I wrote: "Native infomers have immersed themselves in the white-identified culture and they now serve it out of pure careerism." 

The issue that drew my attention to this particular native informer is something entirely different. When I saw a simple scholarly idea transmigrated to the US State Department, I asked myself the far more important question: What do we do when we read a social uprising as one thing or another - as rallies, riots, protests, a civil rights movement or a revolution - and what happens to those ideas once we publicly articulate them for the whole world to know?

There is a fundamental and irreconcilable difference between the manner critical thinkers reflect publicly on social justice uprisings and the manner the US State Department (or Israeli and Saudi intelligence) and their native informers try to spy on and derail such movements. 

We seek to encourage their resolve against injustice. They seek to pacify them to serve the overriding military dominance of the empire they work for. They and we are on two opposite sides of history: We want for just revolutions and emancipatory social uprisings to succeed and triumph. They want them defeated and derailed.

This is the reason why we scholars are still bound by the sublime wisdom Muhammad al-Ghazali uttered almost a millennium ago when he said there are three sorts of relations scholar might have with men of power.

The worst is if they went to visit rulers at their home. Second best is if rulers came to visit scholars at their residence. But the best is if they never met. Native informers are those who sneak around scholars to misread and abuse their ideas to misinform the rulers. 

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