The anti-colonialist writer Frantz Fanon’s first book was a howl of outrage called Black Skin, White Masks, published in 1952. It explored the psychology of colonial subjects who came to identify with their oppressors.
Hamid Dabashi has written a new howl of rage with Brown Skin, White Masks against these “native informers”.
Dabashi is a radical Iranian living in New York (see interview on page 20). He sees a new version of Fanon’s happy colonial intellectuals in the academics, pundits and columnists – largely from the Muslim world – who make their living cheering on Western imperial intervention in Iraq or Afghanistan. Initially it can be confusing for a British reader as he assumes you will know the people he is attacking – writers who have become bestselling authors in the US. In the early chapters he doesn’t spend time repeating what they wrote.
But by the middle of the book he lays into two authors at some length – the Iranian writer Azar Nafisi and the commentator Ibn Warraq. Now Dabashi makes the reason for his rage very clear. He says that Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran “exemplifies the abuse of legitimate causes (in this case women’s repression), for illegitimate purposes (US global domination).”
He hates writers who the US right cites because they are from the country’s affected, but who seem to have picked up much of their knowledge from Western sources and appear unaware that there are traditions of criticism in the Muslim world. They appear unaware that “there has been scarcely a period when radical and subversive thought has not been integral to Islamic intellectual history”.
He uses Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism and combines it with Malcolm X to come up with the “house Muslim” who uses the idea of the Muslim as other to get in with the West. His polemical style sometimes uses an overly broad brush. To take one example, it is not true that the US never seriously considered using nuclear weapons between 1945 and its plans to attack Iran in 2006.
For me the most interesting section dealt with the demonisation of Barack Obama, and the shift in right wing racist dog whistles as to what is the worst thing to be – black, Arab or Muslim. “One no longer need be in Algeria to be colonised – Harlem, the Bronx and Newark will do just as well”, he says. This idea was popular with the US left in the 1960s, but is unclear what “colonisation” means as opposed to simply racism or oppression.
In the end he may be throwing in arguments from too many unrelated traditions, but the bile is refreshing and he is quite right to conclude that “the world today is more than ever divided between the overwhelming majority who are abused by capital and the very few who are its beneficiaries”.
Brown Skin, White Masks is published by Pluto, £14.99
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