Category Archives: Academic Owl

Intellectual Bullying: when Hate Speech is tolerated

Hamid Dabashi, Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, would like to reconstruct Muslim identity in a humane way, free of colonialist exploitation and domination. As a byproduct, however, he and his likes destroy the mere foundation scholarship stands on. Is racism tolerated in Academia? Well, that depends on who is the speaker, and who are the victims. Academic Owl on hate speech, juicy red herrings and the ability to laugh and cry.

This post was distributed in the Mid-East Politics mailing list

Prof. Hamid Dabashi

Prof. Hamid Dabashi

A new book by Prof. Hamid Dabashi, a famous scholar of Iranian studies and comparative literature at the University of Columbia, is always noteworthy news for people interested in Middle Eastern history and culture. Therefore, when Dabashi published the introduction for his new book, Being a Muslim in the World, at his usual Aljazeera English opinion column, I have read it with great interest. Given my own preferences, it was no wonder that I personally disagreed with the analysis, emphasis and conclusions of Dabashi. However, the deep disappointment that I felt after reading the column went much deeper, because I found Dabashi’s approach harmful to the very idea of scholarship as I understand it. His polemic is so full with ad hominem attacks, irrelevant arguments, red herrings, glaring factual errors and logical inconsistencies, as to make one wonder, well, about the direction that some “intellectuals” are taking nowadays. In addition, the blatant, almost racial anti-Semitism he displayed in other writings, may make one wonder about the tolerance practiced towards hate discourse, as long as it comes from the radical left.

Al Jazeera

This is a very sad story, because Being a Muslim in the World could have been a very promising intellectual project. And indeed, Dabashi’s discussion of the construction of Muslim identity in both past and present is both interesting and highly useful in our era of journalistic simplifications. To make a long story short, Dabashi argues that the mere formation of the inner political debate in Egypt, for example, as a binary of “liberalism” vs. “Islam” is not only misleading, but also a sinister product of Muslim encounter with Western Colonialism. Muslim identity, he reiterates, should be determined not by specific religious leaders, scriptures or clerics, let alone by organizations such as Muslim Brotherhood, themselves a product of colonial encounters. Religious identity should instead be determined by the Muslims themselves, in fluid enough a way to co-opt different kinds of identities and beliefs. The Muslim people have to overcome colonialism and shape their own fate also in the realm of identity formation.


Though some reservations could be raised about this thesis (for example – is it not misleading to ignore the centrality of the Quran and its hermeneutic orthodoxy in the formation of Muslim identity?), these are issues which I want to leave aside for the moment. Instead, the problematic part of Dabashi’s argument begins when he confronts his Western “other”, and especially in his treatment of other people with whom he disagrees.

Take, for example, his discussion of Niall Ferguson, certainly a controversial historian, and his thesis of the “rise of the West against the rest”. Ferguson, an avowed opponent of the intellectual left, had argued that the West had won the global race of domination owing to certain cultural and technological developments, for example a unique ideology of free trade and the rule of law. I have read Dabashi’s article time and again, and could not find even one solid scholarly answer to Ferguson’s thesis. Instead, there were mainly insults and ad hominem attacks. Look, for example, at the following passage:

The British historian Niall Ferguson has made a reputation for himself for being blunt to the point of vulgarity with the crudity of his mental makeup when it comes to theorising “the West” as the defining disposition of humanity at large. But like many other latter-day ideologues of the beleaguered empire, Niall Ferguson is more a panegyrist of “the West” than its prognosticator. He is a Johnny-come-lately who has come too late and wants to pack and leave too early. His tiresome boorishness is self-revelatory for the historian of dead certainties protests too much.

Prof. Niall Ferguson

Prof. Niall Ferguson

As the reader may see, I have underlined all ad hominem insults – already six, and we are not even in mid-paragraph. If someone can find here an argument or an answer, he or she is probably much sharper than I am. When Dabashi does attack Ferguson’s ideas with more detail at the later part of the paragraph, there is a little resemblance between his subject of attack and the arguments Ferguson really makes. Dabashi argues that Ferguson “missed the boat” because the “West” is already bankrupt, financially, diplomatically and morally and is on its way to the dustbin of history. But the bulk of Ferguson’s argument is historical: not what the Western countries are, but what they were ­– and how they reached a position of world domination. In other words, he is interested in the question, why Egypt did not colonize Britain, while Britain did colonize Egypt. Scholars may legitimately disagree with the answers he gives, but the question is certainly worthwhile.

Dabashi does not really answer it – because he is not really interested in doing so. He builds a straw-man of a scholar who is his political rival, and then knocks it down.  Dabashi says that one cannot speak about the “West” because such construct is not autonomous and independent, but even that is beside the point. Families, societies, nations, religious identities – all are imagined constructs, but still have much viability in the real world. The “West” is imaginary – just like the new “Islamic identity” offered by Dabashi. But it is much easier to point fingers at your rival than to critically examine the products of your own imagination.

That is interrelated with the second problem in Dabashi’s writing – political one-sidedness for which both facts and logic are unnecessary companions. For example, in a previous Aljazeera piece, he quoted a person named Gershon Baskin, an alleged “Israeli official” responsible for negotiating with Hamas. Then, he builds his conclusion upon this quote having been said by an “Israeli government official”. But a short googling would have taught him that Baskin is a private person, and certainly not an official of the Israeli government.

Not an Israeli government official - Gershon Baskin

Not an Israeli government official – Gershon Baskin

Such negligence in checking even the most basic facts upon which his arguments are based, is unfortunately accompanied by a racist demonization of Israel, verging on an old style racial anti-Semitism. For Dabashi, the Jewish state is nothing but a “settler colony” which is interested only (!) in maiming and killing more Palestinians. In another interview, he argued that:

 Half a century of systematic maiming and murdering of another people has left its deep marks on the faces of these people, the way they talk, the way they walk, the way they handle objects, the way they greet each other, the way they look at the world. There is an endemic prevarication to this machinery, a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture.”

The Israelis, in other words, are ugly monsters whose viciousness is even evident in their distorted faces. They do not have fears, emotions. They cannot laugh or cry. They only want to kill because they enjoy it, something like vampires from cheap horror movies. And such a person is being hailed as one of the leading Middle-Eastern scholars of the age. I wonder what will happen to a person who dares to use such terms when speaking on Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians or blacks. How long would it take until he is kicked out of office, probably with two or three lawsuits trailing him like a shadow? My guess – three hours to three days until he is chased out of campus, but the readers are invited to offer their own speculations.

It seems that they can laugh from time to time. Israeli parti goers in Tel Aviv

It seems that they can laugh from time to time. Israeli party goers in Tel Aviv

Dabashi’s essay is unfortunately also full of red herrings, irrelevant arguments and glaring logical holes. He writes, for example, that:

Niall Ferguson and his ilk come at the tail end of this imperial conquest, at the tail end of that narrative fiction – now hitting a cul de sac. Financially bankrupt (look at Greece, the fictive birthplace of “the West”), politically corrupt (look at presidential elections in the US), economically stagnant (look at the US debt to China), diplomatically inept (look at the Iranian nuclear issue), all signs indicate that this thing Niall Ferguson still calls “the West” has long since internally imploded – with postmodernism and poststructuralism as its paramount philosophical eulogies. “

And the reader may ask himself: If Greece is only the “fictive” birthplace of the west (a highly dubious argument, to my mind), then why is it important that it is economically bankrupt? Since when postmodernism became a signal of imminent collapse? Are most Western countries economically bankrupt, and aren’t many non-Western countries bankrupt as well? Is the US corrupted more than, let’s say, China or Egypt? From reading Dabashi, it seems that while US economy is stagnant, everything is going well with China. No word about systemic corruption, real estate bubbles, mass immigration to overcrowded cities, and the like. In other words, in order to prove that the “West” is on its way out, he cherry picks several problems, which exists, in a much larger scale, also in non-Western countries.

These are only few examples out of many. It is indeed distressing that such a famous scholar as Hamid Dabashi choose to attack and ridicule away his intellectual opponents instead of seriously confronting their arguments, and even more distressing to see him writing about Israel in terms reminiscent of racist propaganda outlets . A productive scholarly debate between left and right could be enriching for us all. Instead, with the style of debate that Dabashi represents here, we, the readers, are the only losers.