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Why Americans consistently misread social uprisings in the Muslim world 

Pundits obsessed with the notion of 'Islamic terrorism' are quick to pronounce the triumph of their treasured neoliberalism
A woman holds a placard as demonstrators march in solidarity with protesters in Iran in front of the White House on 22 October 2022 (AFP)

The most recent series of protests in Iran have baffled, intrigued and excited people everywhere - perhaps none more than the easily excitable American pundits, who are eager to read anything that happens around the world as a commentary on how exemplary their history and political ideologies have been in the context of humanity at large.

Of course, they are sadly mistaken in this habitual assumption.  

Take the recent effort by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, headlined “From Moscow to Tehran, a crisis of illiberalism.” The first part is a critique of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his invasion of Ukraine.

Douthat then turns to China with the same critical edge, before moving to Iran, where he notes that the “Islamic Republic represents a different sort of rival to western liberalism, [and] is enduring a wave of protests that, even if they don’t topple the regime, are a reminder of just how miserably unpopular the Islamic Revolution is today”.  

These folks see nothing around the world except failed ideological attempts, particularly of the Islamist variety, to dethrone liberal democracy

The moral of the story for Douthat is the triumphant assurance of “western liberalism”. He continues: “So their mixture of failure, defeat and, in the Iranian case, corruption and stagnation stand as a sustained caution to western thinkers trying to imagine something after liberalism."

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Whoever these “western thinkers” plotting to question the sacrosanct liberalism might be, the distinguished New York Times columnist appears to be confusing the strategic rivals of US imperial designs for the region with competing ideologies. 

What ultimately drives Douthat and other reactionary pundits is the notion that the debunked triumphalism of Francis “End of History” Fukuyama was correct, and thus their dearly beloved liberal democracies are not actually mired in calamitous neoliberal economics and warmongering neoconservative foreign policy.

In other words, all these people see in the Muslim world is Islamic terrorism. They habitually pronounce that Islamism has failed, and therefore their treasured neoliberal economics and liberal democracies have triumphed.

In the age of former US President Donald Trump and Trumpism, with armed mobs attacking their most sacrosanct institutions, you might think these people would pause before making these assertions. But you would be mistaken: these commentators are blind to their own calamities and still need liberal lullabies, even as rioters storm the US Capitol and fascist political parties triumph across Europe.

Enduring anti-colonial forces

These folks see nothing around the world except failed ideological attempts, particularly of the Islamist variety, to dethrone liberal democracy.

And of course, they always find the writers who tell them what they want to hear. “As Shadi Hamid noted in a provocative essay for First Things,” Douthat informs his readers, “the Muslim world’s various Islamist movements anticipated the more recent western fascination with (and fear of) ‘post-liberal’ politics.”

Sorry to break the news, but not everything that has happened in the Muslim world involves “Islamist movements”. We have had profound and enduring forces of anti-colonial nationalism and non-Eurocentric socialist movements, equally - if not even more - important than Islamist movements.

The cumulative effect of these movements is still unfolding towards a post-neoliberal politics and economics. Political ideologies bleed into each other’s porous boundaries, and the failure of one is the promise of another.  

It is thus no accident that a recent New York Times editorial, headlined “How the US can help support the women of Iran calling for change”, takes almost all of its cues from a regime-change enthusiast committed to dismantling the ruling Islamist regime. 

Equally ridiculous is the recent misguided piece on the Iran protests published by the New Yorker, where the subject of the piece has sold herself as the leader of the current uprising. It is therefore quite natural that despite its legitimate roots and aspirations, the uprising is seen so suspiciously by many progressive forces around the world.  

Iranian demonstrators take to the streets of Tehran during a protest for Mahsa Amini, days after she died in police custody, on 21 September 2022 (AFP)
Iranian demonstrators take to the streets of Tehran during a protest for Mahsa Amini, days after she died in police custody, on 21 September 2022 (AFP)

To be sure, US pundits are not the only ones misreading and thus misrepresenting these protests. Reactionary regimes in the Arab world, led by Saudi Arabia and the Israel, do the same for their own nefarious reasons.

They do not see such movements as a concerted rebellion for political freedom and economic justice, but as an opportunity to dismantle a strategic enemy. The fact that the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia believe they are the direct beneficiaries speaks to their inability to read the roots and consequences of these protests.  

What is lost on American pundits and their Arab and Israeli sidekicks is how revolutionary momentum across the Middle East - from civil rights movements in Iran to the Gezi Park protests in Turkey - reveal a far more potent and progressive force at work than their dreaded Islamism.

Islamism has always been integral, but never definitive, to these uprisings, and even Islamist movements themselves are generally in a state of flux.  

The point here is not the potential success or failure of such movements. The massive trust and confidence in Arab revolutions ended with torture chambers in Syria and Egypt, corruption and authoritarianism in Tunisia and Sudan, and civil war in Yemen. The point is to have an accurate conception of what is happening in our homelands, from Morocco in the west to Iran and Pakistan in the east.

New form of politics

Given the common reading of the vast and variegated Middle Eastern revolutions as having failed to deliver, it is not strange to consider the current uprising in Iran as already doomed. Such structural-functional readings are first and foremost in service of corroborating the ideological triumph of US and European neoliberalism, on the model that Fukuyama diagnosed and his neoliberal fan club now trumpets.  

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For the world at large, what matters is: what did the iconic Egyptian revolutionary Alaa Abdel Fattah mean exactly when he said, in the title of his prison notebook, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated?

By what authority and audacity does he have this confidence? It is by the sheer fact that in his person and persona, Abdel Fattah represents the collectivity and plurality of a revolutionary aspiration that does not remain fixated on one state or another, but constitutes an open-ended rebellion of all nationals against all states.

From one end of the Arab and Muslim world to another, Abdel Fattah’s brothers and sisters are in jail, dreaming and delivering on the mandates of a deferred defiance. This is a new form of politics that has not been conceived of in the neoliberal and neoconservative imagination.  

Amid the rise of anti-liberal and anti-democratic movements across the US and Europe, this revival of Fukuyama’s prognostications might seem utterly bizarre. But the resurrection of the dead hobby horse of Fukuyama by reactionary American pundits is a desperate and feeble attempt to reassure themselves that all is well and dandy in their western dreamland.

Yet, all is not well. Something is indeed rotten in their state of Denmark. They are no longer the measure of anything but the havoc, both political and environmental, that they have wreaked upon the world.

The world at large is on its own. We may fail or succeed, but in terms entirely domestic to our hopes and despairs - and neither our failures nor our triumphs are any commentary on how close or far we might be from the false promises of their "liberal democracies".  

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in the City of New York, where he teaches Comparative Literature, World Cinema, and Postcolonial Theory. His latest books include The Future of Two Illusions: Islam after the West (2022); The Last Muslim Intellectual: The Life and Legacy of Jalal Al-e Ahmad (2021); Reversing the Colonial Gaze: Persian Travelers Abroad (2020), and The Emperor is Naked: On the Inevitable Demise of the Nation-State (2020). His books and essays have been translated into many languages.
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