Email This Post Email This Post Print This Post Print This Post

A Riposte to Hamid Dabashi

Hamid Dabashi has had a remark­ably con­sis­tent line about what’s going on in Iran. Con­sis­tency is an admirable trait, and the line is an attrac­tive one. It goes something like this. Dabashi demurs from taking a stance on whether there was electoral fraud, calling it a “social fact,” e.g. widely believed in Iranian society. He deems the demon­stra­tors part of a bur­geon­ing “civil rights” movement. He calls Mousavi a nascent “Gandhi,” or “Mandela.” He says that the pro­test­ers are a rainbow-hued, het­ero­ge­neous lot: middle class, lower class, peasants, workers, plumbers, waiters, officers, bankers, students, pro­fes­sion­als. And he doesn’t say much about those who voted for Ahmadine­jad, or protested in favor of his victory, or stayed home.

A recent Al-Ahram essay crys­tal­lizes this message in remark­ably com­pressed form, although slightly adul­ter­ated by a bit of ide­o­log­i­cal obfus­ca­tion. The obfus­ca­tion comes when he lectures Pales­tin­ian intel­lec­tual Azmi Bishara, for having the temerity to note that there exists in Iran an “ideology that claims to have answers for every­thing and that seeks to permeate all aspects of life.” According to Bishara, that ideology “is a real religion embraced by the vast majority of the people…a religious doctrine is the state ideology, the clerical hierarchy defines and anchors the state hierarchy, and the lower echelons of the clergy are the inter­me­di­aries between the people and the ruling ideology.”

Dabashi will have none of that. Although he calls Bishara’s argument “by far the best in the lit­er­a­ture so far,” he won’t accept Bishara’s precise for­mu­la­tion: that this ideology merely “seeks to permeate” [my emphasis] all aspects of life. Instead, we get the Fou­cal­dian assertion that a “total­i­tar­ian ideology permeates all spheres of private and public life in Iran, not unlike the power of consumer ide­olo­gies doing pretty much the same in North American and Western European societies.” Ideology every­where, like oxygen!

So, according to Dabashi, Iranian reli­gios­ity is a cousin to Western con­sumerism, a “total­i­tar­ian” ideology, threat­en­ing Wal-Mart shoppers with thun­der­ous thwacking from a cudgel . One needn’t be inquisi­to­r­ial to question the coherence of this for­mu­la­tion, even as it applies to Iran. What of the strikes at Khodro, the protest­ing uni­ver­sity students?

Surely such “spheres of life” as uni­ver­si­ties and indus­trial shops, some of which are in fact para-state insti­tu­tions, aren’t “permeated” by total­i­tar­ian ideology, whether or not one wishes to note that an auto­cratic state is fiercely repress­ing them.

Perhaps this is crudely reduc­tion­ist, but ideology is, at the simplest level, what people believe. The struggle between Iranian reformists and con­ser­v­a­tives is over the meaning of the very ideology, the Islamic spir­i­tu­al­ism, which anchors the insti­tu­tional legit­i­macy of the Islamic Republic. But total­i­tar­ian ide­olo­gies are marked by their con­sis­tency, not the degree of dis­pu­ta­tion over them. Quirkily enough, Iran is plainly het­eroge­nous ide­o­log­i­cally, in the Western sense, insofar as some sectors want more political reform, and some want less. The reform movement was proof enough of that.

The clerical elite may seek to uni­ver­sal­ize their specific under­stand­ing of Islamic ideology, but that doesn’t equate to a “total­i­tar­ian ideology permeat [ing] all spheres of private and public life in Iran” [my emphasis], unless one should wish to make the case that ideology is def­i­n­i­tion­ally total­i­tar­ian. A white sheet permeated by black ink turns black. A people permeated by a specific ideology believe in it. A mind permeated by ideology adheres to it unques­tion­ingly. Ideology is decidedly different from the fierce phys­i­cal­ity of state violence, pace post-colonialism’s adherents’ hes­i­ta­tions about the physical world.

This both does and doesn’t matter. It does matter because different sectors of Iranian society doubtless believe different things—different sectors have different ide­olo­gies. Such ide­olo­gies could con­ceiv­ably map over class lines. For mate­ri­al­ist analysis, ideas matter.

So what’s further confusing is Dabashi’s claim that those protest­ing, par­tic­u­larly the young, are members of “a post-ideological gen­er­a­tion.” Dabashi has made this claim elsewhere. It’s true that the pro­test­ers’ demands are in a sense non-ideological—“Where’s my vote?” “Recount!” etc. But although the demands are non-ideological, they express a desire for demo­c­ra­tic norms. His larger point is that the pro­test­ers them­selves are “post-ideological.” This maneuver dis­ap­pears the back­ground radiation of cap­i­tal­ism , and ignores various ide­o­log­i­cal currents within Iran and among the protesters.

Sure, the protests have taken on nothing remotely resem­bling a class character, but this doesn’t mean that Marxists, for example, aren’t self-consciously par­tic­i­pat­ing as Marxists. By calling Iranian society “post-ideological,” Dabashi can sidestep the political economy of Iran, voting patterns, class analysis, and refer instead to this wondrous abstraction—the protesters!—without situating them within their social context. That achieved with the off-hand gesture of calling a whole gen­er­a­tion “post-ideological,” the poor who probably voted for Ahmadine­jad thus disappear as a class bloc. And once the poor disappear as a class bloc, it becomes easier to avoid or reject class analysis while analyzing the protest movement.

This is what Dabashi does, while respond­ing to Bishara’s appar­ently wrong-headed assertion that

the crit­i­cisms levelled at the regime on the part of a broad swath of youth who have joined the reformists, espe­cially those from middle class back­grounds who are more in contact with the rest of the world, are rem­i­nis­cent of the griev­ances aired by the young in Eastern Europe, who held that their regimes deprived them of their indi­vid­ual and personal freedoms, the freedom to choose their way of life and the Western consumer lifestyle.

According to Dabashi, this is brazenly untrue: it’s a “false premise,” indeed, “The assump­tion that sup­port­ers of Mousavi and/or Karrubi, or indeed that masses of millions of people who have poured into the streets of Tehran and other cities, come from ‘the middle class’ is a common fallacy that Bishara shares with quite a number of others who are watching the Iranian scene from a the­o­ret­i­cal distance that conceals more than it reveals.” As Dabashi continues, “the false premise of ‘middle class’ support for Mousavi, par­tic­u­larly by people I deeply admire, needs more urgent attention.”

Attention it gets. Dabashi writes that

Of a total Iranian pop­u­la­tion of 72 million, upward of 70 per cent are under the age of 30. While the total rate of unem­ploy­ment under Ahmadine­jad, pred­i­cated on cor­re­spond­ingly high numbers under Khatami’s two-term pres­i­dency, is 30 per cent, this rate, according to Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, the most reliable Iranian economist around, for young people between the ages of 15 and 29 (some 35 per cent of the total pop­u­la­tion) is 70 per cent. So seven out of every 10 people in this age group can scarce find a job, let alone marry, let alone have children and form a family. In exactly what phan­tas­mago­ria [sic] def­i­n­i­tion of “the middle class” can they hope to be included?

There are two major flaws in Dabashi’s treatment of the numbers.

The first is inter­pre­tive: Dabashi’s under­stand­ing of class and class-consciousness is in need of serious reme­di­a­tion. Unem­ployed Iranians below the age of 30 may not be able to “find a job” or “marry,” but this doesn’t mean they don’t have middle-class class con­scious­ness. It’s not an unknown phe­nom­e­non that middle-class people—in Bishara’s more con­sid­ered phrasing, those from “middle-class backgrounds”–be unem­ployed or under­em­ployed. Nor should it shock if unem­ployed middle-class people identify with their middle-class origins as opposed to their employ­ment status. Reveal­ingly, Salehi-Isfahani writes, “The vast majority of unem­ployed youth are supported by their parents. More than 70 percent of youth in their twenties live with their parents.”

The second is epistemic—he uses a non-evidence-based argu­men­ta­tive strategy, with tenuous con­nec­tions to numerical facts. Put simply, he makes a bunch of stuff up. Iran’s unem­ploy­ment rates for people in their early twenties are 20 percent for men, 40 percent for women. Salehi-Isfahani wrote just days ago that “Nearly a quarter of people in their 20s are unem­ployed.” How did Dabashi miss this?

Clearly, his case needs rein­force­ments. This he knows, and so he writes,

Consider another fact. If we were to believe the official tab­u­la­tion of the pres­i­den­tial election, which I have no way of proving otherwise (though that they are rigged is now a “social fact”), twice as many of these young voters have voted for Ahmadine­jad as they did for Mir– Hussein Mousavi, Mahdi Karrubi and Mohsen Rezai put together. In other words, the official results shoot the argument of a pro-Mousavi “middle class” in the foot, for we will end up either with the bizarre propo­si­tion that pro-Mousavi Iranians voted for Ahmadine­jad, if the results are accurate, or else the perfectly plausible pos­si­bil­ity that the unem­ployed — and thus by def­i­n­i­tion the poor — voted for Mousavi, if the results are rigged. Either way, the sup­port­ers of Mousavi are not the upper middle class bourgeois class that thinks its votes are worth more than others.

Place on hold the afore­men­tioned con­tention that the election being “rigged is now a ‘social fact,’” a for­mu­la­tion that begs precisely what it purports to explain. The “official tab­u­la­tion” doesn’t break down election results by age or social class, nor does it correlate turnout with either of those two cat­e­gories. Salehi-Isfahani elsewhere notes that the middle-class probably comprises 46 percent of the pop­u­la­tion, using a def­i­n­i­tion of “the middle class as being in a household with at least $10 per person per day expen­di­tures (PPP dollars) and with at least a basic education (primary).” Such a def­i­n­i­tion is plainly extra­or­di­nar­ily capacious, perhaps to the point of being non-sensical as a unit of class analysis. But one could merely stipulate that three-quarters of this segment, trending along income lines, voted for Mousavi to see that Dabashi’s numbers prove nothing, and can easily be inter­preted to strengthen Bishara’s case. I wrote earlier that con­sis­tency is an admirable trait. It’s true, it is. But for the scholar, accuracy would be slightly more valuable.

Meanwhile, Dabashi’s sug­ges­tion that pro-Mousavi voters voted for Ahmadine­jad is sophistry, and his iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of “the unem­ployed” with “the poor” is a piece of class analysis that wouldn’t pass muster in a Marxist playlet.

So what’s the problem here? The problem is that while Bishara may well not have supplied much evidence for his assertion, Dabashi doesn’t provide any evidence for his either. His the­o­ret­i­cal and physical distance conceals quite as much as it reveals too: in this case, profound lack of empathy for the choices of the Iranian lower-class, coming per­ilously close to Slavoj Žižek’s brusque dismissal of Ahmadinejad’s policies–-which have reduced inequal­ity; in 2006–2007, expen­di­tures in the lower deciles increased sharply relative to those of the upper deciles–-as the “demagogic dis­tri­b­u­tion of crumbs to the poor.”

The fraud may be a “social fact,” but it is a “social fact” precisely for those who believe there was fraud. Idle tautology, sure, but the problem is that Dabashi’s for­mu­la­tion ignores the part of society for whom Ahmadinejad’s victory was a “social fact”—those who voted for him! The evidence of fraud may be over­whelm­ing. But that doesn’t mean Ahmadine­jad wouldn’t have won without fraud. That doesn’t mean people didn’t have real, valid, under­stand­able reasons for voting the way they did. And that doesn’t mean that analyses that write the Iranian poor out of history and society do us any good as we try to under­stand the divisions, movements, and ruptures within the Islamic Republic.

It’s not alto­gether clear from this physical distance who’s been protest­ing this past month, nor can we know the pro­test­ers’ com­po­si­tion with any precision. But over 70 million people live in Iran, and just under 40 million went to the polls on June 12. Ana­lyt­i­cal attention has zeroed in on the protest­ing minority. We are instinc­tively attracted, like hunting beasts, to flashing movements, the brilliant spectacle of mobi­liza­tion. One would hope, from certain quarters, for something slightly better.

Tech­no­rati Tags: , , , , , , , ,

9 comments to A Riposte to Hamid Dabashi

  • I’m not going to argue for Dabashi — as I’m on par with you. I haven’t seen him blurt out anything enlight­en­ing in the past few weeks at all. Not to mention his prob­lem­atic state­ments, many of which you point out.

    But just a couple of things: Iran is certainly NOT a post-ideological society. Our demand (a revote, a neutral inves­tiga­tive body, etc) was a non-ideological DEMAND. From devout followers of Khomeini’s lineage, to the anti-religious, they were all asking for a fair vote. That request was silenced. Bril­liantly so. Because now that movement actually is forced to answer many ide­o­log­i­cal questions. It is left with no immediate goal.

    It is not a social fact that the elections were rigged. I think I will live my entire life uncertain of the results. Ahmadine­jad might have even won the election. But given the entire package, espe­cially his government’s conduct before the election, the election was deeply prob­lem­atic. There is an Iranian jour­nal­ist, mostly iden­ti­fied with the right, who was silent for the past four weeks. He finally wrote in his weblog the other day. We don’t know the results of the election, he said, but in our society it is a “social fact” that we are dealing with, what he calls a “hokoomat-e zolm” (tyran­ni­cal gov­er­nance). The aftermath of these demon­stra­tions have been cat­a­strophic. I per­son­ally don’t want to add fuel to the fire, so I don’t write of personal quan­daries (a friend who has been missing for three weeks, family in prison, etc) but it’s been horrific.

    As for Mousavi being the Ghandi II — that’s just rubbish. Our leaders in Iran have often been either from the priv­i­leged elite (Mossadegh) or acci­den­tal. Mousavi was an acci­den­tal leader. And so far, given his speeches after the election, it seems that he rec­og­nizes this. We need to move BEYOND him, or else, forget everything.

    For all intensive purposes, we are not going get back our votes. “Where is my vote” is no longer relevant — a symbol yes, but relevant no. It can stand as a symbol of a movement which claims that it does not want to overthrow the system, but is looking for justice within that very system.

    But now is the time for us to go back indoors and quietly con­tem­plate the future. Exactly because our non­ide­o­log­i­cal demand was NOT met, we are forced to answer many ide­o­log­i­cal questions, and answering them will not be easy, and will be a Pandora’s box of new divides across political, social and religious lines.

    • Pedes­trian,
      Thanks for that great reply to my post. In the first draft, I picked apart how Dabashi came to the con­clu­sion that he did based on the numbers he was using. And then I checked up on every­thing Djavad Salehi-Isfahani has written in the last few months, and it turned out that Dabashi was either mistaken or lying.

      As for class lines: I’m very inter­ested in what you’ll say in the next few weeks, espe­cially since you wrote in response to Evildoer’s comment @ side­walk­lyrics that the class lines aren’t murky at all. In that respect, I’m very inter­ested in your response to this article, too:
      <a href=“…” target=“_blank”>

      Several things are pissing me off: one, many things map over class lines. This seems trivially obvious. There are also other fault lines: religion, gender, degree of reli­gios­ity as one of my old pro­fes­sors used to intel­li­gently emphasize (more so than “religion” itself–e.g. as he put it, certain types of sec­u­lar­ists and fun­da­men­tal­ists will agree on many things than say a group of religious or secular Muslims–here tangential).

      Anyway. I know that Marxists are involved in the protests, as were uni­ver­sity students, as were some workers, as were the middle-class. But the com­po­si­tion of the pro­test­ers can’t simply be read off from a couple of mis-interpreted numbers, and used to lecture not only Azmi Bishara who may not be an expert on Iran but also Ervand Abra­hamian, who I think has done great work on Iran and has been pretty quiet lately (perhaps a lesson in itself!). And even stipulate that the pro­test­ers were chiefly middle-class, just for argument’s sake? It doesn’t follow that middle-class politics don’t matter, or are ille­git­i­mate, espe­cially when “[y]Our demand (a revote, a neutral inves­tiga­tive body, etc)” wasn’t met–what’s relevant is whether such demands were socially reachable (plainly, they weren’t).

      It simply suggests that a mate­ri­al­ist analysis of what’s going on has to contend with what’s going on, and not bizarre recon­struc­tions of it (I know my tone here must by now seem lecturing; in my mind I’m still lecturing Dabashi).

      And I par­tic­u­larly thought insight­ful this line: “It can stand as a symbol of a movement which claims that it does not want to overthrow the system, but is looking for justice within that very system.” But do you agree with the con­tention that what’s going on is “tyran­ni­cal gov­er­nance”? And if so, does it seem like something that’ll be evanes­cent, or does it seem like a real shift, if that question is even answerable?


      • Max, I hate to speculate. That’s why I wrote “I will think/write more about this in the upcoming weeks”. I think that is what EVERYONE is doing (Salehi-Isfahani and Dabashi included) in regards to the class issue. They are spec­u­lat­ing, they are using old data for new problems. There are a couple of analysts I really respect in Iran, and like you said, it could be a lesson for us all that they have chosen to keep silent. One of them, Abdi, updated his blog once and sketched out an argument very vaguely, and continued that “in the current climate I would be endan­ger­ing many people if I get into this more. I also think it is premature spec­u­la­tion if I draw any con­clu­sions at this early date”.

        Per­son­ally, coming from a small farming town, I have an opinion. But then again, it is based on one town alone, so I don’t/can’t gen­er­al­ize at the moment. Most espe­cially because Mousavi’s campaign really took off after his debate with Ahmadine­jad. A lot of people have written of this, but I don’t think you would really know the dynamics unless you were there to SEE. Amongst the very vague things that Abdi wrote was this exactly. That “we (those who were in on the details from the inside) knew what was going to happen from that debate. Many think that something huge happened on June 12th, but we know it was not the twelfth but the night of that debate. Many very important decisions were made that night within the ruling estab­lish­ment and beyond”

        I think one of the reasons that people (and not just Dabashi) keep refering to Iran as a “post-ideological society” is that there were no dividing lines WITHIN the pro­tes­tors. It was quite amazing. Workers yes, middle-class yes (whatever that is! I still haven’t read of one coherent definiton for the Iranian middle-class in the work of so called experts), students yes. But Marxists? Islamists? Monar­chists? Nation­al­ists (Jebeheyeh Melli)? As far as I know, within the pro­test­ers, you could hardly get a glimpse of such divides.

        And that goes to show how EXTREMELY backward Iranians OUTSIDE Iran have been. Because those divides were EXTREMELY apparent in the demon­stra­tions and activ­i­ties Iranians took part in outside Iran.

        I think the more important matter now is that we are dealing with some sort of tyran­ni­cal gov­er­nance. But people also know that it is not very easy to draw lines. I per­son­ally am very proud of this. Even within high ranking officials asso­ci­ated with the the far right, there are many who want to bring this to a peaceful res­o­lu­tion. It’s gone so far that someone as anti-Mousavi, anti-Khatami, anti-ANYTHING and every­thing “reformist” like Ahmad Tavakoli has taken sides with the protesters.

        You see, not answering our demand is both brilliant: it will pave the way for more divides within the demon­stra­tors, … and dangerous. It’s a double edged sword. Things could swing either way. Those more pragmatic forces withing the ruling estab­lish­ment realize this. We realize this. Nobody, on any side, with a more foresight, want this to go further than it has.

        By the way, the link to the LA Times article doesn’t work! :)

  • Jenny

    Hey pedes­trian! I just stumbled across this and wondered what you think:,8599,190

    • Jenny, the only time I liked Baer was once when he was on hardtalk. The rest of the time, he spends too much energy trying to portray us (Iranians) as the bogeyman. And he’s too bitter about Lebanon. I certainly don’t know enough about Iran’s involve­ment, but given that ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND Iranians were killed by chemical weapons alone, weapons that were shipped and gift wrapped for Saddam right in the east coast of the United States (and France and Germany) … not to mention that approx­i­mately 700,000 died in all in a war that was fueled by the U.S. … I think the U.S. is more than respon­si­ble for a fair number of Iranian deaths to stop yapping about Lebanon.

      That being said, Mousavi was prime minister during a very dark period in the history of the IRI. The only accounts of the exe­cu­tions we have were written by Montazeri. And in his version, he writes that this was a direct demand of the Ayatollah (khomeini). Montazeri writes that amongst others, both Mousavi and Khamenei were opposed to them, but you just didn’t say no to the Ayatollah.

      Whatever his role, his silence alone is certainly not justified. I under­stand that in the current climate in Iran, he can’t criticize Khomeini at all, but he did say that he wasn’t in a position to do much at the time, and also that “it was a very dire cir­cum­stance”. The marxists were the ones to raise arms AGAINST their own country when we were already fighting a war (Iraq). Their leaders did engage in ter­ror­ists activ­i­ties in Iran and actually ended up killing some of the more moderate factions within the clerical estab­lish­ment … we are still expe­ri­enc­ing the cat­a­strophic influence of that today. But unfor­tu­nately, only their young followers were left in prisons and were executed.

      Aside from Mousavi, I think some very note­wor­thy figures have actually arisen from that dark period. People who have openly acknowl­edged their mistake and have stayed in Iran, have undergone scrutiny, harass­ment and prison, to try to right the wrongs. That’s why they have been so brutally mar­ganal­ized after the election. The hard­lin­ers know that Prince Mur­der­a­tion (Reza Pahalvi) is no threat to them. The real threat are the people within the ruling establishment.

      We Iranians have a saying that we can “tame” anyone — that all our invaders (including the Mongol and the Arab) actually ended up staying in Iran and col­lab­o­rat­ing not in war but in art and science and lit­er­a­ture with the Iranians. I believe we’ve also tamed many of our own internal warriors.

      But this fight will live on long after you and I are gone.

  • Bee


    Excellent point regarding the iranian left’s terrorist tactics in the 80’s. Babak Zahraie makes the same point:

  • Jenny

    Thank you Pedes­trian. I was just curious.

  • […] want. For what it’s worth, it’s actually somewhat more inter­est­ing than usual, at least for Dabashi.A Riposte to Hamid Dabashi | Jew­bon­ic­sHamid Dabashi has had a remark­ably con­sis­tent line about what’s going on in Iran. Con­sis­tency is an […]

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>