Horrible Hamid

Hamid Dabashi

How vile an apologist for tyranny is he? So vile that in February 2017, we spent a full five days on him. We’ve discussed a good many professors of Islam or Arabic or Middle East Studies who have incredibly ugly things to say about Israel and Jews, but even in that crowd Hamid Dabashi stands out. A protégé of Edward Said and a longtime Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Said’s own longtime academic home, Columbia University, Dabashi was named by fourteen Columbia students and recent graduates in a 2004 video as one of the three most anti-Semitic professors they’d had. In a 2005 article, he wrote that Jews possess “a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep” and that “a systemic mendacity…has penetrated the deepest corners of what these people have to call their ‘soul.’”

Afar Nafisi

In 2006, he savaged Azar Nafisi’s widely praised book Reading Lolita in Tehran, about literature classes that she taught secretly to women in post-revolutionary Iran, calling her a postcolonialist tool and likening her to Lynndie England, the U.S. soldier notorious for mistreating inmates at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. In 2007, when the Iranian tyrant Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was asked to speak at Columbia, many observers criticized the university’s president, Lee Bollinger, for issuing the invitation, but what outraged Dabashi was Bollinger’s introduction, in which he called Ahmadinejad “a petty and cruel dictator.” Bollinger, wrote Dabashi, was a “white racist supremacist.” In 2011, he accused ex-Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Ibn Warraq of having “demonized their own cultures and societies” “to advance their careers” and “justify US carnage.”

Lee Bollinger

You’d think that at some point Dabashi’s job at Columbia would have been in danger. Nope. Complaints have been made over the years, but Dabashi has never even been rebuked, let alone disciplined, by any of the higher-ups at Columbia. Far from being a pariah in the academic community, in 2015 it was reported that Dabashi, after giving a series of talks in Germany in which he smeared Israel and minimized the Holocaust, was now “the darling of German academe.”

And we’re here to report that he’s still at it. On March 30, he took to Twitter to react to the U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel had captured in the 1967 Six Day War and formally annexed in 1981. “What’s the difference between ISIS and ISRAEL?” Dabashi asked in his tweet. The answer: neither has a claim to the Golan Heights. “All of Syria belong to all Syrian people, not an inch it either to ISIS or to ISRAEL.” He also wrote that if ISIS doesn’t enjoy U.S. support, it’s because “ISIS does not have a platoon of clean shaven and well coiffured columnists at the New York Times propagating the cause of the terrorist outfit as the Zionists columnists do on a regular basis.” Unusually for Dabashi, he later deleted the tweets. It’s hard to imagine why, because they were hardly any more offensive than many of his other public statements about Israel.

Hating on Western culture: Hamid Dabashi

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH
Hamid Dabashi

This week we’ve been discussing Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian Studies at Columbia University who has long been notorious for his vigorous defense of Islamic regimes and his pronounced anti-Israel bias.

In 2006, Dabashi took on the 2003 bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. In an article for the National Post, Canadian journalist Robert Fulford wrote that Nafisi’s book “depicts literature as a liberating and healing force.” Originally a supporter of the Iranian revolution that overthrew the shah and installed the Ayatollah Khomeini in power, Nafisi turned against the new government when it turned out to be an oppressive theocracy that required her to wear the veil and forced her out of her professorship at the University of Tehran, where she taught English literature.

nafisi
Azar Nafisi

After she lost her job, Nafisi continued to teach privately at her home in Tehran. While bombs fell outside and the Ayatollah’s thugs carried out a brutal reign of terror, beating and torturing women who failed to knuckle under to the new rules, Nafisi secretly gathered around her a group of young women whom she introduced to such books as Wuthering Heights and Madame Bovary and Daisy Miller and Pride and Prejudice. In these books, as Fulford puts it, “they found a breath of freedom and a world where individualism was celebrated rather than damned.” The books “helped free their imaginations.”

Millions of readers around the world were moved by Nafisi’s book. “This book,” wrote the reviewer for Publishers Weekly, “transcends categorization as memoir, literary criticism or social history, though it is superb as all three…Lolita becomes a brilliant metaphor for life in the Islamic republic. The desperate truth of Lolita’s story is… the confiscation of one individual’s life by another, Nafisi writes.” In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called it “resonant and deeply affecting” and “an eloquent brief on the transformative powers of fiction – on the refuge from ideology that art can offer to those living under tyranny, and art’s affirmative and subversive faith in the voice of the individual.” Novelist Cynthia Ozick called it “glorious.” Salon called it “poignant” and “searing.”

readinglolitaintehranBut Dabashi did not find Nafisi’s book admirable. On the contrary: for him, it wasn’t an affirmation of women’s rights or individual liberty or the power of literature; it was a disgusting betrayal by Nafisi of her own people and a tribute to their former colonial masters. In an article for the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, Dabashi compared Reading Lolita in Tehran to “the most pestiferous colonial projects of the British in India” and pronounced Nafisi an agent of colonialism. “Rarely,” he wrote, “has an Oriental servant of a white-identified, imperial design managed to pack so many services to imperial hubris abroad and racist elitism at home – all in one act.”

He even added: “To me there is no difference between Lynndie England and Azar Nafisi” – Lynndie England being a U.S. soldier stationed at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad who had become notorious for her abuse of inmates. As evidence of the repulsive nature of Nafisi’s book, Dabashi noted that it had won Bernard Lewis’s approval. Now, Lewis is perhaps the most distinguished living scholar of Islam in the world – but for Dabashi, he is “the most diabolical anti-Muslim neo-con alive.” (In fact, Lewis’s massive oeuvre attests to a great sympathy for Muslims as a people; to call him a “neo-con,” meanwhile, is anachronistic in the extreme, Lewis having formed his views on Islam decades before the “neo-con” movement even existed.)

fulford
Robert Fulford

Fulford made an important point about Dabashi’s smear of Nafisi. “Like a Stalinist, he tries to convert culture into politics, the first step toward totalitarianism. Like the late Edward Said, he brands every thought he dislikes as an example of imperialism.” Fulford further observed that while “Nafisi believes that great novels heighten our sensitivity to the complexities of life and prevent us from ‘the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas,’” those novels had apparently never had such an impact on Dabashi.

More tomorrow.