Holier than thou?: The anti-imperialist versus the local activist

Local gender activists in the Arab world face both censure from their own societies, and attacks by US-based anti-imperialist scholars who charge them with complicity with western imperialist designs.

Lama Abu-Odeh
4 May 2015

Run-ins, altercations, tussles and skirmishes have regularly taken place between US based academics, mostly diasporic scholars, and activists based in the Arab world. Although these encounters pre-date the events of the 'Arab Spring' they have reached a new pitch after the uprisings of 2011. Online journals,Jadaliyya being the most prominent among them, have staged such confrontations in which the Arab activist suddenly finds himself or herself the object of a fierce attack. The attack, in its subdued mode, charges the activist of being the unwitting handmaiden of western imperialist projects- instrumentalised by transnational bodies such as the Gay International and the UN international agencies or as a naïve participant in western discourses which the anti-imperialists have coined as " homonationalism" and "femonationalism". These western discourses, according to them, not only use the plight of women and gays in the Arab World to assert the moral superiority of the "West", but, as is the case in some European countries, by making the cultural attitude towards homosexuality and women a bureaucratic question to Muslim immigrants seeking citizenship. The local activist becomes an unwitting participant in these debates by either making "gay rights" or “patriarchy” a social question in the first place, or by not paying sufficient attention to the way his or her activism can be appropriated by such discourses.

In its more vicious mode, the attack accuses the Arab activist of being illiterate, ignorant, mediocre and worst still, uninformed about the latest canons propagated seemingly exclusively within the hallways of US academia. Sometimes the activist is derogatorily called a native informant, a commoditised member of the compradors of the South, a poseur who in order to change the Arab world to appear modern and liberal in the eyes of the West through the medium of his or her activism, abandons the Arab, the Muslim and Islam to the salivating discursive dogs of the West.

Sometimes the critic adopts a maximalist position and denies any validity to the type of local gender activism in question. The activist is charged with introducing identities that are foreign into the Arab cultural scene ("gay"), inciting homophobic discourse through their own activism, (homophobia presumably being a phenomenon that postdates their activism and never predates it) and scaring certain sexual practices away (same sex practices that can only occur if "gay" identity is not attached to the participants). Sometimes the critic, the US academic that is, identifies a "local authentic" to give local weight to his/her critique – a Bedouin woman for instance – who upholds exactly the opposite of what the activist is asserting: "Honor IS good", rendering the activist recrimination of crimes committed in its name suspect.  It is important of course that this "authentic" identity selectively chosen by the critic to enunciate the truth of the matter belongs to a marginal community - a Bedouin, a villager, always a woman - which is to be contrasted with the social class of the activist, who is typically urban, middle or upper-middle class and Westernised. The point is not to be missed. The local activist is an outsider thrice:  by virtue of his or her class position, by virtue of the presumably “external” discourses of oppression and grievance that the activist peddles and by virtue of the  international audience they seek to impress.

Sometimes the anti-imperialist critic adopts a less maximalist and a more compromising - but no less patronising- position in which the naïve activist, the unwitting handmaiden of empire, is offered help and advice on how to pitch his or her cause. There is always some other cause to be thrown into the mix of the activist’s priorities, some qualifying factor, some reformulation of the source of the evil to rattle one’s sabre at which the local activist seems to have missed, ignored, or misidentified. and that the US academic critic is happy to offer for the local activist’s consideration. For example, it is always OK to talk about the evil state, never OK to talk about "culture". To show that the critic is indeed in touch with the activist’s context there is always a local "other" to invoke, this time not a marginal Bedouin woman, but an activist/intellectual who got things "just right", in the way the anti-imperialist would wish it, and that the activist in question is politely asked to refer to and be informed by. When one looks closely at what is on offer, however, this seemingly compromising position is in fact not helpful at all. On the one hand, the anti-imperialist’s demand for qualification and  nuance, if the activist were to heed it seriously, threatens to dilute and derail the local activist intervention and deprive it of its local political bite. On the other hand it would seem to trap the local activist in endless second-guessing of the anti-imperialist’s intentions. It is a maximalist position in disguise because it turns out that what the anti-imperialist sets up is a moving target that the local activist is doomed never to attain.

Needless to say, the local activist deeming himself or herself a progressive with sufficient left-wing credentials is, at first, stunned by the attack which seems to come from "nowhere"- nowhere that is relevant to their own local context - and then decidedly puzzled and with their feelings really hurt. (Many such activists are friends of mine!). It is not that life has been particularly easy for this activist. There is first one’s family to deal with, the dilemma of  outing themselves to their parents and their wider kin before they can take on any activism. Then there is the social antagonism to their cause, either dressed in Islamic doctrinal garb or the basic vernacular dialect of gender and sexuality phobia. There is also the local political left that has historically lined up its causes, and for whom sexual liberties and gender oppression are not exactly a priority. There is also the mercurial security state that alternates between finding one’s sexuality a "threat to public morality", using it a source of blackmail, or  offering a temporary license that can be withdrawn any minute.

And now this?

Many local activists feel that this is not an attack they can afford to ignore. If the anti-imperialists rely strongly on the idea that in our globalised world local discourses circulate globally and so one needs to mind what one says, it is this the very globalism that makes the anti-imperialist critique so hard to fend off. Not because it is necessarily correct, but because US academic capital - especially of elite universities where some of these critics are employed - circulates within the same circuits as global capital does. It has the power to attract graduate students from outside the US, offer them faculty positions when they graduate, and return them back to the home they had left voluntarily and in pursuit of professional ambition, this time as intellectuals invested with US academic prestige.

What is of note about these critics is that not only do they appear not to have had any history of political activism themselves, (none appears to have gone to the US as an exile escaping political persecution for instance), but their "leftism" is of the academic variety where intervening in one’s professional discourse constitutes the limit of one’s activism.

But I would be remiss to attribute the weighty impact of their critique solely to the power of US academic capital. There is a sizable faction in the activist audience that welcomes such critiques, namely those who subscribe to nationalist or religious identity politics. There is an undeniable affinity between the anti-imperialist line "made in the USA" and the local political Islamist and nationalist positions that are antagonistic to the politics of gender and sexuality. One should not miss the irony here: if much of the anti-imperialist critique frets over the tyranny of modernity’s identity projects, its most privileged and receptive audience in the Arab world are precisely those who most fervently subscribe to those identity projects.

The activist’s response to the critic is sometimes terse and uncompromising: "Sorry, you seem to misunderstand my context and I certainly don’t need any lectures from you on how to be effective in my own back yard".

But it is the charge of naiveté at best and collaboration at worst, that makes the critique of the anti-imperialist have a bite that, well, bites.

It seems hard for the anti-imperialists to believe that the local activists are as seasoned as they are, and that they come at the end of a line of political activism in the Arab world that is not only rich in its political interventions but also in intellectual ones.

Just as it was hard for the white men of the fifties and the sixties of the twentieth century peddling modernisation theory to believe that the tribal and religious Arab can be as sophisticated as they are, so it appears now that the anti-imperialist educated in metropolitan universities seems to think that there is something the poor locals just don’t get, and that the big migrant brother or sister fortunate enough to receive such enlightenment is going to tell them. There is in fact a rich history in the Arab world of  public intellectuals interacting with western discourses, accepting them, modifying them, challenging them, reproducing them, strategically deploying them not merely as an intellectual exercise but in the course of acting as social agents engaged in their own local struggles. If only anti-imperialists cared to find out more about the complicated world of the local activist, the fluid  distance between them and their causes, and between their causes and those causes’ various articulations.

This lack of curiosity about the local activist’s complex universe is experienced as a form of radical dismissal. As if once deemed a native informant, one is relegated to an eternal place of condemnation, one is no better than a spy to be executed for acts of unspeakable treason. This is all the more striking since anti - imperialists often appear to be incapable of a minimum institutional analysis, or as we lawyers like to call it "distributional analysis" when they look at the activists' agenda. Having recast "imperialism" as the idea that the local is primarily defined by relations of supra-national domination,  its own unique class, gender, race, sect and regional social struggles become nothing but simple epiphenomena,  micro instances, or unmediated local derivatives of that domination. And having paradoxically married that metanarrative  to post-structuralism's hostility to the enlightenment tradition, which has been dismissed by the anti-imperialists as "Western", combined with attributing to "discourse" a principal role in social structuration, the anti-imperialists anoint themselves as gatekeepers of local discourses becoming increasingly allergic to any evocation of the “universal” by the local activist (such as concepts of rights, liberties, etc) automatically interpreted by them as submission to the imperialist West.  The simple realist calculation, which no activist can do without, on how to push through their activism the status quo settlement of power, privilege and wealth to the left for the benefit of disempowered groups, is simply and simple mindedly seen by the anti-imperialists as either a disruption of a precious local authenticity or as capitulation  to Western dictates for "emancipation". That their interventions are widely seen by local activists as aiding and abetting the forces of the cultural right is no accident. The defence of the local “authentic” is a hallmark of these conservative forces which as the Arab world descends unto an internal war between the forces of the right, statist and religious, becomes more and more pernicious in its ugly side and more and more ephemeral in its defensible side. 

This article stems from a presentation made at the Sexualities and Queer Imaginaries in the Middle East conference at Brown University, USA, April 2015.




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