Though the “Arab Spring” opened things up in many countries, it was not all the same, nor is the struggle of the people complete on any front, so attempts to classify or categorize will inherently fail. Nonetheless, this map represents one view of how things have gone (so far).
Yasser Munif (YM): Ongoing protests have swept the Arab world since the toppling of the Tunisian dictator. They changed the political and cultural landscape of the region. The mot d’ordre of the protesters is clear: “The people want the fall of the regime.” Western powers tried to co-opt the protests because real democracy in the Arab World can threaten their domination of the region. They want to maintain their hegemony in the oil rich gulf. The region is also important geopolitically because of the United States’ close ties to Israel and its wars in the Middle East. The interest of the West in the region is not new. In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said argues that while formal colonization ended in the mid-twentieth century, Arab countries became the political satellites of the West since then. He writes, “for two generations the United States has sided in the Middle East mostly with tyranny and injustice… one administration after another has propped up compliant and unpopular clients, and turned away from the efforts of small peoples to liberate themselves from military occupation. In a way, Said is suggesting that real independence was never achieved; the present politico-economic condition of Arab countries is a continuation of the colonial period by new means. In this context, the work of Frantz Fanon is very relevant to understanding the current Arab uprisings. Yet, as you explain in a recent essay, one should refrain from the temptation of extrapolating old concepts into new situations. Referring to Fanon’s work ,you write, “The task for radicals is to avoid applying pre-formed cookie-cutter theory to new situations and jamming a new event or movement into old categories, but, instead, to begin to open up space for dialogue and reflection on action.” Do you think that Frantz Fanon’s analysis about colonialism, imperialism, and independence movements can have any relevance today for Arab protesters who are challenging despotic regimes?
Nigel Gibson (NG): I do think that Fanon has relevance, and so the question is how do you approach Fanon? Are there categories in Fanon’s thought that can simply be applied to new situations, and if so what new thinking would emerge? Applying Fanon’s categories to new situations is valuable to a degree, but the question I am asking is what does Fanon offer us methodologically? In other words, how does he actually get us to rethink our concepts? I think Fanon is basically an open thinker and a radically humanist thinker. If you look at the first pages of Black Skin White Masks, where he is critical of scientific methods, to the final pages of the Wretched of the Earth, where he talks about working out new concepts, the question is how and on what basis do you work on new concepts with the goal of human freedom? For Fanon, becoming actional is connected to his idea of a new humanism, which is explicitly critical of European humanism so intimately connected with colonialism. So, it is not simply about finding new concepts from anywhere, but being both critical and self-critical and also being very open to what is happening on the ground. So, in other words, a critic could have said, last January in 2011 in Tahrir Square, that if you read Fanon, you know that the liberatory moment is going to be closed down by the military or the state, and therefore end up with a kind of ontological pessimism. We are defeated before we begin. The critic might add, Fanon tells us that all these revolutions in the end will fail, and look: they have. But, for me, that is not how one engages Fanon. If Fanon is alive he is in the revolts because the revolts themselves open up something very new. One has to be aware, or listen, or open one’s mind to what are the new beginnings.
Now, you could look at the situation and say, Fanon tells us to be very wary of the nationalist elite and all the other social forces we could talk about: religious elite, nationalist elite, military elite, regional elites, and the comprador nature of some of these elites and all the repressive ideologies that justify them. So, in other words, the question then becomes how do you employ Fanon productively? You do not want to close down possibilities, but at the same time, you want to be wary of Fanon’s warnings. So, in a certain sense, it is what I would consider a dialectical approach. It is not simply good enough—and one could do it with any thinker, one could do it with Marx—to have a series of categories to say, well, this revolt will fail because it does not correspond with the categories or fulfill certain expectations in a Marx or in a Fanon, and therefore it is doomed to do this and that. Even if in the end it does this and that, we have to be open about what is new in the Arab revolts. What do they tell us? How do they come about? Why have they come about now? In what way can one see them as new beginnings, a turning of a page, and the creation of a new historical moment, rather than a repetition of a neocolonial situation that you mention in Said’s quote in the beginning? If Fanon’s thought is alive, it cannot be simply applied.
YM: As I mentioned above, Said thinks that the process of decolonization was aborted by local social forces or international policies, and that what we are experiencing in the Middle East today is a continuation of old fashioned colonialism, as in the case of Iraq, or a form of neocolonialism /imperialism, as is the case of most Arab countries. In that sense, Fanon is extremely relevant and we have to reread him. And yet, Fanon has been extremely absent in the Arab public spheres, public discussions, and the media in general. Some intellectuals have either consciously avoided him or are ignorant about his work and its implications on contemporary Arab societies. Others, for ideological reasons, denied these connections between “metropole” and “colony,” to use Fanon’s categories and the relationship between the two. Many Arabs and Western liberals have argued that the revolts are about democracy and anti-authoritarianism and we should not conflate these new categories with the older ones such as imperialism or colonialism. Hazem Saghieh, one of the influential Lebanese journalists who writes for the London-based and Gulf-funded al-Hayat newspaper, wrote in one of his articles that protesters in Tahrir Square were not holding signs about imperialism or Zionism, and these revolts are therefore about internal /local issues and regional concerns. So, how can one make an argument for the relevance of Fanon when he is so absent in public discourses?
It is almost like different levels of abstractions. There is not a one-to-one correspondence; fifty years is the long time to think about a thinker’s relevance or to think of the relevance of their work to a contemporary period. However, in the same way, you could say that there were not very many banners about democracy in the way that liberal democracy or the western kind of democracy understands it and that the pundits have said the revolts were about. Therefore, the signs and slogans in Tahrir may have not been about imperialism, and they may have not reflected the kind of things that the liberal critics wanted to talk about either. But the issue then becomes not to judge things by an a priori
anti-imperial discourse. Rather, the first thing is to find out what is being talked about. What are people saying? It was certainly about getting rid of Mubarak. But it was more than that, even if it was not explicit; the point is to trace through the contradictions and developments. Someone who has not read Fanon and who lived through that period, and now reads Fanon, will find out how quickly he or she identifies with his analysis of how the new rulers behave like the old rulers; it is a revolution, yes, but in the old sense of revolving and repeating what was happening before. In one sense, it is how we understand neo-colonialism, but Fanon is not only talking about the threat from imperialism, which is always there, but how the threats are manifested internally. He speaks about a great threat to the decolonial movement being the lack of liberatory ideologies. What does he mean by ideology? Certainly, there are many ideologies around. There are Islamic ideologies; there are nationalist ideologies, neoliberal ideologies, and so forth. He is talking about something else. He has a vision for something else. The subject of the Wretched of the Earth
is the wretched of the earth, that majority of the people of the world, who are not only poor, but are actively denied agency and are constantly reminded that politics is above them. How do the wretched of the earth become actional, become political, and become social individuals? Fanon calls his ideology a new humanism, not only in contrast to the elite humanism of the West, but also on the axiom that the wretched of the earth, understood socially, think and thus must be a basis of a new politics. This, of course, is not achieved immediately, but it must become an explicit element of the struggle for liberation. Then there is the question of the role of the intellectual committed to social change. What can the intellectuals do in these periods? So, again we are back to Fanon’s relevance and the difficulty of talking about it in an applied way. First, it is interesting to look at the history of why Fanon is not considered relevant and the fact that postcolonial states have suppressed his thought in one way or another. Second, the only way we can prove the relevance of Fanon in a certain way outside of some academic circles is to ask, do people involved in social struggles engage with Fanonian concepts and find something relevant for them, even if they have never heard of Fanon because Fanon is implicitly in the struggles? In other words, the idea of a new generation; he has a phrase at the beginning of “On National Consciousness,”
where he talks about how “Each generation
must, out of relative obscurity
, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.” So, a new generation makes something of him and brings that into the discussion. To me, that would be the only proof of relevance of Fanon. I can make an argument for it, but in the end that would be the test. Now the question is: how would that happen? How do you get Fanon into the public discourse, especially when a lot of the public discourse is limited, and Fanon is considered irrelevant? You face liberal pundits like Hazem Saghieh, who might say that Fanon represents a fifty-year-old politics of violence and imperialism, or other politicians, who might emphasize that Fanon is not a Muslim and is therefore irrelevant to a Muslim society. These are some of the problems with discussing Fanon. Continue reading →