Frantz Fanon and the Arab Uprisings: An Interview with Nigel Gibson

from Thinking Africa: Fanon 50 years later
Nigel Gibson was interviewed by Yasser Munif in Jadaliyya:  “The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon’s magnum opus, was published in 1961, a few days after his death. The book was not only influential for several generations of grassroots movements and activists in Africa, the United States, and Latin America; it was also discussed and debated extensively in intellectual circles across the globe. The reception of the book was more mitigated in the Arab world. This might be due to Fanon’s sweeping criticism of national bourgeoisie, which seized power after decolonization and became an intermediary class between Western powers and local populations. The Martiniquan intellectual was skeptical of revolutions from above, as was the case with several anti-colonialist movements in the Arab World. Interestingly, while the Arabic translation of the The Wretched of the Earth came out shortly after its publication in French, it omitted many passages because they were critical of the national bourgeoisie. Fifty years later, Fanon is almost absent in public discourses in the Middle East and is still marginal in the Maghreb. The uprisings should have been an excellent opportunity for Arab intellectuals and activists to engage with Fanon’s work on the revolution and the subaltern in the new conjuncture. However, despite the significance of his political philosophy for the current revolts, his books are either out of print or conspicuously absent from many bookstores in the Arab world.
“In this interview with Nigel Gibson, one of the most prominent experts on Fanon’s work, he explains the significance of the Fanonian theoretical framework and its relevance for the Arab uprisings. Nigel Gibson has written a number of articles and books on the Martiniquan intellectual and deployed a Fanonian perspective to examine many contemporary revolts. His numerous books include Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination (2003) and Fanonian Practices in South Africa: From Steve Biko to Abahlali baseMjondolo (2011). He teaches postcolonial theory at Emerson College. The interview was conducted in Boston in July 2012.”
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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?
NG: 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.”[1] 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

Israel’s “Chosen People” — for Deportation

“The Jews of Our Time?”: Israel’s Deportation of the South Sudanese”

Jul 11 2012 by Mimi Kirk, Jadaliyya
Salva Kiir, President of South Sudan. Image from Wikimedia Commons.Planeloads of South Sudanese refugees from Israel have been landing in South Sudan’s capital of Juba over the past few weeks. Many of them had been living in the poor neighborhoods of Hatikva and Shapira in southern Tel Aviv, working in such jobs as hotel chambermaids or waiters. Israel has justified the deportations with the explanation that because South Sudan seceded from Sudan in July 2011, the refugees can now return to their home country without fear. Their calls deliberately disregard ongoing violence between Sudan and South Sudan as well as aggression between rival South Sudanese groups.  The Interior Ministry announced that the South Sudanese would receive 1,250 US dollars if they returned voluntarily and would face arrest and expulsion if they refused.

Israel hosts approximately sixty thousand African refugees (termed “infiltrators” in Israeli parlance), mainly from Eritrea and Sudan. Most, fleeing violence and instability, have entered Israel through Egypt over the past five years. Israel is barred from deporting Eritrean or Sudanese refugees, as the United Nations has declared that doing so would put their lives in danger. Though South Sudan’s refugees constitute only a small fraction of African refugees in Israel, approximately seven hundred total or 0.1 percent of all refugees, the deportations have highlighted at least two noteworthy trends. The first is Israel’s resort to forcible and racially driven expulsions in an effort to retain its majority Jewish makeup. Second is the claim by some South Sudanese of a kind of essentialized religious, historical, and cultural affinity with Israel in order to foster a strategic bond.

Just prior to the deportations, xenophobic manifestations of Israel’s imperative to retain its Jewish majority were clear. At an anti-refugee demonstration in Hatikva on 24 May, Likud Member of Parliament Miri Regev stated from the stage, “The Sudanese are a cancer in our body.” A week later Israeli crowds chanted, “Deport the Sudanese” at a similar demonstration in Shapira. Other politicians have also added fuel to the fire. Interior Minister Eli Yishai recently claimed that African refugees were raping many Israeli women who “do not complain out of fear of being stigmatized as having contracted AIDS.” He recently added, “Israel belongs to the white man.” A number of South Sudanese arriving in Juba have described their recent treatment in Israel as brusque, marked by visa confiscations and arrests that barred them from clearing their Israeli bank accounts or receiving final paychecks.

Though it might not be obvious from these recent events, Israel has consistently supported southern Sudan, particularly during its first civil war with the north, and it was among the first countries to recognize South Sudan as a sovereign state last year. To Israel, South Sudan is another formerly-enslaved nation that escaped the clutches of Muslim violence and intolerance. In turn, it is often seen as “black” and “Christian” versus its “Arab” and “Muslim” neighbor to the north, though the makeup of Sudan and South Sudan is more complex than this simple division suggests. As the Sudanese academic and politician Francis Deng has consistently argued, the ideas of “racial, cultural and religious homogeneity…oversimplify and falsify a dynamic picture of pluralism [in Sudan/South Sudan].”

This simple dichotomy begets the powerful notion that South Sudan is an ally to Israel in a hostile part of the world, particularly in regard to Omar al-Bashir’s regime in Khartoum. Al-Bashir’s alliance with Iran and Hamas has particularly riled Israel, with Sudan serving as a way station for Iranian weapons en route to the Sinai Peninsula and ultimately to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. As Galia Sabar of the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University recently said, “We have a phenomenal interest in South Sudan, a Christian country in the heart of an area of great importance to us.” South Sudan presents itself along similar lines. Salva Kiir, South Sudan’s president, visited Israel in December 2011 and made such remarks as: “We have shared values. We have waged similar struggles, and we will go hand-in-hand with Israel in order to strengthen and enhance bilateral relations.” In Juba, Israeli flags are prevalent, and one neighborhood goes by the name Hai Jerusalem (Long Live Jerusalem).

As a result of this perceived affinity, some Jewish, both American and Israeli, and South Sudanese leaders alike have registered shock at the deportations. Charles Jacobs, president of the American Anti-Slavery Group, wrote an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post that called the South Sudanese “a special people” deserving of special treatment. He recounted that many American Jews, upon learning years ago of how the Muslim north was oppressing and killing those in the south, “saw [them] as ‘the Jews of our time.’” “We should continue to treat them as the very special people they are,” he concluded, asking for the refugees to have “a bit more time” to make arrangements to return home.  Continue reading

Sudan police raid campus, arrest hundreds of activists

Fri Feb 17, 2012

KHARTOUM Feb 17 (Reuters) – Sudanese police arrested hundreds of students in a pre-dawn raid on a major university’s dormitories on Friday, activists said, in a crackdown on a campus that has been at the centre of recent anti-government protests.

The University of Khartoum in the Sudanese capital has been closed for about two months after students staged demonstrations over rising prices, unemployment and other issues.

Police wielding batons entered the student housing early on Friday morning, beating and arresting hundreds of those who had remained in the dormitories waiting for classes to resume, a witness said.

“We were woken in our rooms by the voices and strikes of the police,” said the witness, who asked not to be identified. He said more than 300 students had been arrested.

Sudan’s police spokesman was not immediately available to comment on the reports.

A lawyer who has been monitoring the events, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said police had arrested between 300 to 400 students under a law against inciting unrest.

An activist from the group “Change Now” also confirmed the raid had taken place.

Sudan has not seen mass protests like the ones that ousted leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, but small demonstrations inspired by revolts in other Arab countries have flared up over the past year over inflation and other issues. (Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz; Writing by Alexander Dziadosz; Writing by Alessandra Rizzo)

Sudanese police clash with students in Khartoum

Sunday January 30, 2011

By Khaled Abdelaziz

KHARTOUM, Jan 30 (Reuters) – Sudanese police beat and arrested students on Sunday as hundreds protested throughout the capital demanding the government resign, inspired by a popular uprising in neighbouring Egypt.

Heavily armed police patrol Khartoum’s main streets January 30, 2011. Police beat and arrested students in central Khartoum, witnesses said on Sunday, as demonstrations broke out throughout the city demanding the government resign. (REUTERS/Stringer)

Armed riot police broke up groups of young Sudanese demonstrating in central Khartoum and surrounded the entrances of four universities in the capital, firing teargas and beating students at three of them.

Some 500 young people also protested in the city of el-Obeid in North Kordofan in the west of the country.

Police beat students with batons as they chanted anti-government slogans such as “we are ready to die for Sudan” and “revolution, revolution until victory”.

Groups have emerged on social networking sites calling themselves “Youth for Change” and “The Spark”, since the uprisings in nearby Tunisia and close ally Egypt this month.

“Youth for Change” has attracted more than 15,000 members.

“The people of Sudan will not remain silent any more,” its Facebook page said. “It is about time we demand our rights and take what’s ours in a peaceful demonstration that will not involve any acts of sabotage.”

The pro-democracy group Girifna (“We’re fed up”) said nine members were detained the night before the protest and opposition party officials listed almost 40 names of protesters arrested on Sunday. Five were injured, they added. Continue reading

Sudan: A Call for Peaceful Demonstrations “to remove the government”

Peaceful Demonstrations To Take Place In Sudan 30 January 2011

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

PRLog (Press Release) – Jan 28, 2011 – PEACEFUL DEMONSTRATIONS TO TAKE PLACE IN SUDAN

30 JANUARY 2011

Contact:  Adil Abdel Aati, Liberal Democratic Party, abdelaati@gmail.com, +48 888524519

KHARTOUM, SUDAN —  A group of young Sudanese activists proclaim January 30, 2011 to be the beginning of peaceful demonstrations to bring down the military regime in Sudan. This campaign is calling on all sectors of Sudanese to get out January 30th and demonstrate in the streets of Sudan’s most populated cities. The largest assembly and demonstration will take place on Palace Street, which is located a few meters from the presidential palace of Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir. The invitation for the demonstration excludes the leaders of the traditional opposition parties who are not willing to confront the Islamic military regime, which has been ruling Sudan since 1989. Continue reading