By Hamid Dabashi
22 Jan 2016
In two successive opinion pieces for The
New York Times, the Iranian and Saudi foreign ministers have published two
opposing views, charging each other's respective countries of mischief and
On January 10, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's
foreign minister, published a piece in which he warned against "Saudi
Arabia's reckless extremism". He further amplified: "Saudi Arabia
seems to fear that the removal of the smokescreen of the nuclear issue will
expose the real global threat: its active sponsorship of violent extremism. The
barbarism is clear. At home, state executioners sever heads with swords ...
abroad, masked men sever heads with knives."
Shortly after that piece, on January 19,
Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir retorted back in kind.
"In an outlandish lie, Iran maligns
and offends all Saudis by saying that my nation, home of the two holy mosques,
brainwashes people to spread extremism," the Saudi foreign minister
declared on the same pages of the US newspaper. "We are not the country
designated a state sponsor of terrorism; Iran is. We are not the nation under
international sanctions for supporting terrorism; Iran is. We are not the nation
whose officials are on terrorism lists; Iran is. We don't have an agent
sentenced to jail for 25 years by a New York federal court for plotting to
assassinate an ambassador in Washington in 2011; Iran does."
Upfront - Saudi Arabia Vs Iran: Is The
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The moral of these two pieces when put
together for the readers of the "paper of record" in the United
States is simple: Saudi Arabia mirrors the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
(ISIL) group in extremism and barbarity and Iran is a rogue terrorist state
sponsoring terrorism. You will scarce find anyone among the US neo- and old
Conservative warmonger Islamophobes who would disagree with that.
A Simple Question
Why do these two distinguished and
articulate gentlemen write their accusatory pieces in English and publish them
in The New York Times?
Why do they make their cases against each
other in a major newspaper in a major city at the heart of a global empire that
dominates them both and beyond?
Why don't the Iranian and the Saudi foreign
ministers talk to each other directly - in Arabic, in Persian, or even in
English if they must, but face to face, person to person?
Why two sovereign nation states, and two
Muslim countries at that, settle their differences in public, in English, in
terms ("extremism" and "terrorism") determined by a
language and rhetoric that rule them both, and on the pages of a leading forum
from and for the normative ascendency of a far away and global empire?
Don't they see what they look like standing
next to each other on these two adjacent pages of the New York Times: Two
medieval feudal vassals rushing to their mutual lord accusing each other of
mischief, trying their best to endear themselves to their master, in terms
determined by the master.
For their common warlord, these two columns
achieve one thing: that they are both right that Iran is what Saudi Arabia says
it is and that Saudi Arabia is what Iran says it is. The white interlocutor did
not say so: the brown snitches said so themselves.
The combined result of these two columns is
one thing and one thing only: that the fictive white interlocutor, the real warlord,
to whom they have both made their case, is the judge, the jury, and the
executioner of arbitration, of justice, and of truth - that the Empire, the
single most powerful military force that has wreaked havoc in the region in
which these two countries reside is pure as the gold standard of truth, the
tabula rasa of justice, the arbiter of reality, the true and reliable measure
of separating fact from fiction.
The Conceptual Hegemon
What are the concepts and categories by
which Iran and Saudi Arabia take their respective cases to their common
imperial court? "Extremism and terrorism": the terms and measuring
tape concocted and manufactured by and for and geared to the best interest and
towering hegemony of the self-same imperial interlocutor in the region.
"Look he is an extremist,"
declares one vassal. "Look he is a terrorist," retorts the other.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are not the only
itinerants of these terms of the imperial hegemon. If Turkey wants to denounce
and suppress the Kurds it calls them "terrorists"; if Egypt wants to
discredit the Muslim Brotherhood to eliminate them en masse, it calls them
"terrorists", even if Russia wants to discredit the entire gamut of
opposition to the criminal Bashar Assad it calls them all "terrorists".
Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and even Russia
represent an entire spectrum of political manoeuvrings that use the identical
term of "terrorism" and "extremism", to discredit their
internal opposition and external adversaries: the terms coined, convoluted, and
turned into a currency by their common imperial interlocutor, ruling them all
together, not just by military force but by ideological lexicography.
By taking their respective cases against
each other to this imperial interlocutor the foreign ministers of Iran and
Saudi Arabia are far more instrumental in generating Islamophobia than the most
fear-mongering Islamophobes combined.
They are two Muslim states in high
positions of power and authority to know Muslims, both Sunnis and Shias.
In his exquisite parable, "Before the
Law" (1915), Kafka tells the story of a countryman who come to enter the
court of law, but a gatekeeper says he has to wait. The man spends a lifetime
waiting without access. Upon his moment of death he asks the gatekeeper why is
it that all his time no one else came to seek entrance to the law.
"No one else could ever be admitted
here," the gatekeeper tells him, "Here no one else can gain entry,
since this entrance was assigned only to you. I'm going now to close it."
The cruelty of the ruling empire is not
merely manifested in its military domination of the world. But far more
debilitating in its linguistic and ideological lexicography of domination, in
positing itself as the first and last court of appeal, of turning the whole
world, all religions, all cultures, all languages, even all acts of defiance in
terms determined by the master tropes of its own superior reason to dominate,
its will to truth.
Before the court of the empire come two
vassals spending their lifetime awaiting admission.
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and
Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.