Syria & the Arab Uprisings: An Interview with Gilbert Achcar

Gilbert Achcar has been called “one of the best analysts of the contemporary Arab world” (Le Monde) and “the preeminent Marxist scholar of the region” (CounterPunch). He is Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at SOAS, University of London. His many books include:

Eastern Cauldron: Islam, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq in a Marxist Mirror

The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder

Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy (dialogues with Noam Chomsky)

The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives

Marxism, Orientalism, Cosmopolitanism

The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising

We recently had the pleasure of hosting Professor Achcar at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies for a stimulating series of lectures, forums and panel discussions about his recent work. During his visit, I recorded the following interview with him for our CMES Conversations series.

We took his book The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising as a starting point from which to examine the roots of the Syrian uprising, the nature of the Assad regime, the different shapes of the uprisings across the region, and the fate of Syria. Here it is:

Teaching John Stuart Mill in Iran: A Conversation with Norman Finkelstein

Norman Finkelstein is of course best known for his work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—his bookslectures and media interviews on the subject over the last three decades—and for the considerable controversy it has generated.
 
Less known is that for many years he also taught political theory. It might come as something of a surprise that among his favorite works is John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. This might come as a surprise since Finkelstein is well to the left of most admirers of the iconic nineteenth-century liberal thinker. Of course Mill was also a socialist and a feminist—indeed an early one (see Martha Nussbaum’s comments at the end of this interview). But in postcolonial studies Mill is widely regarded as an imperialist and a racist. An ambiguous and contested legacy, to be sure—which is part of Mill’s enduring hold on us.
 
Finkelstein recently taught a short course on Mill’s On Liberty in Iran. There’s a whole literature devoted to this phenomenon. Norma Moruzzi has written about reading Hannah Arendt in Iran. Ali Paya and Mohammad Amin Ghaneirad have mapped the multiple spheres of influence that Jürgen Habermas enjoys in Iran. The Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo has published a book of conversations with Isaiah Berlin. (I myself have written a short book on Iran’s engagement with liberal thinkers.) When leading political thinkers (of varying persuasions) from Europe or North America—from Habermas and Antonio Negri to Richard Rorty and Immanuel Wallerstein—visit Iran, their lectures are major events and occasion considerable buzz. (For more on this, see Mehran Kamrava’s book Iran’s Intellectual Revolution, Farzin Vahdat’s God and Juggernaut: Iran’s Intellectual Encounter with Modernity, and Mehrzad Boroujerdi’s Iranian Intellectuals and the West.)
 
But Finkelstein did something a bit different. His students weren’t the usual liberal-minded suspects—who represent a significant swath of Iran’s educated classes, incidentally (a phenomenon that is underestimated and trivialized by many Western leftists, which I regard as a form of Left Orientalism).  It would have been easy for him to teach the depredations of U.S. and Israeli policy in such a context—but it also would have been incredibly boring. He did something far more interesting. He taught Mill to largely conservative-oriented students in an institution that cranks out apparatchiks for the Islamic Republic.
 
That is just wickedly cool. Here’s our recent conversation about that experience.
 
 
The interview was filmed on April 24, 2014, as part the series of conversations with our guest lecturers that our Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver produces. 

Alternative Left Perspectives on Syria

Syrian flag

The responses of most leftists to the Syrian uprising and subsequent war (it’s often forgotten that it started as an uprising — indeed a nonviolent and nonsectarian one) have been deeply disappointing. Disappointing to many Syrian activists, and to many of us on the Left who support the Syrian struggle for dignity and justice, which is now a struggle against both Assad’s killing machine and the jihadi counter-revolutionary forces.

The Left’s responses fall into three main categories:

  1. explicit support for the Assad regime
  2. monochrome opposition to Western intervention, end of discussion (with either implicit or explicit neutrality on the conflict itself)
  3. general silence caused by deep confusion

The first camp, while relatively small, represents a truly hideous, morally obscene and, I would argue, deeply reactionary position – siding with a mass murderer and war criminal who presides over a quasi-fascist police state.

The second camp, which encompasses a majority of peace activists and soi-disant anti-imperialists in the West, represents an (ironically) Eurocentric/US-centric stance (it’s all about the West, not the Syrian people) — a total abandonment of internationalism.

The third camp is at least understandable, given the complexity of the Syrian conflict. The book I co-edited on the subject is titled The Syria Dilemma for a reason. Yet this stance remains disconcerting: silence in the face of what UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calls “the biggest humanitarian and peace and security crisis facing the world” is a cop-out. Complexity is not a gag order.

There is a fourth camp, however: a small but growing group of progressives who embrace the goals of the Syrian revolution. There are several shades within this camp – it includes Marxists, pacifists, feminists, Third Worldists and leftists of various sorts. Some support the armed struggle in Syria, others do not, standing instead with the nonviolence activists in Syria. But what unites this camp is its solidarity with the Syrian struggle for dignity, justice and self-determination.

Continue reading “Alternative Left Perspectives on Syria”