The much-discussed tendency of American universities to appoint pro-Islamic and anti-American professors of Middle East studies has lately produced an argument that's astonishing even by the most eccentric standards of academe. At Columbia University in New York an Iranian-born professor has denounced Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi, as propaganda intended to prepare the way for an American attack on Iran.
A best-seller in 2003, Reading Lolita in Tehran depicts literature as a liberating and healing force. Nafisi, originally a supporter of the 1979 revolution against the shah, discovered that it led to a vicious theocracy. Under religious pressure, she resigned from her job as an English literature professor at the University of Tehran after being ordered to wear a veil.
She set up a private reading group of young women to explore literature outside officialdom. Tehran had become a war zone where young women who failed to obey the rules were "hurled into patrol cars, taken to jail, flogged, fined." In literature, they found a breath of freedom and a world where individualism was celebrated rather than damned. Books such as Lolita, The Great Gatsby, and Pride and Prejudice helped free their imaginations.
But Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature, has discovered what he considers the real purpose of that book: It's an anti-Iranian tract supporting the plan to bomb Iran.
In the Cairo newspaper Al-Ahram, he wrote that Nafisi's work resembles "the most pestiferous colonial projects of the British in India," and that Nafisi functions as a colonial agent. He went even further in an on-line interview, classing Nafisi with the U.S. soldier convicted of mistreating prisoners at Abu Ghraib. "To me there is no difference between Lynndie England and Azar Nafisi," he said.
Dabashi finds it telling that Nafisi was endorsed by "the most diabolical anti-Muslim neo-con alive, Bernard Lewis." That's a curious statement in two ways. Lewis's readers can attest that he's often sympathetic to Muslims. And he developed his views on Islam before the word "neoconservative" (in its present meaning) became popular.
Dabashi also calls Nafisi a neoconservative, a gross insult when it comes from him. She denies the charge; she opposed the Iraq war, often seen as a neocon project. Never mind, he knows what to call her. Long ago, communists called people "objectively fascist." Even if they weren't fascists (went the argument), they might as well have been. It was proof enough that they violated party doctrine.
Dabashi's frame of reference veers from Stalin to Edward Said. Like a Stalinist, he tries to convert culture into politics, the first step toward totalitarianism. Like the late Edward Said, he brands every thought he dislikes as an example of imperialism, expressing the West's desire for hegemony over the downtrodden (even when oil-rich) nations of the Third World. While imitating the attitudes of Said, Dabashi deploys painful cliches. Of Nafisi's book, he writes: "Rarely has an Oriental servant of a white-identified, imperial design managed to pack so many services to imperial hubris abroad and racist elitism at home -- all in one act."
He claims she recycles "a kaffeeklatsch version of English literature" in support of the American empire. Kaffeeklatsch, that sneer of a term, means Nafisi's book isn't academic and doesn't contain a mountain of impenetrable but peer-reviewed jargon.
Dabashi himself doesn't like the Islamic Republic and agrees it's misogynist. But he thinks Nafisi unfairly ignores what came before, the tyrannical (U.S.-supported) shah. Why didn't she turn her attention to that? (Probably because it wasn't her subject.) He's also angry that she doesn't discuss the rich literature of Iran, or the excellent Iranian movies of recent years.
Nafisi believes that great novels heighten our sensitivity to the complexities of life and prevent us from "the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas." They haven't had that effect on Dabashi.
On the phone from Washington on Thursday (she's on sabbatical from her teaching job at Johns Hopkins University), Nafisi said that she's never argued for an attack on Iran; democracy, when it comes, should come from the people. She said that when she arrived in America she hoped she could speak her mind and be answered by serious argument. That's not what Dabashi has offered. She thinks that "Debate that is polarized isn't worth my time.
You don't want to debase yourself and start calling names."
After which she went back to work on two current projects, a memoir built around her mother's life and The Republic of Imagination, a book about the liberating power of literature.