Imperialism lives on, but not as a western conceit

Scholars addressing Western influence in the Middle East often miss the mark, argues Michael Young

Head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Gen Mohammad Ali Jaafari, stated last week: “The Islamic revolution is advancing with good speed, its example being the ever-increasing export of the revolution.” Morteza Nikoubazl / Reuters
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A prominent feature of many western universities is the fact that they offer courses in postcolonial studies, or have entire departments devoted to examining colonial legacies.

Few students of the Middle East can avoid postcolonialism and the implicit message it contains, one that is as much moral as historical or cultural. A prominent theme at the heart of postcolonial discussion is that classical western scholarship of the region created a binary relationship between the Occident and Orient, depicting the latter as “the other”.

By creating this Oriental "other" and redefining and reshaping it, the literary critic Edward Said argued in his influential book Orientalism, the West was better able to control "the Orient", providing the underpinnings of imperial expansion.

The irony today is that it is not the West but countries of “the East” that are seeking to impose their hegemony on their geographical environment. Indeed, these countries had at one time themselves suffered from western imperialism.

Chinese ambitions are no longer a secret in Asia, nor should they be given China’s rich imperial past. Less noticed in western faculties are Iran’s power plays in the Middle East – not least perhaps because for many critics of western imperialism, Iran has long stood as an anti-imperial paragon.

The same can be said of Hizbollah, a primary instrument of Iranian influence in the Arab world. Despite its adherence to a political-religious ideology and its devotion to a reactionary leader in Iran, Hizbollah has been embraced by many on the political left. It has been viewed as a bulwark against American and Israeli aggression.

For instance in 2006, at the start of the summer war between Hizbollah and Israel, a group of 450 intellectuals, several working in western universities, released a public statement. Among other things, they expressed their “utter rejection of the Lebanese government’s decision to ‘not adopt’ the Lebanese resistance operation, thereby stripping the resistance of political credibility before the adversarial international powers”.

The reference was to the Lebanese government’s refusal to endorse Hizbollah’s effort to capture Israeli soldiers, which ignited the war. The signatories, many from the political left and proponents of an anti-imperialist perspective, condemned a sovereign government that had not been informed by Hizbollah of its reckless action, all because they could not stomach giving an advantage to “adversarial international powers”.

Such academic luminaries have said little lately about Hizbollah’s role in Syria, as it participates in the repression of an entire population on behalf of Iran’s regional agenda, including sectarian cleansing in wide swathes of central Syria.

Nor has much been heard about Iran’s hegemony in Iraq, and its use of militias to massacre and engage in sectarian cleansing there. This from individuals who routinely denounced American intervention in Iraq as a neo-imperial project.

Well, the Americans are more or less gone (except when the Iraqis ask for their help), while the Iranians are more active than ever, with the paternal Gen Qassem Suleimani now appearing virtually everywhere, on every fighting front. And despite all the public denials, the US and Iran are now on a similar wavelength in the region.

The extension of Iranian power is not even denied by Iranian officials. On the contrary, it is a source of considerable pride. As the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Gen Mohammad Ali Jaafari, stated last week: “The Islamic revolution is advancing with good speed, its example being the ever-increasing export of the revolution.”

He added: "Today, not only Palestine and Lebanon acknowledge the influential role of the Islamic Republic, but so do the people of Iraq and Syria. They appreciate the nation of Iran."

Appreciating Iran and embracing Iranian dominion are very different things. But such hubris is to be expected when Iran faces no powerful Arab adversaries and sees the US apparently willing to sign off on a new balance of power in the Middle East, in which Iran would play a central role.

Which leads to a pertinent question. If imperialism is inevitable, if powerful states have an inescapable urge to control weaker societies and states, isn’t it best that they be liberal and spur economic development? It is in response to that question that the historian Niall Ferguson has argued that the British Empire enhanced global stability and financial growth by acting as a “global net creditor” and a purveyor of liberal values.

Iran fails on both counts in the Middle East. In pursuit of its expansionist regional drives it has played on the contradictions in the Arab world, usually sectarian contradictions, while exacerbating regional polarisation. Tehran has exploited Arab divisions to ensure that states such as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon remain divided, facilitating its domination.

This is a topic that those outraged by western imperialism may wish to examine. Imperialism is alive and well but it is no longer a thing of the West. We have met the enemy and he is us.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

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