How would you explain the politics involved in participating in public sphere debates in the West where you are frequently expected to represent -- both in the sense of characterizing and speaking for -- Muslims or Iran? Since the Western public sphere, and especially, one might argue, the US public sphere, is permeated with the demonisation of Third World societies in general, and Muslim societies in particular, how should the diasporic postcolonial intellectual negotiate this aspect of the Western public sphere while articulating criticism of these societies?
There are two complementary ways of doing this. One: there are certain strategic moments that require one to speak as a postcolonial, Third World intellectual. I have no problems with that but at the same time this can sometimes degenerate into an identitarian political position which is not at all what I am interested in.
Second we must remain cognizant of the fact that because of massive labor migrations, cultures are in a state of flux, and as a result, I would be equally ignorant of the fact of my own biography - a Gramscian inventory of my own identity - if I forgot that I have lived in this country for more than a quarter of a century. As a result it is as integral to my critical apparatus as anything else may be. So I do not always speak as a postcolonial Muslim intellectual; I have to speak from the location of my culture and the location of my culture is New York.
Of course people do expect that I will speak as a Muslim, or as an Iranian, or some combination of the two. I will always correct them, though, and sometimes, depending on the context, I will abrogate the fact of representation. I will stress that I represent nothing at all, or that I am as representative of Iranians, or Muslims, or Shias, as I am of New Yorkers.
I am downplaying the importance of this because there is still a public perception that I will say this or that, and constantly, even if inadvertently at times, I am reduced to a native informant. But other than saying I am not, there is little I can do.
There is also an added complication that nobody addresses, which is the professional pacification of intellectuals in the academy. The disappearance of public intellectuals has its own history, especially in this country. Public intellectuals became compromised and institutionalized intellectuals, which inhibited public activism, and continues to do so now.
Right now the problem I face is how to combine my status as a public intellectual with that of a teacher. I have been forced to say that when I enter my classroom, an entirely different animal emerges. I am far more fascinated by a close-up or a long-shot in a film, or with a literary passage in a novel, irrespective of its politics, than with what is happening in the world on that day.
The US-led military intervention in Iraq has been portrayed as a success in sections of the American media. Do you think this conclusion might be premature?
It is very premature. There have been massive civilian casualties in Iraq, to this day we have no statistics of how many people were killed there. Who is supposed to tell us? Not only has it been a failure in terms of its stated objectives, it is a catastrophic failure in terms of its whiplash effects domestically, i.e., in terms of our civil liberties in the United States. These liberties have been systematically corroded to the point that the combined effects of the Homeland Security Act, the USA Patriot Act, and the specter of Patriot Act II are devastating and create political conditions worse than those found in the Islamic Republic.
The massive tax-cuts that Bush is now proposing will leave millions of American kids without protection and basic needs while increasing money for millionaires. It is a failure not only in terms of its target (creating democracy under the barrel of a gun) but also in terms of its effects: creating more resentment and hatred against innocent Americans both at home and abroad, creating an even more dangerous situation in terms of possible terrorist attacks globally, and equally important, the corroding of our civil liberties, destroying our environment (Patriot Act II would have all sorts of ghastly environmental consequences), and the cutting of social services for the underprivileged.
The recent ceasefire between American military forces in Iraq and the Iraqi-based Iranian opposition group, People's Mujahideen, has been interpreted in Iran as part of a pattern of escalating aggression by the Bush administration. How do you see American-Iranian relations unfolding in the future?
It is a mixed bag. The Americans kept the People's Mujahideen intact as a stick so that if Iran were to mobilize its 10,000-strong Badr battalion under the control of SCIRI (the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, ruled by Ayatollah Hakim), they would let the Mujahideen loose. In and of itself, this is a tragic turn of events for the Mujahideen because once they were a progressive, revolutionary movement. They then degenerated into a mercenary army that Saddam Hussein used against the Kurds and other opposition groups. And now they have become an instrument of American imperialism; it is a horror.
In terms of the Iran-US relationship, there is not much of a relationship. We have to take a step back and look at it globally. The point for the US in the region is absolute and unconditional control of the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, through which a considerable volume of world oil passes. In my judgment, Europe is now emerging as a second superpower: with a population of 265 million, with the euro now as strong as the dollar, with a potential alliance with Russia, and trans-Siberian oil pipelines through Siberia all the way to Japan and China and Korea. This together can in fact globally engulf the US and prevent its drive towards global control.
Major European opposition - French and German (the British are tangential, and the Spanish and Italians don't count) - made the Iraqi war in fact a proxy war between the US and Europe. The US wants to have total and unconditional control over the Persian Gulf. Iraq is now occupied and pacified, Saddam Hussein is no longer a problem. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan are all under US control. Iran and Syria are two important players who are not. Syria is not related to this area but is important for controlling the Hizbollah in Lebanon and the Hamas in Palestine in order to facilitate and pacify resistance for this roadmap to peace that Bush has in mind.
Iran however is part of the same scenario (control of the Persian Gulf, that is) but this does not mean that the Americans will do in Iran what they did in Iraq. That is not the solution. The solution is that Iranians themselves are already scared and have initiated conversation with the Americans. There are now more aggressive, secret conversations going on between the US and Iran. The US just requires the following from Iran: flow of oil, open markets for its goods, and security for the Persian Gulf. If these three items are provided, the US does not care at all about progressive, reformist movements inside Iran one way or another. If Khatemi and the progressive movement he represents win, fine, if he loses, fine, as long as these three objectives are met.