Asef Bayat: A Critique of the Eurocentric Vision of the Middle East

With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the Iranian Americans’ Contributions Project (IACP) has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavour. We examine lives and journeys that have led to significant achievements in the worlds of science, technology, finance, medicine, law, the arts and numerous other endeavors. Our latest interviewee is Asef Bayat.

Asef Bayat is the Catherine & Bruce Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies, and Professor of Sociology and Middle East at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Before joining Illinois, he taught at the American University in Cairo for sixteen years, and served as the director of the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM), and hold the Chair of Society and Culture of the Modern Middle East at Leiden University, The Netherlands. He also held visiting positions at the University of California, Berkeley, Columbia University, Oxford, and Brown.

Asef Bayat was born in a small Turkish-speaking village in the central province. He did his initial schooling in the village before his family moved to Tehran where he completed his diploma and then bachelor degree in politics. In England he obtained his PhD in sociology and politics after which he moved to Berkeley where he was a post-doctoral scholar. He has been a fellow of Ford Foundation, MacArthur, Guggenheim, and Wissenschaftskolleg, Berlin. His research areas range from social movements and social change, to religion and public life, Islam and modernity, urban space and politics, and contemporary Middle East. His recent books include Being Young and Muslim: Cultural Politics in the Global South and North (with Linda Herrera) (Oxford University Press, 2010); Post-Islamism: The Changing Faces of Political Islam (Oxford University Press, 2013); Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford University Press, 2013. 2nd edition), and Revolution without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring (Stanford University Press, 2017).

Please tell us about your background and your formative influences growing up.

I have to admit that I did not have a particularly glorious past. I was born in a very small village of some 250 people located about 60 miles southwest of Tehran. The village had no electricity, no running water, no paved road, not a doctor or a school. Our villagers were mostly peasant sharecroppers and khoshnishin — that is, non-agricultural rural dwellers like migrants, laborers, or craftsmen. Lands in the surrounding areas where I grew up were owned by an absentee feudal who lived in Tehran. He sometimes visited the village in his impressive dark green Jeep. As children, we were always terrified by the intimidating presence of his persona and entourage. When the land reform program of the Shah arrived in the 1960s, our peasant families received quite large plots of land — some households up to even 18 hectares. But my family received nothing, because we were khoshnishin. My grandfather had a little shop selling basic things like tea, cooking oil, or carousel fuel. He also served as the mulla of the village, preaching in our tiny mosque during the months of Ramadan and Moharram. My grandfather was one of just two or three people who could read and write. Luckily, he taught my father (along with two others) enabling him to eventually get his sixth-grade certificate. But my mother, like everyone else in the village, remained illiterate. My father worked mostly as a bus or truck driver, but otherwise remained jobless. He was the only son to my grandparents who had lost two teenage sons to dehydration and a daughter in childbirth. In short, life was quite difficult back then. By the time I was growing up, we were lucky to have a ‘school’ in the warehouse of the feudal lord; and things even improved somewhat with the arrival of the Literacy Corps or Sepah-e Danesh. Still, our school only went up to the fourth grade, and when I reached the 5th grade, I had nowhere to learn. I remained without school for half of the year, during which time my father taught me math and dictation in the evenings after work. Frustrated by the lack of opportunities for education in the village, my parents decided to move the entire extended family to south Tehran.

So, there was then little intellectual air floating around when I was growing up;we lived a very simple life like many others in our milieu. However, there was a strong appreciation of education — an understanding that children were assets who deserved support and even sacrifices.

What has been your personal key to success? What were the biggest inspirations for your career?

There is no doubt that I live a more comfortable, cultured, and cosmopolitan life than my parents did; and my children have enjoyed much better schooling than myself. I suppose these indicate some degree of success in my personal life. But I hope that I have also made some modest intellectual contributions to the world of scholarship. Needless to say, I find it a privilege to have a profession that enables one to reflect, research, teach, and write on issues that are pertinent to human conditions. This is what I have always wanted to do. And for this, I am most indebted to and inspired by my father and mother who, despite formidable hardships, strove to raise what they saw as “decent children” (bache-haaye khoub). Their valuing of education, born out of its deprivation in their lives, was instrumental for me and my siblings to achieve the kind of life trajectories we aspired. I think that my humble past has been an invaluable source of empowerment in my adult life. This is in the sense that I had no choice but to be diligent, resourceful, forward looking, and to appreciate the values of family and friends, and not take anything, indeed anything, for granted. But along the way, there have been key individuals who made their mark on my intellectual trajectory. My teacher in our village school, Mr. Khosravi, who had left the more ‘civilized’ Tehran to come to our ‘backward’ village to teach us, predicted wishfully that I would become a doctor — a ‘real doctor’ as my mother would say. I learnt a lot from my social studies teacher in high school in Tehran, who would indirectly discuss the political economy of Shah’s Iran by giving examples from Latin America. My professor at Kent University in England, Henry Bernstein, was inspiring because of his theoretical rigor and analytical precision. And most of all my marriage partner, herself a scholar, together with our inquisitive and interesting daughters created an intellectually challenging household which exuded engagement and inspiration.

In your book, Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn, you offer a new approach to Islam and democracy, outlining how the social struggles of student organizations, youth and women’s groups, the intelligentsia, and other social movements can make Islam democratic. Could you elaborate on this?

Well, there is a longstanding view that attributes the authoritarian character of the governments in the Muslim Middle East to Islam. The idea is that Islam is inherently undemocratic because it grants sovereignty to God instead of people; it is misogynistic, values violence, and so remains intolerant of non-Islamic lifestyle and worldviews. I find this outlook quite simplistic because it takes religion, in particular Islam, as something that is timeless and unchanging, that supposedly cultivates misogyny and authoritarian personality, and defines people’s everyday lives. Imagine, if this were the case, there would not be any hope for Muslims and the Muslim world. In this book I try to show that, first, there is more to the life for Muslims than simply Islam (and this can be extended to other religions as well). Secondly, I show that there is not one clearly defined “true Islam” out there to which Muslims everywhere adhere. I have traveled to many different Muslim-majority countries from Indonesia to Senegal, and I have seen that the cultures of Islam are different in different countries. But more importantly, within a particular country like Iran, different groups perceive Islam in different ways — some say hijab means “chador” and is obligatory, others say headscarf is enough, and still others believe that a Muslim woman does not necessarily need to cover her hair. Since the revolution of 1979, Islam has become the site of an intense struggle over the meaning of ‘true Islam’. So, my conclusion is that there is nothing inherent about Islam that make it either democratic or authoritarian; rather, it is the (Muslim) citizens who, through social struggles and discursive battles (by reading, writing, and arguing), can make their religion democratic or otherwise.

Your book, Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn, also provides a fresh analysis of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution―how it has evolved into the pervasive, post-Islamist reform movement of the early twenty-first century, and how it differed from Egypt’s religious “passive revolution”. Could you elaborate on this as well?

One of my main arguments in this book is that the idea of “Islamic revolution” makes sense basically in terms of the outcome, and not in terms of the process. In other words, historically speaking, in the Iran of the 1970s there was not a strong Islamic movement in society (in the way there was in Egypt of the 1990s, for instance) to serve as the ideological basis of an Islamic revolution. The revolution became ‘Islamic’ basically after the collapse the Shah’s regime; it was brought on primarily by the Islamist elite who, in a complex fashion, came to power and began to Islamize the state and many social institutions from above. For this reason, the establishment of the ‘Islamic state’ caused a strong dissent from the very beginning — both from segments of the clerical class and many citizens — notably women, youths, intellectuals, ethnic and religious minorities. While the 8-year war with Iraq somewhat stifled open dissent, the post-war years of the 1990s saw an increasing outcry by alienated and excluded citizens (i.e. women, youths, intellectuals, minorities, liberals, and seculars) against the Islamic regime. This compelled segments of the Islamic elites to feel that things were not working in the way that was expected — the Islamic state had alienated many fellow Iranians by its theocratic, undemocratic, exclusivist character, and intolerance of alternative life-styles. As a consequence, many elites and internal supporters (Khodi-haa) began to rethink their Islamist project and imagine an alternative project that emphasized citizens’ rights (instead of just obligations). This created an opening in the political space, and sparked a movement towards a more non-religious state. I have called this tendency ‘post-Islamist’. It came to be expressed in the ‘reform movement’ of the 1990s and the ‘reform government of President Khatami (1997–2004).

You have offered a hopeful picture of a democratic Middle East, an insightful voice of hope that sociopolitical alternatives to silence and violence are taking place in the region. Could you share with us your reasons?

That “hopeful” picture came from my observation of ‘post-Islamist’ trends that began in Iran and then developed in many Muslim majority countries. These were the movements and discourses that did not see Islam and democracy as necessarily incompatible. The Post-Islamists, by transcending the exclusivist tenets of Islamist polity, were trying to make their Islam compatible with electoral democracy. They wanted a non-religious state, but advocated a pious society. Even though this project consisted of internal tensions and conflicts, I still believed that those tensions and conflicts could be negotiated to reach a consensus if some sort of democratic setting could be established. Khatami’s government in Iran, AKP in Turkey until 2011, PKS in Indonesia, PJD in Morocco, and al-Nahda Party in Tunisia all represent trends in this kind of political direction. At the time that I was reflecting on such issues, it looked hopeful because it remained as an alternative path to both silence and violence. The Arab revolutions of 2011 interrupted this process; the revolutions toppled four dictators (Ben Ali, Mubarak, Ghaddafi, and Ali Saleh) and brought Beshar al-Asad to the brink, while instigating a profound fear among the rest of autocratic regimes in the Middle East, especially the Arab kingdoms and sheikhdoms. Except for Tunisia, these revolutions still failed to bring democracy, for complex internal and international reasons that I have elaborated in my latest book, Revolution without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring. At this point, there is indeed a big setback; counter-revolution is back in business, and these countries, especially Egypt, are further away from a semblance of democracy. But then, democracy seems to be in retreat globally, and not just in the Middle East. But this is a different story.

What did you try to illuminate in your book, Street Politics: Poor People’s Movements in Iran?

The book tries to do two things. To begin with, it is meant to be a contribution to our understanding of the Iranian revolution of 1979. You see most accounts of the revolution (many of them very valuable, indeed) focus on examining the reasons, processes, and outcome of the overthrow of the Shah’s regime. Most trace deep institutional and ideological shifts, in particular the establishment of the Islamic state; others examine the revolution’s impact on international relations. I wanted to look at the revolution at the grassroots level. I wanted to see what this revolution meant for the poor people (such as squatters, street vendors, the unemployed, and like) — those who mostly lived on the margin of the cities and engaged mainly in precarious jobs as a way to make a living. So, in the first instance the book is a narrative of what the urban poor did before, during, and after the Iranian revolution. But by narrating the engagement of the poor people in the revolution, the book also tries to develop an analytical perspective to understand the politics of the urban poor in general. To this end, I developed the notion of the ‘quiet encroachment of the ordinary’ and ‘street politics’. These ideas help examine the kind of politics the urban poor espouse. I then expanded these ideas further as I began to investigate the politics of other social groups such as youth and women in the Muslim Middle East, and so formulated the concept of ‘social nonmovements’ in a subsequent book titled Life as Politics. This concept has now been taken by various social scientists to examine the life of the subaltern groups mostly in the countries of the Global South. Fortunately, both of these books have now been translated into Persian (in addition to Arabic, Turkish, German, and Swedish editions).

In your book, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, you make a double criticism: a critique of the Eurocentric vision that looks at the Arab world as exceptional, and a critique of approaches that are incapable of reading the historicity of Middle Eastern societies and the political actions of their actors. Could you explain your criticism in details?

My critique of the Eurocentric view is not really new. Many, notably Edward Said, had already discussed the pitfalls of Eurocentrism. My critique is specifically focused on the broader perspective in social movement theory, in particular in the US, that seems to have taken the element of “organization” as the basis of any social movement. Needless to say, solid organization is an invaluable resource for a movement. But my questions were: what do the ordinary people in the authoritarian states like Iran or the Arab world do when the cost of organizing is very high? When the police arrest five people who get together to organize an event or think of mobilizing for, for instance, social justice causes? Do people sit around and do nothing? My study showed that people do realize the constraints, risks and costs; and subsequently, they try to devise quite fluid strategies that work for their situation. Now if we take the dominant Eurocentric view (as many of our colleagues do in the Middle East), we may conclude that people do not do anything; that they are passive or fatalistic. But in fact, people do a lot. I tried to understand the logic of practice among the ordinary people in everyday life to survive and enhance their life chances; and I theorized it in terms of “nonmovements”.

In your latest book, Revolution without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring, you explained why the Arab Spring occurred, and what made these uprisings so distinct from those that came before. Could you share with us your ideas and thoughts?

Without doubt, the Arab spring was an extraordinary episode in the history of the Middle East region. When the uprising was unfolded in the depressed town of Sidi-Bouzid in Tunisia and then spread to Egypt and across the Arab region like a wildfire, I knew I wanted to write about this episode. I had lived in the region, Egypt, for some 16 years prior to the revolutions and was somewhat familiar with the nature of politics in the region. But beyond that, I had lived through and studied the Iranian revolution of 1979, which happened at almost the same time as the Nicaraguan revolution. As I began to reflect on the Arab revolutions, I felt that they were quite different from the ones that had occurred in the 20th Century, in particular, the ones that I was familiar with, like the Iranian and Nicaraguan revolutions. The Arab revolutions were quite spectacular in their modes of mobilization; they were innovative and less violent. But unlike the those of the 1970s, the Arab revolutions were less organized, with no charismatic leaders like Ortega, or Ayatollah Khomeini or Mandela; and almost no intellectual backing like the ones articulated by, for instance, Ali Shariati or Vaclav Hovel or Lenin, etc. More significantly the Arab revolutions were far less radical; they caused little break from the past social order. So, the question for me was: why? The book tries to describe the distinct characters of these revolutions and explain the logic behind them. I have suggested that these were not revolutions in the sense of the 20th Century counterparts, but ‘refo-lutions’ — that is, a mix of revolutionary mobilization and reformist trajectories. They assumed ‘refo-lutionary’ character because they took place at a time in the global ideological stage when the very idea of ‘revolution’ had been dissipated, when protestors were not thinking in terms of revolution, but largely reform. Of course, the discussion in the book is more complex and nuanced than what I state here. I hope that those interested will read the book!

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