[This paper by Dr Robert Beshara, Professor of Psychosocial Studies at the Parkmore Institute, was presented in 2018 at the Islamophobia Conference at the University of California, Berkeley. The Parkmore Institute is delighted to be able to publish this outstanding paper in this forum. The material will soon appear in Dr Beshara’s book which can be purchased at:
Decolonial Psychoanalysis: Towards Critical Islamophobia Studies
Robert K. Beshara
1997 is a significant date for scholars gathered here at this reputable conference because the publication of the Runnymede Trust report signaled the formal establishment of Islamophobia Studies as an interdisciplinary field. According to Sayyid and Vakil (2017), even though the original report “did not coin the term Islamophobia, it certainly gave it legs.” Stretching their metaphor a little further, I would argue that Said is the one who vaguely gave life to the concept in 1978 with the publication of his magnum opus, Orientalism. I say ‘vaguely’ because Said does not make an explicit reference to the term until 1985—bearing in mind, of course, the importance of his 1981 book Covering Islam for Islamophobia Studies. While the signifier ‘Islamophobia’ was coined in the late 19th or early 20th century (Bravo López, 2011), the phenomenon itself predates the actual term by at least four centuries. 1492, to be precise, marks the birth of Islamophobia not as a discourse, but as a fantasy. Islamophobia as a discourse dates back to 1798, that is, “the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt” (Said, 1978, p. 42). My distinction between Islamophobia as a fantasy and Islamophobia as a discourse follows the logic of Foucault’s (1980) differentiation between the genealogy of power and the archeology of knowledge, respectively. In the longue durée, first there was power then came knowledge; in other words, the so-called Enlightenment punctuates the shift from colonialism to coloniality. According to Dussel (2000): “The modern ego cogito was anticipated by more than a century by the practical, Spanish-Portuguese ego conquiro (I conquer) that imposed its will (the first modern ‘will-to-power’) on the indigenous populations of the Americas” (p. 471, emphasis in original).
2017 is another significant date because the Runnymede Trust report 2.0 marks the inauguration of, to use Beydoun’s (2016) words, “the Islamophobia president.” In response to Sayyid and Vakil’s (2017) call for “a theory of Islamophobia,” I will attempt to answer the four main questions that they raise in their article from the perspective of Critical Islamophobia Studies (CIS). To do this, I will begin by exploring some of the core principles of CIS. I will then end my paper by illustrating an application of “decolonial psychoanalysis” (Beshara, 2018) as one theoretico-methodological approach to CIS.
The Core Principles of Critical Islamophobia Studies
CIS is a psychosocial praxis, which means that as a transdisciplinary field it is concerned with “theory linked directly with pratice which would impact upon the real world outside [of academia]” (Parker, 2017, p. 263). Those who populate the field are likely to be scholar-activists (e.g., Hatem Bazian, Deepa Kumar, and Ramón Grosfóguel). CIS particularly focuses on “the link between language and action” (Parker, 2017, p. 6) vis-à-vis Islamophobia/Islamophilia. In other words: “How we speak and write about things [like Islamophobia/Islamophilia] makes a difference. But the real difference will come when we put these arguments into practice” (Parker, 2017, p. 8).
As a psychosocial praxis, CIS attempts to bridge the gap between the humanities and the social sciences, theory and practice, scholarship and activism, rationalism and empiricism. With this in mind, “radical qualitative research” (Parker, 2005) in CIS tends to be deductive (Chalmers, 1999, p. 54); to put it differently, while the CIS scholar-activist embraces empiricism, she or he rejects the inductive presupposition of a tabula rasa. In other words, the radical qualitative researcher in CIS views theory as a lens through which one comes to make sense of the world. Consequently, commonsense is not an atheoretical position; rather what is commonsensical is frequently a false theory, which is taken-for-granted as a non-theory. The corrective to this ideological dilemma, especially in the context of post-truth, is critical praxis. In my conceptualization of CIS, I draw on Parker’s (1999) writings on critical psychology. For example, Parker (2003) lists four critical theoretical resources for critiquing mainstream psychology: Marxism, feminism, Foucault, and psychoanalysis. His list is useful for CIS, but I add two more theoretical resources, namely: postcolonial studies / decoloniality and critical Muslim studies. These six critical theoretical resources do not necessarily see eye to eye; criticality is the only thing they have in common. Nevertheless, the idea of drawing on more than one critical theoretical resource, in a transdisciplinary fashion, will allow us to describe and/or explain the same phenomenon (i.e., Islamophobia/Islamophilia) in more than one way in an effort “to change the world” (Parker, 2017, p. 9).
While there is nothing fundamentally wrong with doing quantitative research in CIS (Parker, 2005, p. 9), radical qualitative research is explicitly political and moral in terms of its orientation due to its attentiveness to the subjectivity of both the researcher and the researched (p. 5)—what is known as reflexivity. For instance, Parker (2005) writes, “objectivity is deeply subjective…we may arrive closer to the truth, to an objective standpoint, by reflecting on our own subjectivity, on how we have come to be located in the research at this point in history in this particular institution” (p. 28).
Note that I am reclaiming the word ‘radical’ despite it being tainted by the so-called “radicalization” discourse. Radicalism, according to Wallerstein (2004), “is the third of the great ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Radicals believe that progressive social change is not only inevitable but highly desirable, and the faster the better” (p. 96). Examples of radical qualitative research methods include: ethnography, interviewing, narrative, discourse, and action research (Parker, 2005).
Responding to Sayyid and Vakil (2017)
- What’s In A Name?
I situate CIS within the discursive turn in an effort to short-circuit the definitional debates plaguing the field. In other words, in my approach I emphasize the primacy of the signifier ‘Islamophobia’ following Lacan’s (1966/1966/2006) repurposing of de Saussure’s structural linguistics. Consequently, I de-emphasize the signified, such as the commonly used etymology: “extreme fear of Islam.”
Disclaimer: When you hear me say ‘ideology,’ think of the following “signifying chain” (Lacan, 1966/2006): war→terror→Islam→phobia, particularly vis-à-vis the “master’s discourse” in Lacanian discourse theory (1991/2007). The master’s discourse, in my opinion, is a rosetta stone for CIS. To put it differently, by ideology I am referring to the link between the “war on terror” discourse and the Islamophobia/Islamophilia fantasy, and by ideology critique, I am engaging in “critical border thinking” or what Mignolo (2007), following Amin, characterizes as “delinking.” Conceptualizing the “war on terror” as a master’s discourse provides us with the key to critiquing the ideology of (counter)terrorism-Islamophobia/Islamophilia. In other words, by making the link between the discourse of (counter)terrorism and the fantasy of Islamophobia/Islamophilia explicit, we are able to delink the rhetoric of (post)colonial violence from the logic of (post)modern oppression.
Consequently, I define everyday Islamophobia/Islamophilia as the othering, and oppression, of conceptual Muslims. Othering is a function of metonymic displacement (e.g., terrorist→Muslim), while oppression is a function of metaphoric condensation (e.g., terrorism = war). Further, the conceptual Muslim is a fantasy figure, or an objet a, which is a hybrid between Muslim and “Muslim–looking” (Cashin, 2010) others. As a fantasy figure, it condenses two counter-hegemonic subject positions: not-counterterrorist and not-terrorist. That is to say, the conceptual Muslim is the automatic ‘enemy’ par excellence according to the binary logic of the “war on terror” discourse.
Given that it is an Orientalist discourse, which follows a binary logic, the “war on terror” allows for only two official, or hegemonic, subject positions (S1 and S2) as exemplified by Bush’s (2001) infamous words: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” In contrast, I place the ethico-political subjectivity of US Muslims, and everyone else who rejects hegemonic ideology, in the counter-hegemonic, or negative, space designated by ~S1 and ~S2. I am able to do this kind of mapping thanks to Greimas’s (1968) semiotic square.
- Islamophobia and Racism
Racism is one psychosocial term for describing Islamophobia, in particular, “everyday racism,” which integrates “structural and interactional dimensions of racism” (Essed, 1991, p. 2). But there are at least two problems with the signifier ‘racism’: (1) it essentializes Muslims as a ‘race’ and (2) it excludes other forms of oppression that intersect with ‘race,’ such as “gendered Islamophobia” (Zine, 2006, p. 240). Also, the shorthand definition of Islamophobia as “anti-Muslim racism” (Kumar, 2012), while well intentioned, excludes non-Muslim, or Muslimlooking, objects of Islamophobia. For these reasons, I opted to define everyday Islamophobia/Islamophilia as the othering, and oppression, of conceptual Muslims in line with Spivak’s (1985) “production of othering” (p. 255) and Collins’s (2000) “systems of oppression” (p. 18).
- The Globalization of Islamophobia
Even though my research is on Islamophobia in the US, my politics is internationlist and this is one of the radical dimensions of CIS: the personal is political as the second-wave feminists used to say. For example, Davis (2016) argues: “The important issues in the Palestinian struggle for freedom and self-determination are minimized and rendered invisible by those who try to equate Palestinian resistance to Israeli apartheid with terrorism” (p. 8). Following Davis’s “intersectionality of struggles” (Davis, 2016, p. 19) paradigm, resisting violence and oppression, or hegemonic ideology, consists of both epistemic and ontic resistance. That is to say, our ethic of everyday resistance is actualized via the path of subjectification and entails “transversality” (Dussel, 2012, p. 41).
Dussel (2012) defines transversality as the “movement from the periphery to the periphery” (p. 54). The 2015 Black Solidarity Statement with Palestine is an excellent example of transversality, since that statement links the Black Lives Matter struggle with the struggle for Palestinian liberation. This conference, too, is a great illustration of transversality-in-action: scholar-activists coming together to fight Islamophobia not because of their intersectional identities but because of their intersectional struggles.
- The Muslim Ghost in the Machine
To clarify, CIS is a radical research program that builds upon the critical work produced by the Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project and others, such as the journal Human Architecture, which published numerous articles on Islamophobia using “the grammar of decoloniality” (Mignolo, 2007, p. 500).
My critical use of Lacanian psychoanalysis is justified given that I situate CIS within the discursive turn. However, I radicalize Lacanian social theory by giving it a decolonial edge “from the borders” (Mignolo, 2007, p. 8). That is to say, what I am calling decolonial psychoanalysis is a critique from a transmodern (Dussel, 2002), or a global southern perspective. To demonstrate, let us examine mainstream psychology’s contribution to Islamophobia studies, or what I call the psychologization of Islamophobia. By using decolonial psychoanalysis to critique mainstream psychology, I am not to trying depsychologize Islamophobia/Islamophilia, but rather to politicize it, or make it “really social” (Burton & Osorio, 2011); in other words, I am attempting to psychosocialize Islamophobia/Islamophilia. Even though the majority of mainstream psychological studies on Islamophobia are correlational (i.e., predictive), many of them come across as quasi-experimental. The assumption implicit in these studies is that if we carefully isolate ‘Islamophobia’ as a variable then we can statically ‘measure’ it—e.g., with an “Islamophobia scale” (Lee, Gibbons, Thompson, & Timani, 2009)—in relation to other variables.
This quasi-experimental approach may produce ‘significant’—albeit apolitical—results and hypotheses, which can never be tested because there is no ‘valid’ or ‘reliable’ way of making cause-effect statements about Islamophobia. After all, how can we reproduce Islamophobia in the lab? That would be impossible—not mentioning unethical. The alternative, of course, is to operationalize Islamophobia as an abstract and quantifiable variable. A variable, which can then be ‘measured’ and statistically correlated to other ‘factors.’
An Application of Decolonial Psychoanalysis as one Approach to CIS
The US Presidential Election of 2016 as a Capitalist Discourse
Lacan introduced the capitalist discourse in 1972 during his speech at the University of Milan (Vanheule, 2016). The flow of communication in the capitalist discourse ($→S1→S2→a) looks similar to the one in the master’s discourse, but there is a significant difference. Whereas S1 was the agent in the master’s discourse, now $ is the agent in the capitalist discourse, who instead of communicating with the other as knowledge (S2), communicates with the master signifier (S1) as truth. This master signifier then puts knowledge to work (S1→S2) in order to produce surplus jouissance (a) for the consumer ($).
$ (the Islamophobic consumer). To contextualize my study, I will consider the Islamophobic Trump voter as the agent of the capitalist discourse, or the consumer ($). I am not assuming that all who voted for Trump are Islamophobes. I am referring only to the two “types” of Trump voters who are admittedly Islamophobic, namely: “American Preservationists” and “Staunch Conservatives” (Ekins, 2017). In other words, the 22.5 million US citizens, who wholeheartedly support the Muslim ban (Ekins, 2017, p. 12).
S1 (Trump). Trump was notorious for making Islamophobic, and other bigoted, statements during the campaign trail. The most famous comment is: “I think Islam hates us.” There are two subjects in that phrase: the “subject of the statement” and the “enunciating subject” (Lacan, 1966/2006, p. 650). The former is represented by the first singular pronoun subject “I,” which Lacan (1966/2006) calls a “shifter” (p. 556). The latter is none other than the verb “hates.” Given both how meaning is a function of the “retroactive effect” (Lacan, 1966/2006, p. 682) and how “the subject [Trump] receives his own forgotten message in the inverted form” (p. 366, emphasis added), the unconscious of the text reads, according to my interpretation: “We hate Islam.” Trump’s phrase in reverse is literally: “us hates Islam think I.” The first plural pronoun object “us,” which is also an acronym for the United States, retroactively seals the meaning of the message and becomes the first plural pronoun subject “we.” The message “we hate Islam” is delivered through “the unconscious as the Other’s discourse” (Lacan, 1966/2006, p. 547) to those who identify with this “we,” namely: Islamophobic consumers ($). Since I am against psychologization, the problem here is not with Trump (S) as an individual per se, but with the power that he represents as a master signifier (S1).
S2 (MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN). In the capitalist discourse, the Islamophobe ($) consumes Islamophobia (a) as a product via the master signifier: Trump (S1). The truth of the Islamophobic consumer ($) is that Trump (S1), in this context, functions not only as a reference to a subject (S), but also as a brand name (S1) that can generate knowledge (S2) as the other; hence, the signifying chain: MAKE→AMERICA→GREAT→AGAIN.
Trump rehashes Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign slogan, “Let’s make America great,” but drops “let’s,” which is a contraction of “let us.” There is a reason for this. “Let us” is a first person plural imperative mood, which forms a somewhat polite request from Reagan to his followers. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign slogan, however, is written in all capitals for emphasis, “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.” Notice the homonymy at work here: a slogan in all capitals in the capitalist discourse.
Given Trump’s fascination with social media, it is fair to assume that he knows: “Typing in all caps is Internet code for shouting, and it is rude” (Robb, 2014). In other words, the major difference between Trump and Reagan is that Trump is making a demand (D), and not a request. With that slogan (S2), Trump (S1) is positioning himself in terms of “the Other as demand” (Fink, 1995, p. 99). The effect of this demand (D) on the Islamophobic consumer ($) is, of course, alienation à la Marx avec Lacan.
Lacan (1973/2004) defines the “vel of alienation” as a forced choice between two terms (being and meaning), mediated through a third term (non-meaning), wherein we lose no matter what we choose (p. 211, emphasis in original). For example, if a Trump supporter chooses being (inclusive), the subject disappears ($ // S1). If, on the other hand, a Trump supporter chooses the Other’s non-meaning (MAGA), they lose being (inclusive) and become subject ($) to the Other’s meaning (GREAT→WHITE). This example, provided by Lacan (1973/2004), captures the paradoxical nature of alienation: “Your money or your life! If I choose the money, I lose both. If I choose life, I have life without the money, namely, a life deprived of something” (p. 212, emphasis in original).
Rick Tyler, an independent candidate for Congress from Tennessee’s 3rd district made the unconscious association (GREAT→WHITE) explicit with the following campaign slogan: “MAKE AMERICA WHITE AGAIN” (as cited in Bever, 2016). Similarly, in a speech critical of Trump’s immigration plan, House Minority Leader Representative Nancy Pelosi said, “While I’m on the subject of DREAMers, since last night the president put forth a plan. Let me just say what I said last night: that plan is a campaign to make America white again” (as cited in Schwartz, 2018, emphasis added).
a (the Islamophobia industry). The product, or surplus jouissance, in the capitalist discourse is the Islamophobia as objet a generated by the Islamophobia “industry” (Bazian, 2015) or “network” (Ali et al., 2011). Islamophobia (a) as surplus jouissance causes the desire of the Islamophobic consumer ($) to seek more of that “kernel” that makes the ideology function, namely: “inner greatness” (Žižek, 1997/2008, p. 28). The ideological fantasy is produced through the subject’s identification with the master signifier ($→S1), the brand name that guarantees GREAT jouissance.
The difference between the Islamophobic consumer and the Islamophobia industry is the difference between amateur / unconscious Islamophobia and professional / conscious Islamophobia. Together, these two forms constitute everyday Islamophobia, which I critically theorize based on my radical qualitative research as internalized Islamophobia. In sum, our central task as scholar-activists working in Critical Islamophobia Studies is enacting everyday resistance to everyday Islamophobia. Given the internalization of Islamophobia, everyday resistance entails a critical, psychosocial praxis focused on the links between language and action, ideology and subjectivity. In the end, “how we describe the world has consequences for how we think we can change it” (Parker, 2017, p. 264).
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