Interview: Faisal Devji on Globalized Antiracist Protests

by | Jul 14, 2020 | Commentary

Faisal Devji, a distinguished scholar and historian at Oxford University, joined PCIM director Raza Rumi to discuss how the global scope of the recent Black Lives Matter protests is raising possibilities for a new global politics. Devji’s historical insights place these protests on a post-Cold War world stage, where conflicts between states, given the absence of a single set of world rivals, have given way to numerous internal conflicts fought through proxies in a “Global Civil War.” Movements including the Arab Spring, preceding Black Lives Matter, have spread across a globalized world to resurrect issues once thought settled, such as racism or Arab nationalism. Now, the West is reckoning with decolonialization and “re-founding” by protesting institutional racism in established symbolism and police forces.

RAZA: Today we are going to discuss the protests that started in the U.S. after the killing of George Floyd, which have since took a global trajectory. We saw many European capitals protesting alongside the U.S. Faisal, do you think his particular moment holds special meaning, given that the world is already trying to grapple with a pandemic? Is this significant?

FAISAL: Yes, I do, Raza. In fact, I think those two things are linked. The issue of racism, especially with the police, has been around for a long time in the United States. But the reason why it went both national in the U.S. and global in rest of the West—and we can talk about why this movement has not moved beyond the West—has to do with this inadvertent link to the pandemic. What parts made up this link? One is that so many people were stuck home. These people had not had any voice in the political events surrounding the pandemic—because dealing with the pandemic is a political issue, not simply a medical one. Ordinary people had been shut out for the most part. The pandemic created a portal for people to humanize what was otherwise an inhuman event.

The link between those two phenomena was made very clear by the phrase “I can’t breathe,” the words Floyd uttered at his last moments. “I can’t breathe” is also a very befitting slogan for coronavirus, and this link has been acknowledged. The global nature of one event, the pandemic, is linked with that of the other, anti-racism. The former has provided a portal to the latter. What I find interesting is that the people who came onto the streets against racism in the U.S. and Western Europe did so in a way that flouted the bio-political regulations that stipulated and were meant to govern the pandemic: people could not maintain social distancing and came in large numbers. Many protesters did not follow these instructions, engaging in sacrificial acts by risking self-exposure and defying the bio-political regime. So, I think the duality of these protests is worth noticing.

And we have seen this kind of thing before. It Is precisely because the pandemic was incalculable and unpredicted, though not unpredictable, that allowed things to change so rapidly. And the protesters came out against racism at the very time when the pandemic was at its height, especially in the U.S., in the face of the states’ greatest moment of authority. Because no moment is as authoritative as one in which the state is dealing with a national emergency.  And yet this is what happened.

RAZA: Right. That’s very insightful. In the past two or three decades, since we have embraced “globalization,” do you remember any similar moments of outrage or global solidarity around an issue?

FAISAL: It’s interesting when you put these protests in the context of global mobilizations. The pandemic itself did not give rise to such protests. Even though it is global, the pandemic did not mobilize people on the streets in the way antiracism has. When we think of the globalization of mobilization, the first event, which is, in a way, paradoxical, is the so-called Rushdie affair of 1989. Muslims came out onto the streets of British cities first, and then onto those of cities in India and Pakistan, and then elsewhere, particularly in the Muslim world. They came out against the alleged insults delivered to the Prophet in Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses.” Now, you might see these protests as the first ones in which an ethnic minority, more or less discriminated against, came out in its own name in the West, where mobilization was then mirrored for simpler or different reasons elsewhere in the world. It’s not necessarily the kind of genealogy you might like to create between Islam and Islamic protesters on one hand, and anti racism on the other. But nevertheless, I think it’s a real link, not because of its ethnic minority or racial issue, but because these mobilizations have only become possible at the end of Cold War. The Rushdie affair is in 1989, the climactic year of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its collapse leaves the world without a geo-political order, which allows for the emergence of a global arena in which these kinds of mobilizations, for the first time, become possible. Technology and, eventually, social media also traverse this new arena to facilitate these mobilizations.

So, if you see the Rushdie affair as the first global set of protests, the next ones along are quite different. You have the protests immediately after 9/11 against AL-Qaeda in sympathy with the United States all over the world, including places like Iran, where you would not expect them to happen. Thirdly, years later, there were protests against the impending Iraq war. So, there were a number of these mobilizations that have happened since the Rushdie affair and the end of the Cold War. Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall in Britain, which together make up the antiracism protests we see today – that is only the last set of global mobilizations. I place them all in a post-Cold War scenario. They are not clearly linked by their content necessarily. Though the themes of minoritization, minorityhood, and discrimination, obviously, rank very highly. To these you might add, though they are not as global in their mobilization, the Extinction Rebellion and the MeToo protests, which were not street protests. Extinction Rebellion used highly theatrical forms of occupation of urban space. But MeToo tended to be much more social media oriented.

RAZA: That’s exactly the case with MeToo and Extinction Rebellion. But they had global presence, which is perhaps the common factor here. But do you think that these movements and kinds of solidarities we see will sustain in the near future or distant future? In the 20th century, there were several attempts to forge international movements, but they were often victims of Cold War or national politics. But with the digital age we live in now, where you see them going?

FAISAL: That’s an interesting question. A number of unprecedented things have changed already. The toppling of statues in the United States is of course only one side. Another is the removing or the changing of names: Woodrow Wilson, for instance, has been removed from what was Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson Center. And of course, there’s the huge amounts of money being moved around. Facebook was hit with boycotts from advertisers for its tolerance of hate-related content. Also, there has been a funneling of money towards racial diversity causes as well. All these things are unprecedented, so something already has changed. Whether there will be continuity is another question.

I suspect that what’s happening is a moment of re-founding. There are two moments. One has to do with revival of apparently more event causes. In a prior regional mobilization like the Arab Spring, you have a set of protests and uprisings across the Arab world, which have no obvious links to one another. They are not being planned by any central casting. They imitate each other in the same way that these protests over Muhammad and blasphemy and Islam used to imitate each other, without much planning. They follow that very media-friendly, highly technologized model. On the other hand, what you see happening with the Arab Spring is the reemergence of moribund identities. No one imagined that Arab nationalism was a thing any longer. It had just become so sclerotic and so rigid and so in the possession of nation states that people imagined that this was no longer a popular movement of the kind it might have been in the 1950s. And yet, without using the name Arab nationalism, these mobilizations occurred only in that part of the world where Arab nationalism had once been a reality.

We call what we’re seeing with race today a global movement, but It doesn’t really go much beyond the “West,” and there are reasons for that, which we can discuss. There too, identities like white supremacy and racial discrimination—which were imagined to have been problems of the past, marginal issues that had been resolved—have come back from the dead. It’s a fascinating thing happening: on one hand, that, on the other hand, what I am calling the moment of re-founding. The focus of these antiracist movements on statuary, on symbols, is a way of addressing the question of how you lay new foundations for a polity and statuary and names—the most effective way you can describe or signal the identity of any country, national ideology, political ideology or civilization. So, the toppling of statues might be seen as an attempt to re-found our polity, not simply at the national level, but at regional and indeed global levels. Where that’ll take us of course is an open question. Though I have my views on it.

RAZA: Yes, exactly. Re-founding is very interesting. In the case of the U.S., the imagination of a nation-state is under scrutiny. But besides in the West and western Europe, even in countries that have race issues, protests have not been widespread. As in India for example: a huge country with castes and inequalities. Why do you think populations in India and Pakistan have not engaged in these global movements?

FAISAL: Well in a place like India, only recently have we seen quite extensive and unprecedented uprisings over the Citizen Amendment Act and proposed National Register of Citizens, which was understood as discriminatory against minorities and Muslims especially. That mobilization was nationwide. It intersected here and there with anti-caste protests, which have a long history in India. So, there is something already happening in India. It has been dampened forcibly by the pandemic and the dispersal of protests in Indian cities. But in India and Pakistan, caste should and will be a major focus for protest. We pretend not to think about caste in Pakistan, but it is an important cleavage, which is often disguised by religious terms. Often it is people who are understood as having been converted from low castes to other minority religions in Pakistan. Those are the people being attacked, as much for their caste as their religion. I would at least like to think that if there is a pan-south Asian movement for justice, one of the ways it would express itself is through caste, because caste runs across every south Asian country. It cannot simply be located in India or within Hinduism.

RAZA: Coming back to the West, slogans calling to defund or abolish the police have gained popularity recently in the U.S. Interestingly, police structures, in the U.S. particularly, are very imperial in nature. They date back to the era of slavery. There is a theme of decolonization running beneath these protests. I’m curious to hear your perspective as a professor of history, since we often think of decolonization as the British leaving Pakistan. But the U.S. and many western countries need to decolonize themselves.

FAISAL: Police violence in the United States is quite different from police violence in western Europe. Its occurrence and racialization in the U.S. is much greater, though so too is the diversity of the police force. But the country with so many more guns and shootings has so many people dying from police firing than in most of western European combined. In the U.K., protests have not focused on the police and antiracism so much—not to say police have been entirely innocent, or that people see them that way. But the chief targets have been institutional racism, including in the police, statuary and symbols.

It reminds of south Asia. My colleague wrote in the Financial Times that in India and Pakistan, no one really trusts police. Any person would hesitate more than twice to file even a minor complaint. This is because police in India, and I would say in Pakistan, are completely in the hands of local and regional politicians. As parties change their attitudes, the problem with police in South Asia is that it’s not autonomous. It has no way of running itself. It serves an agent very directly. In South Asia, the protests are mostly directed at politicians, not at police. Everyone knows the police force does what politicians set for them, except for haftas [weekly receipts].

RAZA: In the U.S., there is some level of cautious optimism with all these protests, as well as with police reform. Bills upon bills are being tabled. But my concern here is asking how we can think of a more globalized future in terms of political consciousness and struggle, because we have people like President Trump here, who do not believe in globalization or international action. Would you also consider that these protests are kind of a reaction to that that particular worldview?

FAISAL: I was thinking about the Arab Spring and the revival of what everyone had thought of as moribund or marginal identities or politics.  We see at the moment, and the American president is at the forefront of this, the greatest crisis in the West institutionally. And I don’t only refer to the pandemic, but also to Brexit, the U.S.’s withdrawal from its allies and from various treaties with allies against Russia, the crisis of EU, the crisis of NATO—at this very moment of greatest institutional crisis, what you have is the re-founding of the West against its own past in the cause of justice, and not through a set of inherited institutions. Protesters are not only saying, “Look, we disagree with Trump and we would rather have the old NAFTA, no Brexit, and we’d rather have a fulsome NATO.” They are not going back to the Cold War verities. What they are saying instead is, “We are going to re-found the West in a different way.” New institutions have not yet been put in place, and maybe they never will be. But something very interesting is happening with the mobilization, just as it had with the Arab Spring, with all these disconnected protests imitating each other to produce something that everyone thought was dead.

I would like to suggest why no geopolitics are truly global. Conflicts in the global arena are now internal. Conflicts for civil war, these protests, you cannot attribute them to external individuals. They divide some citizens against other citizens. The same could be said about some earlier like those of the Rushdie affair protests. You can also see that in war, whether it’s Iraq or Syria, or before that, Sudan, or the Rwanda genocide. These are all civil wars in effect. Conflicts are internal. For instance, because of nuclear armament, Pakistan cannot have a war, so they have to operate in other countries through internal conflicts, whether it is Mumbai or Balochistan. I think it makes perfect sense in a post-Cold War situation where there is no longer global order. As Carl Schmitt put it, the founding of the Soviet Union made possible a global civil war in class terms, between the bourgeoise and proletariat. That did not come to pass, because the Cold War world was a world of order, though a hostile order. Now we don’t have an order, and the global civil war with us now doesn’t have a single enemy or a single set of rivals. It occurs in many parts of the world.  You see it in Islamic militants all over the world, in racism and anti-racism movements, in environmental movements and corporate interests opposing them. You see it all over the place.

To give a date to it, I would say 1971, when the independence of Bangladesh signals one of the earliest moments when the state system coming into being was no longer a post-colonial form of political emergence. From 1947–1971, give or take some years, you have many post-colonial countries emerging. Bangladesh emerges against Pakistan, not against the British empire, which is of no concern to Bangladesh in 1947. In a way, 1971 signals the end of the post-colonial state. Since then, what we see is not so much wars between countries, but wars within countries. These series of wars with many outside participants build up into what I’m calling a global civil war that signals the end of a global order and a moment of transition, perhaps one that can extend far into the future, heralding the coming of a new world order.

RAZA: Thank you for joining, Faisal.

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