Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
22 April 2020

Beyond Europe and Eurocentrism

A conversation between Hamid Dabashi and Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou



Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York, where he teaches in the Department for Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, which he has previously chaired, and in the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. A leading global cultural philosopher, he is the author of several key works including Authority in Islam (1989), which won the Association of American Publishers Award for Best Book in Philosophy and Religion; Brown Skin, White Masks (2011); The End of Postcolonialism (2012); and Can Non-Europeans Think (2015).

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, Professor of International History at the Graduate Institute and author of A Theory of ISIS – Political Violence and the Transformation of the Global Order (2018), discusses with him his latest book, Europe and its Shadows – Coloniality After Empire (2019), in which Professor Dabashi examines the history and evolution of Europe, its identity and the reactions to it.

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou: Europe and its Shadows is a game changer. The phrase may be used loosely these days, but in the case of this work it is quite appropriate. In recent years, the scholarly debate has primarily revolved around the notion of a continent ‘in trouble’ or experiencing ‘a crisis of democracy’ or yet again facing ‘difficulties in the institutionalisation of its idea’. That so-often technocratic discussion usually proceeds from an examination of recent ‘disruptions’, often explicitly pointing out to ‘the migration crisis’ for instance as a trigger or blaming multiculturalism’s failure as did Angela Merkel in 2010. All along, there is little fundamental questioning of what Europe is – almost ontologically one feels like saying –, where it is coming from before the middle of the twentieth century when the union project starts, and what place it occupies in the history of the world beyond its own self-perception and projection. As a result, the debate is incestuous and hardly genuinely open to voices beyond Europe or those displaying a European outlook. You start from an altogether different position. You are not concerned with fixing the current problems of Europe. Instead, identifying Europe itself as a problem, you matter-of-factly and soberly interrogate the historical idea of the continent itself and invite an urgently-needed dépassement of these tropes. What truths does your sovereign staring back at Europe reveal?

Hamid Dabashi: Thank you for taking time to read the book so closely – and thank you for this interview. “Incestuous” is the right word you use. Europeans, especially European philosophers, think Europe is their business to think through – and theirs alone. It is not. As you well know, Europe is a global invention, a figment of global imagination. This does not mean European philosophers cannot think their own continent through and what it means for them – but they will always remain limited in that imagination if they fail to see this continent as an allegory, an army of metaphors, as Nietzsche would say, that was co-invented by others beyond their borders. They have been the beneficiary while the rest of the world at the receiving end of this invention. Another good word you use is dépassement – though I do not belittle or dismiss the questions Europeans keep asking themselves – to which they are of course entitled. But at the same time, they seem to be oblivious to the sustained course of pain and suffering their continent as both a material evidence and a towering metaphor has perpetrated upon this earth.

But my concern in this book, as you rightly note, is not to offer a litany of such pains and suffering and thus raise yet another accusatory finger. Those fingers have been raised by critical thinkers like Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Edward Said and others – and rightly so. My concern is far more philosophical than political. I pick up the very word ‘Europe’ and wonder at it. I search not for its etymological but epistemological roots – how a whole world was created around it and gave it primacy and agency. The truth you ask such a sovereign questioning reveals dwells in the power of the illusion the word “Europe” has historically generated and sustained. I had a swimming time playing waterpolo, as it were, with that bubble as I marvelled at the enormity of its power.  

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou: Notably in the aftermath of Brexit, the lamentoon the crisis of European democracy hinges a lot on this idea of ‘failure’ and ‘betrayal’. It takes for granted the notion of an incipiently-democratic Europe, which somehow went adrift in recent decades (again, often because of the troubles around it). Besides the ahistoricity of such an outlook and the fact that, as noted, it generally awards little consideration to what an Asian, African, Arab or Latin American understanding of what democracy might be, one can also consider its prognosis incomplete, or merely self-serving. One analyst, Elzbieta Korolczuk, for instance, takes exception to what Ivan Krastev and Steven Holmes claim about the failure of Eastern Europe to democratise since the 1990s. She argues instead that such reading ultimately views the illiberal tendencies in effect as an Eastern European peculiarity, rather than a transnational trend present also in most Western countries including amidst that elevated idea of democratic Europe. Just as we speak of the imperial traits of America or the conflict-dominated Middle Eastern history, should not a more historically-accurate picture of Europe include the persistence of those undemocratic dimensions rather than merely seeing them as accidents of populism, yesterday and today?

Hamid Dabashi: The power of the European selective amnesia of its own history is boundless. Hitler, Mussolini and Franco were from Germany, Italy and Spain – not from Bulgaria, the former Yugoslavia or Romania. But the point is not, again, pointing fingers. The point is rather this power of collective amnesia systematically to disregard your own fascistic and tyrannical facts and persist on the fiction of Europe as the measure of truth. As you rightly point out deep-rooted xenophobic and jingoistic ideas and practices extend from Brazil to the United Kingdom and from the United States to India, with Austria, Holland, Italy, France and Germany smack in the middle of them all. I look at people like Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders and I think of where Hitler, Mussolini or Franco came from – I need not go to Eastern Europe or anywhere in Asia, Africa or Latin America in search of a metaphors for them. The same is true in the United States; when Donald Trump came to power American liberals were sarcastically comparing their country to “a Banana Republic.” They first coin a racist term like “a Banana Republic” disregarding the fact that their own lovely democracy has been instrumental in sustaining tyrannies around the world and then when they want to dismiss a corrupt lunacy like Trump they need to go to Latin America in search of a metaphor.  

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou: Besides the ‘act of deconstruction’ of Europe, a central argument of your book is that the non-European world, and particularly the Global South for lack of a better term, has been unable to transcend the idea of Europe (“Europhobia is the worst kind of Eurocentrism”, as you put it). As a result, for all their power and usefulness, critical examinations of Europe, say of the postcolonial kind or those on Eurocentrism, remain problematically derivative. Indeed, for all the agency they proclaim, their sheet-anchor is and remains Europe – “a fetichised fixation”, you write. Following this, we could argue that thinking contra is not thinking fully. Frantz Fanon and Edward Said, amongst other, described the issues long ago of course. Yet they also did not fully transcend what, you remind us, Jalal Al-e Ahmad had captured aptly as “Westoxication”. Who is listening when we think critically outside of the historically-hegemonic European frame of reference? Can such independent thinking ever be considered as not being in opposition to? Isn’t the curse of the Global South intellectual to always be an outsider, including in his own hemisphere?

Hamid Dabashi: No. The answer is an emphatic no. That is not our destiny. I give you three towering examples: the Congolese philosopher V. Y. Mudimbe, the Japanese philosopher Kōjin Karatani and the Argentinian philosopher Enrique Dussel. They are neither derivative of Europe nor outsiders to any hemisphere. They are creators of their own philosophical universes, in specifically African, Latin American, and Asian terms. But you raise a crucial question when you refer to Fanon and Said. We are all for ever indebted to them for what they did. Today if you and I can stand up or better yet sit down on an armchair with confidence and say “I” and finish it with a cogent sentence is in large part because of them. They were both politically and intellectually necessary – but not sufficient. Just to say no was absolutely necessary but no longer sufficient. We must reclaim the world, with Europe in it. This is what I mean by Europhobia being the worst kind of Eurocentrism. A post-European philosopher or theorist or critical thinker does not dismiss or hate or belittle or demonise Europe. He or she historicise, philosophises and theorises it, and gets over it.

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou: So where is Europe today? Is it replaying its familiar patterns or, having to address the transformation of the world beyond it, is it transforming, and if so how? You write that “the anti-immigrant hysteria in Europe is the subterfuge for something far closer at home – insecurity and exhaustion of the trope itself”.

Hamid Dabashi: There are European philosophers like Alain Badiou, Chantal Mouffe or Étienne Balibar who have already traversed beyond Europe in reading Europe. ‘The flood of refugees,’ as European politicians put it, has been a key catalyst in this regard. Even the most European philosopher of them alive today Jürgen Habermas, and I say ‘European’ here with deepest affection and admiration, is sensing something beyond their Europe. Though their philosophical blind spots prevent them from seeing it beyond their ‘refugee problems.’ In my book in the chapter on Rodolphe Gasché’s volume Europe, or The Infinite Task (2008), I read that seminal text as a mournful obituary for Europe from a deeply engaged and yet traumatised moment. In his Monolingualism of the Other (1996), the late Jacques Derrida had anticipated this moment. But Europe still remains a deeply satisfying pastime for many European philosophers, though one can no longer read or take them seriously. Slavoj Žižek has made a name for himself as the enfant terrible of this group. Believe it or not he has just come out with a book on Covid-19! For me in complete lockdown in New York, now the global epicenter of coronavirus, it is a baffling proposition to read what a European philosopher might speculate about a pandemic that is yet to map out the ravages it is leaving behind on our earth. These types of ‘philosophers’ – and one must perforce sentence them into the compromising humility of a set of double scare quotes – have lost the virtues of even a generation earlier of towering philosophical figures like Ernst Cassirer, who in one of his last books, An Essay on Man (1946), considered the chief qualification of human beings to be a sense of delay and pause between the fact of a phenomenon and a philosophical response to it. Then you have shamelessly racist philosophers like Alain Finkielkraut who have made a name and reputation for themselves precisely for being notoriously bigoted against Africans and Muslims. So Europe is not an entirely pretty sight to behold these days. But, again paradoxically, its salvation is precisely in terms of critical intimacies my kind of encounters represent – at once dismantling the whole myth of Europe and yet inviting it to the bosom of the larger humanity.

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou: As you also move beyond the ‘provincializing of Europe’, you argue compellingly that we are now beyond the classical condition of coloniality, as Fanon and Said explored it. This is not so much a limitation of their work, since they had fully theorized the issue, but rather a mere historical development. It would seem then that in transcending these initial binaries (which were not so binary to begin with), and indeed in importantly overriding national boundaries, we are moving closer to a reintroduction of the class question, albeit a globalised set of classes. You write, in that respect, of “a condition of empire requiring a synergetic reading of the current condition of class struggles”, going beyond a site-specific understanding of world affairs. I think that, arguably more than ever, today’s bourgeoisie in Cairo, Paris, Abidjan, and New York speak literally the same language and share the same elitist concerns while dismissing ever so brutally an underclass that similarly shares the virtual same condition. Is this relatable to your aesthetic intuition of transcendence?

Hamid Dabashi: That is a compelling move – the move you just made between my class analysis in the age of globalization early in my book and my idea of “the intuition of transcendence” which comes towards the end. But for the benefit of our readers who may not have read the book cover-to-cover yet and may miss the power of your move, allow me to pace ourselves. The move of ‘provincializing Europe’ did not provincialize Europe – it actually paradoxically recentered it. The historical development you refer to is both material and in terms of our historical consciousness, if we were to bring Marx and Hegel back to gather. That is a crucial advantage we have on the colonial edges of their projects of Enlightenment (capitalist) modernity. We can make such unorthodox moves precisely because we are not ‘Europeans.’ The class question has always been global, this is my point, except for Marx’s own Orientalism, which was not corrected until the brilliant works of Rosa Luxemburg, to whom I have paid tribute in a recent essay. But this is all a class analysis based on Marx, rearticulated through Rosa Luxemburg, and then through Gramsci we come to what I have called “the intuition of descendance” that unpacks his theory of hegemony and overrides it. This is where my work and interest in visual and performing arts is deeply connected to my engagements with philosophy and politics. We cannot afford leaving the arts on a shelf or the walls of any museum and pray to it admiringly five times a day, as it were. They were produced in the battlefield of history and they are integral to our critical consciousness. The materiality of the work of art is where the intuition of our transcendence dwells, and it is right there where our historical agencies as postcolonial subjects have assumed their purest forms. But as I said earlier we need to pace ourselves, as I do in the structure of this book on Europe – from politics of our despair to the poetics of our emancipations. Otherwise the poetry of the poetics is lost to the politics of the political. I hope that makes some sense for those readers who have not yet read the book and this aesthetic finale of my argument may escape them here.

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou: In such new vista, there is a strong visible alignment between the neo-authoritarianisms in the Global South (e.g., Jair Bolsonaro, Mohammad Bin Salman, Rodrigo Duterte, Abdelfattah al Sisi) and the renewed authoritarianism in the West (e.g., Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orbán, Matteo Salvini). I am not sure that there is symmetrically an alignment between the democrats on both sides.

Hamid Dabashi: There is, of course, precisely because the global south and the globalizing north, as two organizing concepts, have both lost their currencies. Remember when all over the world places were named after Tahrir Square. Soon after the rise of Arab Revolutions, Eyal Weizman and I were in Gwangju, South Korea in a meeting where we staged and discussed this globalized Tahrir Square! In my forthcoming book, Emperor Is Naked: On the Inevitable Demise of the Nation State (2020), which is like a sister volume to this book, I carry this argument forward based on a total dismantling of the myth of the postcolonial state, pushing Ernst Carrier’s magisterial posthumous book, The Myth of the State (1946), to its logical conclusions by systematically de-Europeanizing it. Yes, you are right Donald Trump & Co. are indeed global, just like his hotel chains and golf courses. So yes, the worst are full of passionate intensity but the best I am not sure lack all convictions (as Yates says in his “Second Coming.”) We are all, fortunately, bereft of all grand narratives and grand ideologies, where ‘the West’ and ‘the East’ have so potently and loudly collapsed onto each other. The dialectic of Europe and its shadows I propose in this book is therefore not just to mark the phenomenology of a colonial pathology, but also a pharmakon, a cure from the very poison what has failed to kill us, the reversal of that disabling metaphor into an enabling trope.

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou: Reading Europe in global history thus, we see that it was built more by omission than by commission as you note, and yet the narrative is forcefully the opposite. In other parts of the world we are seeing this dispossessive-model-in-denial-of-its-history emulated and this vision replicated as though it was the right, the only one. See how the African Union (AU), for instance, has moved away from the old Organisation of African Unity (OAU) language of sovereignty and independence, and became enamored with the technocratic language of security, just as the League of Arab States or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have been – never really concerned with the visions they could build, not so much as alternatives contra the West in sterile ways, but as other visions of universality in our collective history. Aren’t these further in situ shadows of Europe, in effect coming after the colonial period?

Hamid Dabashi: Could very well be. This is what I mean by the persistence of the condition of coloniality even after the European flags have been brought down, unceremoniously folded, and send back to Europe. This condition of coloniality in many ways is worse than the actual realty of coloniality when the colonial officer was walking the streets of their colonies with their well-oiled guns and their worn-out copies of Hegel’s Philosophy of History. You don’t need to have a European colonial officer in any of those organizations you mention. They give their participants the phantom liberty of thinking themselves liberated. The terms of domination are now navigated through such intermediaries as the World bank, IMF, or the UN, or even WHO these days.  

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou: Finally, methodologically your book is interdisciplinary, and it refreshingly goes beyond the mere use of academic texts. You include cultural history in your analysis but also the arts, variously deriving insights from film, theater, painting and music – such as Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980), Lars Von Trier’s Dogville (2003), Agostino Brunias’ A Market Scene (1870), Sophocles’ Antigone (441), or Paul Gaugin’s Siesta (1892). I do the same in my work and have found it surprising that this was missing so often, systemically, in academia. Would you agree that such conservative canonical approaches to the pursuit and sharing of knowledge, particularly in European and American international relations, are derivative from this passé Eurocentrism in the sense that it seeks to mold students instead of opening their minds to the layered and globalized questioning of these issues?

Hamid Dabashi: Reality has left our disciplines way behind. Disciplinary formations were of some historical necessities and I would not totally dismiss or disregard them. You and I are both products of a particular phase of comparative theoretical thinking with a penchant for cultural studies – that, in my case, has inevitably led me to my current location in postcolonial critical theory. But your main point is critical here: this particular book is in a collection of six books I have called my “Intifada Series,” in the sense that they are renegade texts, texts written from the trenches, as it were, of our collective critical thinking. They are not typical academic books, written for our peers and students and such – though they too read them as citizens of crumbling democracies. Those are important and necessary books we write and publish with academic presses. But they are not sufficient. The navigational tools of a book like this, Europe and its Shadows, works through multiple archives and multiple lenses, covering the blind spots of one by the insights of the other. My mind, as I write, swims from one pond to another, through their hidden passageways but in each instance the new epistemic and aesthetic environment affords me and my readers new ways of thinking the matter at hand. The method is decidedly conversational, in the sense that Gadamer tells us, we fall into a conversation.


Watch Hamid Dabashi and Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou discuss the legacy and contemporary relevance of Edward Said.

Also watch Professor Shalini Randeria and Professor Mohamedou discuss the forging of contemporary social contracts.