Nafisi's book drew sharp criticism by Columbia Professor Hamid Dabashi, who wrote a critical essay in the June 1 edition of the Egyptian English weekly Al-Ahram. In it, he used the late literary scholar Edward Said's work on Orientalism to critique Nafisi's memoir as evidenced in this quote: "By seeking to recycle a kaffeeklatsch version of English literature as the ideological foregrounding of American empire, Reading Lolita in Tehran is reminiscent of the most pestiferous colonial projects of the British in India, when for example, in 1835 a colonial officer like Thomas Macaulay decreed: 'We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, words and intellect.' Azar Nafisi is the personification of that native informer and colonial agent, polishing her services for an American version of the very same project."
In a subsequent interview with Z Magazine, Dabashi compared Nafisi to former American soldier Lynndie England, who was convicted of abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
In a critical article published in the academic journal Comparative American Studies titled 'Reading Azar Nafisi in Tehran', Head of the North American Studies Department at University of Tehran Professor Seyed Mohammad Marandi argued that "Nafisi constantly confirms what orientalist representations have regularly claimed" and argued she "has produced gross misrepresentations of Iranian society and Islam and that she uses quotes and references which are inaccurate, misleading, or even wholly invented."
Responses to Dabashi
Nafisi responded to Dabashi's criticism by stating that she is not, as Dabashi claims, a neoconservative, that she opposed the Iraq war, and that she is more interested in literature than in politics. In an interview, Nafisi stated that she's never argued for an attack on Iran and that democracy, when it comes, should come from the Iranian people (and not from US military or political intervention). She added that while she is willing to engage in "serious argument...Debate that is polarized isn't worth my time." She stated that she did not respond directly to Dabashi because "You don't want to debase yourself and start calling names."
Ali Banuazizi, the co-director of Boston College’s Middle East studies program, stated that Dabashi's article was very ‘‘intemperate’’ and that it was ‘‘not worth the attention’’ it had received. Marty Peretz, a writer of The New Republic also defended Nafisi against Dabashi's claims, asking rhetorically ‘‘Over what kind of faculty does [Columbia University president] Lee Bollinger preside?’’ Christopher Shea of the Boston Globe argued that while Dabashi spent "several thousand words...eviscerating the book," his main point was not about the specific text but rather the book’s black-and-white portrayal of Iran. In an article posted on Slate.com, Gideon Lewis-Kraus described Dabashi's article as "a less-than-coherent pastiche of stock anti-war sentiment, strategic misreading, and childish calumny." Robert Fulford sharply criticized Dabashi in the National Post, arguing that "Dabashi's frame of reference veers from Joseph Stalin to Edward Said. Like a Stalinist, he tries to convert culture into politics, the first step toward totalitarianism. Like the late Edward Said, he brands every thought he dislikes as an example of imperialism, expressing the West's desire for hegemony over the downtrodden (even when oil-rich) nations of the Third World. While imitating the attitudes of Said, Dabashi deploys painful cliches."
Firoozeh Papan-Matin, Director of Persian and Iranian Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, also criticized Dabashi's characterization of Nafisi, stating that Dabashi's accusation that Nafisi is promoting a "'kaffeeklatsch' worldview... callously ignores the extreme social and political conditions that forced Nafisi underground." Papan Matin also argued that "Dabashi’s attack is that whether Nafisi is a collaborator with the [United States]" was not relevant to the legitimate questions set forth in her book.