Commentary: The Intersection of Iran, Disasters, Media, Human Nature

Posted on May 16, 2011

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This article caught my eye today.

It’s heartening to hear of such discord being sewn between the forces of Iran’s bifurcated government—the clerics in Qom and the state apparatus in Tehran. For most, it’s also completely unexpected and a little confusing. Many Americans took an interest in the nation in June of 2009 when anti-regime protests (the Green Revolution) swept through the nation. But the movement got a little too grim for western observers who wanted to see a nice, clean topple of the sitting Ayatollah and his cronies and the installation of a democratic force. I remember following the news feeds from Tehran, reading about bullets fired on crowds, Basiji thugs paid off with bags of potatoes turning on their countrymen, acid raining down from helicopters.

The stories were confusing, disturbing, and at times far-fetched. With little presence on the ground and few more in America with the proper background to interpret the events, the story got stretched thin and soft. And when we started to realize that the protesters were mixed groupssome Islamist, some pro-Western, but few wanting our aid for fear that it would harm their cause—that we did not understand them well, and that they would not win quickly, we shifted our attention to the easier story: what was the role of Twitter in all of this?

Somehow we’ve never dropped that silly (and in a way self-congratulating, “go-western-ideas-and-technology”) narrative. But we were contented to returning to our old views of Iran—stolid, Islamist, anti-democratic, and a hopeless member of the never-dying Axis of Evil. All the while we ignored the opportunity to report on the continued activities of the Green Movement, or the influence and continued freedom of many revolutionary leaders. Nor did we adequately catch onto or manipulate the increasingly apparent rifts between Qom and Tehran.

That such a story like this is being reported readily within Iran and making it abroad is a glad sign—in a functional autocratic regime, such signs of tension between the two equal branches of state should never be apparent beyond back rooms. Nor should the supposedly subordinate branch of state be able to rise against the will of the men in Qom.

Through all of this, I’m also coming out with a better opinion of dear, old President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, so long the boogeyman of nuclear Iran and the standard-bearer of blindness to the political climate for the west. I first started to question that picture when I read the leaked diplomatic cables relating to Ahmadinejad through WikiLeaks. On Jan. 4th, 2011 it became clear that Ahmadinejad attempted to promote easing of restrictions on the press and social rights to stem discontent in the nation, and was for this physically slapped by the head of the clerics’ Revolutionary Guard. The evolution of tensions between the two forces since speaks to me of a continued urge to reform and follow his own pragmatic path on Ahmadinejad’s side and to repress on the side of the clerics. And by the signs of this latest tussle, Ahmadinejad’s able to act freely enough to throw a wrench into Qom’s cogs. If this keeps up, it could well lead to a government collapse that could open the space for an honest reconfiguring of Iranian society and governance in toe with the will of the people.

That’s not to say this would be a pro-American Iran. They’re still rightfully pissed at the west. Even the reformers are Islamists. But Islamist isn’t necessarily violent or evil. Self-sovereignty is the real valuable ends here, the real goal we ought to hope for in this clash between two evils. Although given our track record in the past and in the present my main fears for an Iranian popular revolution are about American involvements.

My growing sympathy towards Ahmadinejad might catch a few people by surprise. But I think his satanic image is mainly a malignant growth of the ignorance and bias with which we have approached Iranian news and translations/interpretations of Iranian actions in the past. Consider two of the statements often used to paint Ahmadinejad as a crazed, irrational egomaniac at the helm of a rogue state:

1) Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth.
Inflammatory, to be sure, and I held it against him until I met a Farsi speaker. My Farsi friend tells me this is not an uncommon turn of speech in the language, but it does not mean to destroy the Jewish nation: it means to redraw the borders of the nation, to wipe away the nation as it exists now and to reconfigure the map to approximate a situation that would adequately match the territorial claims of Palestine. One may still disagree with that and find the language unnecessarily provocative, but the use of poor translators and biased interpretations of language should be no grounds for unequivocally labeling a man as an iron-fisted leader with whom we cannot truck.

2) There are no gays in Iran.
Laughable, until you realize that again, looking at the language in a different way, he was totally right. The concept of gay as an identity, a lifestyle, and a movement is distinctly western. I recall a story told to me in a lecture once by Wael Hallaq, a Syrian Christian and revolutionary scholar of Islamic law and society: The first time he brought his mother to America he tried to explain to her this unique movement of homosexuality. She retorted that this kind of relationship was nothing special, that their neighbors in the village had a homosexual relationship, that it was accepted (and indeed such relationships had a historic precedent in the region). It may be true both that there are homosexual relationships in Iran and no gays in Iran. The two are quite distinct concepts. Not to say the man may not be homophobic, just that the picture is rarely so stark and clear as we have painted it. And perhaps Ahmadinejad is a more rational and reformist man, a more potent potential ally for change in Iran, than we’d thought before.

But another article caught my eye as well.

The author makes the following point: “‎A key element of maintaining one’s sanity is knowing how to ignore risks that are highly improbable at any given point in time.”

We possess the wonderful ability to ignore the massive accumulation of horrors hovering over us all the time. But does the accumulation of horrors force an ignorance that prevents us from addressing concerns when they become so existentially threatening to humanity that they demand the type of attention that would bring us to tears? Will our psychologically adaptive ability to block out impending doom spell our own doom through inaction?

Notice the incongruity between the two stories: one highlights our tendency as individuals to repress overwhelming horror, but the other is an instance that demonstrates the tendency of the media to only report the horrific as opposed to the hopeful. It begs the question: what is the role of the media and why does it promote such negativity? Why no stories on the positive ends of upheaval in Iran, so few stories on the confusing and mellow aftermath? Do we pump our news so full of overwhelming doom that we force ourselves further into denial of the plight of humanity? Does news really bring awareness, or does it increase blissful ignorance by necessity to shield ourselves from the immediacy and the terror in the news pages? It’s something worth considering the next time we read the news, write an article, etc.

Just a couple of thoughts.

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