Saturday, July 23, 2005

Lessons in “universalism”

Lessons in “universalism”!

Be sure to read Michael Ignatieff’s Iranian Lessons. You’ll be more than usually disgusted and find him morally repulsive, true, but if the New York Times is the official voice of US “establishment liberals”, as is so often stated, and if the author happens to teach about human rights at Harvard, you’ll get a pretty good picture of what very influential circles think of Iran. In the very least you’ll reinforce your previous beliefs as to what passes these days for human rights in “neoliberal” (read neo-colonialist) circles.

Arriving, in a country where women do not even have the right to dress as they like when they awake in the morning, to lecture on human rights, and proving by that fact alone that the Islamic Republic is not as illiberal as all that, he emphasizes that he was invited “not by the mullah-dominated universities but by the Cultural Research Bureau, an independent center in Tehran.” The fact that the Islamic Republic allows no institution, center or association that it itself did not create to operate outside its influence is of no relevance. CRB is “independent” probably because it was so stated in CRB’s letter of invitation!

As Ignatieff had arrived during the presidential election show, let us begin with his thoughts on Ahmadinejad, Mullah Khatami’s successor. They’re briefly summed up as follows: “Immediately labeled a hard-liner by most American commentators, Ahmadinejad sent out more populist, inclusive signals at home, leading some Iranians to worry that quick American condemnations of him as a reactionary might only provoke him into becoming one.” Not just some Iranians surely, but clearly the author himself, for this statement is not followed by the rebuttal that a reactionary does not “become” a reactionary. “An authoritarian populist”, actually, is what Ignatieff calls Ahmadinejad. More importantly, neither does he bother to elaborate on his “hardliner” vs. “liberal” scheme within the context of a totalitarian Islamist regime. Are not officials of an Islamist regime ipso facto reactionaries? In truth, the article does not quite impress one as having been written at all from the perspective of human rights. Rather, true to the values held by the NYTimes, Ignatieff’s main interest in Ahmadinejad seems to concern the latter’s views regarding “free market”.

Ignatieff writes of his lectures,

“I had been invited to lecture on human rights and democracy, but Ahmadinejad's unexpected victory changed the agenda of my talks. Suddenly the question was no longer, What do democracy and human rights mean in an Islamic society? but, Can democracy and human rights make any headway at all in a society deeply divided between rich and poor, included and excluded, educated and uneducated? The reformers had promoted human rights and democracy as a panacea for Iran's poor, and what had been the result? The slums of Tehran voted for a man who advocated stricter discipline for women, tougher theocratic rule and state control of the economy.”

Ignatieff may have changed his agenda there, but he also, for more than obvious reasons, avoids the first question here. Yet the first question is the more basic, fundamental of the two, for if it is established that democracy and human rights mean nothing in a society controlled by Islamists, then what is the point of asking whether democracy and human rights make any headway in a Islamist controlled society with the additional attributes, if you will, of deep division between rich and poor… Well, in this instance, dodging the first question and what is obvious, by way of word play, allows Ignatieff to argue that by lessening this division and alleviating economic grievances, Islamic Republicans, who “had promoted human rights and democracy as a panacea for Iran's poor”---while pouring money into their Swiss bank accounts---, can the more easily advance the cause human rights and democracy!

Associating human rights and democracy with Hezbollah’s “reformers”, whom he variously calls “liberals”, note the manner in which the reformers’ record is whitewashed:

“Ahmadinejad had capitalized not only on his war service but also on gathering disillusion with the failure of the reformers -- nominally in power since the election of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997 -- to address popular grievances relating to jobs, housing, transport and, above all, the growing class divide. In leafy north Tehran, reformers were talking about human rights and democracy, while in dusty south Tehran, the poor were struggling to hold onto jobs in an economy in which unemployment was officially 15 percent and probably twice that. For the reformers, the victory brought home how out of touch with ordinary Iranians many of them had become.”

There is hope yet for Mullah Khatami to receive a Nobel for his efforts!

Moving on, Ignatieff’s account of his conversations with Iranian students, secularists and revolutionaries opposed to the Islamic Republic altogether, do more to betray the author’s own capacity for charlatanism and apologetics when confronted by them than reveal anything new about the students’ hatred of the regime. In one instance he cautions the students, and the readers, against “going too far” to exclude Islam (“religion”, as he puts it) from Iranian politics and “crushing religion”. In another, when asked about his opinion on the detested Shariah, he argues, “The challenge is not understanding why these are wrong but prevailing politically against the religious authorities who believe that their own power depends on enforcing these penalties.” That is, Ignatieff advises that instead of opposing Shariah, Iranians should work within the Shariah system. Keep the Shariah and reform it! I wonder, dear reader, what Ignatieff and his sort would say if Shariah were to be introduced into the US judicial system.

No anti-Iran commentary, of course, would be complete without a vilification of the Shah of Iran and denouncement of the Iranian government, and here too Ignatieff does not fail the editors of the New York Times.

“Propped up by Americans,” Ignatieff writes of Mohamad Reza Shah Pahlavi (Americans must really have loved the Shah of Iran to continue vilifying him more than 20 years after his death!), and “kept in power by a hated secret police,” he “launched a White Revolution in the 1960's, a grandiose modernization program that alienated mullahs, merchants and students alike.”

It is hardly surprising to see someone who compliments Islamists about “the achievements of the Islamic revolution” to characterize one of the most important events in contemporary Iranian history, the White Revolution, with the snotty and contemptuous “grandiose”. Regarding the White Revolution, he either has no clue as to what it was, which is very doubtful, or thinks all his readers ignorant of Iranian history. Note his protest against the alienation of the parasitical Mullahs! Given what was achieved by the White Revolution, and given the Mullahs’ opposition to modernization, the Mullahs of course felt alienated! Note too the preference for “students” instead of feudalist landowners who treated Iranian farmers like serfs, when students, like Iranian women, were in fact very much in favor of the White Revolution. Conveniently, very conveniently, neither does Ignatieff acknowledge that the reforms actuated by White Revolution had first been put to a national referendum with over 90% approval of what had been proposed.

I’ll end by quoting Ignatieff in his comparison of the Iranian government with the Islamic Republic:

“Like all revolutionary regimes, the [Islamic Republic] seems to have reproduced the ugliness of the regime it overthrew.”

It’s only because of our complete lack of honor and self-respect that charlatans like Ignatieff allow themselves the liberty to continue to write what they write.

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