The Persian Pleasure Principle
Human rights scholar or harlequin
July 25, 2005
What the historian says will, however careful he may be to
use purely descriptive language, sooner or later convey his attitude.
Detachment is itself a moral position. The use of neutral language
(‘Himmler caused many persons to be asphyxiated’)
conveys its own ethical tone. -- Isaiah Berlin, Introduction
Essays on Liberty, (1969).
Ignatieff, Canadian author, broadcaster, and
director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy
School of Government at Harvard University, was invited to Iran
by an Iranian NGO known as the Cultural Research Bureau, to lecture
on human rights and democracy. On July 17, 2005, Ignatieff wrote
editorial about his experiences in Iran for the New
York Times Magazine.
Titled Iranian Lessons, Ignatieff begins his article by noting
that because of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent win in the Iranian
presidential elections, Ignatieff had to alter his planned lecture.
Instead of asking: “What do democracy and human rights mean
in an Islamic society”, Ignatieff asks: “Can democracy
and human rights make any headway at all in a society deeply divided
between the rich and the poor, included and excluded, educated
Initially, one thinks that Ignatieff is
speaking to the necessity for equating and associating socio-economic
rights as a human right, a project that Canadian, Louis Arbour
who is currently the United Nations’ High Commissioner for
Human Rights, is advocating and developing. Ignatieff, however,
does not speak to the constituents, which he attempts so poorly
to champion. Instead, Ignatieff chooses to give voice to the
enfranchised upper echelons of Tehran society.
Although his article begins in
south Tehran, with a detailed description of a walled cemetery
dedicated to those who senselessly perished in the first gulf war,
Ignatieff does not address the concerns and confines of the more
than forty percent of Tehran’s population that live below
the poverty line.
Why would Ignatieff choose to not have a single
conversation with anyone in southern Tehran? After all, it was
this exact constituency that brought Ahmadinejad to power. The
same constituency that made Micheal Ignatieff alter the topic
of his lecture. Other than an over-blown and prosaic description
the walled cemetery, complete with Persian poem, and tea drinking
mourners, Ignatieff does not offer much insight and leaves southern
Tehran to its mourning.
In 1985 the United States Congress tried to pass a resolution
officially recognizing the massacre of more than a million Armenians;
specifically referring to the "genocide perpetrated in Turkey
between 1915 and 1923." Sixty-nine historians sent a letter
to Congress disputing this, writing:
As for the charge of "genocide," no signatory of
this statement wishes to minimize the scope of Armenian suffering.
are likewise cognizant that it cannot be viewed as separate from
the suffering experienced by the Muslim inhabitants of the region.
The weight of evidence so far uncovered points in the direct
of serious inter communal warfare (perpetrated by Muslim and
irregular forces), complicated by disease, famine, suffering
and massacres in Anatolia and adjoining areas during the First
One of the sixty-nine historians was well known Orientalist and
Islamic scholar, Bernard Lewis. Although the New York Times reported
the atrocities in 1915: "Both Armenians and Greeks, the two
native Christian races of Turkey, are being systematically uprooted
from their homes en masse and driven forth summarily to distant
provinces, where they are scattered in small groups among Turkish
Villages and given the choice between immediate acceptance of Islam
or death by the sword or starvation." ("Turks are Evicting
Native Christians," New York Times, July 11, 1915.), in a
1993 interview with Le Monde magazine in France, Lewis declares
that what happened should not be considered genocide -- and that
calling it genocide was just "the Armenian version of this
story." In a second interview a few months later, he referred
to "an Armenian betrayal" in the "context of a struggle,
no doubt unequal, but for material stakes... There is no serious
proof of a plan of the Ottoman government aimed at the extermination
of the Armenian nation."
Although Lewis is not a human rights or genocide scholar, he
is a historian, and like Ignatieff, who purports to be a human
rights champion extraordinaire, has a certain responsibility. I
am not suggesting that Ignatieff’s self-induced myopia regarding
the abysmal human rights record of the Islamic Republic of Iran,
is on par with genocide denial. I am arguing, however, that we
all make choices. Lewis made a choice when he referred to the genocide
of the Armenians as “their version of history”. Ignatieff
also makes a choice when he praises the Islamic Republic of Iran
on “the achievements of the revolution”, and continually
fetishizes Persian culture throughout his article.
Referring to something that he coins as “Persian pleasure”,
Ignatieff paints a picture of present day Isfahan: “I spent
a night wandering along the exquisitely lighted vaulted bridges,
watching men, not necessarily gay, strolling hand in hand, singing
to each other, and dancing beneath the arches... I came away
from a night in Isfahan believing that Persian pleasure, in the
long run, would outlast Shiite Puritanism.” Never bothering
to define what “Persian pleasure” is, Ignatieff disregards
Iran’s multicultural, multilingual, and multi-ethnic reality,
and instead chooses to paint a little miniature of boys and men
frolicking with one another, BUT NOT NECESSARILY GAY, and just
leaves it there.
Ignatieff also trivializes women’s issues by making repeated
references to women’s dress, make-up, and hair. Yet, Ignatieff
fails to mention that the covering of women’s hair, however
miniscule it may seem these days, is mandatory for women in Iran,
and failure to do so carries the penalty of 102 lashes.
the fact that “young Iranians are so hostile to clerical
rule”, Ignatieff goes on to make an audacious suggestion
to the female students that he speaks to in the university telling
them not to reject sharia out right but to “reform shariah
from within.” Irrespective of Ignatieff’s deluded prescription,
what was heartening was the answer that those female students gave
to Ignatieff’s suggestion: “You are too nice to Shariah
law. It must be abolished. It cannot be changed.”
Early on in the article, Ignatieff describes how he came upon
the scene of a small student led demonstration regarding the elections
in Iran and was witness to a secret police officer attempting to
abduct one of the students and push him into the back of an unmarked
vehicle. Ignatieff goes on to describe how some of the demonstrators
came to the aid of the student by punching and kicking the officer.
Ignatieff’s next assertion regarding what he has just been
witness to is quite puzzling and disappointing.
Referring to the
student who had managed to wrangle himself free, Ignatieff posits “In
a more genuinely fearful police state, he would have gone quietly.” Is
Ignatieff suggesting that Iran is not a police state? Although
Ignatieff does recognize that the Iranian government does not give
much credence to the concept of human rights, he fails to offer
any critical assessment of the situation of human rights in Iran.
Two days after Ignatieff’s publication, on July 19, 2005,
Amnesty International reported that two youths, both under the
age of 18, were executed in the Iranian province of Mashad for
having sexual relations with one another and a 13 year-old boy.
Prior to their execution both were given 228 lashes for consuming
alcohol and disturbing the peace. Unlike Ignatieff’s idyllic
miniature of late night Isfahan, these boys ARE NECESSARILY GAY,
and were hung for being so in true medieval fashion.
This is where
Ignatieff’s dreamy and congenial romance with Persian pleasure
falls apart. Ignatieff’s self-induced myopia regarding the
socio-political situation of Iranians, particularly the young,
is the specific reason why Ignatieff’s article on Iran reads
more like the accounts of a political economist turned harlequin
romance writer, than a scholar of human rights.
Note: Bernard Lewis’s denial of the Armenian
Genocide can be found on the Turkish
Samira Mohyeddin is an Iranian / Canadian and has a degree
in Religion and Middle Eastern Studies from the Uni'ersity of
Toronto, and is currently pursuing graduate studies in Women's
Studies and Middle Eastern Studies there. See her weblog: SmiraMohyeddin.blogspot.com