Every time we choose to "explain", we become implicated
By Afsaneh Najmabadi
September 18, 2001
Like so many people around the world, I, an Iranian living in the United
States, have been deeply pained by the tragedy of September 11th. Yet after
the shock of the first few days, I became increasingly aware that what I
was feeling was not just pain, and definitely not just sympathy for those
killed, the immediate survivors and their loved ones.
Initially I thought I was experiencing this "excess" discomfort
because my Middle Eastern origin had put me in a position of feeling as
if I had to "explain" what had happened, or to defend and apologize
for my sympathies for those people in the Middle East who are fighting injustices
and wrongs of various sorts and who were now increasingly seen to be somehow
implicated in this tragedy.
Though my sense of refusing to be put in this position was real, I soon
began to realize that my refusal was connected to feelings of shame and
responsibility for what had happened. How could I possibly feel responsible
for this event, my friends have asked me, when I have indicated this state
of mind to them?
To answer their question, I have had to go to other instances over the
past thirty years when I had similar feelings. The first to come to mind
was the hostage crisis in 1979-80, and then Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa on
Salman Rushdie in 1989. In both instances the same feeling of shame and
responsibility overcame me.
So here is an attempt to explain to other Middle Easterners:
The people who took American hostages in Tehran in 1979 clearly felt
America had done Iran wrong and this was their way of setting things right
in the world. Those of us -- Iranians/Middle Easterners, residing in the
Middle East or located elsewhere -- who did not agree with the action, more
often than not chose to act as "explainers": explaining why people
in Iran were angry at the US (usually starting with the 1953 coup and there
goes a familiar story).
To the extent that we chose to explain, I suggest, we became implicated
in regenerating an ethical stance and a political culture that encourages
the idea that the wronged ones are morally entitled to do anything; a popular
motto was "by any means necessary," and it was up to the oppressed
to decide the modalities of that necessity.
What was the alternative? I think there was an ethical and political
alternative; a stand that would say regardless of what the United States
had done in Iran, it was wrong to take those hostages. This was in fact
the gut-reaction of many ordinary (that is, outside Islamist and anti-imperialist
left) Iranians in Iran.
But this was a very dangerous position for any Iranian to take inside
Iran. Outside Iranians in their great majority did not take this stand.
Many of the most articulate Iranians chose "to explain."
This pertains to much of what is happening in the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict. Every time a Palestinian suicide bomber kills a group of Israelis,
I hope against all odds that some voice from among Palestinians, especially
those Palestinians living in the relative safety and comfort of Europe and
America, would say loudly and with no prevarication, that despite everything
Israel has done and continues to do to Palestinians, it is wrong to commit
this act, instead of trying to "explain" how it is part of a cycle
of violence, etc. At most we may hear: it is wrong, but. . . .
Yet every time that we say "but", every time we choose to "explain",
we become implicated in regenerating a political culture and an ethical
outlook that becomes part of the state of being in the world that allows
hostage-taking and suicide bombing. It allows the September 11th tragedy.
It is in this sense that I think we were all implicated in that tragedy.
We have become part of the conditions of possibility for these kinds of
actions. To the extent that we, Middle Easterners, raise our critical voices,
we would make the work of those Americans (and Israelis) who are engaged
in explaining (in their case a necessary work) easier, their voice more
credible for a wider audience.
To the extent that we say these acts are wrong despite the prior history
that is often invoked to explain them, we put Americans in a stronger position
to also say: despite September 11th, going to war is wrong. In an important
sense, I take my courage to say these words from the brave Americans who
have already begun to organize against possible military action by their
government and have said by words and deeds: it is wrong to go to war despite
My heroes and heroines of last week were the two hundred young Iranians
who held a spontaneous candlelight vigil in Tehran to express their pain
and sympathy for American people. It was a brave gesture that gives me hope
against all odds.
Afsaneh Najmabadi is professor of history and women's studies at Harvard University. Webpage.