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 to Five Essays on Liberty, (1969).
Recently, Micheal 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 a lengthy 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 and uneducated?”
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 of 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. We 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 Christian irregular forces), complicated by disease, famine, suffering and massacres in Anatolia and adjoining areas during the First World War.
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.
After lamenting 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.
About 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