Dr. Mahmoud Sadri’s excellent commentary about Christmas, Iranians and celebration; Celebrate: Gift of Magiin Iranian.com has prompted me to write these words that I’ve had on my mind for a while. I like to look at this issue from a journalistic rather than a historical or sociological perspective. From my point of view, the existing stereotypes have affected every Iranian inside or outside of Iran and could be an excellent case study for students and researchers in communications field. Dr. Sadri looks at the problem in a historical context while I would like to look at it from an “Image problem in the virtual reality era”. Unfortunately, the prevailing images of Iran and Muslims in the West, particularly in the United Sates, tend to be highly negative.
As it is commonly known, some people in the West or elsewhere often react negatively to some names and terms such as Iran, Iranian, or Muslim. Let me illustrate my point through a personal experience.
A few days ago while I was helping an elderly American lady in a drug store in a wealthy city in the United States, she asked me “where did you get this German accent?” I replied “In Germany!” However, her surprised facial expressions were telling me that “this black hair and dark skin can’t be from Germany?” I immediately corrected myself and said: “Mam, I was kidding, I’m an Iranian”. She said: “Iran … You should say Persian instead; Iran is not good these days”. And when I explained that Iranians are good people and Iran is a good country with a very rich culture and ancient history, she replied: “I know that Iranians are good people … I have some Persian Rugs in my home … but they have bad leaders!”
Well, we know that the “image war” between the East and the West has a long history that has contributed to the concept of “us” versus “them”. It seems that we, as Iranians, have forgotten that for the past 3 decades, Iran has been pushed to the frontline of this Image War while some problematic nations in the Middle East have been ignored. Nonetheless, it seems that the Iranian government not only does not attempt to fix this image problem but tends to exasperate it through its political rhetoric. At the same time, other nations use all types of propaganda techniques to improve their national images and gain favorable public opinion around the world.
The reason that I’m saying we have forgotten about the problem is that we are loosing to the Western media that continuously portray us as their bad “others”. From President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” label to the recent Ted Coppell’s “The most dangerous country in the world” documentary, Iran and the Iranians have been under continuous attack. In fact, we have been dealing with these offensive propaganda attacks for decades and yet the Iranian officials have not changed their public and global policies nor have they taken advantage of the available and sophisticated communications techniques to address this image problem.
A few years prior to moving to the United States, I wrote a very short review in the Rasaneh (a quarterly journal in mass media studies and researches) of a book, The U.S Media and the Middle East; Image and perception, edited by Yahya Kamalipour of the Communication Department at Purdue University and published in 1995, USA. In a chapter, Mediating the Other: American Pop Culture Representation of Postrevolutionary Iran, Hamid Nafici of Rice University, has argued for two phases in the Iran–USA relationship.
Phase one, “in which hegemonic mediawork in the United States depicted Iran and Iranians since the establishment of the Islamic Republic as the other of the United States”; and phase two, the 1979 Revolution and the taking of the American hostages (1979–1980)”. He wrote: “Under the pressures of these highly charged events, certain cracks developed in the mediawork’s consensus which helped reveal the latent belief held in the United States about Iranians (and about Islam)”? (p. 76).
In the past three decades, we have hadmany other crises that have helped the US media to elevate Iranians to a higher level of otherness by portraying them as “lawless,” “dangerous,” and “unreliable.” Of course, some Iranian government officials have fuelled the negative image of Iran through their intentional or unintentional public pronouncements. Of course, this virtual image war affects all Iranians throughout the world, no matter where we live. The prevailing negative mental image of Iran, therefore, has amplified the otherness gap in the minds of Westerners, particularly the Americans.
The US media has categorized Iranians in their audiences’ mind as terrorists, violent people, fanatics, hard liners, evil, and so on. What I am trying to convey is this: The collective image of Iran and Iranians continues to climb toward negative than positive. As Iranians, what we should do and how should we react to this national image problem? In this regard, Ray Takeyh in his recent book, Hidden Iran; Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic, provides some useful suggestions. He writes:
In his state of the Union address on January 31, 2006, President George W. Bush turned his attention to Iran, describing it as a “nation now held hostage by a small clerical elite that is isolating and repressing its people,” The president went on to stress that the “Iranian government is defying the world with its nuclear ambitions, and the nations of the world must not permit the Iranian regime to gain nuclear weapons. (p.1)
The key point is that the current state of affairs is a consequence of Tehran’s reaction to Iran’s national and particularly regional and global issues. Their reaction seems to help the US media to make Iran’s Image even worse.
Takeyeh also writes that: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denounced Bush as the one whose arms are smeared up to the elbow in the blood of other nations and pledged that “God willing, we shall drag you to trail in the near future at the courts set up by nations”. (p.1)
As Takeyeh states such undiplomatic discourse has defined U.S–Iran relations for nearly 3 decades, but this particular exchange of epithets hints at the real root of the estrangement which is a profound and frequently mutual misunderstanding of the perceived enemy. Indeed, getting Iran wrong is the single thread that has linked American administrations of all political persuasion. Although Takeyeh’s comments are aimed at the American government and policy makers, I like to use his arguments to illustrate to the Iranian policy makers and Iranian Media that they have got America wrong, too.
People of my age (40-something) still have fresh memories of the three disastrous wars in the region: The 8-year Iran-Iraq war, the first Persian Gulf War, and the ongoing second Persian Gulf War. The eight years war with Saddam has taught Iranians the harsh reality that the wars are not merely won on the battle field but wining the hearts and minds through propaganda. Victory is when a given war is won on both fronts. And, without careful communication strategies and sound public policy to positively affect public opinion, such a victory would be impossible.
Unfortunately, some Iranian leaders that proudly call themselves a member of the “war generation” have forgotten the lessons of their engagements in the Iran-Iraq war, the role of media, and effective propaganda campaigns. They should still remember those days that their pleas for help couldn’t be heard around the world while Saddam was using chemical weapons against Iranians.
I am asking the Iranian policy makers to be highly sensitive and alert about public opinion in the west and realize that showing teeth, clinching fists, and shouting empty slogans are not in the interest of Iran, Iranians, and prosperity. Let me pose the following question to the Iranian policy makers: Do you think the real reason that the Bush administration is not attacking Iran is that they are stuck badly in Iraq and can’t handle another war?
The answer is no! The real reason is that the American public opinion — and indeed world public opinion — is not in favor of such an attack. It is true that the Bush administration was successful in persuading American to invade Iraq based on false premises (Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and its alliance with Al-Qaeda), but in the process the administration has lost its credibility and public trust. As the saying goes, one cannot fool the people for too long.
I believe, as an immigrant Iranian Journalist who has lived in America for nearly six years, that Iranians in general and the Iranian governments in particular have missed many opportunities to fix Iran’s negative image in the west and rectifying the Iranian-US relations. Another, as Sadri mentioned in his article, is ignoring our beliefs and the historic facts about Christianity and Christians.
“The Dialogue among Civilizations” was a significant idea that former President Khatami offered to the world, but if it is going to be confined to occasional seminars and symposiums, we might as well call it the “Dialogue among intellectuals”.
Nowadays, Americans are celebrating their Christmas and New Year holidays. What if the Muslim leaders, or Iranian Muslim leaders, formally announce that as the Holly Quran said that we believe in Jesus as a prophet who was chosen by our God to guide people as our prophet Mohammad was chosen by God for the same mission but in a different era. We all have to share in various national, ethnic, and religious celebrations; therefore establishing and strengthening our intercultural, interpersonal, and international relationships. Let’s take advantage of the simultaneous celebrations of Christmas, Hanukah, and Eid ul Adha (Eid Ghorban).
As Iranians or Moslems, it’s our obligation to show our fellow Christians and Jews that we share in their celebrations and, as indicated in the Quran, respect Jesus and Moses as God’s prophets. Mutual respect is a two-way communication process. If we expect others to see “us” in a positive light, we must try to see “them” in a positive light too. We certainly have to do some hard work to get our negative image fixed.