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So alike
Us and the Americans

February 22, 2000
The Iranian

What I want to write about is quite pedestrian: the universality of humanity as demonstrated by the absurdity and exhilaration of the game of politics. Elections are a vivid tableau in which a society is distilled and displayed; these particular elections so much more so.

Religious piety -- or lack thereof -- determines so much in these elections, and the candidates know this. Some wear their religion on their sleeves, some choose to flaunt it more privately, more quietly, in an almost underhanded way. Some of the candidates cater openly to virulent fundamentalist groups who cannot bear the idea of a society where free association between people -men and women in particular -- are not at some level regulated by the state. Having fought in a war has its own cache. There are whispers of corruption and cronyism and certainly of nepotism. There are dynastic connections between candidates past and present. The candidates' position on various nationalistic symbols such as flags and anthems is scrutinized in detail. Voter turnout matters, and the candidates HAVE TO, HAVE TO, HAVE TO appeal to women and young voters in order to win.

I am not speaking of the Iranian elections. It's the concurrence of the parliamentary elections in Iran with the U.S. presidential primaries in South Carolina that fascinates me these days. There are uncanny similarities between Iran and South Carolina: between ecstatic Shi'a Islam and evangelical Christianity, in the extent and character of the candidates' engagement with and response to various nationalist symbols (the Confederate flag or the pre-IRI national anthem of Iran), in the way relations between men and women matter (in South Carolina as regulated by the racist Bob Jones University which has forbidden inter-racial marriages, in Iran as regulated by the vice police), in the universality of a vaguely articulated notion of "character" as determined by the virile service in the military during a war (much more present in South Carolina than in Iran), in the way that family connections seem to pace the way for some candidates to run for office, and last but not least, the importance of the role of women and young voters in determining the outcome of the elections.

What I want to say, based on this quick sketch of similarities, is simple. We are so much alike, we the Americans, and we the Iranians. Our governmental institutions may be vastly different; as our economies and our military capabilities are; but as a people, here and there, we are the same. We both play the politics of identity; religion and faith are so infinitely important to us. Sometimes we reflect one another in a mirror: one state is ostensibly secular; the other state ostensibly religious. But the former is constantly wrestling with how to fit the piety of a profoundly religious populace within the constitutional framework of the separation of church and state, while the latter is now run by technocrats wearing clerical gear and protecting their (and their constituencies') interests through any means possible, including most importantly the ideological use of "Islam."

Our societies are also remarkably similar: seduced by ecstatic spiritualism, somewhat superstitious, with a sometimes-contentious coexistence between the vast number of ethnic groups that compose the nations. We both have an inflated sense of our own superiority as a chosen with a sense of mission, and we both believe that we are destined to affect the universe around us, to lead it, to change it, to irrevocably shape it in our own image.

We are similar in other ways too, some trivial and others not so. Titanic is the best-watched film in both our countries; Baywatch has a devote audience of young men in both countries; Danielle Steele romance novels sells like hot-cakes, and Celine Dion is as big a star in Iran as she is here in the United States. Both countries have their share of coffee-swilling urban intellectuals, reasonably cynical, existentially anguished, profoundly disappointed in humanity in general, or their countrymen in particular. And both our societies breed large number of enterprising entrepreneurs, clever or committed or simply opportunistic, who want to change the world, or at least the economy or politics of Iran or the U.S. We both have our poverty and squalor and we both have our nonchalant moneyed classes who flaunt their wealth tastelessly and live the good life heedless of the suffering of the others. What does that say about us, the people of the United States and the people of Iran, about our tastes, about our politics, about who we are and how we live and what we believe and where we are going?

I would like to propose that we are alike everywhere; that our environments may be different, our states unlike, our economies distinct, our histories disparate, and yet, as a people we are alike. Nothing distinguishes us. We are no better nor worse than the other, no more or less advanced, no more or less cultured, no more or less personally or culturally susceptible to democracy, or to piety or to promiscuity. We are no more nor less peaceful or warlike, we are no more nor less cosmopolitan or backwards, no more nor less hospitable or hostile to the world. Love and hate are the same in both places, as are anger, or pain or laughter.

That a moderately free election in Iran suddenly begins to resemble the equivalent affair in the United States -- albeit the U.S. South which is a wildly distinct polity in itself -- should only serve to remind us that whatever passport or label we carry, whatever language or culture or memories we claim as our birthright, whichever elections in which we vote, we are the same everywhere.

* Laleh Khalili's articles index

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