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Wrong, regardless
Every time we choose to "explain", we become implicated

By Afsaneh Najmabadi
September 18, 2001
The Iranian

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 September 11th.

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.

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