Why is the liberal/leftist discourse of the West
incapable of including Iranian voices of freedom and democracy?
August 8, 2005
An Iranian journalist, Akbar Ganji, is dying
in Iran. Because of the articles he wrote in the early 1990s, and because he
participated in a conference in Berlin
where the Islamic regime of Iran was mildly criticized, he was sentenced
to six years in prison. He has completed nearly all but six
months of his sentence, but because of constant ill-treatment
by officials of the judiciary he has
on a hunger strike. This has lasted for more almost 60 days, and during
this period the not-very-forceful condemnations by various
have only met with a snide response from the Islamic judiciary.
A few days ago, my friends, a bunch of middle-aged
expatriate Iranian-American intellectuals with various leftist
and I were thinking about
contacting some progressive organizations here in the US and initiating a
in order to at least put our anger on record. But after many hours
of discussion, we came to realize something that we had felt for a long time:
seems that there is no place for our voices in the American if not Western
For years -- since before the 1979 Revolution
in Iran -- we
considered ourselves part of an international progressive discourse whose
defining elements included
issues of democratic movements in countries such as Iran. However, we have
had a growing sense that, in this new era of "New World Order",
the international Liberal/Leftist discourse has left us out. And here is
I think is the
underlying reason: this discourse is now defining itself simply as Anti-Conservative
nothing more. And simplistic Anti-Conservatism is incapable of addressing
real issues of democratic movements in Iran (and, I believe, many other
countries in the region).
Let me give you some examples to clarify my point.
I start with the current
war in Iraq. We believe that the Bush Administration's justifications
for war were
quite baseless and shameless yet we believe it is ridiculous to deny
that, for example, in Iraqi Kurdistan we are witnessing the
formation of one
of the best
examples of democracy in the region. Indeed, this has been the reason
behind questions such as the following: Can we use American
power to promote democracy
in the region? Nobody is suggesting that the answer is yes but
dismissing that question out of hand is not going to work either.
For those of us
and relations are dying in the prisons of the Islamic regime, this
question is indicative of the desire to change their situation
even if it means
such a conservative force and ideology as represented by the current
American administration. But the reaction of the Liberal/Leftist
discourse to this
concern has simply been sneering and stock answers such as "You
cannot impose democracy", "Force
cannot bring freedom", and so on.
Let us think of another example.
We believe that the arguments of the current American administration
that Iran should not have access to nuclear
are ridiculous because these arguments, 1) disregard the fact that
according to the NPT (nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), signatories
access to such technologies and 2) represent a kind of double standard.
For example, the American administration does
nothing about Israel's nuclear arsenal, but
it insists on preventing Iran from developing even the technology.
We understand this. But at the same time we believe those
who think the
of Iran is not pursuing the acquisition of nuclear weapons are total
So, here is the question: should we be concerned
with the double standards
of Conservatives, or should we think about the fact that no matter
at it, it is a terrible idea to let the current regime in Iran lay
its hands on nuclear weapons? It seems that according to
the current Leftist
this is not the important question. They just keep trying to point
out the inconsistencies in Conservatives' arguments. What
will become of
Iranians and many others in
the region if the Islamic regime does end up possessing nuclear weapons
of no importance to them.
Let me give you the latest example. The
recent presidential election in Iran was a joke. The position
of the Conservative discourse was
the current US administration, which called this election undemocratic,
rigged, ridiculous. Once again it is obvious that they were not necessarily
about democracy in Iran and had other ulterior, transparent reasons.
Leftist discourse, thinking that American Conservatives might use
this occasion to justify their
possible aggression against Iran, reminded Conservatives that recent
presidential elections in the US have not been problem-free either.
And here lies the
difficulty. We agree that there have been and are many problems with
the elections in the
US, but we also believe it is either ludicrous or disingenuous to
compare them to Iranian elections.
I do not want to get into details
the two, but suffice it to say that here in the US, the election
to all public offices as a democratic phenomenon is supported through
while in Iran this fundamental democratic requirement is undermined
by undemocratic institutions such as the ruling Sharia laws which
the main source
of legitimacy of the most important public offices as the religious
not the people.
So once again here is our dilemma: We believe
the Leftist discourse is correct in pointing out the inconsistencies
of the Conservatives'
does not help us at all because it does not address our main concern,
namely the deterioration of the situation of Iranian people with
regard to fundamental
Now let me suggest an academic dimension to this
discussion which could explain another important aspect of
that there are
occasions when these two supposedly different discourses act in unison.
began with the claim that the era of grand narratives had
come to an end and that consequently the time had come to pay
attention to the
uniqueness of different cultures and their multiple voices. For
need another place to be discussed, the glad tidings of postmodernism
did not lead to the allocation of energy and resources to these
The same pre-postmodern clichés were repeated but this time
the only effort made to legitimize them was to propagate respect
for and/or tolerance
cultures. By making no effort to recognize the real and legitimate
voices of different cultures, the propaganda produced by officials
of regimes such
the Islamic Republic, has come to be accepted as the legitimate voices
of these cultures.
And the funny thing is that scholars then try to theorize about and
explain these cultural traits.
Take for example the issue of Hejab
(Islamic covering for women)
in Iran. Everybody knows that it was imposed on Iranian women after
very day, the Islamic regime has to use force to persuade Iranian
women to conform to their culture! Officials of the Islamic regime
refer to Hejab as a cultural phenomenon, and what is worse, scholars
then try to theorize about this exotic phenomenon.
One of those culture-specialist
who had done "research" on this topic argues that Islamic
Hejab gives women more power because they can see while they cannot
be seen! I really wish
these so-called scholars would go to Tehran in the summer and ask
women who are forced to cover themselves head to toe out of doors
in more than 100-degree heat
about the balance between power and overheating! I understand that
some people here need to publish in order to get their tenure, but
do we not also need a
minimum level of intellectual integrity?(1)
I should add that such "scholarly" works
are not limited to non-Iranians. In fact a number of Iranian "scholars",
having emphasized their Iranianness; by thus claiming a special knowledge
of the culture, they have functioned as the native elements of these
discourses in the hope of pursuing the easy path to academic success.
consideration of this academic phenomenon suggests a rather comic
situation: on the one hand the majority of scholars in academic institutions
trying to present a radical face; on the other hand, on many occasions
the most reactionary images of cultures of which they had intended
to present self-sustaining definitions. Having taught in a few major
of higher learning for more than fifteen years, I have seen such
Other than that, the idea that different cultures
and their voices should be automatically respected or tolerated
We all remember Salman Rushdie's case. The shameless fatwa by Khomeini
provided sufficient cause for any Liberal/Radical/Leftist discourse
to pressure the governments of every single democratic society to
against the Islamic regime of Iran. But instead, this fatwa was simply
criticized, condemned, and accepted, and at the same time discussions
were held about
the sensitive nature of faith issues!
Ironically enough, since Conservatives
the European ones) were protecting their capitalist constituents,
they did not have any specific reason to advocate a strong position
either. When translators of The Satanic Verses were attacked and
killed, the same "tolerance" and "respect" continued.
What was academic/Leftist discourse supposed to do, one might ask.
they were supposed to stop
hiding behind worn-out ideas and talking points such as "being
tolerant towards different cultures", "respecting religious
sensitivities of different faiths". . . and actually examine
the textual-ideological roots of such acts of brutality. This did
not happen in academic environments
frankly, the academic/Leftist discourse is so gutless that it has
no desire to accept the consequences of facing stupid, self-serving
'postmodern' maxims (such as: "Faith-based ideologies should
not be criticized because they represent different cultures")
which were developed by academics to spare themselves any theoretical
require a minimum
Therefore what we see in these academic environments,
even when faced with events such as the mass murders of 9/11 or the
prisoners in the summer of 1988 in Iran, is the sheepish repetition
such as "this is not true Islam", "Islam is the religion
... Nobody gives enough of a damn to actually examine these statements.
At least in Iran, every time Islam has been in power peace and freedom
and oppression has emerged.
The Rushdie's case is only one example
which simultaneously demonstrated the tolerance of the Left for such
inhumane treatment and the unwillingness
Right to act decisively. When the translators of The Satanic
Verses were attacked and even killed, the reaction
was no stronger. When many instances
on the most basic rights of Iranian people occurred, again the reaction
After the killing of the Iranian-Canadian journalist,
Kazemi, in the notorious
Evin prison, not one single serious effort was made to force the
Canadian government to rethink its relationship with Iran. And
there are many,
many similar examples
of such atrocities which have been overlooked.
Even when they have
been instigated in Western countries by agents of the Islamic regime,
have led to no
meaningful reaction. One needs only think about the killing of
the opposition figures especially
in Germany (1992) (2) which led to a ruling by a German court that
implicated a number of public officials in the Islamic regime.
Yet today Germany
is one of the main economic partners of Iran; only recently the
Party asked the Iranian ambassador to convey their message to Iranian
officials concerning Akbar Ganji. This is the full and entire extent
of their efforts!
I should add that, in my opinion, this "tolerance" has
led to a belief among many Moslems that it is their right to attack
and kill whatever and whoever
they think acts against their sacred beliefs. Indeed, this is one
of the reasons why I am publishing this piece under a pen name
because nobody knows
what may happen if I argue that the main text of Islam, the Qoran,
and its history and the teachings of its prophet need to be examined
to see whether or not violence,
injustice, inequality and intolerance are integral parts of this
Some damned fool might issue a fatwa to kill
me: another damned fool might be tempted
to carry it out in order to end up in a garden filled with virgins,
Paradise according to the Qoran. This might sound farfetched, but
it is impossible not
to think about the Dutch filmmaker, Theo van Gogh, who was foully
murdered for daring to make a movie criticizing the way Islam treats
women. (By the
way, let us not forget that the strongest reactions to van Gogh's
murder came from
conservative discourses and not liberal or leftist ones.)
In any case,
here once again is the situation. When we were thinking about
contacting organizations or newspapers to do something for
of the two major
discourses, we automatically thought about the Liberal/Leftist discourse.
But very soon we realized that this discourse has been reduced to
a tame criticism
of the Conservative discourse.
We further realized that this so-called
Leftist discourse has become totally enmeshed with an academic version
that continues to regurgitate benign clichés whose sole purpose
is to protect the undeserved perks of the members of academia. That
is why this discourse is not even thinking about tackling taboos.
The result was clear. We expected the Liberal/Leftist
discourse to provide our
a space, but it seems that they are busy organizing events about
globalization, ozone layer, and similar matters. These are of
course all very worthy
causes, but it seems they are also carefully-selected issues
which do not require
any fundamental theoretical battle which could possibly break
the shameful ceasefire
between the Liberal/Leftist discourse and the worst forms of
intolerance and despotism.
Conversely, and surprisingly, we came to realize
that on several occasions the Conservative discourse is addressing
of our concerns,
for different reasons and not strategically. This is probably one
of the main
account for the recent popularity in Iran of US Middle East policies.
According to anecdotal statistics (3) many Iranians
wouldn't mind if something similar
to what happened in Iraq would happen in Iran. This should be a very
loud wake-up call for the Liberal/Leftist discourse.
Let me make
even more clear
and even more frightening: If the Left/Liberal discourse does not
address the concerns of Iranian movements for justice, democracy
it is very
likely that these movements will be attracted, at least for tactical
purposes, towards policies offered by Conservatives. And this does
not appear to
be a temporary
In fact, Akbar Ganji may well die one of these
days, but even if he is saved, there will be others like him
in the near future,
as our "natural
allies" pay no attention to such events, we will witness the
strengthening of the Conservative discourse in our midst.
The author is an associate
professor at an institution of higher education in the U.S.
Naheed Rasa is a pen name picked by iranian.com.
1) I can think of many other
examples of statements made by the officials of the Islamic
regime which are totally baseless and are never challenged.
when Iranian delegations travel to other countries, they do not shake
hands with women, and they explain this as consistent with the position
culture. And of course no one attempts to challenge them and to remind
them that it has only been under Islam that women have been forced
into this position.
Before Islam there were women who actually ran the whole empire but
now they cannot even run for presidency.
2) In 1992 four Iranians
who were among leaders of the opposition were killed at the
Mykonos Restaurant in Germany. The German court
Iranian government was behind this act and thus engaging in state
terrorism. The German
government ceased to hold any dialogues with the Islamic regime
for only one year; after that, relations between the two governments
3) Those are the only kind of statistics we can
find in Iran. The last scientific poll in Tehran showed that
majority of people
to have a better
relationship with the US. Soon after the results of the poll
were published, the pollsters were arrested; they are still
time in prison.
One of them, Dr. Qazian, has recently written a long letter describing
during investigations. Since this event, the only polls one finds
in Iran are those commissioned by the government and carried
out by their