Saturday, August 13, 2005

Kurds, Ganji, and competing visions of cultures

A friend and I were corresponding about the ongoing unrest in the Iranian Kurdistan recently with me complaining bitterly about how fundamentally disappointed I have been with those who have chosen to remain silent while this murderous Islamic regime continues to batter our much abused and blameless ethnic minority.

The issues at the heart of our disagreements are much broader than what my disenchantment with the stunning silence in face of the brutal assaults on the Kurds would suggest. And indeed what can be gleaned from the raging battles over Mr. Ganji's fate or the simmering conflict over the future of Iran's nuclear aspirations (via Iran Sazi) or even the looming threats of further atrocities against more gay youngsters in Iran.

It is really a contest about who we aspire to be and what qualities we want to have our cultures embody.

In a fundamental way, our disagreements continues to center on what seem to derive the American expedition in Mesopotamia and those identical impulses behind the abuses Mr. Ganji suffers in and out of the notorious Evin prison and the despicable practices we all witnessed in Abu Ghuraib.

And I urge some of you here not to be so self indulgent and intellectually lazy as to quickly retreat into the imaginary safe haven which that miasmic bubble of "moral equivalency" has afforded you. Haven't you been lecturing the world about there being no free passes in life? Practice, then, what you preach and fight the temptation of living on one.

What I propose to do tonight is to leave you with a couple of ideas and revisit them a bit later.

What I am trying to get at is most manifest in a notion that plays a central role in a particular vision of the American presence in the ME proposed and supported by our famed CIA veteran, Mr.Reuel Marc Gerecht. Mr. Gerecht, you will recall,

popularized the atavistic notion of hayba as a way to understand the Middle East and America's role there. Hayba is an Arabic word that Gerecht translates loosely as "the awe that belongs to indomitable authority"--a kind of supermojo. For a ruler or for a nation in the Arab world, the ability to inspire awe is more important than the mere exercise of power. If the image of invulnerability seems unassailable enough it can contribute to real invulnerability, or so the argument goes.

This is an ancient quarrel that only incidentally relates to the Arabic word Hayba.(Farsi Haybat) We should look a bit more closely, nonetheless, at one of his many formulations in the original. Here is Mr. Gerecht-- in his own words-- writing about The Restoration of American Awe:

And now the administration that has done so much to reverse the image of American weakness in the Muslim Middle East--weakness that is the jet fuel behind the appeal of bin Ladenism in the Arab world--may well deal, quite unintentionally, a severe blow to America's hayba, the majesty and magnetism that inhere in unchallengeable power. Without this mystique, there is no guarantee of peace and security for us and our friends in the region.

And a slightly more pestering version in his Forget the Arab Streets:

As the militants have grown stronger, U.S. soldiers have increasingly withdrawn from Iraqi streets. While the Americans have wanted to seem less provocative to the Iraqi people, they have certainly sent a different image to the holy warriors and ex-Baathists. Washington forgot historical rule number one about getting enemies to surrender and acquiesce: You must first beat them. They must see clearly that they have no hope. In a Middle Eastern context, your hayba, the awe that comes with indomitable power, must overwhelm them. This has not appended in Iraq since the fall of Saddam.

The other matter too is an old quarrel, although it is being given a new twist. One of our more interesting (Iranian) bloggers has already broached the subject. So, I'll just use the sources she singled out for us (pdf):

Finally, in promising "moderation," Mr. Ahmadinejad gives an example of one of the favorite exercises of the Shiite clergy and its allies: Takiya. Takiya is an ancient practice of the Shiites, a Muslim minority long persecuted by the Sunni majority. The term could be translated as "precaution" and is a mixture of ruse, lying and dissimulation, which allowed Shiites to protect themselves and to prosper in secret. It is also a sectarian way of organising which allowed them to hold on to their beliefs while escaping persecution by making it seem they were good Sunnis.

And here again:

Using nuclear energy to build huge economical projects proves that Iran aims for peace. Yet, the misunderstanding between Iran and the rest of the world comes from the traditions of the common Iranian character. Iranian personality believes in "El Takya" which means that person should hide his real feelings and appear to be well.

The practice these observers have in mind is more popularly known as AL-TAQIAH and one shudders to think what some of the more excitable, provincial intellectual giants amongst them would have said about Iranians had they been familiar with the more obscure practice of TORIEH which involves oaths!

The point here is not that cultures are not different with some indeed less despicable in their totality than others or that there might not be practices that adversely affect the way people interact in different settings.

The crux here is that like all those born and bred elsewhere, there exists among Iranians also different tendencies and a wide range of different concepts which animate folk in daily struggles and competing visions of life.

And these notions can (and do) serve to justify various definitions of the ideal life-- both in present as well as the (always contested and contestable) plans for the future direction of our societies.

What set of concepts, then, an observer chooses to highlight can serve to inform us more about the type of person we are dealing with than the inherent qualities of any culture which that person purports to report on.

More simply put: it all comes down to-- for me at any rate-- whether or not a Gerecht could be relied upon as a friend or, more crucially, even respected as an enemy.

Look at it another way.

Notice for instance that some of the people who think the propensity to lie can serve to define the essential qualities of Iranians and should thus be viewed as an integral part of the supposed constitution of the Iranian national character are also the very same people who have no difficulty highlighting the brutal honesty of some Iranian Officials such as we see in this MEMRI TV report for some perceived petty advantage.

Any thing for a good laugh, I suppose, at the expense of other cultures, right?

Furthermore, notice also that some are the very same people who don't feel the slightest remorse about incinerating women and children from afar and so not all their revisionist babble can mask the presence of that shameless, thuggish nuclear extortionist within.

These are indeed some of the very same people who can be so right in speaking on behalf of Mr. Ganji, and yet, remain so unwilling to comprehend that his uncompromising audacity in face of injustice is fundamentally rooted in a set of countervailing notions deeply engrained in our tradition.

And these set of values are what remain at the root of the broader opposition to their campaign of mayhem in the Middle East and no PR campaign, no matter how sophisticated or well financed, can make them disappear.

So think a bit more carefully about how that quest for the illusive Haybat plays out in this context!

Here is Mr. Ganji writing about MOROVAT and MODARA in his Second Letter to the Free People of the World from prison:

Although the dictators have managed to bring my body under their domination, since they have not succeeded in taking away my spirit and my thought and in making them theirs forever, they can't stand my face and so crave for my blood.
The person, who recounted these sentences to me, swore to me that "Your death is their dream. You are an obstacle for them. They can’t wait till you die". That compassionate person wanted to convince me by this to break my hunger strike.
Now that I have shouted out I have hastened my death, but I have also managed to show to the entire world how ruthless and inhuman the Sultanist system ruling Iran is in reality and what it has in store. …

Let the world learn what goes on inside "Hotel Evin" and its "Suites".

Hafez used to say:

The ease of the this world and the next is in the interpretation of these two words
With friends, compassion[Morovat], with enemies, tolerance[Modara]

But Motahhari used to say Islam has gone even further than this:

"With friends, compassion and generosity, with enemies, compassion and generosity too... to have compassion is to be compassionate towards one’s enemies as well."

I'll pick up --at some point next, with why rendering this notion of MOROVAT as compassion is inadequate and why our learned outside observers should take it a bit more seriously.

And ultimately why I think it crucial to speak more aggressively about the plight of the Kurds and why it remains so absolutely essential to do whatever we can to help support the Kurdish aspirations for a more just settlement.

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