September 28, 2007
“When evil men plot…” – The Vilification of Ahmadinejad
By Faisal Alam
“When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love. Where evil men would seek to perpetuate an unjust status quo, good men must seek to bring into being a real order of justice.”
- Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)
“Peace cannot be achieved through violence, it can only be attained through understanding.” – Albert Einstein
Not long ago most Americans did not even know how to pronounce President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s name, let alone who he might be. Today, with the help of media conglomerates, no one seems to be able to stop talking about him.
Ahmadinejad is no stranger to controversy. Already condemned for his denial that the Holocaust ever happened and for his statements calling for Israel to be wiped “off the face of the map” the grim mood was set even before Ahmadinejad arrived. Adding fuel to the fire he was invited to speak at Columbia University as part of their world leaders’ lecture series. If that wasn’t enough to get everyone’s blood boiling, Ahmadinejad requested to visit the site of the World Trade Center to offer a prayer and lay a wreath.
Ahmadenijad’s visit to New York was not the first time that he has visited the United States. He has come twice before, both times to attend and speak at the opening session of the General Assembly of the United Nations. But this diplomatic visit caused an uproar that few anticipated. Jewish organizations took out full page ads condemning his visit and thousands of people attended protests outside the United Nations and Columbia University. Signs calling for him to “go to hell” and comparing him to Hitler were distributed amongst the crowds.
Media networks were already buzzing about his controversial visit, but his speech at Columbia University was the stroke that broke the camel’s back. Demonized and disparaged by the President of Columbia University who called him a “petty and cruel dictator,” Ahmadinejad set out to redeem himself in front of the 700 faculty and students. After a long-winded speech beginning with many verses from the Quran and concluding with his passion for new scientific endeavors and his wish to promote world peace, Ahmadinejad was confronted with a series of questions about his beliefs and the political ambitions of Iran.
When questioned about his countries abysmal human rights record and the execution of many men suspected of being gay, Ahmadinejad’s response would become headlines around the world. Through a translator Ahmadinejad stated that “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. We don’t have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I do not know who has told you that we have it.” The audience burst out in laughter, which was followed by a handful of “boos” denouncing his declaration that no queer people existed in Iran. The statement caused such a ruckus that even before Ahmadinejad had ended his talk, those few words spread like wildfire across the blogosphere.
Queer groups were quick to condemn his statement reminding Mr. Ahmadinejad of the many cases of men arrested, tortured and even executed for conducting “liwat” or homosexual activities. Many were simply appalled and mystified that as a leader of a nation he could be in such denial about a segment of Iran that is persecuted under his regime.
The roots of Ahmadinejad’s denigration are clear to any one who can step back from the raw emotions expressed this week. There are four things that are most unsettling and most disturbing.
Firstly, the way the media monopoly manipulated and fed the story to the American people is shocking. Hundreds of newspapers around the world ran the same articles, sent by a handful of news wires including Reuters, the Associated Press and United Press International. This is a clear illustration of the power of media and the control of information that is communicated to the American public.
While the world was quick to snicker and joke about his assertion, within 48 hours bloggers discovered that perhaps his words were mistranslated. After careful analysis of the original Farsi, some discovered that perhaps what he meant to say was that “no (openly gay) people existed in Iran; these people only exist in your country.” In spite of the recognition that the meaning and context of Ahmadinejad’s response were possibly misconstrued, not one major television network or newspaper has reprted anything about this new revelation.
Let’s also not forget that Iran is a “sponsor of terrorism” fueling Islamic radicalism and anti-Americanism across the Muslim world. This only added to the already impassioned assault on President Ahmadinejad. But as much as President Bush and his cohorts would like us all to be “with us or against us,” the world we live in is much more complex.
John F. Kennedy once said that “the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie: deliberate, continued, and dishonest; but the myth: persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.” It is simply easier and more convenient for us to condemn a man whose viewpoints seem bizarre, silly and sometimes fanatical – without any objective or independent analysis.
Secondly, the laughter from the audience that immediately followed Ahmadinejad’s claim that no homosexuals existed in Iran is a case in point where the topic of homosexuality became the fodder for comedy. College campuses across this country can attest to the rising homophobia and conservative viewpoints that more and more students are displaying every day. Homophobia reared its ugly head this week at Columbia University.
Thirdly, our ego and pride have blurred our view of the world around us. Do we really think that the rest of the world thinks and acts the same way we do? Has ethnocentrism rooted itself so deeply in our psyche that we have no room to understand the lives of others on this planet? Do we really live in such a bubble that we have no concept of what cultural relativism is or how and why the lived experiences of a person from another culture or religion might differ from our own?
To many, it may come as a surprise to learn about Ahmadinejad’s personal background and his upbringing. Born into a family of blacksmiths, Ahmadinejad has lived most of his life as a religious and frugal man. As the director of the Center for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland stated to the Washington Post, “he is a premodern man in a postmodern world.”
Mr. Ahmadinejad’s views on both the holocaust and the gay people are most likely the result of his economic status and educational upbringing.
As someone who grew up abroad, I can attest to not learning about the atrocious acts committed against the Jewish people until my mother recounted in my early teens the horror she witnessed in touring the remnants of a concentration camp in Germany. It was only in college where I learned that Hitler not only set out to eradicate Jews but also other marginalized and oppressed communities of the time (including LGBT people).
Just as Mr. Ahmadinejad may not have been taught about the holocaust, the majority of Americans probably know very little about the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s in which 21% of the country’s population (1.7 million people) lost their lives. Similarly the people of Malawi or Iceland probably know little if anything of the genocide committed in this country against Native Americans. While ignorance is no excuse and while we must hold Mr. Ahmadinejad accountable for his anti-Semitic beliefs, disparaging him is not the answer.
The last troubling fact was the unprecedented outcry at Ahmadinejad's request to visit the site of the World Trade Center attack. A popularly elected leader of more than 71 million people wanted to pay his respects to the tragedy that our country endured. Presidential candidates were in uproar and New York city officials were horrified. Senator Joe Leiberman even declared that Ahmadinejad comes to New York “literally with blood on his hands.” The outrage was so intense that one would have thought Osama bin Laden had released another video, announcing his emergence from the mountains of Afghanistan and requesting a personal tour of ground zero! Do we now think that Iran was involved in the attacks? Or has the Bush administration succeeded in making us all delusional?
American foreign policy in the 21st century is riddled with hypocrisy and double-standards. A friend can become a foe as quickly as a foe can become a friend. This was demonstrated clearly in April of this year when Rep. Nancy Pelosi paid a visit to Syria and met with President Bashar Al-Assad. It was only in November 2001 that President Bush infamously branded Syria as a member of the “axis of evil” together with Iran and North Korea. But with hidden pretense Syria overnight has become a potential ally in our “war on terrorism.” And North Korea will soon enjoy the economic benefits of opening its nuclear facilities to inspection and succumbing to the “new world order” where the United States is the only remaining superpower. While we are now quick to condemn Iran, mysteriously countries including Egypt and Uzbekistan (who are some of the worst state-sanctioned human rights’ abusers) continue to be closely allied to the United States. But for how long? We are as quick to sleep with the enemy as we are to kick them out of our beds.
I am continuously appalled at how easily our society succumbs to tactics that perpetuate terror and fear by those that seek to further cultivate corporate greed, poverty, environmental degradation, empire-building, militarization, and the privatization of natural resources. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, author and advocate of peace articulated once that “in order to rally people, governments need enemies. They want us to be afraid, to hate, so we will rally behind them. And if they do not have a real enemy, they will invent one in order to mobilize us.” Unfortunately for President Ahmadinejad, he was just another pawn in this scheming plot.
It is unfortunate that we lost another chance at opening dialogue and creating peace with Ahmadinejad and with Iran. Instead of assailing Ahmadinejad and further alienating the Iranian people, we should have invited him to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and see for himself the death and destruction caused against the Jewish people; or attend a dinner with survivors of the holocaust who can describe first-hand their miraculous escape. And while we’re at it, Mr. Ahmadinejad should also meet with some of the gay men and lesbian women who have fled their homeland due to his country’s ongoing persecution of sexual minorities.
While the Bush administration increases its war-mongering against Iran and continues its unending war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we must all work together harder than ever to fight back and ensure that our country become a source of peace and stability instead of our current path of “shock and awe” matched with death and destruction.
Mr. Ahmadinejad's visit to New York this year was a missed opportunity, but we can still look to the future to engage those that we have traditionally denounced. The future also presents us prospects for us to continue fighting homophobia, ethnocentrism and xenophobia that has permeated our society. And together we will get there.
Martin Luther King Jr. once stated that “I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”
I hope President Ahmadinejad's next visit to New York will be an opening to facilitate cross-cultural dialogue, mutual understanding and an opening to a world where we can achieve true peace.
Faisal Alam is a queer Muslim activist of Pakistani descent. As the founder of Al-Fatiha, an organization dedicated to supporting and empowering LGBT Muslims, Faisal managed the organization as a volunteer director from 1998-2005. Contrary to what many may think after reading this article he is not a supporter of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or George W. Bush. :-)
Active in the struggle to promote peace and justice, Faisal currently resides in Atlanta, GA. His blogs and other writings can be found at http://queermuslimrevolution.blogspot.com and at http://myqueerificworld.blogspot.com. He can also be reached by email at FaisalAlam@aol.com