Ahmadinejad's message to the world

Does Iranian leader's global view convey truisms the West would rather ignore?


    Ahmadinejad blames "certain big powers" for the plight of a large share of humanity, but
    his own government's repressive policies have left him open to criticism [GALLO/GETTY]

    It was quite a week for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president.
    First he faced down the president of Columbia University and a host of hostile questioners in Harlem. 
    Then he headed down to Midtown Manhattan, where for 45 minutes he held the world's attention at the United Nations, before heading farther south, to Caracas, Venezuela, for talks with his close ally, President Hugo Chavez.

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    Local papers, such as the Daily News and The New York Post, featured headlines announcing that "The Evil has Landed" and lambasting the "Mad Iran Prez" for his past denials of the Holocaust, refusal to unequivocally renounce a quest for nuclear weapons, and call to have Israel "wiped off the map" (an inaccurate translation of the Persian "bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad," which is better - but less violently and therefore less usefully - rendered in English as "erased from the page of time" or "fate").
    Even Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, introduced him with an unprecedented - and to the minds of many academics, not to mention Iranians, uncouth - verbal attack, accusing him of being little more than a "petty dictator".
    In its critiques of Ahmadinejad's speech at Columbia, the mainstream US press focused most of its attention on Ahmadinejad's tendentious claim that "there are no homosexuals in Iran" (belied by an evening stroll through Tehran's famous Daneshjoo Park), and his attempt to redefine his position on the Holocaust (it happened, but more research is needed to know its true extent).
    At the UN, his criticism of "widespread human rights violations" elicited the expected derisive response in light of his own government's increasingly repressive policies, while his declaration that the nuclear case against Iran "is closed" suggested, to most commentators, continued intransigence by Iran in the face of supposedly universal opposition to its nuclear programme.

    Discourteous treatment
    Few commentators considered how Ahmadinejad's words were heard outside of the US media circus. 
    And those who did, such as Timothy Rutton of the LA Times, focused purely on the reaction in the Muslim world, arguing that, as a "totalitarian demagogue", Ahmadinejad gained legitimacy because of the discourteous treatment by Columbia's president. 

    Ahmadinejad speaks to a wider audience
    than just his western listeners [Reuters]

    Rutton wrote: "Bollinger's denunciation was icing on the cake, because the constituency the Iranian leader cares about is scattered across an Islamic world that values hospitality and its courtesies as core social virtues."
    "To that audience, Bollinger looked stunningly ill-mannered; Ahmadinejad dignified and restrained."
    Underlying Rutton's argument is the still-widespread belief, whose roots lie deep in Europe and America's histories as imperial powers, that Muslims and the other formerly colonised peoples value "honour", "pride" and "hospitality" far more than they do issues of substance.
    Indeed, they remain incapable of making well-reasoned and documented criticisms of a West, and the United States in particular, that remains by definition technologically, politically, and morally superior to the developing world.

    'Poverty and deprivation'
    It's no wonder, then, that almost no one in the American media focused on the substantive claims of Ahmadinejad's speech at the UN.
    Chief among them were his argument regarding the "alarming situation of poverty and deprivation".

    "Let me draw your attention to some data issued by the United Nations," he said, before calling to the attention of the world's leaders the fact that close to one billion people live on less than $1-a-day and that there is a rapidly increasing gap between the world's rich and poor.

    He mentioned the continued disgraceful figures for infant mortality, schooling and related human development indicators in the developing world.
    Perhaps wanting to be courteous, Ahmadinejad blamed "certain big powers" for the plight of a large share of humanity - he might have added that according to UN estimates almost half the world lives on less than $2 per day. 
    But he didn't need to name names; most of the developing world, including the Muslim world, share his belief that their plight is linked to a world economic system whose goal, for more than half a millennium, has been to exploit the peoples and resources of the rest of the world for the benefit of the more advanced countries of the West.

    Few considered how Ahmadinejad's words were
    heard outside of the US media circus [AFP]

    That is precisely why so many people in the developing world remain opposed to Western-sponsored globalisation, which for most critics, including in the Arab/Muslim world, is little more than imperialism dressed up in the rhetoric of "free markets" and "liberal democracy".
    It is this much wider audience, from the favelas of Rio De Janeiro and the shanty towns of Lagos as much as the slums of Casablanca, Sadr City or Cairo, to whom Ahmadinejad was speaking.
    His discourse was strikingly similar to that of his biggest ally, Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, who in his speech before the assembly last year had fewer qualms (perhaps because he's neither Arab nor Muslim) about pointing fingers at whom he considers responsible for the sorry shape of so much of the world.
    Hoisting Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival above his head, he exclaimed that "the hegemonic pretensions of US imperialism ... put at risk the very survival of humankind".
    America, not Iran, Chavez argued, is "the greatest threat looming over our planet".
    The Ahmadinejad-Chavez axis has been compared by American politicians such as Florida Republican Congressman Connie Mack to the relationship between Fidel Castro and Russia.

    Such analogies are far off the mark.
    A more accurate historical comparison would be to the relationship between Egypt's Gemal Abdel Nasser and India's Jawaharlal Nehru, when both came together at the Bandung conference in 1955 to attempt to build a coherent bloc of nations that could protect its interests against those of the two major superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union.

    'Human underdogs'
    Writing after attending the Bandung Conference, the American novelist Richard Wright exclaimed that it was a meeting of "the despised, the insulted, the hurt, the dispossessed - in short, the underdogs of the human race".
    It was this shared experience of oppression that grounded the "Bandung Spirit", which leaders such as Nasser used to develop the "pan-" ideologies (-Arab, -African, -American, -Islamic) that proved a thorn in the side of US policymakers for much of the Cold war. 
    The difference between Chavez and Ahmadinejad and their "Third World" predecessors, is, in a word, oil. 
    Iran and Venezuela possess the third- and seventh-largest oil reserves in the world, totaling well over 200 billion barrels - that's not much less than the proven reserves of Saudi Arabia.

    At the UN General Assembly, Ahmadinejad
    spoke for 45 minutes [GALLO/GETTY]

    The two countries will earn well over $80bn in revenues this year alone.
    As important, both countries possess non-oil sectors that are surprisingly robust, according to many estimates, for the majority of both Iran's and Venezuela's Gross Domestic Product.
    This provides both countries with billions of dollars to spend on foreign aid, as demonstrated by Ahmadinejad's stopover in Bolivia, where he pledged $1bn in Iranian aid and development to the poverty stricken country.
    US policymakers' view of the world through the "you're either with us or against us" prism divides the globe into those who support the US and Europe (and the "West" more broadly), and those who support al-Qaeda and "Islamofascism", a term which has been created precisely to ensure that Americans conflate Osama bin Laden with Ahmadinejad, and both with Hitler.
    But few people outside of the West buy this comparison, or the larger black-and-white world-view it reflects.
    Instead, in Africa and Latin America, Ahmadenijad's argument that "humanity has had a deep wound on its tired body caused by impious powers for centuries" resonates far more deeply than George Bush's hollow-sounding calls for democracy and "ending tyranny".

    Colonial rule
    The West advises Africa to "get over" colonialism, but the pain of colonial rule is still felt by those suffering under the policies imposed by the IMF and/or the World Bank, or from the continued subsidisation of American and European agribusiness while their countries are flooded with below-market wheat, soy or corn.
    It is to those people whom Ahmadinejad promised - in language that strikingly mirrors US President Bush's often religiously-hued speeches - that "the era of darkness will end" with the "dawn of the liberation of, and freedom for, all humans".
    Americans may not like Ahmadinejad's or Chavez's internal politics, ideological orientations, or foreign policies.

    But for most of the third world, which is tired of centuries of domination by the West, the two leaders are a breath of fresh air, who are coming not as conquerors, but as comrades.
    They are free of the condescending "civilising mission" that, from Napoleon's invasion of Egypt to the US invasion of Iraq, always seem to include war, occupation, and the appropriation of strategic natural resources under foreign control as part of their mandate.
    And because of this, most of the citizens of the developing world, rightly or wrongly, couldn't care less about Ahmadinejad's positions on Israel, the Holocaust, and nuclear weapons, never mind homosexuals, none of which affect them directly.
    They care only that he is sticking-it-to their old colonial or Cold war masters, and offering "respect", "friendship" and billions of dollars in aid with no strings attached.
    Americans, Europeans and Israelis can fret about it all they want, but it will not change this reality.

    Only a reorientation of the world economy towards real sustainability and equality will dampen his appeal, and that's not likely to happen soon.
    Which means that Americans will be hearing a lot more of Ahmadinejad and leaders like him in the future.

    The question is, will they be listening?

    Mark LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine in California, US, and author and editor of half-a-dozen books, including Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil (Oneworld, 2005) and the forthcoming Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Religion and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Random House/Verso) and An Impossible Peace: Oslo and the Burdens of History (Zed Books). He is a regular commentator on Al Jazeera's The Listening Post. www.culturejamming.org

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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