Iran and the white man’s burden
Iranians have control of their own destiny and know what is best for their own country, writes author.
Nothing is more frustrating than one of your own calling for war on people from your ancestral homeland.
If there is one thing I learned about Iran’s presidential election, it is the existence of the White Man’s Burden amongst some in the Iranian Diaspora community: Iranian-Americans thousands of miles away from Iran, dictating their Western education and values to “backwards”, “deprived” and “mullah-loving” people in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In the comfort of their homes complete with material luxuries, democracy and civil liberties, such Iranian-Americans vie to make a visit or even live in Iran, but fear to do so because of their paranoia or the assumption that living in the West makes them an automatic target of the regime (those who left for political reasons must be separated). Instead, some broadcast propaganda on satellite channels from Los Angeles, often referred to as Tehrangeles, and encourage their compatriots in Iran to do their bidding. They issue their commands, “Take to the streets! Free Iran!” Then a small number of men and women in Iran heed the call and put their lives on the line based on those very words, even though many in the Diaspora would never do the same. I remember it well in the late 1990s.
People often associate the term “Orientalist” with Westerners, but this terminology is applicable to Middle Easterners living in the West as well. They are known as native neo-Orientalists, or contemporary Orientalists with Middle Eastern backgrounds (this term is applicable to all regions, not just the MENA).
In the days leading up to the presidential elections on June 14, some in the Diaspora got upset with me for not using social media to urge Iranian voters to boycott the election, as if I had the magical ability to reach all 50.5 million people who are eligible to vote. These detractors were completely blind to the fact that the internet in Iran was not only in a “coma”, but that not everyone has access to a computer in the first place.
I never understood why some like to rain on other people’s parade. Why not let the Iranian people celebrate and be joyful for a few days? They know their reality; there is no need to remind them of it. The Iranian people are not fools, they know that after eight years under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the economy is ruined, their international image is tarnished, and civil liberties have dwindled further. Why must we insult their intelligence in their short moment of jubilation?
The reality of the election is that the vote was between someone bad and someone worse, and the Iranians knew that very well. Certain self-styled pundits chose to make a mockery of the Iranian people and their “stupidity”, as if they were childlike and need their hands held to be guided towards democracy. Someone even expressed his/her pity for the Iranian people’s “naivety” – they wouldn’t know any better, they haven’t experienced democracy. Yes, let’s perpetuate the Western stereotype that people in the East have the capacity to democratise, but never took those steps. In reality, Iran was a democracy until the CIA engaged in a coup in 1953 that overthrew Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.
When I mentioned my qualms to an Iranian friend living in Tehran, he said: “Iranians who haven’t been to Iran for more than a few years have not been able to keep up with people inside Iran, mostly because Iran’s political situation is very dynamic.”
I think that is a fair assessment and while the Diaspora often means well, their ignorance can also be hazardous. Such is exemplified in those who want to see the monarchy reinstated and for Iran to return to its former “glory” under the Pahlavis, whilst totally ignoring how Mohammad Reza Shah lost his Peacock Throne in the first place: an obsession with being the fifth industrial power in the world rather than improving the status of his people, which led to an ailing economy and countless human rights violations. Another scenario is when they advocate sanctions on Iran, knowing that it hurts the Iranian people.
But what about Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Kanan Makiyas amongst the Diaspora? What are their excuses?
As famed historian Hamid Dabashi notes in his essay, “Native informers and the making of the American empire”:
“… comprador native intellectuals were actively recruited to perform a critical function for the militant ideologues of the US Empire. Their task is to feign authority, authenticity, and native knowledge and thus to inform the US public of the atrocities that are taking place throughout the world, in the region of their native birth in particular, by way of justifying the imperial designs of the US as liberating these nations from the evil of their own designs.”
Unfortunately, we have plenty of those in the Iranian Diaspora such as Sohrab Ahmari, a favourite of the neo-cons, whose war-mongering never ceases in a region with a rich and devastating history in colonisation and war. The advocacy and words by figures such as Ahmari have the potential of bringing about serious destruction to a whole nation, hitting civilians the hardest.
One example of Ahmari’s making of the White Man’s Burden:
“But disillusionment with seemingly heroic new leaders promising change is a centuries-old theme in Iranian history. The current regime’s theocratic structure – with a supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei, and numerous unaccountable bodies lording over popularly elected officials – will soon remind voters that this latest hero has little room to manoeuver.”
Ahmari seems to not take into account that after President Mohammad Khatami’s reaction to the student protests of 1999, Iranians are not disillusioned by the promises made by their presidents.
Or when Ahmari speaks of regime change with numerous scenarios and assumes:
“Regime collapse in Iran represents a historic chance for advancing democratic development there and, by extension, the wider Middle East and North Africa.”
To be kind, he does acknowledge:
“Yet the emergence of a stable constitutional order after the demise of the Khomeinist regime is by no means guaranteed. Without sufficient planning in the West, a post-Islamic Republic order in Iran may be threatened for a generation or more by insurgents loyal to the former regime and by outbreaks of ethno-sectarian strife.”
Regime collapse in Iran represents a historic chance for advancing democratic development there and, by extension, the wider Middle East and North Africa.
It is one thing when non-Iranians argue their views and another when a “native” does it, as the rhetoric becomes more “justifiable” and dangerous. Neo-Orientalists perpetuate the First World view of the Third World – in the case of the Middle East – as being backwards, evil, totalitarian, Muslim terrorists. By doing so, it systematically piles up a small number of people, including its regime, as a representative of an entire populace and thereby ends up with “othering” them from the West in terms of “us” versus “them”. By depicting Iran through writing and the media, such native neo-Orientalists are “representing” an entire country and subtly providing justification for its subjugation by means of foreign intervention, that is, war.
Edward Said makes a note of this in Orientalism, what he calls a “western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient”. As a consequence, Iran and its neighbours are seen as a monolithic, unalterable region that will remain frozen through the course of world history. For that reason, then-Western colonialists and today’s politicians – through their Orientalist viewpoint – are able to apply their West-centric universalism and take advantage of the region by means of exploitation or attempts at spreading their Western “knowledge” on to the “oppressed”. Therefore, Orientalism augments the concept of the White Man’s Burden, which thrives off such stereotypes and reinforces colonising or occupying the Orient.
Author of All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, Stephen Kinzer makes an excellent point:
“Imagine today what it must sound like to Iranians to hear American leaders tell them – ‘We want you to have a democracy in Iran, we disapprove of your present government, we wish to help you bring democracy to your country’. Naturally, they roll their eyes and say – “We had a democracy once, but you crushed it’,” he said. “This shows how differently other people perceive us from the way we perceive ourselves. We think of ourselves as paladins of democracy. But actually, in Iran, we destroyed the last democratic regime the country ever had and set them on a road to what has been half a century of dictatorship.”
Having that been said, the Iranian people are not victims in need of “saving” by implementing democracy on them by force. They have control of their own destiny and know what is best for their country and for the time being, it’s accepting of their situation. There is no need to put the White Man’s Burden on them.
Holly Dagres is an Iranian-American analyst and commentator on Middle East affairs. Currently living in Egypt, she is a researcher at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs.
Follow her on Twitter: @PoliticallyAff