December 28, 2005
Myth and Myth-take (with Update)
Mohammad Khatami, the former President of Iran, again and again urged a “dialogue of civilizations.” Khatami’s own mentality, however, was captive to the Western monologue, and his call fell on deaf ear in the West.
Ahmadinejad’s monumental task is to turn the monologue into a true dialogue. As the West is completely unaware of the existence of a point of view other than its own, Ahmadinejad faces the task of using harsh language to try to break through the legacy of decades of brainwashing.
Communication of complex ideas is not an easy task. Had the Western media been unbiased reporters of facts, the task of conveying ideas across cultural barriers would still have been prone to error and misunderstanding. But the even greater problem is that the Western media are very far from being unbiased reporters of facts. Rather, they approach world events through the particular ideological prisms of their financial and political masters.
A further difficulty that Ahmadinejad faces is unwittingly of his own making. He is a scholar with little political experience, and he always speaks as a scholar, which places a barrier between him and ordinary people. Scholars deal in concepts and meanings. Ordinary people deal in feelings and emotions. Scholars see the world in terms of conceptual and impersonal structures. Ordinary people see the world in terms of emotional and personal frameworks. Scholars faced with political problems imagine, rightly or wrongly, that correct conceptualizations can solve those problems. Hence they see their task as the furthering of the formulation of those conceptualizations, but in a language that they hope would make it possible for the public at large to participate in the process.
A short while ago, the Western media reported Ahmadinejad as having spoken of “wiping out Israel.” In reality, in a speech whose theme was the urgency of finding a political solution to the Palestinian nightmare, he had simply employed a quotation from the Ayatollah Khomeini in order to illustrate a point. He could not possibly have foreseen that his words would be taken out of context and mistranslated to be trumpeted across the world. Again, one must keep in mind that he speaks as a scholar and deals in ideas. When he used the quotation about “wiping out Israel,” he was speaking of the necessity of a radical modification in what the concept of “Israel” represents. He was not speaking of some kind of physical destruction of a physical entity.
If one sets aside the anti-Moslem blinkers and looks squarely at the facts, one will notice that President Ahmadinejad's polemics simply represent the view that things cannot go on the way they have been, and a solution to the plight of the Palestinian people is not only desirable but inevitable.
More recently, he was accused of having denied the Holocaust by calling it a “myth.” Again, it is absolutely imperative to keep in mind that Ahmadinejad speaks as a scholar. To the average person on the street, whose thoughts are vague and whose feelings are strong, the word “myth” is a synonym for “lie” or “fantasy.” To the scholar, on the other hand, the word “myth” has a specific meaning, or rather several specific meanings, depending on the specific context.
Recall that he was not speaking of myth in general, but rather of myth in relation to a specific nation, that is, the Jewish nation. In other words, he was speaking of a national myth.
Again, to the person on the street, the phrase “national myth” simply signifies a lie or fantasy about a particular nation. To a scholar, on the other hand, the phrase has a very specific meaning, which has nothing at all to do with lies or fantasies. “A ‘national myth’ is an inspiring or patriotic story … that serves as a national symbol of a country, and re-affirms a country's ‘national values.’” A national myth is sometimes called a “founding myth,” and is not a “myth” in the sense of being false.
For instance, Canada’s “national myth” revolves around Loyalist migrations to Canada, the War of 1812, and so on. These events really happened, of course, and the word “myth” is not used disparagingly in referring to them. A "national myth" is, rightly or wrongly, the foundation of a nation's identity. The only possible disputes revolve around questions such as whether these events really deserve the place they have been assigned in a nation's history, or whether they have been correctly interpreted, and so on. And that is exactly the kind of point that Ahmadinejad was trying to make regarding the “national myth” of the state of Israel. As a scholar, his aim is not to dispute historical facts. Rather, he wants to try to clarify the conceptual structures that historical facts are embedded in.
Nowhere does he deny the Holocaust. Nowhere does he call it a “myth” in the sense of being false. Just the opposite, as a matter of fact. The subject of his speech was the West's attitude towards and exploitation of religion. He was also trying to defend himself against the charge of anti-Semitism. He wanted to point to what he sees as the hypocrisy of the West, which, in its pursuit of secularism, abandoned all religions, including Judaism, a long time ago, while continuing to draw every possible political advantage out of the suffering of the Jewish people.
In his view, it is the West that has turned the Holocaust into a falsehood. It is the West that has turned the real sufferings of millions of real people into a political weapon.
By putting together his statements regarding "wiping out Israel" and "the myth of Holocaust," we arrive at the essence of his thought on this subject, which is that Israel should give itself a new national myth. By giving itself a more positive and inclusive national myth, Israel may finally succeed in freeing itself from vassalage to the West and assert itself as a true nation.
An editorial in a Canadian newspaper recently coined the term "Iran's dark days,” referring to the period of "the late 1970s and early 1980s, which was highlighted by the seizure of the American embassy."
A point that may be incomprehensible from a Western-centric perspective is that the seizure of the US embassy was the least important event of that period to the people of Iran. The real highlight of that period was that the people of Iran managed to throw off the yoke of the Shah's US-imposed tyranny and regain their national dignity and independence, a unique and unprecedented achievement in the Middle East.
The darkness of those days, from the Iranian people's perspective, stemmed from the distortions that the Islamic Revolution's original purpose suffered because of Saddam's invasion and other US-inspired pressures.
The way I see it, President Ahmadinejad's focus is on reviving what the Islamic Revolution was really about. Briefly, that essence consisted of freedom, independence, and the creation of a political system where the principles of Islam would be the final arbiters of right and wrong.
If that does not suit the interests of the West, so be it.
Update (January 2): As I have explained in this post, it is a myth that President Ahmadinejad called the Holocaust a myth. And, as I mentioned in a comment to this post, the myth was created by a translator at the New York Times' Tehran office. The lie has now caught up with the Western media. People are asking "Wasn't it this guy who was just denying the Holocaust? How is it that now he is calling Israel a continuation of the European genocide of Jews? If he is a Holocaust-denier, how can he be talking about a genocide?"
The fact is that a foreign leader has made certain statements in the last couple of months in a foreign language. The statements have been translated by the newsmedia of his country’s enemies. Because of the contradictions that have arisen between the translated statements, some people are trying to understand what the foreign leader has really said. Another group of people, possibly anti-Semites, are trying to fish the muddy waters or exploit the situation. The fact that anti-Semites use similar words to the words attributed to Ahmadinejad does not mean they say the same thing. A third group, whose motivations are also suspect, do nothing but hurl abuse at anyone who tries to get an objective understanding of what is really going on.
• My other posts on related topics:
McCain's License to Torture?
What do you care?
Unity, progress, and purpose
The Poodle's UNcle
Commandress in Chief
Opportunism, thy name is Dubya!
Religious principles do not exist in the abstract. A very important aspect of the reality of the application of Islamic principles in Iran is the concrete existence of a progressive political leadership that, absent foreign interference, will guide the application of those principles in a progressive direction. That “progressive direction,” however, may be something entirely different from what an upper middle class person in either the West or in Iran would consider to be progressive.
It's not only that. It's access to information. I haven't seen this interpretation or correction (what you've written here) anywhere. I grant you I haven't been looking for it specifically, but neither is it jumping out at me.
It's not just "Amerisraeli". Many progressive people like myself are very sensitive to Holocaust denial, and would never know that the word myth was used in some other context here, if in fact that is true.
Thanks for the perspective. I'll follow your links and try to read more about it.
Of course, there's no such thing as objective. You have your political perspective as much as anyone else, and that inevitably leads to bias. I might agree with your bias ;-) but we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking we are objective.
and keeping in mind how words and ideas get distorted when translated into a foreign language.
That's the really tricky part, I think. Unless we are fluent in the original language, we're dealing with second-hand information at best.
We live within the most propaganda-saturated environment in human history, which, on one hand, as you pointed out, denies us access to real information, and, on the other hand, imposes standardized interpretations of the little bits of information that it does make available to us.
Do you know where I can find a translation of the whole speech?
I personally don't see a lot of difference between "wiped off the map" and "eliminated from the pages of history". Although they are different colloquialisms, they mean essentially the same thing.
I have no love for or trust in the New York Times or any American media. But that alone is no reason to defend statements of hatred. Which these are, in my opinion.
Thanks for the insight, I appreciate it.
This morning I revised the first paragraphy of this post. I think it explains what I am talking about.
I might be intruding on the conversation in here, but I think I have a thing or two to add about this:
-Muslims and Arabs partly still believe in the idea of destroying the Israeli nation, which they consider as illegal and unfair. So when the Iranian president did mean to say that Israel should be eliminated. However he didn't say anything about using so nuclear weapon against Israel or any sort of Iranian action at all.
-the Iranian president is NOT dangerous (or at least not as much as the western media enjoys portraying him) the real reason why western media finds it so difficult to accept this president can be divided in two blocks:
1) The European portray of a presentable politician :
This president appears like a very casual and poor citizen that lacks for education and political intelligence to handle a primordial country such as Iran. There fore European and European like (who can also be seen as the "elitist individuals") individuals fail to connect to this unusual president. So the origin of his popularity among Iranians is a strong reason for his failed integration to the globalized society. But we shouldn't forget that the Europeans are the ones who are actually attempting to communicate with him.
The American restricted point of view :
I do not mean to attack the American life style, but Americans (or at least a reasonable majority) have a very limited perspective when it comes to politics, and especially foreign affair. They lead a self-satisfied existence inside the borders of there country that they don't need to understand what is going on outside, they just take the easiest shortcut: Blindness! They just ingest what limited media information they receive and they don't question it... Why would they?!
Now as a Lebanese citizen I can still think of tons of things to say about this issue but that's it for now.
Ahmadinejad is, physically, not very presentable, so to speak. Also, considering his class background, I have little doubt he can’t tell a salad fork from a caviar fork, making it embarrassing for the higher echelons of European society to deal with him. As you said, he is a very “unusual president.” He is, however, a highly educated person (with a PhD), and he is, I am sure, far more intelligent that most of his opponents imagine him to be. Also, because of his closeness to the religious leadership (contrary to the previous president) he has the power to make real decisions regarding foreign relations, but if only the West for once enters into an honest dialogue with his government.
Well he is undeniably close to religious leadership, which a great source of his power, but also the huge popular support.
I can’t say I would personally vote for a similar president, I simply dislike ultra conservative. And I think that most of the western people fail to understand the appeal that this president might represent for his people. Especially in America where the individual freedom is considered sometimes more important then common sense. That is why the first reaction the world had when Ahmadinejad was elected, was to doubt the legitimacy of the elections, the western mind can’t understand what similar leaderships represent to us Arabs, Muslims and third world countries.
In fact he was elected for two main reasons:
1) He is an excellent bureaucrat, he accomplishes what he promises to (let’s not forget his excellent work in the municipality of Tehran).
2) His rural appearance that makes him unpopular for some, is in fact a reason why Iranians like him even more. Many Iranians are villagers, they have little access to colleges and other facilities, they are religiously very rigid and they are extremely poor, they relate very well to this person who looks like them talks like them and that has the same plans as they have.
3) Most Iranians couldn’t care less about being internationally accepted, they need food on there tables and they need “dignity”. Which is something most western people fail to understand that? I mean Americans (and Europeans most of the times) don’t understand why we are insulted when we refuse there “help”. Now the political caste are very aware of the reason but don’t really care, but the public opinion (including the press and media) believe that the west wants to help us around here. But we don’t want to helped out we want DIGNITY we want to feel like humans, we are strongly insulted when the west manipulates us over and over again, and we are most of all insulted when we realize that we have no choice but to cooperate with this great force whenever it is on our side (even if we are pretty aware that soon enough they will turn against us). We just have no choice, and that hurts. People like Ahmadinejad are so popular because he stood up and said: “We don’t have to stop our nuclear program just because a western power said so”. Such a shame that the only thing that the American media retained from that is a declaration that he intends to build nuclear weapons, he just talked as a dignified man. It is the wet responsibility to give enough attention to understand what he said and communicate with him, he deserves it.
Now I have to precise that I don’t say all this because I am loyal to people like Ahmadinejad because I’m not! I said I just wouldn’t vote for him, but then that is my personal perspective, I do respect and admit this man’s achievements, the Iranians voted for him, America just has to deal with that.
I came across your blog and read your article on Myth and Myth-take. I find your perspective refreshing, intelligent and interesting. I have not had access to alternative points of view regarding President Ahmadinejad's speech, so I read your article with great interest. I dislike the sound-bite culture of modern media and am grateful for the interpretation that you presented. It makes me feel hopeful that there are ways to bridge the cultural gap between western culture and Iranian culture, if only real communication were possible.
Thanks for presenting your views so thoughtfully and clearly. I have a better understanding and hope to read more of your entries to gain more insight. Keep the dialogue going.
I agree with you that the Iranian President's enemies (ie, Israel and the US) will exploit his statements for their own purposes. As Chomksy has recently said, "[Ahmadinejad] appears to have limited experience beyond the local level, and appears not to comprehend how his statements will be exploited by hostile powers."
Still, in these days of the all-powerful blogosphere and its awesome research and analytic capabilities, I do find it remarkable that a proper translation and contextualisation of such controversial and significant remarks has not floated to the surface yet.
A prerequisite for the "proper translation and contextualization of such controversial and significant remarks" is the kind of dialogue that President Ahmadinejad has been urging. The reason is that, briefly, the West is completely ignorant about the East, and has deliberately been kept ignorant by Western governments and mass media. The current hysteria about Ahmadinejad is just a part of the long-term project of preventing the citizens of the center of the Empire from understanding what is going on in its periphery. Therefore, when an Eastern leader speaks, the West is completely unable to understand what he/she is saying, even if the text were diligently to be translated.
Western governments (and the Western mass media, which are little more than organs of Western governments) will do everything they can to prevent such a dialogue and such an understanding. The initiation of such a dialogue would be contrary to their financial and geopolitical interests. Hence, they would do nothing to put Ahmadinejad's statements within a proper context and disseminate that information.
I have not yet read Chomsky's statement that you refer to, but I am not sure whether I would now agree with the part that you have quoted. I am beginning to think that Ahmadinejad may actually know exactly what he is doing. As I have hinted in the post, he may be trying to give Western public opinion the kind of shock treatment that may create the political will for a dialogue. The status quo in the Middle East can no longer be sustained. Therefore, with Israel doing everything in its power to prevent a solution to the plight of the Palestinian people (with unconditional US support), the dialogue that Ahmadinejad has in mind is not just desirable, but necessary, because it is either that or... Armageddon?
I read from the comments here a gradual dawning of the realisation that there is as much importance is what we are NOT told as there is in the actual reportage.
I have not followed the aftermath of Ahmadinejad's speeches at all, as much through lack of time and computer as anything. Thanks for the update.
However, his remarks are nevertheless problematic because they have damaged Iran's standing at a crucial moment. The US desires a UN Security Council resolution condemning Iran's nuclear program. Washington believes broader economic sanctions against Iran would not only punish the nuclear program, but would also destabilize the government as it tried to cope with national economic stress. But there is a road block in the way: despite US pressure, Russia and China have resisted Security Council action against Iran.
In the end it may be Ahmadeinejad who comes to Washington's rescue. With each colossally ill-judged statement on Israel, he has undermined Russia and China's ability to hold out. Another speech that is recieved in the West like the last one will force Russia and China to decide, in GWB2's word's, whether they are "with us or against us." Power politics being what they are, Russia and China will defer to Washington. Iran will suffer.
I am not a Farsi speaker and it may well be the case that Ahmadinejad's sentiments were lost in the nuances of translation and context. But it seems to me the diplomatic fallout from his statements was utterly predictable (cynical, justified, bombastic -- whatever else people of different political persuasions would call it, all would agree that the uproar was predictable). It is worrisome that Ahmadeniejad shows no sign of grasping the risks he's taking (or worse yet, that he does, and ignores them nevertheless). Such a "come what may" attitude bears troubling resemblance to that of another international figure who hasn't been healthy for world peace: GWB2.
With (a) the US conquest of Afghanistan and Iraq, (b) US client states in Pakistan and Turkey, and (c) the lack of any hope for an end to the Palestinian people’s suffering, Iran has little alternative but to pursue a course that, although outsiders may consider needlessly confrontational, is the only realistic one available to it. Saddam did not gain anything from compromising with the US or the UN. Neither can Iran.
Regarding Russia and China, it has been a couple of decades since any third-world country could rely on them. They have been ever so ready to make mutually advantageous deals with Washington, and look the other way while Washington creates new holocausts.
So, is there any hope? One possible source of hope is to make Washington and Tel Aviv understand that an attack on Iran would be construed (and responded to) as an attack on the entire Moslem world. With Arab leaders turning into mice at the first harsh word from Washington (though turning to lions while repressing their own people), the realization that Iran has been the only Moslem nation that has stood up to Washington may turn into an actual force in the Moslem world. It may not only halt Washington’s designs against Iran, but may also sweep away the dependent Arab governments, leading finally to true independence throughout the region. A risky course indeed, but there is little alternative left. And that is the risky course that Ahmadinejad seems to be willing to pursue.
The press certainly has incredible power when it comes to information. I find it extremely frustrating that nearly every newspaper, radio station, and television station in the USA has a political agenda. It is really only in the last 2-3 years that I've been aware of how limited I am in terms of the information available to me from the mass media. Even when accurate information does come though, it is usually with a slant in favor of popular politics. It is frustrating to say the least.
Finally, a question: I have done some research into the teachings of Islam. I respect it very highly as a religion, but I am frustrated so often by the interpretation of it by an Islamic government. I respect the fact that a people must have a leader who inspires them and understands them. I cannot respect the mistreatment of women so often at the hands of an Islamic regime. I am curious about Ahmadinejad's stance on the treatment of women. I honestly do not know much about him although I know Iran has something of a reputation for repressing women. Can you shed any light on this? Thank you.
To clarify the case further, I’ll cite an illustration from another field. Racist remarks are to be condemned, no matter who makes them. However, a racist remark made by a government official or a corporation executive should be condemned much more severely than a racist remark made by a powerless average person. Why? Because the government official or corporation executive possesses the power to follow his/her racist attitudes with action.
Information about Iran is widely available in English through Iran-based Internet sources. If you want the facts though, you should stay away from disinformation disseminated by US government agencies and their media stooges, and by the Iranian exile community in the US (many of whom belong to Iran’s privileged classes who long to bring back the former tyrannical US-supported regime).
Democracy is less than thirty years old in Iran, and it is a work in progress. Based on what I have read over that period, the position of women, as well as the position of other oppressed groups, has continuously improved during that time. For instance, Ahmadinejad stated, just after his election, that “The role of women in my government will be based on merit. Gender differences will have no bearing on my choices.” Like all politicians, he may or may not have fully kept his promises. However, there is no doubt that Iran’s developing democratic institutions, many of them guided by women, are moving in the right direction. In the end, all appearances to contrary, it is not a question of what Islam may say or not say. Social issues are resolved through sociopolitical developments, rather than on the basis of abstract principles, religious or otherwise. My reading also indicates that any solutions to social problems in Iran will be based on Iranian models that are implemented to further the interests of Iranians, rather than on foreign models whose ultimate aim is to re-integrate Iran into the imperialist hegemony.
This is why, in order to consolidate national sovereignty, Iran has taken the sensible step of starting a nuclear program. Of course Washington objects because it understands a nuclear Iran will spell the end to Washington's hegemony in the region.
Iran has a window of opportunity to work with. A foreign invasion is highly unlikely at present. Washington is politically isolated, the US military is exhausted and stretched thin as it is, and Israel would not make a move without a strong Washington behind it. Furthermore, the UN Security Council is divided. The only thing that could change these factors, and bring this moment for Iran to a close, would be consensus in the Security Council and unified outrage in the West intense enough that public opinion would sustain another war.
Although it will take more than a few speeches, Ahmadinejad's Israel remarks serve only to make life more difficult for its allies on the Security Council and further the arguments of Iran's enemies in the West. Persuing a nuclear program is both confrontational and smart; rhetorically attacking Israel is confrontational and unnecessary. I agree that Iran has nothing to gain by placating the West, but Iran would be in a stronger position if it first secured the Bomb before seriously proposing moving Israel to Europe.
It's important to remember that Western perceptions of the status of women in Islamic countries is complicated by politics. Conservatives draw on orientalist literature and figures like Bernard Lewis and Thomas Friedman to attribute the patriarchal traditions of rural cultures to Islam; liberals are transfixed by dress codes and seem unable to understand feminism outside a Western tradition.
It's certainly true that women are ill-treated in many Islamic countries (as they are in non-Islamic countries too, such as India and China). Iran, however, is a fascinating case of how the story is so much more complicated than it gets credit for in the West. In pre-Revolutionary Iran, under the secular, pro-Western Shah, literacy rates among women were abysmal. The Iranian Revolution changed all that with the establishment of a far-reaching system of free higher education. The gender segregation of the educational system especially benefitted women in conservative regions. No longer concerned about the possibility of co-ed classes, conservative families permitted their daughters to attend university for the first time. A whole generation of women became enfranchised. Now literacy rates among Iranian women are over 90 percent and there are more women in Iran's universities than men. The Revolution's position on gender segregation also led to demand for a large female professional workforce; women in Iran hold many positions in traditionally male-dominated fields such as medicine, law and government. This transformative development was an intentional consequence of the Revolution. But it gets overlooked in the West by conservatives who can't stand the Revolution's goals of social justice and by liberals who can't understand the Revolution's dress codes.
Any government that disallows dissent is in the wrong. No government is perfect, and if dissent is not allowed, the government will not be able to get feedback on how to protect itself.
Amadinejad is a new puppet for the Mullahs to continue their reign of hatred, terror and corruption.
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