Friday, September 08, 2006

Witch Doctors

I remember a story I read in my third year elementary school textbook. It took place in a village populated by illiterates. All the jobs which required any sort of wisdom or knowledge were performed by a rammal, or witch doctor. One day, a man comes to this village and is amazed by what was happening there and starts educating the people. Little by little the rammal, losing his influence and power, considers how to regain his previous position. He gathers everyone in the center of the village and tells them that the new teacher is deceiving them and leading them to the abyss; and finally in order to chase him out of the village, he pursues the teacher to demonstrate his knowledge in front of the villagers and put it to the test, and the teacher accepts this challenge. The rammal asks him to write a snake, and the teacher very happily writes on the ground “snake.” The rammal, in turn, picks up a stick and draws a big snake on the ground and asks people which one looks like snake. The answer is sadly obvious. The teacher is kicked out of the village and the rammal’s position is restored.

I read that story almost half a century ago. At that time, I thought it was already outdated and better replaced by something more relevant to our time. In my wildest dreams I could not foreseen that half a century later, we would see plenty of those rammals everywhere, not only in remote villages, but in the capitals of the world in various positions: statesmen, clerics and intellectuals.

In our country during the last twenty-seven years since the Islamic Revolution, came a genuine rebirth of these rammals in every possible shape and form. We were told enough lies, we have heard so many unsubstantiated claims, we have seen so much of the pretences and we have faced so much shameless aggression under the cover of religion, ethics, and morality that they are enough to make us complete nonbelievers. In this week’s news, president Ahmadinejad in Tehran University encouraged the students to scream at the president who would allowed secular faculty to teach. This bewildered all of us. It could give the impression that he was encouraging freedom of expression and participation in decision-making, while in reality he was just fully engaged in a diversion. Purging the universities was not part of Ahmadinejad’s campaign and he very flatly denied rumors about it. However, all the expected restrictive codes have been implemented, only worse. The government is in the process of installing Basijis in every government and ministry office, something that was not done so openly during the Shah’s time or during the first purge of the universities under the Islamic Republic.

The ban on satellite dishes and Persian broadcast media outside the country, and occasional insults to any person out of the immediate clique of the government, and hypocritical attacks and counterattacks (such as Rajabi’s letter and Shariatmadari’s defense), in all this, he is saying one thing and doing something else, further weakening our already weak faith in whatever is happening around us.

Twenty-seven years after the Islamic Revolution, one can see a drastic shift in approaches to everything in the country. Today, we have reached the point that we do not know what is what anymore. With each passing day, this curtain of delusion and falsehood becomes thicker and thicker. One does not know what is behind it and if there is a reality at all.

Our president is every day in a new masquerade and charade of some sort; one day denying the Holocaust, the other day wiping the Israel from the map. One day defining a strategy to win the World Cup, the other day claiming a cure for AIDS, one day inviting George Bush to an uncensored debate, the other day chanting the slogan “Nuclear energy is our right!” to the villagers in remote areas. It seems everyday he is trying very hard to come up with something ridiculous just to keep us all busy.

However, the result is just the opposite and even more dangerous—annihilation. That is what we are facing. We are so lost in all these pretenses and falsehood that we hardly give a damn anymore about what is happening. We doubt if there is any truth to anything at all. After all, why should we? Could we not write a scenario about how we perceive each of these events? Could we not doubt that all is part of a bigger game? Could it not be a game that Khatami is here to make peace to help the Islamic Republic? Could it be that even Ganji is pursuing the same aim in different way? Could it be that all those letters and attacks against Khatami back at home is part of the same strategy? Could it be that the entirety of the last elections had been agreed upon by all of these clerics together just to stay in power? Could it be that United State is behind all this? And how far? And how much?

It is more nightmarish than Descartes’ meditation that everything is act of Evil to deceive him. Everything could be a pure deception and falsehood except his thinking which leads him to conclude that his existence, by the virtue of his thinking, is not false and therefore he exists. But where is our existence? I mean politically and socially? What certainty is there to make us believe that we exist at all? Where is the line that we draw between reality and all these falsehoods and witchcraft around us? Or should we continue to doubt to the end? And should we even doubt that truth ever existed or could exist at all? We live in that nightmare and even worse; falsehood is so well entrenched that we think it is a way of life. The Islamic Republic has created such a fiction and parody of life that I wonder why they need to have any jails. We all are living in jail when we do not know where the truth and reality are.

That there should be something that exists is beyond doubt. There is something there that makes all this mambo jumbo worth it for them. At least they need us to believe them, otherwise they would not need to play tricks on us to portray the falsehood as reality. There is something that they are afraid of otherwise they wouldn’t go through all this trouble to protect themselves. For sure we are the reality. We must be the truth. And no one can deny us except ourselves. The Islamic Republic has to dance around itself in vain if we don’t dance with them. Their music calls for doubt and despair, and we dance to it by giving up to despair and doubt. Not only do we not trust anyone else, we do not trust ourselves either. Let us change the music. Let us change the rules of game. Let them play our game for a change, let them know that not only do we exist, but that we are well aware of our own existence. And let them know that there are about fifty million of us. Which one of them does not need fifty million votes? Let them gain it and pay for it. Let us remember that in the next election we are needed. We may still not be able to have what we want, but is it not the first rule in every game to prevent the other side from winning if we are incapable of defeating them? In the last election, we defeated our own team, we abandoned our game and let them win. This time let us win, or at least not let them win. Let us remember we have the strongest weapon in our hands, our votes. Let us use it before it is taken away from us or before it becomes a forgotten relic.

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Khatami’s Trip: A New York Perspective

Khatami’s arrival in New York was an event which surprised me. He arrived and received a red carpet reception, an unusual treatment in New York City for someone who is no longer a head of state. I had heard about it through the American press, but I was expecting to hear more details through the Iranian authorities or in Iranian online news.

I contacted the Office of the Iranian Delegation to the UN to find out more about Khatami’s schedule, but I never received a reply.

I have never seen such a degree of respect for any Iranian official here in United State except for that which had been accorded Sayyed Mohammad Khatami himself in his previous trip to New York. For those of us who live in this country, the gathering of twenty five thousand American for a speech, and not a baseball or football game, is very significant. And the fact that speaker is an Iranian substantially adds to the significance. In just a few days he captivated the people here. Great emphasize is placed upon the Muslim Americans. His respectful manner, his dignity, his knowledge and wisdom are not missed by observers from the media. In just a few days he explained Iran with all its complexity to Americans so well that one wonders what made the clerics back home a few years ago to stop his negotiations with the US. I’m not going to be surprised if the West comes to see him as the only hope for peace in the Middle East.

I felt that we all should go wherever he is and welcome him even if we do not agree with him totally. After all, he is here to portray us as we are: good people, intelligent, rational, with great sense of humanity and peace. I thought I wanted to be somewhere close to that message to wash off all the shames which had been brought to us by the declarations of the ignoramuses which were mostly only for domestic consumption but still got carried to these shores like dust.

I called the office of our delegation in the UN; the switchboard operator had no idea when Khatami would be coming to New York. He transferred me to another person who was not in his office. After a while, I called back naively thinking that the operator, being embarrassed, found the time and the place of lecture. Alas, he said I should leave a message and wait for someone to contact me with the information. I asked if there was someone else is in the office who might know about it. This time I was connected to a lady who did not know any thing either. She said it is not her job to know and was indeed surprised that an educated person who has been here and studied here and knows there is always a division of labor has such an unreasonable demand that a person who works in the office of Iranian Delegation in the UN might possibly know where and when Khatami is speaking! I was amazed by the lack of interest shown by our officials and those who are here to represent us. I do not believe that any thing could have had happened this week in the United State which could have been more important or interesting to us Iranians than Khatami’s trip besides the very matters of our private lives.

During the last five years that Dr. Mohammad Javad Zarif represented Iran in the UN, many of us Iranians who live in New York City developed a closer relationship with our country’s representative. Those from my generation may identify with this feeling that under the Shah, many of us did not have this kind of affinity with our government officials for the simple reason that they were not our government. With Khatami’s presidency, this feeling changed drastically. When he came here the last time and was interviewed by Charlie Rose on PBS, when he very courageously and honestly, without the slightest manipulation, answered the questions without evasion, it was so refreshing that one could forget that he or she was listening to a politician.

Whenever Dr. Zarif appeared on TV for an interview, we could all breathe and not be worried about the common nonsense of the “death to America” variety.

I do recall one evening coming back from work and seeing several security police guarding the motorcade of our Foreign Minister, then Mr. Kamal Kharazi, in front of the local bookstore. I could not resist and followed him inside just to say hello. He left his books and came towards me. I thought he noticed how happy and proud I was when I wished him well in his negotiation in the UN. That night, I thought, was a turning point in my relationship with our country. And I fully came to know that yes, we Iranians have a respectable government now and have officials whom we are not embarrassed by. And even more importantly, they became part of Iran for me because they are us. But it seems that that’s over now. It seems that that was a dream. Our representatives now just do their jobs. Khatami does not bring them any honor or pride or anything of that nature. They are just busy doing their job, and Khatami is not their job. The lady from the Iranian mission with whom I had spoken said she had a job to do, it was not her responsibility to know where he talks. No, lady, and no, Mr. Operator, we all know where Mt. Alborz is even if it is not part of our job to know it. And we all have a few photographs of our loved ones somewhere in our homes even if we don’t have any direct interest in photography and every so often we listen to the news even if we have no material interest in the days’ events. Limiting our knowing to our jobs alone sounds more like an excuse to deny ourselves the most splendid gifts that human being could ever have: the ability to perceive and react to life freely and voluntarily beyond what is dictated to us by our paychecks and our employers. It is reducing ourselves to robots. That was the official reaction of Iranian delegation to the UN to Khatami’s trip.

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Platonic Voting Rights!

Public opinion and its role or its relation to democracy is the subject of discussion in Tehran these days. While reformists insist on the importance of direct public vote, conservatives and fundamentalists do not believe that public opinion has anything to do with the legitimacy of government, but that it only strengthens it. The arguments given on both sides are worth considering.

The reformists’ camp, consistent with their last eight years governing, calls for a mandate for the people’s directly-expressed opinion. President Khatami, in his last three speeches, has stated that the Constitutional Movement has enshrined the people’s right to vote. In another speech he says that even Imam Ali would not rule justly without the people’s will. In his very last speech on the occasion of the opening of the office of the new newspaper, Ayandeye Naw, he argues that Imam Khomeini believed that the direct vote of the people is a necessity, particularly in a republic. Khatami said that Imam Khomeini very strictly demanded that the Islamic Republic and the Constitution be subject to a referendum, even though his popularity among the people was beyond doubt a mandate already. Khatami not only finds voting rights of great importance in a democratic political system, but also whatever secures it, such as a free press, freedom of expression, and freedom of peaceful assembly.

From the other camp, that of the conservatives and fundamentalists, there is a stream of statements indicating that they see neither any connection between the people’s right to vote and the legitimacy of government or its necessity. Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, in his recent interview or speech (it is unclear on what occasioned this interview took place), declared very bluntly without any arguments or explanation, reasoning or clarification, that government does not obtain its legitimacy from the people’s vote. Badamchian, the chairman of the Motalefeh Party, is of the same belief, and so is Mesbah Yazdi of the Assembly of Experts. Ayatollah Jenati, Tehran’s Friday Imam, recently said that the worst day of his life was when they were discussing woman’s rights in general, leave alone their right to vote. Ayatollah Khamene’i is totally oblivion to the entire issue.

The daily Sharq, following the above-mentioned statement of Sadeq Larijani, tried to explain his view. (I do not know who wrote the article, as it is unsigned.) Here is a translation of it:

This view of Larijani is not very unusual, that “a government oriented towards human perfection and with its goal the attainment of a maxim of moral behavior” is in fact the Platonic model of the Perfect Republic, which favors the ruling of the wise and the expert. This reflects the same opposition between Soroush and Mohammad Javad Larijani. Sorush says that it is only freedom that helps us to find the truth, while Larijani denies that. And it is from here that these theoretical discussions enter into the daily life of ordinary people. While Iranian reformists do not see any other way for the future of the Islamic Republic but democracy and freedom, fundamentalists prefer to evaluate the government with morality and justice. The idea gradually enters into the details of people’s life. (sic)

Well, there are several problems with what is being said here besides its irrelevance. These statements do not follow logically, and one wonders what happened to the rules of writing and logical connection between sentences. One wonders what school of journalism allows the reporter to come to the aid of those who are uttering such embarrassing statements and tries to justify them.

The reader might question if Ayatollah Larijani is aware that he is echoing Platonic ideas. Does he agree with this? Does he acknowledge this? Moreover, reducing Plato’s ideas and philosophy, even as adapted by Muslim thinkers, to a triviality as quoted above is beneath contempt. Plato’s philosophy, as well as Aristotle’s, is such a complicated and sophisticated system that it is rightly called the foundation of Western philosophy. It is still a matter of dispute how well his thought could have been understood by his pupils and thinkers of later generations. It is accepted in the West that Western philosophy is nothing but a footnote to Plato and Aristotle and that the complexity of Plato’s world of Ideas requires more contemplation and thought for a journalist to summarize it in one sentence, “Plato did not believe in the people’s vote but believed in the rule of experts.” It is not within the scope of this essay to explain the Platonic concept of a Perfect Republic. Suffice it to say that his Republic was ruled by a perfect, just ruler who had been raised to rule, along with many others, by an assembly of experts who themselves had been selected and trained and passed tests and who amounted to about one third of the population. This model of a republic is so idealistic that it is impossible to be applied to real life, and can only be approximated at best.

Sharq should perform its duty and responsibility in the field of journalism and should do its best to ask the right questions from the responsible parties. It is not the journalist’s job to come to the rescue of those who express whatever comes to their mind without respecting their audience and their readership enough to explain it or assume the responsibility and take the blame. It is not the newspaper’s job to justify errors with erroneous statements of their own. A few relevant questions regarding what the speaker thinks about the present Constitution and his position towards those who constantly urge people to vote will serve people like Larijani and the public better. Obviously those who care for Larijani’s ideas do not care if they are in accordance with Plato or not. Larijani is a good enough authority for them, and as for the rest, they don’t read what he says anyhow. But the issue remains that most of the problems we have at this point are due to that fact that the right question have not been raised at the right time, and when an outrageous statement should be exposed as such, it became hidden by namedropping and false justifications. In the course of our modern history, we have paid a high price for letting sloppy thoughtless questions and answers be dismissed and only when they turned into serious problems have we noticed them. Most of the catastrophes have been started by exactly the sort of thing that Larijani said. Watch it!

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