Wednesday, March 08, 2006

My Perfect Birthday Gift

March 25 marks my birthday and as a gift, I dream of getting a nuke. A cute, cuddly nuke. I promise not to bully my pals with that, just to deter their dirty intimidation tactics and to keep my pride intact.

Forwarding Iran's nuclear dossier to the UN Security Council has incurred a national shame on Iranians. It's just like having your teacher kick you out of the classroom for chitchatting. Now you are standing, unrepentant and enraged, behind the principal's office, waiting for a harsh punishment.

The shame makes you sweat minute by minute. Passing students can't help sneering at your embarrassment. The very naughty boys, who always seem to have a sly way of getting away unpunished, make faces.

Apart from the shame, I am utterly glad, however, that Iran has been finally reported to the big boss. As the Persian saying goes, death once, wailing once. We still have our fate at our own hands: either persist on having peaceful nuclear energy and put up with the possible sanctions and even nuclear bombing, or surrender.

The problem is I can't choose for you and you can't impose your choice on me. For it's unfair and dangerous. As we stay undecided, however, our defenseless nation would be plundered again, by both corrupt rulers and greedy superpowers.

Americans claim Iranians have a right to use nuclear energy, but not under this undemocratic regime. There is a truth and a fallacy.

The truth: the current government of President Ahmadinejad has acted as a rogue student in the international classroom. Others fairly demand a commitment to good manners.

The fallacy: the West never wants Iranians to have nuclear reactors. They wasted billion dollars during the reign of Shah to build the Bushehr power plant. The Russians are now milking the project.

Another fallacy deals with democracy and freedom. Since when democracy is a yardstick for having the right to exploit nuclear technology? A decade after dropping A-bombs on the Japanese, Americans were still forcing their black minority to give their bus seats to the white. It took another decade for black Americans to become legally equal with their white neighbors, though they still suffer from discrimination.

I know one thing for sure: Iran will always remain a sitting duck for resource-guzzling powers unless it is armed with nuclear weapons, just like India and Pakistan. Till then, I want to keep dreaming of getting my perfect birthday gift.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Blaming the British

It's a fine piece about Iranians' suspicion that everything in their country is materminded by, well, the British.

Watching his fellow countrymen observe the annual Shia Islamic mourning ceremony of Ashura, the disaffected Tehran taxi driver voiced a wish to convert to Christianity that may not have been as sincere as it was incongruous. But whatever his true ecclesiastical leanings, his beliefs about the source of the religious tyranny that so irked him about Iran were real.

"It is England that has imposed these mullahs on us," the cabbie mused, resisting all protestations at the notion's absurdity.

The idea that the Islamic revolution was a plot hatched in Whitehall, and that its spiritual leader, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was some sort of heavily disguised 007 in the secret service of Her Majesty's government does indeed seem weird. But not to many Iranians.

Suggestions that the convulsive events of 1979, which ushered in the Islamic republic, were manipulated and orchestrated by the British are widely accepted here as a given. It is a belief held, even before his reign was swept to oblivion in a revolutionary tidal wave, by the last shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

Resentful that the British had deposed his pro-German father during the second world war, the shah commissioned a television drama, My Uncle Napoleon, whose main character's catchphrase was: "The British are behind everything". The shah echoed this mantra during his reign's last desperate days, telling the American ambassador, William Sullivan, that he "detected the hand of the English" behind the street demonstrations raging against him. Sullivan surmised that the teetering monarch had lost his mind and, with it, the will to survive.

But the shah was reflecting a broader mindset. The sun may have long set on British imperial might but in Iran it has been replaced by an enduring mirage of dominance which still shines brightly. If the rest of the world has become accustomed to the American hegemonic age, to Iranians Inglestan still wields the true power, albeit stealthily. Behind events great and small, they are ready to perceive the sleight of a hidden British hand. Belief in the "old coloniser's" diabolic powers unites Iranians in a way matched by no other issue, including the Islamic regime's pursuit of nuclear technology.

The regime's staunchest supporters cling to this belief with equal tenacity. Demonstrations by student Basij (Islamic volunteers) outside the British embassy in Tehran occur with bewildering regularity. The most recent railed against Britain's alleged responsibility for last week's destruction of the Shia shrine in Samarra, Iraq.

More generally, the Iranian authorities blame Britain for a wave of bombings that has killed more than 20 people in the southern city of Ahvaz over the past year.

It can be a bit of a jolt to Britons reconciled to their country's reduced global status to be instructed by Iranians of no particular ideological persuasion to "tell your government to leave us alone". It came as such to no less than Jack Straw. Having invested much energy and political capital cultivating a relationship aimed at breaking the ongoing nuclear imbroglio, the foreign secretary was said to be dumbfounded to discover the standard Iranian belief in his government's almost supernatural powers. He shouldn't have been.

For the all-consuming suspicion of British motives is rooted not simply in outlandish superstition, but in solid historical fact. Iran is hardly the only country where imperial Britain has form, but in few places are the memories - or wounds - so raw.

Top of the Iranian grudge list is the 1953 coup that toppled the nationalist prime minister, Mohammed Mossadeq, and cemented the rule of the shah. The coup was executed largely by the CIA but its genesis lay with the British secret services.

The British had been infuriated by Mossadeq's nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian oil company, a move prompted by widespread anger at its refusal to share a fairer proportion of its profits (vital to Britain's tax revenues) with Iran.

Having taken the matter to the UN security council and lost, Churchill's government persuaded the Eisenhower administration, then paranoid about the spread of communism, that Mossadeq was a dangerous radical who should be toppled. The resulting chicanery destabilised Iranian politics for the next generation and resonates to this day.

But it is just one among many historical grievances. Britain's dubious distinction is to have alienated just about every identifiable group in Iran. During the 19th century, Iran was a pawn in the Great Game played out between Britain and Russia for power and influence in central Asia.

The ruling Qajar dynasty of the time was bullied into a host of humiliating territorial and economic concessions to each side. The abuses continued into the 20th century and extended to interference in Iranian internal politics.

"Historically, people believe Britain engineered the coup which brought to power Reza Khan, who became Reza Shah [the last shah's father]," said Mohammed Hossein Adeli, until recently Iran's ambassador to Britain.

"His ruthless rule made people blame the British for interference in Iranian affairs. Later, the British deposed Reza Shah. As a result the shah's royal family and the elite affiliated to them were alienated. This united the people and the elite, both of whom became very suspicious of the British."

British policy makers should be sobered to learn that the one thing that unites Iranians is us. If, one day, the taxi driver gets his wish and the rule of the mullahs should end, there is no doubt who will get the credit - or the blame.

(Guardian, Robert Tait)

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Why Did You Kill Her?

The fight between religion and freedom of speech is spinning out of control as Iraqis vent their anger at the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad.

I am unsurprised by the violent reaction to this despicable crime, because the fundamental dispute between Shiites and Sunnis outrageously spawns hatred, nonstop. I am unsurprised, therefore, by the reprisal attacks at Sunni mosques.

As a Shiite, I am shocked, however, at the murder of three Sunni journalists in Samarra. They were covering the bombing in the Askari shrine for the al-Arabiya TV network when they were kidnapped by gunmen. Their bodies were discovered the following day.

Nobody knows who have murdered them, so we can't learn about the killers' motives, but I really like to know why journalists were targeted. Either Shiites slaughtered them to take revenge because the anchorwoman of the team has been so popular in Iraq. Or Sunni insurgents have committed this crime to foment more violence or possibly a civil war.

During the cartoon crisis, we said the freedom of speech must respect religious sanctities to avoid inciting hatred, but what should we do when religious hatred butchers freedom of speech?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Why I Published Those Cartoons

This is an article by the editor who commisioned the original cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad.

Childish. Irresponsible. Hate speech. A provocation just for the sake of provocation. A PR stunt. Critics of 12 cartoons of the prophet Muhammad I decided to publish in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten have not minced their words. They say that freedom of expression does not imply an endorsement of insulting people's religious feelings, and besides, they add, the media censor themselves every day. So, please do not teach us a lesson about limitless freedom of speech.

I agree that the freedom to publish things doesn't mean you publish everything. Jyllands-Posten would not publish pornographic images or graphic details of dead bodies; swear words rarely make it into our pages. So we are not fundamentalists in our support for freedom of expression.

But the cartoon story is different.

Those examples have to do with exercising restraint because of ethical standards and taste; call it editing. By contrast, I commissioned the cartoons in response to several incidents of self-censorship in Europe caused by widening fears and feelings of intimidation in dealing with issues related to Islam. And I still believe that this is a topic that we Europeans must confront, challenging moderate Muslims to speak out. The idea wasn't to provoke gratuitously -- and we certainly didn't intend to trigger violent demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. Our goal was simply to push back self-imposed limits on expression that seemed to be closing in tighter.

At the end of September, a Danish standup comedian said in an interview with Jyllands-Posten that he had no problem urinating on the Bible in front of a camera, but he dared not do the same thing with the Koran.

This was the culmination of a series of disturbing instances of self-censorship. Last September, a Danish children's writer had trouble finding an illustrator for a book about the life of Muhammad. Three people turned down the job for fear of consequences. The person who finally accepted insisted on anonymity, which in my book is a form of self-censorship. European translators of a critical book about Islam also did not want their names to appear on the book cover beside the name of the author, a Somalia-born Dutch politician who has herself been in hiding.

Around the same time, the Tate gallery in London withdrew an installation by the avant-garde artist John Latham depicting the Koran, Bible and Talmud torn to pieces. The museum explained that it did not want to stir things up after the London bombings. (A few months earlier, to avoid offending Muslims, a museum in Goteborg, Sweden, had removed a painting with a sexual motif and a quotation from the Koran.)

Finally, at the end of September, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen met with a group of imams, one of whom called on the prime minister to interfere with the press in order to get more positive coverage of Islam.

So, over two weeks we witnessed a half-dozen cases of self-censorship, pitting freedom of speech against the fear of confronting issues about Islam. This was a legitimate news story to cover, and Jyllands-Posten decided to do it by adopting the well-known journalistic principle: Show, don't tell. I wrote to members of the association of Danish cartoonists asking them "to draw Muhammad as you see him." We certainly did not ask them to make fun of the prophet. Twelve out of 25 active members responded.

We have a tradition of satire when dealing with the royal family and other public figures, and that was reflected in the cartoons. The cartoonists treated Islam the same way they treat Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions. And by treating Muslims in Denmark as equals they made a point: We are integrating you into the Danish tradition of satire because you are part of our society, not strangers. The cartoons are including, rather than excluding, Muslims.

The cartoons do not in any way demonize or stereotype Muslims. In fact, they differ from one another both in the way they depict the prophet and in whom they target. One cartoon makes fun of Jyllands-Posten, portraying its cultural editors as a bunch of reactionary provocateurs. Another suggests that the children's writer who could not find an illustrator for his book went public just to get cheap publicity. A third puts the head of the anti-immigration Danish People's Party in a lineup, as if she is a suspected criminal.

One cartoon -- depicting the prophet with a bomb in his turban -- has drawn the harshest criticism. Angry voices claim the cartoon is saying that the prophet is a terrorist or that every Muslim is a terrorist. I read it differently: Some individuals have taken the religion of Islam hostage by committing terrorist acts in the name of the prophet. They are the ones who have given the religion a bad name. The cartoon also plays into the fairy tale about Aladdin and the orange that fell into his turban and made his fortune. This suggests that the bomb comes from the outside world and is not an inherent characteristic of the prophet.

On occasion, Jyllands-Posten has refused to print satirical cartoons of Jesus, but not because it applies a double standard. In fact, the same cartoonist who drew the image of Muhammed with a bomb in his turban drew a cartoon with Jesus on the cross having dollar notes in his eyes and another with the star of David attached to a bomb fuse. There were, however, no embassy burnings or death threats when we published those.

Has Jyllands-Posten insulted and disrespected Islam? It certainly didn't intend to. But what does respect mean? When I visit a mosque, I show my respect by taking off my shoes. I follow the customs, just as I do in a church, synagogue or other holy place. But if a believer demands that I, as a nonbeliever, observe his taboos in the public domain, he is not asking for my respect, but for my submission. And that is incompatible with a secular democracy.

This is exactly why Karl Popper, in his seminal work "The Open Society and Its Enemies," insisted that one should not be tolerant with the intolerant. Nowhere do so many religions coexist peacefully as in a democracy where freedom of expression is a fundamental right. In Saudi Arabia, you can get arrested for wearing a cross or having a Bible in your suitcase, while Muslims in secular Denmark can have their own mosques, cemeteries, schools, TV and radio stations.

I acknowledge that some people have been offended by the publication of the cartoons, and Jyllands-Posten has apologized for that. But we cannot apologize for our right to publish material, even offensive material. You cannot edit a newspaper if you are paralyzed by worries about every possible insult.

I am offended by things in the paper every day: transcripts of speeches by Osama bin Laden, photos from Abu Ghraib, people insisting that Israel should be erased from the face of the Earth, people saying the Holocaust never happened. But that does not mean that I would refrain from printing them as long as they fell within the limits of the law and of the newspaper's ethical code. That other editors would make different choices is the essence of pluralism.

As a former correspondent in the Soviet Union, I am sensitive about calls for censorship on the grounds of insult. This is a popular trick of totalitarian movements: Label any critique or call for debate as an insult and punish the offenders. That is what happened to human rights activists and writers such as Andrei Sakharov, Vladimir Bukovsky, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Natan Sharansky, Boris Pasternak. The regime accused them of anti-Soviet propaganda, just as some Muslims are labeling 12 cartoons in a Danish newspaper anti-Islamic.

The lesson from the Cold War is: If you give in to totalitarian impulses once, new demands follow. The West prevailed in the Cold War because we stood by our fundamental values and did not appease totalitarian tyrants.

Since the Sept. 30 publication of the cartoons, we have had a constructive debate in Denmark and Europe about freedom of expression, freedom of religion and respect for immigrants and people's beliefs. Never before have so many Danish Muslims participated in a public dialogue -- in town hall meetings, letters to editors, opinion columns and debates on radio and TV. We have had no anti-Muslim riots, no Muslims fleeing the country and no Muslims committing violence. The radical imams who misinformed their counterparts in the Middle East about the situation for Muslims in Denmark have been marginalized. They no longer speak for the Muslim community in Denmark because moderate Muslims have had the courage to speak out against them.

In January, Jyllands-Posten ran three full pages of interviews and photos of moderate Muslims saying no to being represented by the imams. They insist that their faith is compatible with a modern secular democracy. A network of moderate Muslims committed to the constitution has been established, and the anti-immigration People's Party called on its members to differentiate between radical and moderate Muslims, i.e. between Muslims propagating sharia law and Muslims accepting the rule of secular law. The Muslim face of Denmark has changed, and it is becoming clear that this is not a debate between "them" and "us," but between those committed to democracy in Denmark and those who are not.

This is the sort of debate that Jyllands-Posten had hoped to generate when it chose to test the limits of self-censorship by calling on cartoonists to challenge a Muslim taboo. Did we achieve our purpose? Yes and no. Some of the spirited defenses of our freedom of expression have been inspiring. But tragic demonstrations throughout the Middle East and Asia were not what we anticipated, much less desired. Moreover, the newspaper has received 104 registered threats, 10 people have been arrested, cartoonists have been forced into hiding because of threats against their lives and Jyllands-Posten's headquarters have been evacuated several times due to bomb threats. This is hardly a climate for easing self-censorship.

Still, I think the cartoons now have a place in two separate narratives, one in Europe and one in the Middle East. In the words of the Somali-born Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the integration of Muslims into European societies has been sped up by 300 years due to the cartoons; perhaps we do not need to fight the battle for the Enlightenment all over again in Europe. The narrative in the Middle East is more complex, but that has very little to do with the cartoons.

Flemming Rose is the culture editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Where to Draw the Line

I am really enjoying the cartoons war raging around the globe, because it reveals how intellectuals are double-faced and how efforts to reconcile civilizations have failed.

We winced first at the Prophet Mohammad controversy, then the Iranian-backed tournament for anti-Holocaust caricatures, followed by a tit-for-tat competition from Israelis and now a cartoon depicting Iranian footballers as suicide bombers in the upcoming World Cup.

The German newspaper behind the latest provocation claims it just wanted to mock a proposal by the Defense Ministry to deploy soldiers beside police officers to keep security during the one-month football tournament.

Malte Lehming, comment editor at Der Tagesspiegel, has said the caricature was meant for "a German audience". Asked whether it had been unwise to print it, he told the Guardian: "The problem is where you draw the line? Cartoons have to be satirical and mean."

OK, let's be satirical and mean.

Germany is going to host 32 national teams in June, so Germans' hospitality will be roughly tested. They will entertain, alongside Iranians, the American, British and French teams, among others. These nations have killed thousands of German civilians during World War II. They fairly deserve more than Iranians to be on the receiving end of jokes about collective fear of insecurity.

Six decades after the Nazi reign, certain Germans tend to entertain some tarnishing methods favored by the propaganda apparatus of Joseph Goebbels. He is famously quoted as saying that repeating a lie can make people believe it. Why these Germans, too gutless to reveal their true colors, try to dupe their audience that all Muslims are terrorists? So who's mean?

Guys, let's be candid. You, the Western intellectual elite, have failed as much as your Muslim counterparts in bridging the gap between the two giant civilizations. Sometimes you spark an alienating controversy; sometimes your Islamic peers preach hatred. Just like two gangs of spoiled school brats. The result: frustrated grassroots and emboldened rightwing fanatics.

My solution: unfettered and equal freedom of speech for both sides. I know you reject it squarely. Whenever there is a shameful revelation on your part, like the new Abu Ghraib expose, you call for media responsibility and respect for privacy. You are, indeed, cold-bloodedly stifling the freedom.

The problem is not where you draw the line; the problem is you draw the line wherever and whenever you wish.