Whenever Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad makes a public appearance, the airwaves, papers, and Internet become flooded with outraged and self-righteous opinion pieces. He is called everything from “evil,” “racist,” a “blowhard” and a “hatemonger” to “ridiculous,” “ignorant,” “silly,” and a “clown.” His speeches are described as “diatribes,” “rants,” “screeds,” and “tirades.” Whereas this reaction is obvious and expected from those both in the mainstream media and on the Freedom Fries end of the political spectrum, these same epithets and denouncements are often found coming from a most surprising and disappointing source: so-called “liberals” who proudly identify themselves as anti-imperialist progressives.
Many recent critiques of Ahmadinejad’s speech at the Durban II conference in Geneva last week, written by peace activists and left-leaning analysts, have concluded that, even though the president may have uttered some painful and important truths, his understanding of Middle East history was reductionist, his speech poorly timed, and his words were, if twisted the wrong way by faulty analysis, an offensive, anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying incitement to genocide.
This reaction is not new. The character of President Ahmadinejad himself has been consistently caricatured as some sort of Persian court jester by Western progressives: one who may speak truth to power, but who does so crudely and without requisite tact. These same progressives label him as the domineering leader of an oppressive regime and he is therefore deemed unsuited to voice the opinions of the Western anti-imperialist cause. Something about glass houses and stone-throwing follows, perhaps.
While these forward-thinking, long-time Cheney-haters have never been fooled by the bogus search for WMD or the torturific term “enhanced interrogation,” they seem to have a hard time believing that the country of Iran isn’t some Israel-threatening hotbed of hostile anti-American activity, lorded over by apocalypse-happy clerics, eagerly spinning centrifuges with the intent to destroy the Western world. This image of both the country of Iran and its current President is frustrating, and never more so when it comes from those who should be better informed and leading the fight against these very misconceptions and mischaracterizations. If the progressives among us don’t tell the truth, then who else will?
Yes, Ahmadinejad condemns Zionism. What is not explained in right-wing harangues or progressive criticism is that he views Zionism as a political ideology separate from Judaism, a distinction all informed people should make as well. He has consistently called for a free and fair referendum to determine the representative political structure of the whole population – a vote by all inhabitants of the land of historical Palestine. There is no call for the return of Palestinian land at the expense of Jews – only that justice be served and self-determination by the residents of the region be respected. He has never threatened Israel with military force or aggression (and isn’t even in a position to make such threats, considering he’s not Commander-in-Chief of the Iranian military). In fact, he attempted to quash constant accusations of the Iranian leadership’s anti-Semitism by telling Larry King last fall, “we don’t have a problem with the Jewish people.” Ahmadinejad further clarified his government’s political position towards Israel during a press conference in September 2008: “We are opposed to the idea that the people who live there should be thrown into the sea or be burnt…We believe that all the people who live there, the Jews, Muslims and Christians, should take part in a free referendum and choose their government.”
It should also be made perfectly clear that Ahmadinejad does not condemn Israel for claiming to be a “Jewish” state. He believes that the decision to pick a political system should be left to the people who have to live under that system. He has stated that Iran will recognize and accept any resulting governmental system once it has been voted on openly.
The progressive left, when discussing Ahmadinejad’s position on these matters, often resorts to accusations of pot-calling-the-kettle-black-isms. It is dismissive to claim that no Iranian politician should have a problem with the ethnic or religious nature of the Israeli governmental system when Iran itself is an Islamic Republic. This can only be seen as hypocrisy by the uninformed. The Iranian Constitution, which came into force less than a year after the collapse of the Shah’s dictatorship by popular revolution, was adopted by national referendum. It established (in Chapter I, Article 1) the government of Iran as an Islamic Republic, a political system combining and integrating elements of both religious doctrine and representational democracy. The Constitution was approved by an estimated 98.2% of the Iranian voting population (and yes, that included women).
By contrast, Israel has never written or adopted a formal Constitution of any form. Israel’s own unilateral declaration of independence on May 14, 1948 stated that a constitution would be formulated and ratified by the state no later than October 1, 1948. The adoption of a democratic constitution was also a requirement of the General Assembly Resolution 181, which even supported the establishment of a “Jewish” state. Nevertheless, no constitution was ever drawn up, voted on, or adopted. Instead, Israeli constitutional law has been established piecemeal over time by Knesset-approved legislation that gained legal ascendancy by a Supreme Court ruling in 1998. These “Basic Laws,” which establish the roles of various governmental institutions and offices and affirm certain human rights to its citizenry (including the ironically named, “Freedom of Occupation”), have never been subject to popular vote or referendum by the Israeli people, whether Muslim, Christian, or Jewish. And this is what people call the great democracy in the Middle East?
The Iranian Constitution, on the other hand, established a governmental system that was approved by the overwhelming majority of the population of that country. Iranians were not colonized or made to accept a system with which they disagreed or that would endanger their lives. Did Native Americans or African slaves get a vote regarding the US Constitution, which holds non-whites to be valued as less than a whole person and affirms the continuation of slavery, or Manifest Destiny that saw the genocide of tens of millions of people? I don’t believe that Black South Africans voted for Apartheid. As such, progressives should all agree that many laws set up by colonial governments, such as Israel’s “Law of Return,” are, at the core, racist and unrepresentative.
Is Iran a perfect bastion of freedom of expression and human rights? No, certainly not. But to claim that criticism of another country must be in direct proportion to the troubles or issues facing your own country is an absurd concept. Were that the case, Barack Obama, the current embodiment of the US government, shouldn’t ever open his mouth regarding anything having to do with a just foreign policy, the rule of international law, or anything else, ever. It is the US that is currently occupying two foreign countries and that has over 700 military bases overseas. It is bankrolling and supporting Israeli aggression, occupation, and continued colonialism and expansionism. Black kettles, anyone?
There is also umbrage taken at Ahmadinejad’s condemnation of the Zionist movement in Palestine – a movement that preceded World War II and the Holocaust by decades. In his Durban speech, critics argue, Ahmadinejad condenses history so as to ignore the anti-imperial elements of the pre-state Zionist militias and assigns blame to the fledgling United Nations for validating Jewish nationalism only after World War II. Personally, I do not believe that President Ahmadinejad arrived in Switzerland with the intent of giving a lengthy history lesson. Nor do I believe that his historical analysis is simplistic or reductionist. Speaking at the UN conference, Ahmadinejad discussed the UN’s role in displacing over 750,000 indigenous people from their land and the immorality and injustice of using the horrors of the Holocaust to justify such deliberate ethnic cleansing. The bombing of the King David Hotel by Irgun occurred after the Holocaust. The 1947 Partition Plan came after the Holocaust. The Deir Yassin massacre came after the Holocaust. The Nakba came after the Holocaust; this is what Ahmadinejad refers to in his speech. Since the Western powers did not support the Zionist cause before World War II, it is clear that pre-State Zionism is irrelevant to Ahmadinejad’s point.