The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor has a short piece at the newspaper’s “WorldViews” blog about “How Not to Write about Iran.” In short, he chides Western writers for bias and argues that they err when ascribing any culturally specific or different mindset to Iran that they would to other countries or adversaries.
He begins, for example:
In the Western imagination, Iran has long been a kind of bogeyman. It’s the land of hostage crises and headscarves. It was part of the Axis of Evil (whatever that was). Its leaders grouse about defeating Israel, an American ally. Its mullahs, say Iran’s critics, plot terror and continental hegemony.
Put aside the fallacy of this straw man. The reality is that more people understand Iran in senior levels of the U.S. government, thanks to the legacy of the Peace Corps and the children of American businessmen who grew up in Iran as well as the vibrant role Iranian Americans play in American society, than comparatively understand opaque countries like Saudi Arabia or Qatar, but it’s a useful straw man so long as a journalist need not produce proof.
Tharoor then complains about the tendency to see Iran “as the other” dating back to the ancient Persian Empires. “As Europe’s empires gained in power,” he continued, “the Orientalist clichés hardened and served to bolster the West’s own sense of racial and moral superiority. Even in the present day, many of the old tropes have been trotted out during the nuclear talks,” citing a number of analogies to how Iranians bargain as if in the bazaar. He concludes by citing a couple authors who complain how unfair it is overemphasize a country’s history in its culture and attitudes:
“Iran is an ancient civilization with a rich culture that definitely has roots in its old history,” Iranian-American journalist Negar Mortazavi tells WorldViews. “But to stereotype modern Iran and Iranians based on what happened thousands of years ago is wrong.” Mortazavi argues that you would never see such simplistic, overreaching appraisals of American allies: “Do we view today’s Europe through the affairs of the Vikings? No. Do we look at Saudi Arabia through the lens of its old Islamic Empire when it was taking over the world? No.” Arash Karami, the Iran editor of the Middle East news site Al-Monitor, dismisses the idea “that Iran has imperial ambitions in the Middle East simply because of its history.” He adds that “most Iranians only have a vague understanding” of the long-gone Achaemenid dynasty or the medieval Safavids.
Tharoor, alas, is allowing political correctness to trump accuracy. Multiculturalism is not simply about appreciating each other’s holidays or cuisine, but rather recognizing that different peoples can think in very different ways. Rather than acknowledge differences and history, he engages in projection: assuming that everyone shares our values. Firstly, it is no secret that Iranians take pride in their historical legacy; it is what sets Iran apart from so many other countries and peoples in the region, and the reason why so many non-Persians among Iran’s neighbors suggest that Iranians are condescending toward their neighbors.
History does matter. Most Iranians are nationalist. Iranians have a term, Iranzamin, to describe the notion of a greater Iran based on areas historically under Persian control. That doesn’t mean that Iranians physically want to reclaim lost territory (although in 2007, Ali Shariatmadari, the Supreme Leader’s appointee to edit the official daily Kayhan, suggested just that in the case of Bahrain), but Iranians do have a concept of “near abroad” not unlike that which Russian President Vladimir Putin and many Russians embrace with regard to the states of the former Soviet Union and perhaps Eastern Europe as well. In 1996, while attending a language institute in Tehran affiliated with the University of Tehran, our Iranian teacher assigned every student in our class to prepare an oral report on an Iranian province which he had taken from a second or third grade textbook. I got Daghestan; it has not been part of Iran since 1828, and yet it remains in the curriculum. Back to Vladimir Putin: Would Tharoor suggest that history does not matter in the Russian case as well? Or the Balkan warlords and their constituents apply the same rational to diplomatic engagement that other European powers might?
Tharoor peppers his essay with various references to Orientalist literature or extreme examples. There is a link to James Morier’s Hajji Baba of Ispahan, published in 1824 by a British diplomat pretending to be a Persian author. It’s a delightful, satirical book, often translated into Persian, and long embraced by Iranians. Here’s a sort article about the novel, its background and significance from Encyclopaedia Iranica, for example. That Tharoor appears more sensitive to satires about the Iranian character than Iranians themselves is unfortunate. Perhaps the original sin was that Morier pretended to be a Persian. If so, then what about Iraj Pezeshkzad’s “My Uncle Napoleon,” a hugely funny book that also made fun of Iranian culture and character and, serialized on television before the revolution, to this day remains the Iran’s most popular television comedy.
Then, of course, there’s the usual assumption that Orientalism—sometimes-exaggerated depictions of ‘the other’—is one way. That may be the way the late literary critic and polemicist Edward Said depicted it, but his book was faulty in terms of both fact and logic. Iranians often characterized ‘the other’ in their own writings. During the Safavid era, for example, there were numerous Persian geographies depicting lands and peoples near and far, seldom in complementary terms. But, for the more recent, Tharoor might want to consider Nineteenth Century ruler Nasir al-Din Shah’s diary with regard to his trip to Europe or, if he wishes a more academic treatment, he could consider the work of the late British diplomat and Iranophile, Sir Denis Wright (in whose private library I conducted a portion of my dissertation research). And while Tharoor picks out opponents of the nuclear deal for the pillory because of their supposed racism, he ignores even more famous examples from those supportive of diplomacy. Take, for example, the famous “How to Negotiate with Iranians,” transmitted from Tehran to Washington in August 1979 by Bruce Laingen, at the time the senior diplomat in Tehran.
The simple fact is this: civilizations as old as Iran develop a literature, culture, and philosophy that builds on itself over generations. Just as Western strategy and concepts of diplomacy have evolved from the days of Machiavelli and been influenced by Judeo-Christian values and history, Iranians might trace the evolution of their diplomacy from the works of Nizam al-Mulk and other examples of “princely literature” and they might also recognize the influence of Zoroastrianism and Islam on their philosophy. As for bazaar bargaining, there is a reason why Americans and Europeans going to purchase goods in the Istanbul Grand Bazaar, in Isfahan’s Naqsh-e Jahan Square, or Kabul’s Chicken Street get fleeced if they are not accustomed to haggling. Haggling is part of some cultures, but try to bargain at the cash register at a Walmart and it’s likely a quick ticket to a police report. Culture matters. Tharoor might have wanted to project sophisticated sensitivity and chide other journalists and writers for getting Iran wrong. What he succeeded in accomplishing, however, was quite the opposite: His essay illuminates the dangers of parachute journalism and superficiality even at America’s top tier papers.