Gaza, Iran and the Left's Double Standard

By David Burchell

It is surely one of the great paradoxes of this age that while many of our cleverest minds have fallen headlong in love with peoples whose causes are more or less entirely alien to us, we can find no stirring in our hearts for peoples whose greatest hope is to become . . . well, more like us.

Thus we artlessly dispatched our hearts on a sentimental journey to Gaza designed for our benefit by the canny Islamists in Ankara and their bloodstained allies in Gaza; people who, in any other context, would treat our Western soft-heartedness and woolly-mindedness with undisguised contempt.

And yet our hearts have no space whatever for the thousands of young Iranian students who, on Saturday, defied the threats of their government, the beatings of the extra-legal militias, and the pusillanimity of their erstwhile leaders, merely to ask for the right to have their votes treated with dignity, rather than being fabricated out of some dodgy Russian software in Iran's Ministry of the Interior.

To the best of my knowledge, not one single person has died at the hands of Iran's green opposition, even as thousands of their number have been arrested, hundreds sexually and physically tortured in prison, and dozens murdered in loneliness, often in the most squalid and humiliating of circumstances. Their cause has been Gandhian, almost to a fault. ("The students will die, but they will not accept humiliation", they chanted at Tehran University.)

And yet their plight leaves us entirely cold. Who knows: if they strapped bombs to themselves, or professed a secret admiration for the racial policies of the Third Reich, would they then become sufficiently exotic to pique our jaded imaginations, and would we then love them a little more?

Fearless Western journalists, we are told, boarded the Gaza flotilla at hazard to their lives, the better to pen florid descriptions of the predations of the Israeli "hyenas"; sentences that could presumably have been written with equal vigour and no less accuracy from the comfort of their computer terminals.

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Yet presently there is not one solitary Western journalist, willing to risk the wrath of the Iranian security forces to file a report from Tehran in the open air. And so the job is left to the Iranians themselves: to the anxious young students whose wavering phone cameras record those fleeting snippets of history, floating like sea-wrack across the YouTube ocean in 15 or 20-second fragments. And to the exiles and expatriates, like the courteous, serious-minded and courageous London Guardian stringer Saeed Kamali Dehghan, who have spirited their way back into the country, at genuine hazard to themselves, before the people whose stories they need to tell have disappeared.

Dehghan' s new documentary For Neda - recorded secretly in Iran, using interviews from the family of the young murdered bystander Neda Soltan - will air on US and British television on the anniversary of Neda's death this Wednesday, no doubt to murmurs of polite interest. Perhaps the most touching aspect of this heartfelt documentary is its portrait of a young woman (not in the least political, at least in the Western intellectual sense of the word) who wanted merely to live her life, true to herself as best she could be, and at peace with the world, much in the same manner as any thoughtful Western teenager.

And yet, even before she was gunned down at random by a twitchy sniper, her efforts to follow her own star had been thwarted by laws which view Western popular music as corrupting, Western casual dress as lascivious, and an uncovered head or arms as the grossest of moral provocations. In the Iranian moral-spiritual imagination Neda has already been adopted as a martyr. And yet our Western hearts seem curiously closed to her. Could this be because she reminds us too much of ourselves?

As well as the Iranian elections, and the death of Neda Soltani, we should perhaps recall a third ill-starred anniversary. It was, after all, just one week before the Iranian elections that US President Barack Obama rose in Cairo to deliver an oration on the relations between the US and the Muslim world: a speech, full of generous sentiments and carefully balanced praise and blame for all parties, which for some weeks made him the darling of the political class all over the world. Who knows: perhaps Obama was being merely naive when he spoke encouragingly of a new and optimistic climate of negotiation with the regime in Tehran, even though we must suspect that this signal aided the regime in its decision to overturn the following week's election result, rather than simply to flee to Syria, as they feared they might have to do.

And who knows: perhaps it was the same generous spirit of liberal self-criticism that drove the President to describe the wearing of the hijab as a "right" for Muslim women and to criticise only those governments (such as France) which have sought to ban it, and not those (such as Iran) who deem it to be a compulsory attribute of womanhood. Even though the right not to wear the hijab is perhaps the single most eloquent principle of the Iranian opposition's cause.

Some years ago a senior scholar of Muslim affairs described to me in passionate terms the difficulty she has raising the problems of Muslim women with Australian journalists, given that shedoesn't cover her head, and so is intuitively taken by well-intentioned folks to be insufficiently Muslim. (In the same perverse way, as a Muslim feminist, she sometimes finds herself invisible to non-Muslim feminists, to whom she also appears insufficiently Islamic.) Conversely, as the Iranian feminist Azar Nafisi has pointed out, the same garments which in Iran are intended to make women invisible in the public sphere serve only, in a delicious paradox, to make them ever-more visible, since "no infraction is too small to escape notice", and since "every private gesture of defiance is now a strong political statement".

In one of those stolen phone-camera fragments from Saturday's rally, at Tehran University, one of the demonstrators runs towards the camera. Her bright green hijab has been twisted around to cover her nose and mouth, providing protection from tear gas, and a necessary cloak of anonymity. It's an image whose irony, sad to say, would be lost on President Obama, as well as on some of our otherwise clever souls. In that respect, as in others, those brave young Iranians put us all to shame.

 

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