Media, Mahdi & Machiavelli
by Jim Higdon
15 May 2010 22:25
A look over the past year with Shervin Nekuee of Tehran Review.[ Q&A ] Shervin Nekuee was born in Tehran in 1968 and is now an Iranian-Dutch sociologist, writer and chief editor of Tehran Review, which launched this year. He is the author of The Persian Paradox (in Dutch, 2006), a book about the diverse personal, political and historical reconstructions and narratives on why and how the Islamic Revolution happened. Nekuee is co-founder of Eutopia Instituut, a think tank for multicultural challenges within the Dutch society. He is also the founder of Mystic Festival, a yearly gathering of Sufi Mystics in the Netherlands.
He was interviewed by Jim Higdon of Tehran Bureau.
You seem to be critical of what one might call the traditional pro-democracy, establishment news sources broadcasting into Iran - BBC Persia and Voice of America. How have these news sources covered the Green Movement? And what, in your opinion, have they failed to do?
Since the presidential election of last June, Iran has been in the midst of its most turbulent political situation of the last three decades. Many have been killed and even more have been jailed, some 4,000 or more young, high-profile Iranians, including many journalists, have been forced to escape the country.
The tumultuous situation of Iran has attracted international journalistic attention. At the same time, two developments within the Persian media abroad has taken place. First, there is a tremendous growth of new media, like our website Tehran Review, and second, the existing Persian-language media of the international establishment - BBC, VOA and Radio Free Europe - have seen increasing in their budget and activity.
However, growth of quantity isn't equal to growth of quality. My main point on Persian-language established international media, specifically BBC and VOA, is this: they are lazy.
They have a virtual monopoly on TV broadcasting in Persian in a time that politics is everything in Iran, yet the political programs that they are producing are easy entertainment - just talking heads giving comments on the latest developments. And that in a time that the people of Iran more than ever call for truth and facts about what is happening in their land, who is behind the torturing and political murders? Who gave orders for sudden executions? And the most salient question that any journalist should be asking is: was the presidential election in Iran rigged?
A gigantic entity like BBC Persian should make fantastic investigation journalism from this question. VOA should think, "this can become the Iranian version of Watergate." They have the financial resources to invest in intelligent investigation journalism on this. We are almost a year past the elections, and the Iranian public has no more knowledge than a year ago about this. The curiosity, the will to investigate is almost zero. BBC and VOA are obsessed with producing and have lost the intellectual spirit to make slow journalism.
And what about the other class of media - grassroots Persian websites?
To my dear colleagues of the most popular Persian websites like Jaras and Rooz, my criticism is that they - even if we live in a bloody time - should keep their heads cool and should overcome becoming a religious or secular church - or Mosque in this case - by preaching all the time about who is good, who is bad and who is ugly.
Of course, they should bring the news, in that they can never beat the big news agencies, so they should invest in insight, analysis and debates with the public. But unfortunately, they are very much into elegy: talking about how bad and unfair the Islamic regime is. These websites are full of open letters of children of prisoners to their daddy and young prisoners to their mommy.
Seldom do I learn something from all those dramatic, braveheart columns I read in those websites about "at last the freedom will triumph." To these colleagues, who in their style are very much shaped by Shia mentality, I would like to say: "stop playing Imam Hossein." We don't need a Mahdi but many Machiavellis to let freedom triumph!
I understand your distinction between Mahdi (a religious savior) and Machiavelli (a pragmatic secular "prince")... but you are aware of the negative connotations associated with Machiavelli, yes? He is hardly the sort of figure associated with democracy. He is the person who said, "it is better to be feared than to be loved." To that point, where is the Shiite Persian incarnation of Ghandi or Nelson Mandela? What happened to Mousavi and Karroubi? Did they lose to the intimidation of the regime? Or were they just not what the Green Movement was hoping for in terms of leadership?
Well I was not talking about political leaders but about intellectuals and political commentators writing in many websites and who appear on BBC Persian and VOA shows day-in-day-out. Yes we need Mandela's and Ghandis, and to my view Mousavi and Karroubi are doing a good job. The problem is that we have an inflation of Ghandi look-a-likes and worse, Imam Hossein look-a-likes among our analysts and commentators.
I know the popular connotation of Machiavelli, but let's not forget that contemporary politics have been built up on his pioneering work. I am not talking about political heroes. I am talking about rational cold-blooded analysis. My country doesn't suffer of lack of people who want die for their ideals - and unfortunately, there are also many who want to kill for them. We suffer from a lack of time and patience to review, rethink and find realistic ways of accomplishing our political goals. And the journalistic attitude suffers from this too - lack of realism and rationalism and patience to investigate, to research, to review, to go under the surface.
We need to think - and think pragmatically and preciously - to inform the people, who are in fact "The Prince" of our era - the power behind a growing democracy.
Let's turn our attention now to US policy towards Iran. Aside from VOA, has the US policy of appearing hands-off in terms of the Green Movement helped or hurt the cause? Have there been any policy blunders? Any missed opportunities? What do you hope for from Obama? And what do you expect from him?
I think that in the case of Iran, President Obama can do most by doing what he is best at: talking directly to the nation, but this time toward the Iranian nation.
There has been a tremendous effect of Obama's election to the political landscape in Iran. If he was not elected and in place of him, Mr. "bomb bomb bom Iran" McCain would had been the commander-in-chief of the USA, the reformist politicians like Karoubi, Khatami and Mousavi would never have gotten involved in such an uprising against the regime.
Iranians are a patriotic nation, and when aggressive rhetoric and actions of great powers toward Iran increase the internal unity or at least the feeling of necessity to defend the country has priority above internal affairs. For many years, the Islamic Republic has been misusing the image of the dangers of American involvement in Iran to silence any opposition.
The good news is, that after 30 years, the Iranian people are really fed up with this ritualistic anti-Americanism of a regime that itself couldn't deliver its utopian promises.
More than 73 percent of Iranians were born after the Revolution. The majority of this generation is really fed up with a regime that points to America as the source and reason of its own shortcomings in economical, social and political areas. It is also a very communicative generation and receptive to dialog between civilizations.
President Obama's Iranian New Year (Norouz) congratulation to the Iranian public last year and this year was a grand move. This was public diplomacy at its best. I think that the Iranian quest for democracy, justice and freedom should be decided on an internal battlefield by Iranians. Any attempt to "bring democracy" to Iran will be met with resistance by the Iranian people.
Iranian civil society can be supported by American civil society and indirectly by the American State without getting directly involved with Iranian political opposition. The student movement, women's movement and independent media deserve to be supported. The Green Movement itself is in its origin a civil rights movement. "Were is my vote?" that's how it started.
This civil rights demands of the Green Movement should inspire President Obama, given his own African-American heritage and his connection to the history of the American Civil Rights Movement, to find words and policy to support gently the Iranian people without awakening the fear of US domination.
What about the Iranian nuclear program?
The Iranian nuclear issue is the most visible topic when it comes to American foreign policy on Iran. The Iranian public is much less concerned about this issue. The US should communicate with the Iranian public clearly and repeatedly to make their point clear. Given the fact that 50 percent of Iranians these days have direct access to satellite TV, and therefore to VOA and BBC, each message from the Obama administration can be heard and echoed in Iran. Use this to have direct conversation with Iranians!
At the same time, American politicians should find a way to overcome any hasty and radical move by the neoconservative government of Israel against Iran. Any military attack on Iran can be used politically by the regime to shutdown all civil society and opposition activities.
In fact, I believe that Ahmadinejad needs the conflict with the outside world to manage its internal affairs. So, play it cool and give Iranian opposition and democratic forces a chance. The crisis within the Iranian regime is deep, and the Iranian people have not been politically so conscious and critical and brave as they are now. There is a real chance for change, and the American government should give subtle support to it and try to control its temper against the manipulative rhetoric of President Ahmadinejad.
Many Americans only understand Iran in terms of its nuclear ambitions and the threat posed to Israel. Just as Obama can speak directly to the Iranian people, how can the Iranian people, through English-language platforms such as Tehran Review and Tehran Bureau, better communicate directly to the American people in order to create the sort of future that you seek?
The image of Iran as a suicide state that has been build up by neo-conservatives and the Israel lobby is dangerous and can have far reaching consequences. When you compare Ahmadinejad with Hitler you already show the only alternative: fight to the death. Of course, the image of Iran is a function of a perverse interaction between the triangle of Iranian radicals (Ahmadinejad and Khamenei), American neo-conservatives and Israeli radicals. Ahmadinejad and the Iran regime is building up a very risky image: they hope becoming a monster in the eyes of the West will pay off... they play with fire.
What transnational people and media sites with connections on both sides should do is bring different news and deeper insights to both populations. If Americans would learn to know the complexity of Iranian society, and if they learned how opportunistically Iran's regime uses the concept of Islamic solidarity - they never say a word against Russian murder in Chechnya, for example - that makes a difference. But also, the Iranian public has much to learn about the West and the debates and issues of people here. When it comes to the general public - Iranian, American and European - it is about making both sides in the eyes of the other more human and a less abstract, threatening entity.
But we also need to build a bridge between public intellectuals on both sides. When columnists and commentators get to know each other's works and issues, they, better than anybody else, can transmit this knowledge to their own public.
I guess what I'm getting at is that in order to make "the other more human and a less abstract, threatening entity," in your words, there needs to be a line of communication established that goes over the heads of the pro-Israel, neoconservative media to reach the "low-information voters" that in many ways drive American feeling towards the Muslim world. I'm talking about the sorts of Americans who still don't understand the difference between Sunni and Shia or between Arab and Persian.
The "Twitter Revolution" in Iran last summer certainly brought the Persian pro-democracy movement into the minds of computer literate younger Americans... but even today, we have political candidates trying to attract votes based on a tough line against Iran, like this news headline about US Senate candidates from the week before the primary elections: "Iran's nuclear ambitions trouble Senate hopefuls."
I read the article. You know, democracy is a very dangerous game, especially when it changes into a mass mobilization and manipulation game. I hope that the people of the US start to get tired of tough politicians and look for smart ones, and more, I really do hope that more and more Tehran Bureau and Tehran Review and other news sources can succeed to help to get the American public over the Hollywood style "We are Good Guys vs Bad Guys" way of thinking about international politics.
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