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Comment | Poison Names: The Lexicon of Iranian 'McCarthyism'

by ARASH KARAMI

18 May 2012 22:53Comments

From "monafeghin" to "fitnagar," examining a venomous vocabulary.

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Arash Karami is a frequent Tehran Bureau contributor.
[ comment ] UAE-based writer Sultan al-Qassemi's recently published "McCarthyism in Gulf Social Media" offers rare insight into the state of the region's public discourse, in particular the use of personal insults to discredit those holding different political opinions. Qassemi points to a new trend in labeling political adversaries as "traitors" alongside the old standby of "takfir" -- the act of one Muslim declaring another an apostate or infidel, "kafir."

In Iranian discourse, there is a comparable tradition of name-calling against political foes; under the Islamic Republic, name-calling and character assassination has reached absurd levels inside the country and become disturbingly common in the diaspora as well.

In the years before the 1979 Revolution, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was derisively called "nokar-e amreeka," America's servant, or even "khaen," traitor, by some elements of the opposition. In turn, he called protestors "ekhlalgar" and "kharabkar," agitators and vandals. After the Revolution, one of the primary targets of name-calling by officials and advocates of the newly founded Islamic Republic was the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization (MKO). Members of the group, who were instrumental in overthrowing the Pahlavi dynasty but quickly lost the subsequent power struggle with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, were labeled "monafeghin," hypocrites. In a religious context, hypocrites are far worse, and much more dangerous, than unbelievers because they create disunity. After three decades, Iranian state media and officials still refer to MKO members as "monafeghin."

Since the 2009 presidential election, Islamic Republic officials have favored a different set of words to discredit their political opponents. Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who had both played key roles in the Iranian government, were labeled "fitnagar," seditionists, for steadfastly challenging the election's outcome and defending the rights of the protestors who took to the streets. The label "fitna" has religious connotations, typically indicating those who attempt to agitate the public and disturb the peace. State media outlets were eventually forbidden to even use Mousavi and Karroubi's names and they came to be referred to as "saraan-e fitna," leaders of the sedition. In February 2011, the two leaders -- along with Mousavi's wife, Dr. Zahra Rahnavard -- were placed under house arrest without charge, where they remain.

The winner of that election, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was soon doomed to the same name-calling fate. His closest adviser and father of his son's wife, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who had been attempting to build a popular following (possibly in hopes of running for president next year) by emphasizing Iranian history -- at the expense, according to ideological adversaries, of the Islamic history long promoted by the Islamic Republic -- was labeled "monharef," deviated or perverted. (Islam in the Qur'an is referred to as the "straight path," sirat al-mustaqim.) Friday Prayer leaders, members of parliament, and even the head of the Guardian Council, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, issued statements warning of the dangers of the so-called "deviants" group. Those aspersions have reflected on the president, whose decline in popularity has been so precipitous that Ahmadinejad's own sister could not win a seat in parliament representing her hometown in the elections held in early March.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei likes to direct the insult "bi basirat" against those who disagree with him. Literally, it means those who lack insight or discretion. Though Khamenei does not name whom he has in mind, many believe that the phrase's main target is Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani, one of the most significant figures in the history of the Islamic Republic, did not take a clear line against the "seditionists" -- that is, the Green Movement protests. Although Rafsanjani's choice of a more moderate, understanding position was motivated primarily by antagonism toward the upstart Ahmadinejad and not necessarily sympathy with the pro-democracy stance of the Green Movement, he eventually paid a price for his "lack of insight," losing his post as head of the Assembly of Experts, the body that nominally oversees the Supreme Leader. Although the wily Rafsanjani was recently able to retain his chairmanship of the Expediency Discernment Council, he has nonetheless seen his powers diminished tremendously in the last several years.

Character assassination via name-calling is a tactic employed not just by the current power elite in the Islamic Republic. As can be observed in social media such as Facebook and Twitter, Iranians in the diaspora have adopted their own lexicon of terms meant to denigrate those with whose political views they differ.

The term "regime apologist" is frequently and glibly aimed at those who endorse diplomacy, are opposed to sanctions aimed at crippling the Iranian economy, or happen to offer an Iran-centric viewpoint much more often than their critics would like. The term "neo-con" or, much worse, "vatan foroush," literally one who sells his homeland, is used against those who support sanctions, do not want dialogue with the Islamic Republic, and favor more severe actions against Iran's government.

For Iranians in the diaspora, name-calling is not exactly destroying reputations and careers in the same manner that Senator Joseph McCarthy did in 1950s America in the purported cause of rooting out Communism. Still, Iranians in the diaspora -- only a minority, perhaps, but a highly active one -- have sadly taken it upon themselves to mimic the Islamic Republic in their adopted countries by resorting to character assassination at the first sign of disagreement. This tactic of ad hominem assault, of course, serves as a convenient means to avoid substantively addressing a given issue, which can be especially challenging if the facts at hand contradict one's firmly held beliefs.

As tensions continue to rise between the United States and Iran, with possibly devastating consequences for both countries, it would seem urgent that the Iranian American community, the largest in the Iranian diaspora, put an end to this tactic. For those who sincerely wish to move forward, it would be wise to introduce a new political vocabulary that is devoid of the name-calling. Given that the past 33 years has seen not only the continuation but the exaggeration of a much longer tradition, however, it is unlikely that there will be any end soon to this destructive discourse.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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