Saturday, July 26, 2008

Last night we saw Norman Finkelstein speak, and as much as I respect and admire him, I couldn't quite reconcile the Norman we saw last night the Norman I've read and heard speak elsewhere.

Finkelstein, if you remember, was denied tenure for purely political reasons. In an attack on academic freedom, Depaul University dean Chuck Suchar ignored the positive 9-3 vote of Finkelstein's department and the 5-0 vote of his college and recommended that Finkelstein not be granted tenure. A key force influencing Suchar's decision, it seems, was Mr. Alan Dershowitz, a one time civil liberties buff turned enthusiast for torture, who interfered in what is supposed to be an internal decision process by turning in a 50 page dossier against Professor Finkelstein.

Dershowitz' spirited justification of torture and his campaigns to compromise the freedom and integrity of independent academic research has apparently made him irresistible to one Joel B. Pollak, who my friends in Harvard describe as an "aspiring Dershowitz." Mr. Pollak also happens to be the research assistant to Mr. Dershowitz.

On July 5, 2008, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Pollak in which he claimed that the book used for instruction in beginner's Arabic classes at Harvard is filled with the "stale prejudices and preoccupations of the pre-Sept. 11 Middle East."

Mr. Pollak's claims have been met with many objections, though I doubt that outfits like the Washington Post would give equal space to the critics of Dershowitz and mini-Dershowitz. For that reason, a friend suggested that bloggers may want to link to some of the responses that are otherwise likely to be ignored by mainstream media sources. Following his lead, here are the links:

-Elijah Zarwan's response to Joel Pollak

-Philip Weiss' response to Joel Pollak

-Will Youmans' response Joel Pollak

-Matthew Yglesias' response to Joel Pollak

If you know of anyone else who has written in response to Pollak's op-ed, let me know and I will try to remember to link them.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Until very recently, one stereotype about Iranians coming to North America was that they all eventually try to pass themselves off as pop singers. Nowadays, every Tom, Dick, and Harry, or rather, every Ali, Akbar, and Hassan claim to be a "human rights activist."

There is even an Iranian woman who is aspiring to do both, i.e. to be a famous singer and prominent human rights activist, so maybe she will spark a new trend. In fact, I was all set to share some funny stories about this person, but after reading a friend's post about the tendency of Iranians to randomly attack and counter attack one another, I decided to hold my tongue. But just a word of friendly advice to this lady and others in pursuit of becoming singer-human rights activists: if you are ever invited to speak about your human rights work, say at the UK parliament, it may not be such a good idea to play your music video because, you know, that's embarrassing and inappropriate.

But back to my main point, which is about this new tendency for nearly every Iranian political activist, writer, or public personality of any sort that arrives in North America to affix the label "human rights activist" to his or her name. While some who consider themselves as part of a "human rights movement" may consider this a good sign, I would urge caution, especially when it comes to the Iran context. Several months ago, a US State Department official, after listing familiar complaints about the factionalization and in-fighting among Iranian political groups, told me: "we believe that that human rights is the one thing that will unite all Iranians." Translation: "we will be using human rights instrumentally in whatever way we can to make sure we get our way with Iran."

And herein lies the biggest danger to human rights as a concept and as a mode of activism: rather than being used against those in power who abuse human rights, human rights are being used by those in power as a tool to punish their enemies without being held accountable for their own abuses.

With regards to Iran, its mechanisms are obvious, and I didn't need to hear it from the horse's mouth to know so. The state funded Voice of America Persian, for example, is now heavily focused on human rights in Iran, but in a disgustingly skewed and politicized manner. All sorts of websites have sprung up as well, clearly well-funded , but unfortunately not very reliable in terms of the information they provide. Of course, there are still a number of credible Iranian websites--almost all of them in Iran--which provide accurate information about human rights violations. But in a sea of lies and propaganda, it is difficult to discern the truth or to know who to trust.

Despite all of the Iranian "pop stars" who have cropped up in North America over the last three decades, most of us tend to think that a good singer should have the minimum qualities of a nice or strong voice and preferably some charisma or charm. If there are minimum qualifications for singers, shouldn't there be some for human rights activists?

Note: "I suffered a lot" or "my human rights were violated" is not a qualification. It may make one more sensitive to violations or inspire one to work for human rights, but it is not by itself a qualification. Similarly, if you say "I hate government X" or "I loathe president Y", that may make you an opponent or critic of said government or politician, but not a human rights activist specialized in that country. If hating a president or a government automatically made one somehow well qualified to be a human rights activist in relation to a particular country, then we could all likely claim that title vis-a-vis multiple countries.

I think it would be good for everybody if we treated every person who declares himself/herself an Iranian human rights activist with the same healthy skepticism we have when we hear of a new singer coming out of Los Angeles' Iranian quarters: Sure, let's give them a chance and encourage them if they are good, but let's have some minimum standards too.

Monday, July 14, 2008

In this month's Foreign Policy magazine, one of the resident Iran "experts" in Washington DC, has an interview in which he says about the prospects of war or reconciliation with Iran:

"That said, a U.S. military attack would be more carrot than stick for Ahmadinejad. There are two things that would really rehabilitate his presidency: One is a U.S. attack on Iran, and the second is a major U.S. diplomatic overture to Iran. I think the United States should not offer him either."

Mr. Sadjadpour is not the first policy buff to make the former argument. Even some self-described peace activists go around town telling lawmakers "don't bomb Iran, it will make the hardliners stronger."

A few months ago, a delegation of Iranian victims of chemical weapons from the Iran-Iraq war and the physicians caring for them were in the US for a mini-tour during which they also had a chance to meet with Mr. Sadjadpour. It did not go well. "why," they asked him, "do you frame your opposition to war in terms of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and not on the humanitarian grounds that war would devastate the people of Iran?"

For these folks who are still paying the price for a war that ended nearly twenty years ago, Sadjadpour's argument against war was both disturbing and incomprehensible.

And now, Mr. Sadjadpour goes even further to argue against any diplomatic overtures to Iran. Why? Because it might make Ahmadinejad and his faction stronger.

Can you imagine, a guy working with a well-known think tank in the heart of washington, dc, giving an interview to an influential foreign policy magazine at a moment when tensions between the US and Iran are explosive, and he is provided the chance to make a forceful argument against war (between his adopted and native countries, no less) and to diffuse the situation with an offer of a solution, and the best he comes up is this: don't start a war, but don't try to fix things either, because it may benefit one man!

If not war or diplomacy, then what? More sanctions, like the punishing set that is coming up before congress soon?

I hate to pick on Sadjadpour, when there are the likes of Mehdi Khalaji and his bosses at the the Washington Institute for Near East Policy running around selling sanctions as diplomacy and working to bring the fate of Iraq to Iran. But really how different is Sadjadpour's position from Khalaji, given that the latter has argued: "Negotiations between the United States and Iran under current circumstances run the risk of negatively affecting the U.S. image in Iran."

Doesn't it just come down to this small distinction: that Sadjadpour argues against diplomacy because it might make Ahmadinejad look good, whereas Khalaji argues against diplomacy because it might make the US look bad. Neither of their arguments are tenable, by the way, but that is a discussion for another time.

When the biggest difference between the Iran guy at Carnegie and the Iran guy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy comes down to the fact that one has a full head of fluffy hair and the other looks like a hairless ape, you know that it is time for some diversity in Washington's thinking on Iran.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Go Archeologists!

Top archeologists have urged their colleagues to refuse any requests from US or other military to draw up a list of sites that should be avoided in the increasingly likely event of air strikes on Iran:

"Such advice would provide cultural credibility and respectability to the military action," said a resolution agreed by the World Archaeological Congress in Dublin, Ireland, last week.

They further recommend that archeologists should emphasize that any military attack would bring irreparable harm to the people and heritage of Iran.

A big thanks to these responsible archeologists and to New Scientist for covering their story. The science magazine I currently subscribe to, Scientific American, is filled with advertisements for big time defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, and I can't imagine them covering a story like this one. Now may be a good time to make the switch.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

These are some of the people who are known to refer to contemporary Iran and Iranians as "persia" or "Persians": Saddam Hossein, self-hating and/or clueless Iranians living in North America, supporters and participants in US backed operations aimed at splitting Iran into multiple ethnic enclaves, and most recently, the Saudi MBC Persia, whose owners also run the well-known mouthpiece of Israeli and US propaganda, the Al-Arabiya Channel (which incidentally also has a newly inaugurated Persian language site as well).

Despite my distaste for and suspicion of anyone who uses the word "Persian" to refer to anything other than the language (excepted also, of course, are those who use the term in a properly descriptive and/or historical sense), I am a huge fan of the Iranian-British rapper Reveal AKA Mehrak, and especially his song "Prince of Persia," which you can listen to on his myspace page.

Reveal is a totally legit rapper who won the British freestyle battle championships in 2000, when he was only 15 or 16 years old. As opposed to some commercial pseudo-rappers in Iran that specialize in silly and fun lyrics, for example, Rezaya and 2afm, who I will admit to liking as well, Reveal is politically aware and astute, and his lyrics show both a transnational grasp of world affairs as well as an understanding of the local nuances of Iranian and British societies. Perhaps most importantly, Reveal addresses class issues, something that is entirely absent from contemporary Iranian cultural productions. (You can learn more about Reveal in this interview).

And while the macho militarism is a bit too much for me, I highly recommend the song "Vatan Parast", which is a rap he did with the Hichkas, the self-dubbed (and I think maybe fairly so) father of Iranian rap. The song, which is rapped in both Persian and English, is an expression of anger and nationalistic bravado in response to the threats of war against Iran and the hypocrisy of those who work daily to lay the groundwork for it.

Someone took the song and put it against a backdrop of pictures from Iran's armed forces. Whomever did this also tacked on to the end of the rap a line from an Iran-Iraq war song. If you lived through the Iran-Iraq war like I did, you will know the original song very well. What is being sung here is apparently a new version.

In any case, the imagery and what has been added at the tail end give new layers of meaning to the whole thing, which I am including below for your listening/viewing pleasure: