A breath of Iranian fresh air at Rutgers

I’ve given a lot of talks at universities and attended plenty of academic conferences over the years, and very few of them have had the emotional and political impact on me that the conference last weekend at Rutgers University, organized by Prof. Golbarg Bashi and her able students, on Iran and the Arab World: New Horizons seems to have caused. Normally I wouldn’t think twice about these things: just go in, give your talk, be nice and leave. All in a day’s work, and no big deal. Yet I find myself, days later, haunted by this experience in a most unusual way. I think I know why, and it’s worth discussing.

The quality of many of the presentations and the general level of sophistication in the audience were exceptionally impressive. I was blown away by the virtuosity of Said Amir Arjomand’s account of the social forces and cultural trends at work in the development of Iranian politics since the revolution. Both the clips from Shirin Neshat’s visually stunning new film, “Women without Men,” and Hamid Dabashi’s brilliant contextualization and preliminary reading of this mesmerizing piece of cinema art were also extraordinary. Negar Mottahedeh’s multimedia presentation on the role of social media in the green movement and information flow about it is the first thing, ever, to actually get me excited about Facebook and Twitter, which I have heretofore used without any enthusiasm. I was also impressed with Roozbeh Shirazi’s insightful research, and many other useful presentations. There were only a couple of things that struck me as discordant notes, and they were drowned in a sea of excellence.

But that wasn’t it. That wasn’t it at all. The information, analysis and scholarship on offer was first rate, but it wasn’t anything I’d never experienced before; impressive, but not by any means unheard of. Upon reflection, I think what struck me deeply and what’s worth reflecting on was simply the spirit in the room, the ethos and attitude at work. The atmosphere was warm, welcoming, open, tolerant, curious and serious. There was room for the most rigorous scholarship and the most committed activism. People were not judging each other, and I detected few if any litmus tests. In spite of the outrage at the brutality of the Iranian government, behind it was not anger but hope. There was also a real effort to contextualize Iran in its Middle Eastern geopolitical position, and to link the green movement civil liberties campaign with the movement for Palestinian liberation, human and women’s rights movements in the Arab world, and efforts for the Iraqi and Afghan peoples to craft a better future for themselves beyond civil conflict and occupation.

The entire event was forward-looking, positive, bright and purposeful. It did not wallow in how bad things are, it looked forward, seriously, to how they are going to get better. And, in spite of the enthusiasm for the green movement, this hopefulness was not based on fantastical ideas to reshape the geo-political map, or even necessarily eliminate the Islamic Republic, but rather a serious and entirely plausible campaign to restore the civil rights and liberties of the Iranian people and lay the basis for the peaceful development over time of an open, democratic society in Iran. Another of the most striking qualities of the event and most of its participants was the deep commitment to nonviolence, and pride in the resolute refusal of the green movement in Iran to resort to any acts of violence, in contrast to the regime’s use of brutality, beatings, killings, torture and enforced show trial confessions. The moral compass of this conference was in good order, and pointing to true north.

But why should any of that have surprised me? This was, after all, in effect essentially a conference bringing together elements of the Iranian academic left in the United States and some of their allies. Aren’t all of these qualities one would expect from a healthy left-of-center orientation? The answer, of course is the key to my symptomatic surprise: I can’t imagine a similar experience, a similar ethos, a similar attitude coming out of a major meeting of the Arab academic left in the United States. I should know: this is been my natural habitat for the past couple of decades. It was precisely this contrast that was so striking to me. I was suddenly in the presence of American left academics of Middle Eastern origin who were more hopeful than angry, more purposeful than brooding, more forward-looking than backward-looking, more generous than judgmental, more serious than self-indulgent, sincerely committed to nonviolence, and interested in a political agenda tied directly to existing movements on the ground with realistic goals and attainable, limited ambitions along with a healthy appreciation of the pitfalls that may lie ahead.

This was new to me, or if it wasn’t new, it’s certainly been an extraordinarily long time, before the second intifada at least, since I had an experience even remotely similar in an Arab-American academic or activist environment. I’m not talking about Washington events hosted by organizations that perforce have to be, in a way, both more serious and more frivolous than academic or activist conferences. I’m talking about that intersection between scholars, students and grassroots activists in which I have spent so much of my time over the past two decades. I’m sure many of my readers are currently reacting with indignation to these words, feeling that I am giving well-meaning Arab events, activists and academics short shrift, being unfair, or that I simply wasn’t at thus and such uplifting, inspiring event or something like that. But it’s really not possible to argue that I don’t know what I’m talking about, given the degree of my immersion into precisely this world for so many years. Anyone who wasn’t at Rutgers is simply going to have to take my word for it, and I suppose it’s possible for people to have different experiences of the same event, but for me the contrast was not only striking, it’s proven haunting and extremely instructive.

One might say, “Oh, that’s all very well, but look at what these Iranian intellectuals and activists have to work with: the inspiring green movement. What do we have? Hamas versus Fatah, March 8 versus March 14, Qatar versus Saudi Arabia, Iraqi Shiite Islamists versus Iraqi Sunni Islamists, Mubarak versus the Muslim Brotherhood, etc.! Cut us some slack here. If we are angry, brooding and judgmental, we came by it honestly. You’re being too harsh.”

Obviously I don’t think this is a ridiculous response, or it wouldn’t have occurred to me in so much detail without a prompter. There is plainly some truth in it. But even before this event I’ve written many times in the past that I think too much of the Arab and Arab American left has lost its way both in terms of core left values (except nationalism, anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism, which can all be as much or more tribal than principled) and also in terms of the weird and unhealthy appetite to label any disagreement as treason and casually hurl terms like collaborator, neocon and Arab Zionist at all kinds of people who have proven their dedication to numerous Arab causes over many years and at a considerable cost. There seems to be an insatiable appetite to judge and divide rather than to search for common ground and agree to disagree where necessary. If someone wanted to accuse me of being part of that problem, I wouldn’t claim complete innocence, but I’m certainly happy to agree to disagree with lots of people, and to speak and work with almost anybody where we do agree on an important goal.

To me, the contrast is extremely striking insofar as these Iranian left academics and activists were precisely trying to link the green movement to other progressive and liberatory causes in the Middle East, especially in the Arab world, partly in response to the bewildering and dismaying tendency of big chunks of the Arab and Arab American left to side with the Iranian regime against the protesters. The logic no doubt is driven by what I described above, an Arab left attitude that boils down solely to nationalism, anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism, and the mistaken belief that the Iranian regime is an important force in confronting Israel and the United States on behalf of those causes. This is not only a grave error and completely incorrect, it’s a betrayal of core principles that must define any left position worth holding onto.

The contrast in attitudes is illustrated, for example, with regard to the question of Palestine. It would be entirely possible for Iranians, both in Iran and in the United States, opposed to the regime to look at its deep entanglement with the Palestinian question and therefore turn away from the Palestinian cause. At this conference, it was clear the very opposite was at work: they wanted to take the Palestinian cause back from the regime because it does not belong to them and they are only exploiting it for narrow domestic and international political purposes. By contrast, that part of the Arab left sympathetic to the Iranian regime is so in part because it buys into the idea that the regime is useful on the Palestinian issue and places that against and above the civil rights and liberties of the Iranian people. This is, essentially, the distinction between a generosity of spirit and a certain poverty of it, between a principled position and what is essentially and narrowly a selfish one.

Both before and, amazingly, in these mere few days after the conference, one keeps encountering voices from the Arab left publicly dismissive of the green movement and, in the most recent instance, dismissive of concerns raised yesterday by Sec. Clinton that Iran is becoming a military dictatorship in the hands of the Revolutionary Guards and the basij volunteer thugs. Yet the same idea, this fear and belief, is precisely what is animating the green movement and its supporters in the United States. For example, Arjomand’s entire analysis of the present political scene in Iran is predicated on the understanding that these are the forces that dominate the Iranian government, perpetrated the election fraud (a fact denied by way too many people in the Arab left), and now constitute the epicenter of power in Iran waving aside any claims by critics of the regime internal or external to the system. It is they who rigged the election (in Arjomand’s insightful analysis, a smart move by Ahmadinejad since it was the only way for him to stay in office, but a big mistake for Khamenei who created a crisis that could have been avoided by allowing a reformist candidate into office), beat and kill protesters in the street, torture dissidents, repress free speech and assembly and stage elaborate, bizarre show trials. That this regime has all the elements of not only a military dictatorship, but a fascist one at that, seemed, at the Rutgers conference, beyond reasonable debate, and so it is. Denying or dismissing these obvious facts in vain hope that the Iranian regime is actually interested in confronting Israel or ridiculous fear that the opposition represents a ?Western conspiracy? funded by ?Saudi money? or some such tomfoolery is simply unconscionable.

Obviously, there are significant segments of the Arab left that don?t fall into this trap, and they deserve credit. But far too much does. But we not only have to stop thinking about international relations in this narrow, ungenerous, narcissistic and solipsistic way, the real corrective begins much closer to home. The Arab left, and Arabs in general for that matter, have to learn to agree to disagree, to be open to debate and conversation, not to rush to judge the motivations and characters of people saying things we don?t agree with or that we don?t understand. We have to learn the crucial difference between challenging people?s ideas, even harshly, (perfectly okay) and challenging people?s motivations or personalities (unnecessary and counterproductive). Very often we treat these two very distinct behaviors as if they were synonymous, being annoyed by the first when in fact we need much more of it, and turning a blind eye to the second although it?s doing incalculable damage to our Arab-American conversation. We have to stop shunning each other, and even more importantly launching preposterous and dangerous accusations, above all labels of traitor, collaborator, Arab Zionist, or, for that matter, terrorist. From my experience at Rutgers at the weekend, the Iranians of the green movement and their supporters in the Iranian American left have a lot to teach us and we?d better start learning fast.