The Resurgence of Ultra-Nationalism

By Arshin Adib-Moghaddam (for Safe Democracy)

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam writes on the Western incentive to demonize Iran in its media in order to justify the possible use of military force. Reviewing Iran‘s history with the Jewish people, Adib-Moghaddam points out that Ahmadinejad‘s attempt at historical revisionism is a consequence of the resurgence of ultra-nationalism. In Adib-Moghaddam‘s opinion, now more than ever it is necessary that we all work on debunking historical distortions and building an inclusive dialogue that cuts across cultural barriers.

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is the author of The International Politics of the Persian Gulf: A Cultural Genealogy and the forthcoming The Question of the Islamic Republic: Selected essays on the politics of post-revolutionary Iran. He teaches international relations at Oxford University.

WHEN THE CHAIRMAN OF IRAN’S JEWISH COUNCIL, Haroun Yashayaei, criticised President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a letter condemning his remarks on the Holocaust, he was supported by a range of Iranian intellectuals, artists, poets and others both within the country and without. For those amongst us with some understanding about the Jewish presence in Iranian history it was immediately clear that Ahmadinejad’s comments could be attributed to a mixture of individual ignorance about the factual circumstances of the Holocaust and, more importantly, Machiavellian expediency during a period when the Iranian state was targeted by a relentless public relations campaign in the international media.

As such his comments are quite comparable to Bush’s declaration that since September 11th, 2001, the United States has been on a crusade or Silvio Berlusconi’s statement about the inherent superiority of western values.

Indeed, I do not think it an exaggeration to place Ahmadinejad in the same category as Bush and Berlusconi. All three belong to the same political school of thought that divides the world up into black and white, good and bad: a dichotic world-view of you’re either with us or against us.

Ironically enough, Ahmadinejad’s shortcomings are most evident in his understanding of his own civilisation and here especially Iran’s intimate historical encounters with Judaism. A few lessons in theology are enough to see that the Bible is dotted with praise for ancient Persia and its imperial masters. The Old Testament describes the Persian king Cyrus the Great, as God’s anointed and chosen ruler because it was he who gave refuge to the Jews when they were persecuted by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in the sixth century B.C. These actions also explain why Cyrus is mentioned in the Torah as a saint and saviour of the Jewish people.

Indeed one of his successors to the Persian throne, Xerxes I (Artaxerxes), married a Jewish woman, Esther, the daughter of one of his ministers. The tomb of Esther in the north-Western Iranian city of Hamadan (originally called Ecabatana) draws Jewish pilgrims from all over Iran, especially during the holiday of Purim (the walls of the building explain the origins of Esther in Hebrew).

It should be added as a footnote to the contemporary history of the Persian Gulf area, that Iran’s real and perceived support to persecuted Jews was used by Saddam Hussein in order to demonise the Persian menace from the East during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988).

This was the central theme of two books published in Baghdad in the early 1980s: Al-Madaris al-Yahudiyya wa-l-Iraniyya fi-l-‘Iraq (Jewish and Iranian schools in Iraq) by Fadil al-Barrak; and Al-Harb al-sirriyya, khafaya al-dawr al-Isra’ili fi harb al-khalij (The secret war: The mysterious role of Israel in the [First]Gulf War) by Sa’d al-Bazzaz. The former deals with the destructive and dangerous impact of Jewish and Iranian schools on Iraqi society. And the latter outlines how Israel and Iran conspired to combat Iraq, with special reference to the destruction of the nuclear reactor in Osirak by Israeli Air Force in June 1981.

Further lessons in Iran’s contemporary history show, that at a time when Nazi Germany was busy implementing the Endlösung, Iranian diplomats were offering hundreds of Iranian passports to European Jews (largely from Poland) in order to facilitate their exodus. There continues to be a sizeable Polish-Jewish minority in Iran to this date.

The Islamic Republic itself guarantees the rights of Iran’s Jewish minority, which is the largest in West Asia outside of Israel and Palestine. The 25,000 to 60,000 Jews of Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, Boroujerd and Yazd have their own cemeteries (Tehran’s Jewish cemetery), which, unlike in Europe and Russia, are safe from desecration by skinhead mobs. They attend packed synagogues, send their children to Jewish schools, buy their meat in kosher butchers, are exempt from prohibitions on alcohol and have political representation in the Iranian parliament (majlis) guaranteed by the Iranian Constitution.

Many Iranian-Jews fought Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), and Ahmadinejad himself recently honoured an Iranian-Jewish war veteran during the commemoration ceremony for the liberation of the south-western town of Khorramshahr from Saddam Hussein’s forces. It should be added that in August of last year, the Association of the Iranian Jewish Community and the management of the Jewish hospital Sepir in Tehran facilitated the distribution of medical support to Palestinians wounded by Israeli armed forces during the latest intifadah against the occupation.

Anti-Semitism is a distinctively European invention and projecting its ideological tenets and political agenda to the Muslim world is intellectually unrewarding and analytically flawed. This is not to say that there are no anti-Jewish sentiments in the region. There are; but they are more politically than racially motivated.

The equivalent of Ahmadinejad’s attitude exists in many countries today as a consequence, in my opinion, of both the resurgence of ultra-nationalist ideologies, which themselves are intrinsically xenophobic, and the continued occupation of Palestinian territories by the Israeli state. The real object of this type of politics is thus not the holocaust per se. It is the Israeli state and its underlying Zionist ideology.

This explains why Ahmadinejad received the support of Jewish organisations like Neturei Karta International, a world wide organization of Orthodox Jews opposed to Zionism. Anti-Zionism as opposed to anti-Semitism is a legitimate political position to take and many will continue to voice their dissent in order to protest the abominations committed in the name of the Zionist ideal.

In the meantime, it is important to divorce fact from fiction. The calculated ignorance of states and their apogees should strengthen our empathy and alertness, especially when it comes to unearthing their myths and distortions, whether with regard to established historical facts such as the holocaust or in relation to the deaths and destructions in Gaza, Kabul, Baghdad or Grozny. What is needed, above all else then, is inclusive dialogue that is ideologically dispassionate and intellectually honest.

For those readers who think that this is merely an abstract demand from an idealistic intellectual, allow me to discuss a very specific example:

In May 2006, bloggers and investigative journalists exposed the falsehood of a story by Amir Taheri, invented to present Iran as an anti-Semitic state. In an article for the National Post of Canadahad claimed that a new law would require Iranian Jews to be marked out with a yellow strip of cloth sewn in front of their clothes while Christians will be assigned the colour red. Zoroastrians end up with Persian blue as the colour of their zonnar. According to Taheri the new codes would enable Muslims to easily recognise non-Muslims so that they can avoid shaking hands with them by mistake and thus becoming “naji” (unclean). To reiterate the message, the article ran alongside a 1935 photograph of a Jewish businessman in Berlin with a yellow, six-pointed star sewn on his overcoat.

The National Post was forced to retract the bogus piece and apologise publicly. But by then the New York Post and the Jerusalem Post, which also featured a photo of a yellow star from the Nazi era over a photo of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the New York Sun had picked up the story.

It should be added that in another New York Post column in 2005, Taheri claimed that Iran’s ambassador to the UN, Javad Zarif, was one of the students involved in the capture of US diplomats in Tehran between 1979 and 1980. The story was retracted after Dwight Simpson, a professor at San Francisco State University, wrote to the newspaper explaining that the allegation was false. On the day of the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran Zarif was a graduate student in the Department of International Relations of San Francisco State University. He was my student Simpson told the editors and he served also as my teaching assistant.

Even more worrisome, Amir Taheri was amongst a group of experts on Iran and the Middle East invited to the White House for a meeting with Tony Blair and George W. Bush in May 2006.

If we link the first part of the present article to the second, we may discern an ideological nexus. There is a particular interest linked to the representation of Iran as an irrational, anti-Semitic polity. At the least it legitimates the demonisation of the Iranian state, at most it mobilises public opinion in support of military action.

The ball is in our court. Unraveling the myths and distortions of politicians and the transnational media is not a futile endeavour. Our power to dissent from the mainstream is real. Our instruments, scholarly research and critical analysis, are strong. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either chronically disillusioned, or the agent of a particular ideology opposed to international dialogue and cross-cultural empathy.

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