Friday, April 17, 2015

Death to ...

All over Iran, there can be seen billboards and graffiti saying, “Death to America,” and “Death to Israel.” It is understandable.  Every Iranian school kid knows about 1953.

I get angry when Israel, or any other country, interferes with our American political process.  It upsets me when a presidential candidate responds to a question concerning our foreign policy by saying, “Well, first, I would call my friend Bibi and ask him what he wants us to do.”  I cringe when Congress treats the Prime Minister of Israel with more respect than they treat our own president.

I get especially angry when Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu urges our Congress to invade Iran because “Iran supports terrorism.”  Of course, the terrorist organizations he has in mind are Hezbollah and Hamas.  However, most people in the world know that Hezbollah came into being to protect its people from Israel’s aggression and fight against Israel’s war to occupy the southern part of Lebanon on order to access the Litani River. Likewise, Hamas came into being to defend the people of Palestine, especially those in Gaza, from Israel’s brutal occupation and imperialism.

Because I know a bit of this history, I am prone to say, “Damn Israel.”  But in my most vicious moments, I do not wish for Israel to be literally damned, for all its citizens to die and burn in hell forever.  It is just an expression of my anger and frustration. But I would never support an invasion of Israel to bring it about.  

Every student in Iran knows that in 1953, the United States, primarily through the CIA, overthrew Mohammad Mossadegh, their democratically elected Prime Minister. He had upped the price of oil to the west in order to offer education and medical care for his own people.  So, we, the United States, had him removed from office.  We chose Reza Pahlavi as the Shah, to rule as a king. As such, he lived in extreme opulence while keeping the people powerless, poor and under control by fear, murder and torture.  When salafist students demonstrated against the Shah’s policies, his SAVAK troops killed them by the hundreds, all the time being supported by the U.S.  Suddenly, the students began shouting, “Death to America,” and took over our embassy.  Most Americans could not understand.

But, remember, those students did not kill a single one of the 52 hostages and eventually let them come home. So, what does “Death to America” mean to the Iranian? 

Riding through Tehran in a taxi, Rick Steves heard the driver suddenly yell, ”Death to traffic.”  Steves wondered what that was all about.  The people of Iran would also say, “Death to summer heat.”  But they did not set out on an invasion plan to kill the traffic or the heat.  “Death to… “ is an expression of anger and frustration, of exasperation and disgust.  But, it’s just an expression. That’s all.    In our culture we would say, “Damn this traffic,” or “damn teen aged drivers.” Or even “damn it is hot.”  But we would never lay out a plan to kill teen aged drivers and have them suffer in hell because of their driving manners.  “Damn” is an expression of frustration with annoying things beyond our control.

Our cultures are different. Iran is a religious culture. From dress codes to gender segregation, public life is regulated and enforced by religious law. Their billboards advertise religious slogans. Murals on the sides of their building praise their leaders and martyrs.  On the other hand, we, in the west, live in a consumer culture. Every blank space is filled with commercial ads. “Buy this or you will never be happy.”  Iranians sacrifice their freedom to religion.  We have our freedom squelched by Wall Street and multinational corporations.  Their younger generation would probably choose to loosen the regulations a bit. But, would they swap their culture for ours? I wonder.[1]

All of this is to say, I hope our political leaders do not lead us into a war with Iran because we do not understand the semantics of their culture.  We did that in 2003. We allowed ourselves to be coaxed into a war with Iraq and we are still suffering the consequences.  And what did we get for it?  More people than ever who hate us, including ISIS.

Benjamin Netanyahu says that Iran is the most dangerous nation earth.  He doesn’t say why, only that we should be afraid. Wiser minds say that the flip side of fear is understanding.[2]   With the stakes so high, surely, it is worth a try.

Thomas Are
April 17, 2015      

[1] I confess that I am not an authority on Iran. I have never been there. I am not an ambassador nor have I served on any foreign relations committee. However, I have read enough books and listened to enough lectures to know that Iran is misunderstood and demonized by most Americans and we do so at our own peril. 
[2] I have been helped in my understanding of Iran by Rick Steves’ IRAN, a 1-hour Public Television Special, especially his lecture on personal impressions, (2009, Back Door Productions.  Also by several books, including: Flint and Hillary Mann Leverett, Going to Tahran,  Peter Beinard,  The Good Fight,  and Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God. 

1 comment:

  1. An intelligent observation - that will not be understood by the average American, alas.