Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Contradictions: Iran, the United States and world citizenship

Roya Hakakian's Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran includes one of the most poignant descriptions of the joy that attends a popular triumph overthrowing misrule that I've ever read.

On February 14, two days after the victory of the revolution, began the romance that lasted a year. Nineteen seventy-nine was a year of love, though not the kind of love I had ever known: not the love between a man and a woman, a sister and a brother, a child and a parent; not a love of art, work, or religion. It was the mother of all loves, so vast, so deep, that in it every other love could grow.

And then the dictates of the Iranian mullahs clamped down on that flowering of joy and delight -- and Hakakian and her Jewish Persian family ended up unwilling emigrants to the Great Satan, to the United States. For many years, she didn't talk about her early life, until coaxed to speak when hints of "moderation" periodically peeked out from the Iranian present. A radio talk (with Terry Gross on NPR, naturally) last summer alerted me to this fascinating memoir.

I think I risk being one of Hakakian's "misguided Americans." She explains she seldom spoke of her life because...

[b]right individuals abandoned inquiry and resorted to obsolete formulas: America had done Iran wrong. Therefore the clerics were leading the nation to sovereignty. These individuals had yet to realize that though Iran's rulers fervently opposed U.S. imperialism, they were neither just to or loved by their own people. This ... group had not accepted the notion that the enemy of their enemy was yet another enemy.

I don't want to be one of those, though perhaps I am. More than many in the United States, I was aware of the horrors of the Shah's pre-1979 regime: families like Hakakian's sent their sons to northern California for college -- and to get them out of the political cross hairs. I remember spending Thanksgiving evening in 1967 in Berkeley with three young (as they called themselves) Persian Jewish guys who were both literally and metaphorically intoxicated on this holiday in a strange land they found marvelously free. I was vaguely aware that the U.S. CIA had short-circuited Iranian progress toward democratic self-government in the 1950s and imposed the Shah.

As a proper liberal young insurgent of the 1960s, I had no doubt that U.S. meddling in Iran had been an evil thing.

And so, in 1979 and thereafter, I did give the mullahs some benefit of the doubt. But mostly, I gave them the pass that I think U.S. progressives pretty much have to give to most states in most of the world. It's an awful truth that United States intervention can't help. Indigenous governments may treat their own people terribly -- but the easiest way to cement their legitimacy is for the superpower of the day to challenge their behavior. Hard as it is for us to to see here, this empire's government -- with its invasions and occupations and renditions and torture chambers -- has no moral standing to critique the human rights violations of others.

Individual citizens of this country can take a harder line -- and agitate -- via international organizations. But our first responsibility is to rein in our own government. The very considerable freedoms we enjoy create an ethical imperative to use them. At this time, our responsibility is to get the U.S. out of Iraq and Afghanistan. We also need to continue to discourage our government from making aggressive moves against Iran.

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