Thursday, March 19, 2015

Iran as it Shows Itself and as Western Politicians Describe It

Separation  is a 2011 Iranian film written and directed by Asghar Farhadi,  who was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the world by Time magazine in 2012.  It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and became the first Iranian film to win the award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012, with Fahadi invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In addition to several other international awards, Separation won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.

It's too bad few Americans, and especially, our elected officials, watch foreign films. Although not many theaters show foreign films, most are available on Netflix, which by the fourth quarter of 2013, had 33.1 million U.S. subscribers. Watching Separation, Americans would become conscious of the gap between the official presentation of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the daily lives of its citizens, those the government of the US claims to be concerned about when it is not worrying about Iran’s ‘threat to the stability of the Middle East’.

What easily stands out as uniquely disturbing in this film is the chador that covers the heads of every female in sight, including kindergarteners. The drama hinges on the reluctance on the part of a lower-class married woman to be discovered cleaning the genitals of an old man afflicted with Alzheimer’s who wets himself. Before undertaking the chore for which she was hired, the woman feels compelled to call a religious hot-line to ask if the act will be considered sinful. Above all, her husband must not know.

In counterpoint to the religious drama is the quintessentially modern dilemma of populations living longer, and hence with incurable illnesses, is what sparks the film’s conflict: a thirtyish professional couple is split over the wife’s determination to leave the country, while the husband refuses to abandon his sick father to the care of an institution.

Much of the drama resulting from religious strictures is played out in hearings in front of a shirt-sleeved judge in a room crowded with other judges and their supplicants. Here, no religious overlay, simply, the law and its implications: will the bank clerk go to jail for refusing to post bail when accused of causing the death of his employee’s unborn child?

The scenes in hospitals and courts are reminiscent of 1950s Italy, as is the level of hysteria on the part of the two husbands, one a cobbler acutely aware of his social status, the other an educated prick whose sense of filial duty is not matched by strict adherence to the truth.

The apartment of the professional couple sports every modern convenience, including a large, colored refrigerator, and the streets are clogged with cars and motorcycles, however conspicuously missing are women in Western dress defying the basij, or moral police, whose job is to fine them if they dare to abandon the chador. It would appear that the film’s funders chose to present a flawless image of compliance.

Separation tells a humdrum story, however its ending is highly original.  The separated parents of an eleven year old girl are left waiting for her answer to the judge’s question as to who she chooses to live with.  It’s the same civilian judge who handled to accusation of murder against the unborn child, by the way, suggesting that the Iranian judicial system is a lot less structured when it comes to secular law than what religious rule appears to be, but it’s the fact that an eleven-year old is given a choice, as she would in the West, that is most interesting. I don’t know what reception a film that contrasts the lives of educated urban couples with the absurd realities imposed by a religious regime received in Iran, but the fact that it was entered into international competitions is telling.

Obviously, the film does not offer any insight into the ‘true nature’ of that religious regime from an international perspective, such as whether the Ayatollahs want to build a nuclear military capability, but it does suggest that Iranians face the same problems as the rest of the developed world, which they confront in similar psychological fashion, notwithstanding thirty-five years of religious dictatorship.

In this week's ‘Crosstalk’ on the infamous yet ridiculous letter from forty-seven Republican senators to Iran’s supreme ruler, RT’s Peter Lavelle accuses the US of referring to Iranians, as ‘those people’, seeing it as a sign of racism. I continue to wonder why not even progressive intellectuals emphasize that US policy is not a question of racism, but of the opposing political orientations of Shiites and Sunnis. Even Lavelle’s guest Hillary Mann Leverett, who teaches at the American University’s School of International Service and is an expert on Iran, failed to do this. I have long been convinced  that U.S. Middle East policy makes perfect sense if the right/left matrix is applied: we support unconditionally all rulers everywhere who are pro-capitalist, and we oppose all those who, whether in civilian, military or religious garb, are trying to build social-democratic systems. Period.

Seen uniquely through the (convenient) lens of the aggressive takeover of the US embassy in Teheran that followed the 1979 Iranian Revolution, as opposed to the ideology that infused that revolution, the US has consis-tently emphasized the ‘lawlessness’ of the regime run by clerics, instead of  the secular ideas that contributed to its victory.  No one ever quotes Jean-Paul Sartre, who frequented the Iranian socialist theoretician Ali Shariati during the latter’s exile in Paris, as saying that if he were not an atheist he would be a Muslim, based on the aspirations of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Revolution. That the country is ruled by religious - and often retrograde - laws does not change the fact that the revolution had a political ideology, that of improving the lot of ordinary people, as illustrated by the popularity of two-term president Ahmedinejad. 

When American politicians carry on about Iran backing ‘terrorists’ such as Hezbollah, and evil dictators such as Bashar Al-Assad, they are either ignorant or deliberately taking advantage of the public’s ignorance. Hezbollah is a Shi’te militia that is believed to command the allegiance of about a third of Lebanese voters. (According to Wikipedia, in 2010, a survey of Lebanese Muslims showed that 94% of Lebanese Shia supported Hezbollah, while 84% of the Sunni Muslims held an unfavorable opinion of the group. Surely, this cleavage is not about the conflicting beliefs of two sects of the same religion, but about ideology.) 

In Syria, Assad’s party is the Arab Socialist Baath Party. There are no mullahs in this constitutionally defined secular state (with, by the way, a French school system, inherited from the days of the French Mandate). Until the West backed protesters in 2011, this country, which has the same volatile mix of Sunnis, Shi’as, Christians, Druze and Kurds as Iraq and Lebanon, took pride in the peaceful co-existence of its diverse populations. However, in today's world, it does take a strong ruler to achieve that, as shown by the similar situation that obtained in Iraq before the US invasion toppled Saddam Hussein. (Not to mention Yugoslavia under the twenty-seven year rule of Tito. The country collapsed after his death into half a dozen warring entities. Although he invented his own version of socialism and together with Nasser, was a founder of the Non-Aligned Movement, Tito was viewed benevolently by the West because he was the only member of the Comintern to break with Moscow.)

Americans’ dire lack of knowledge about other countries, other systems of government and other religions has culminated recently not only in the sophomoric Republican letter to Ayatollah Khamenei, but in a plethora of statements by what passes for political leadership in the West, accusing Shi’a Iran of backing the Sunni extremists ISIS and Al Qaeda! Fred Fleitz, a Senior Fellow with the Center for Security Policy , a right-wing ‘think tank’, did just that on this week’s Crosstalk . (It’s possible that the politicians making these ridiculous statements really do know the difference between Sunnis and Shia, but deliberately spread falsehoods, counting on the public’s ignorance and the fact that it’s easier to believe in the aggressive-ness of a dictatorship, than a ‘democracy’, even if most ‘democracies’ today, are under the dictatorship of corporations.

I went to the CSP’s website and found that its president and founder is Frank Gaffney, a former Assistant Secretary in Reagan’s Department of Defense who remained active in extreme right organizations. In an hour-long interview, the center’s Vice President for Research, Claire Lopez, a former undercover CIA agent and author of the book What Makes Teheran Tick provides the background for the now ubiquitous Republican claim that Iran backs Sunni extremists such as Al Qaeda. Although Persia converted to Shiism in 1501, according to Ms Lopez, it has a history of Sunni extremism, and has always been virulently anti-Semitic. The fact that Iran and Al Qaeda both oppose the anti-Palestinian policies of the state of Israel makes them allies. And since Israel equals ‘the West’, Iran is bent on destroying the US. (Ms Lopez admits that we are fighting side by side with Iran in Iraq, but cautions that cooperation should go no further.)

Interestingly, the first of four fifteen minute interviews with Ms Lopez focuses on the presence of a woman with close family ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, Huma Abedin, first in the Clinton administration and subsequently, as assistant to Hillary Clinton. (Although the Clintons dismiss this as conspiracy theory, according to, Huma’s mother is head of the women’s section of the MB…)I had noted this extraordinary fact in the above linked article, and am glad that it is finally getting the attention it deserves, even if by the right instead of the left of the American political spectrum. But maybe that’s because, as our entire foreign policy shows, there is presently no real left in America.

P.S. I've been mentioned in a blog by George Eliason, OEN's correspondent in Donbass, about journalists considered as 'bad' by the government of Ukraine.

PP.S.  Needless to say, all the sources mentioned by Eliason are recommended by this writer.

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