New York Times on Norouz

I used to read The New York Times cover to cover in the 1980s and I just read a New York Times report on Norouz to which a friend had earlier pointed me.

The article makes some fanciful claims. For example, it claims that the Ayatollahs don't want people to celebrate Nowrouz. Well, Monday morning (during the hour of the equinox), I watched a broadcast (from Iran) of historical footage from one of Khomeini's earliest Persian New Year messages, in which he underlines the importance of the celebration. (He must have given the speech in the first few years after the removal of the Shah.)

I remember that there was quite a bit of confusion after the revolution, and that during the war with Iraq, where about a million Iranians died and tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) were gassed, there was a feeling among many Iranians that any celebratory act was but an insensitive farce in the face of macabre death and the losses of neighbors and friends in a war of sanctions and steel that was being rained on Iran. (Note that Iran had completely disbanded its military after the revolution. In other words, it had practically no military defenses when Iraq attacked it. The civilians were fighting the war against Iraq with bare hands in the first few months of the war.)

The NYT article also makes a big deal regarding the coincidence of Nowruz (today) with Arbayeen - Arbayeen is the 40th day of morning for Imam Hussein (the 3rd shi'ite Imam, "leader," buried in Karbala, Iraq)...So, it is supposed to be a day of morning. Again, I was unable to catch all the TV programs from Iran Monday morning, but it was easy to see that the religious figures had mused about the coincidence of these events with no difficulty, reminding people that both events speak of rebirth...So, there's no special, improtant problem, here, in the coincidence, as the NYT article struggles to claim.

In general, the NYT reporters (as any other reporters for that matter) often speak to a very small slice of the population who already share many of the reporters' feelings and biases...This is a natural tendency...If the reporters are good, they often make a genuine effort to broaden their base of reporting. With genuine reporting, the facts that will come out are so much at odds with what we read about Iran here that few editors will dare to publish them against the grain of accepted story...So, it is a chicken-and-egg problem, besides the fact that a large part of every-day journalism, specially in the U.S., has turned into negative reporting on others (whether the others are French, Latin, Uzbek, Chinese, Hindu or Persian). This type of counter-reporting makes us feel better about our own lot in the world. In propagating this sort of attitude, instead of one of humble discovery, I find the editors to be most guilty.

In short, while the NYT article does bring some facts to view and write about them, it also twists them to make sure the reader does not come to feel any real sympathy with Iran.

The article says:

"There still exists a battlefield between those on the extremes of the debate, the ultrareligious who would like to erase elements of Iranian identity not explicitly Islamic, and others, including many in the expatriate community, who try to undermine the credibility of the Islamic government by appealing to Iranian nationalism through such traditions as Char Shanbeh Suri."

However, I'm willing to suggest that any keen observer would have a really hard time finding any such "ultrareligious" people of the type described either in power or in the theological schools in Iran. So, the claim is more of a fiction than a fact.

The article comes with a great deal of editorializing mixed with actual interviews. The editorializing goes to an extent quite unusual, as indicated by NYT's treatment of other topics.

The main reporters's contribution to the article have been recognized in an end note: "Nazila Fathi contributed reporting from Tehran for this article." -- meaning that the article was composed (from fact and fiction) in New York by the capable hands of Michael Slackman!

I conjecture that most probably Slackman has "polished" Fathi's work, preparing it for the audience here, by writing most of the "editorial" and "introductory" material interdispersed throughout the article, setting its tone. I find it quite sad that the actual presentation of report has helped create a very clear bias.

In his editorializing, Slackman makes it sound as if the carrying on with the Norouz ceremonies is some kind of silent (or open) act of protest or defiance against the government...While this may be true in the imagination of some, it is totally off the mark, and almost irrelevant because rarely can we find anyone in the government opposed to Norouz ceremonies, and indeed those in the government celebrate it with the same fervor as their compatriots...In fact, many government pensions and bonuses are connected with Norouz.

What makes the claim of "silent" or "open" protest quite silly is that Iran is no more religious today than it was in the 1950s, 1930s, 1910s or 1800s, and throughout these more religious times, all these ceremonies have gone on with the same amount of fervor as today if not more...

If anything, with access to power and resources, and in general, Iran's religious establishment has become greatly liberalized over the last 200 years, and particularly in the last 30 years. They've always been (in their most scholarly elements) quite open and liberal. (For example, see Richard Campbell's translation of works by Allameh Tabataba'i.)

Comments:

Where do you get your assertion that Iran had demilitarised after the Revolution? Can you cite some source? It runs contrary to everything I know of the post-Revolution period.

I'd agree the piece editorialises and has a certain bias but it does provide sources to back its claims. Whether you find that balanced or comprehensive is debatable.

I would agree with you about a general liberalisation of clerical consensus in Iran if it were not for the big counterexamples of the teachings of the founders of the Islamic Republic and the persecution that followed the revolution (particularly 1981-88). How you can compare that period with say the 10, 20, 30 years before it and say it was not reactionary and repressive I don't know. Certainly, going back further sees a much more narrowminded perspective but that wasn't restricted to clerical teachings but was a feature of the whole culture.

What has certainly changed in the last 20 years is the growing liberalisation of the culture as a whole. The trend towards social liberalism / secularism wasn't started with the Revolution (which was obviously partly an effort to curtail it) but it certainly was accelerated by its excesses.

The irony of an enforced religious orthodoxy leading to disillusionment in religion as a whole is not uniquely Iranian. What is sad that the radicals who perhaps genuine in wishing for a better Iran, drowned out (or killed) the moderate, progressive clerics who would have been a source of comfort in a changing world.

Posted by monkeyx on March 21, 2006 at 01:27 AM PST #

Thanks for your note. I really appreciate the commentary.

I'll respond in multiple postings. I hope you don't mind. This way I can distribute things without too much interruption to my work.

As far as your first question: "Where do you get your assertion that Iran had demilitarised after the Revolution? Can you cite some source? It runs contrary to everything I know of the post-Revolution period."

I did not use the word demilitarize. I noted that Iran "had completely disbanded its military after the revolution," based on my own knowledge of the revolution, having observed it very closely, and based on eyewitnesses who were in Iran in reports published in 1979 and 1980, in The New York Times and elsewhere although I do not have all the references to share.

By military, I mean the official officers corps, and various official military institutions.

During the revolution, barracks were emptied and arms were taken up by the civilians. I actually was a 16-year-old running around in Tehran streets and capturing all this on my super-8 cameras, which I had bought the year earlier in Germany. I had more than 60 minutes of film shot during the last few weeks of the revolution. Only 10 minutes of it have survived through various moves and attrition.

The official military institutions were unravelled because the revolutionaries did not trust the military due to its close ties with the U.S. In fact, at the beginning of the war, the military was either barred from fighting for a few weeks and not trusted, in other occasions, to run the battle against Iraq. War reports in MERIP from early 1980s should make this qutie clear and provide ample evidence.

Furthermore, top officers of the military were forced either into retirement, were discharged, and some executed for their crimes or in revolutionary ferver and chaos, in the first few months of the revolution.

After Iraq attacked, there was great confusion confusion about how to run a military institution. The "Revolutionary Guards" ran the show, and created parallel institutions that matured into a real military, and the formal military gained some credibility by defending the country and its ranks were refilled by those royal to the revolution, gradually. All this is also recorded in MERIP reports of the 1979-1983 period.

Posted by M. Mortazavi on March 21, 2006 at 02:23 AM PST #

> I'll respond in multiple postings. I hope you don't mind. This way I can distribute things without too much interruption to my work. Not at all. > I did not use the word demilitarize. I noted that Iran "had completely disbanded its military after the revolution," [...] > By military, I mean the official officers corps, and various official military institutions. Ah, that makes sense and is in line with my own knowledge of the situations. Its not uncommon in post-revolutionary periods to dismantle obvious power bases of the old order, especially the military. What inevitably follows is a lower competence in executing the post-revolution national defence and resorting to simplistic forms of defence such as that deployed by the Iranian revolutionaries who used human-wave assaults. They literally bled the young people of the country to keep the better run (although technologically inferior) Iraqi forces out of Iran whilst they learned army organisational techniques lost when clearing out the officer corps. At least thats my understanding of events. Its a true testament to the patriotism of Iranians that they stood up to this assault especially given the support Saddam received from the US / USSR / UK. Even more so given the later use of chemical weapons which must have been morally devastating.

Posted by monkeyx on March 21, 2006 at 05:36 AM PST #

Yes, that agrees pretty much with the events, and your historical generalization also proves applicable in other instances.

Posted by M. Mortazavi on March 21, 2006 at 07:24 AM PST #

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