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Lost In Translation: Ahmadinejad And The Media

By Ali Quli Qarai

09/28/07 "
ICH" -- - First I want to make some remarks about that now world-famous statement of President Ahmadinejad at Columbia: “We do not have homosexuals in Iran of the kind you have in your country.” The American media conveniently ignored the second, and crucial, part of his sentence as something redundant.

Obviously he was not saying, We don’t have any homosexuals whatsoever in Iran—something nobody in the world would believe, not even in Iran. And by implication, he was not telling his audience, I am a plain liar! —something which his audience at Columbia and the American media construed him to be saying.

What he was saying is that homosexuality in the US and homosexuality in Iran are issues which are as far apart from one another as two cultural universes possibly can be. They are so dissimilar that any attempt to relate them and bring them under a common caption would be misleading. “Homosexuality is not an issue in Iran as it is in present-day American society.” This was, apparently what was saying in polite terms.

Homosexuality in the US is a omnipresent social and political issue which crops up in almost every discourse and debate pertaining to American society and politics. So much so that I think it was a major issue, if not the deciding factor, in the last two presidential elections which paved Bush’s way to the White House and saddled the Democrats with defeat, because a large so-called conservative section of the American public (the red states) felt wary of the pro-gay liberalism of the Democratic Party.

By contrast, homosexuality is a non-issue in Iran and is considered an uncommon perversion (except as an occasional topic of jokes about a certain town). Prom the viewpoint of penal law, too, it is does not receive much attention as the requirements for a sentence (four eye-witnesses, who have actually seen the details of the act) are so astringent as to make punishment almost impossible. (It would be interesting to know how many have been accused of it during the last two decades)

By contrast adultery and homosexuality are legalized forms of behaviour in most of Europe and America, and regarded not as criminal acts but as perfectly acceptable forms of sexual behaviour and as legitimate natural human rights which need to be taught even to all Asian and African societies as well.

There was also a subtle hint in his remark that he wanted to move on from this topic to more serious and relevant matters, a point which would be obvious to anyone conversant with Persian language and culture (like his another hint concerning the disgraceful conduct of Columbia president, when, while formally inviting Columbia academics to Iran, he added that “You can rest assured that we will treat you in Iran with hundred percent respect.”

Iranians, being linguistically a very sophisticated people, speak a lot in hints which are invisible to outsiders. Americans in comparison tend to be straightforward and often as primitive.

(In general the Persians, like other civilized societies, have developed the art of making and responding to harsh remarks in soft and friendly words. Americans, as Prof. Bollinger proved, have still much to learn from civilized nations concerning the civilities of civilized hostility.)

Mr Bollinger’s hostility towards President Ahmadinejad had obviously been fed by devious translations and interpretations of his earlier—also world-famous—remarks about Israel and the Holocaust. As if, as one commentator has remarked, the professor had been watching only CNN and Fox News.

Unfortunately for more than an year these remarks have given a ready-made excuse to his critics to demonize him and attack Iran’s foreign policies. Although he has made some attempts (unjustifiably belated, I think, and not quite adequate) to clarify himself, we who hear these remarks have also an intellectual duty to ourselves and others to see exactly what he exactly meant.

It is a basic linguistic principle of civilized discourse that so long as there is an acceptable and upright interpretation for someone’s remark, it should not be given a devious meaning. Moreover, as one of my teachers often says, it is easy to reject and denounce the statements of others, but the worthy task of every intelligent seeker is to try to understand people who hold different opinions. This is particular necessary when such statements originate in a different linguistic and cultural domain.

When Ahmadinejad repeated Ayatullah Khomeini’s words that “Israel baayad az bayn beravad,” (which literally means that Israel should cease to exist), what is critically important for understanding is to see how Iranian people understand these words of their president. I don’t think any mature Iranian with some awareness of regional politics has ever thought that the late Leader of Iran, or the present president of the country, were advocating some kind of military objectives against Israel. By citing the example of the Soviet Union and the Apartheid regime in South Africa Ahmadinejad, too, has clarified what he meant by ‘Israel ceasing to exist.’ By the rules of civilized discourse, every speaker’s clarification concerning what he means is authoritative as he is entitled, before all others, to state and clarify what he means by his statements. In this case, Ahmadinejad has also clarified as to how he thinks that my happen: a general referendum in undivided Palestine with the participation of its Arab, Jewish and Christian population.

As for his statement that the Holocaust in a myth, we all know that the word “myth” has several meanings in the dictionary. One of its meanings is “A fiction or half-truth, especially one that forms part of an ideology” (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language). Thus a myth is not something necessarily untrue and Ahmadinejad has not denied outright that the Holocaust did occur, although he seems to have—what he considers to be legitimate—doubts about its exact extent, doubts which are prone to be strengthened, rightly or otherwise, by attempts to persecute or prosecute scholars whose research leads them to conclusions different from main-current historiography. What he basically appears to question is that the Holocaust should be made an ideological tool for the pursuit of unfair and inhuman objectives—something which most of us acknowledge has happened in the case of Palestine. Why should the people of Palestine be made to pay the price for the guilt and failings of Europe? He asks. I think that is a legitimate question.

The savants of the media are free to interpret Ahmadinejad’s statement with the purpose of demonizing him and excoriating Iran, but there are better and alternate paths for those who strive for understanding and peace between nations, and to an objective like this should institutions like universities, including Columbia, contribute.

I hope that Mr Bollinger will advance a courageous apology to Mr Ahmadinejad and take advantage of his standing invitation for continuing the exchange of ideas with academic circles in Iran. Iranians generally are a large hearted people, like most Americans, and I hope the bitterness which has arisen from the unfortunate event of the past week will soon be forgotten with the sincere efforts of well-meaning intellectuals and officials on both sides. I cannot think of any other way in which good will between these nations as well as the good repute of an outstanding institution of higher learning such as Columbia can be salvaged.

Ali Quli Qarai is an Iranian scholar. He has published several books, including a translation of the Quran. He can be reached at
altawhid@gmail.com

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