For a little while last month, as Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prepared to address the American people in a series of media opportunities and a high-profile speech at Columbia University during his visit to New York to address the General Assembly of the UN, it appeared that we were back in the days when former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami was championing “dialogue between civilizations”, to the delight of Western liberals who hoped that the “reformists” might bring Iran back into the West’s sphere of influence – their definition of civilization.
This was, of course, a fear that was never likely to be realised, even before Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia, decided that the best way to deflect right-wing attacks on his institution for inviting Ahmadinejad was to subject his guest to an astonishingly insulting introduction that shocked even members of his own staff and other academic opinion in the US. The simple fact is that times have changed in several significant ways; the western strategy of trying to subvert Iran from within, by appealing to “moderate” Iranian opinion that might be willing to re-establish relations with the US in the hope that they could maintain independence while avoiding confrontation, had been shelved long before Khatami’s presidency ended in 2005, and the Iranian people shocked the West by electing a “hard-liner”, Ahmadinejad, in his place. Even before the attacks in the US on 9/11, the victory of the neo-cons in the presidential elections of November 2000 had signalled a shift to a new, more overtly aggressive phase of US attitudes towards Iran. Since Ahmadinejad’s election in August 2005, he and Iran have been subjected to an intensifying campaign of demonization that now makes virtually any reasonable discussion of Iran impossible in Western institutions and media, particularly in the US; it also set the tone for the media and popular reaction to Ahmadinejad in New York last month. Anyone who suggested that it might be worth thinking about what Ahmadinejad had to say was bound to be howled down by hysterical accusations of appeasing or supporting an evil, genocidal madman.
Ahmadinejad appeared somewhat taken aback by Bollinger’s attack; perhaps he expected a modicum of basic courtesy at a respected academic institution, even though he was prepared for the hostility of the media and the angry protests that greeted him wherever he went. Nonetheless, in his media appearances, his speech at Columbia, and his address to the UN General Assembly, he gave excellent expositions of general Muslim and Islamic movement perspectives on contemporary issues for those who were willing to try to see past the demonization, the problems of understanding arguments couched in terms of a worldview completely different to one’s own, and – unfortunately – the inability of Iranian officials to provide adequate English translations of Farsi originals. Like most Muslims who deal with Westerners, Ahmadinejad found that few people are capable of this.
The real problem – to be fair to Iranian translators – is in the willingness of people to understand a completely different worldview, with potentially awkward political implications. Yes, one can find common ground with many non-Muslims on issues of human rights (provided they are not defined to strictly), the need for peace, the desirability of communication and mutual understanding, and even general criticisms of international institutions and the foreign policies of Western states. But there are major and fundamental areas in areas in which no dialogue is permitted, for example, at a general level, the West’s right to define modernity for the rest of the world, and, at a more immediate political level, the right of Western powers to define and dominate the international order, or of zionist Jews to seize and settle Palestinians’ land (ie “Israel’s right to exist”). Question these, and you immediately become extremist with whom dialogue is impossible.
The unfortunate reality is that such dialogue as is possible depends almost entirely on either avoiding or conceding all issues of substance. The failure to recognise this plays into the hands of those who seek to exploit dialogue for political ends. Realizing and acknowledging this is not to make conflict inevitable, as some suggest; but merely to accept that there are certain areas on which we can only agree to disagree.