|Home | Contact us | Links | Archives|
We are asking the wrong questions of Iran
By Rageh Omaar
19 February 2007
So unusual is it for a western documentary crew to be given permission to film in Tehran for any length of time that I rang my colleagues in London to tell them we had got through the airport without trouble. The production executive, who as you'd expect was well-informed and open-minded, asked what we were going to do first. I replied that we were going straight with all our luggage and equipment to a flat not far from Ayatollah Khomeini's house in the north of the city, to interview an Iranian businesswoman. There was a moment's pause on the crackly line. "Businesswoman? You mean there are businesswomen in Iran who employ men? That's not what I imagined at all, and not what many westerners would think of when you mention Iran."
In 2003, the US and British governments invaded Iraq, a country whose people and society Britons and Americans knew very little about. What we did know related to Saddam Hussein, his appalling regime, and bogus or misunderstood intelligence about its military capabilities. Rarely have we invaded and occupied a country about which we were so ignorant. We are probably on the verge of rerunning the nightmare, this time in Iran.
Whereas last time most news organisations gave a collective shrug about the inevitability of war, the western media now have an inescapable duty to show greater rigour and independence in scrutinising the way London and Washington present, or misrepresent, Iranian society. We've heard a lot about President Ahmadinejad and his comments about Israel and the Holocaust; we've heard a lot about Iran's alleged role in fomenting violence in Iraq. We have seen many images of Iran's mullahs leading anti-western demos. But what about the millions of ordinary Iranians?
Some facts: two-thirds of this population of 70 million are under 30 years old. Iran is one of the youngest countries on earth. It is also one of the oldest civilisations on earth. The Islamic revolution led by Khomeini is only 28 years old. This means that the overwhelming majority of Iranians have no recollection of what life was like under the shah. They cannot remember the rejection of that period by their parents' generation, and they have grown up knowing only the edicts of the Islamic Republic.
Like young people anywhere, they are restless, ambitious, unpredictable and often courageous in the face of authority. The ideas and grievances on which the revolution was built mean little to them. In the face of this, Iran's theocracy, more than any other regime in the Middle East - more even than pro-western states such as Jordan and Egypt - has been held up to scrutiny and challenge and has undergone incremental but profound change.
Some of the changes may have been unintentional, but they are irreversible. Most of Iran's university entrants are women and the country has a literacy rate comparable with Britain's. In the 1980s, the Islamic authorities wanted to bring the kind of university education enjoyed by urban elites to provincial communities. The effect was that the more conservative and traditional families suddenly felt more at ease with sending their daughters to all-female colleges. The effect has been dramatic, raising the visibility of women in the workplace.
Most foreign news coverage of Iran has focused on political and military developments. But delve deeper into society, and it is not hard to find myriad vivid snapshots of life. These give the lie to the stereotype of the dark, forbidding and hostile society. Consider: more plastic surgery operations are carried out in Tehran than in Los Angeles, and drug addiction is openly recognised (a taboo in other Middle Eastern Muslim countries). There are two million heroin addicts in Iran and a large number of independent drug rehab charities helping them. There is a similar story with HIV. Iran has one of the largest non-governmental networks of charities and aid agencies in the Middle East, working beyond state control on anything from child labour to girls' education.
What has to be remembered is that much of this change, and the position of people forcing it through, would be severely damaged by a military attack. The night before the 2003 invasion of Iraq started, an American colleague was pulled aside by an Iraqi who wanted the US and UK to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime. Even though the war to overthrow Saddam was only hours away, the man was still frightened to speak openly, so he communicated in code. He pointed excitedly at his watch and asked my American colleague, "What time America?"
What the man meant was: when was America going to begin its attack, and couldn't it hurry up. There are many British and American government officials who believe that a number of Iranians are asking similar questions, and that, like that man in Baghdad, they are looking to Britain and America to save them by attacking their country.
Of all the misconceptions about Iran, this is the most dangerous and misguided. It is we in the west who are asking the wrong question. If we want to know when we will see the Iranian people build real and lasting change in their country, and enjoy a society that truly reflects the hopes, diversity, energy and skills of its people, we should be asking: "What time Iran?"
Source: New Statesman