Saturday, September 22, 2007

The dysfunctional relationship between the U.S. and Iran

In a piece sadly typical of the mainstream U.S. news media, Adam Goldman's idea of critical news journalism is to join the chorus attacking Iranian President Ahmadinejad. I certainly have no problem with any journalist critiquing the powerful, including of course President Ahmadinejad. The job of any decent journalist should be to understand power, to expose lies and to report the truth. Naturally a critical stance is absolutely fundamental to this. Like any powerful leader, there is plenty to write about President Ahmadinejad and his supporters. Yet Mr Goldman uses his critical stance only to critique the enemies of successive U.S. government administrations, including President Ahmadinejad. The U.S. entirely escapes his critical glare. His use of quote marks to describe American aggression are particularly revealing.

Missing is any acknowledgment of the deeply dysfunctional relationship between the U.S. and Iran, going back decades now. Few Americans are aware that in the 1950s Iran had a democratic government and a popular Prime Minister in Mohammed Mossadegh. This government was destroyed by the combined talents of the British and U.S. intelligence services, who in 1953 sponsored a coup and replaced it with a dictatorship far more accommodating to Western oil companies. The dictatorship led to the Iranian revolution in 1979.

During this entire period the relationship between the two countries could only be described as dysfunctional. Even the years of the dictatorship in 1953-1979, when government-to-government relations were good, the type of relationship between the two countries can hardly be described as healthy. U.S. support for the dictatorship was in no way meant to be something designed for the betterment of Iranians and their country. Instead, it existed to further the power and wealth of Western companies. Any benefits to Iranians were tangential to this objective.

The 1979 Iranian revolution of course dramatically changed the nature of the government-to-government relationship, and from my perspective the two governments did much to ensure the relationship between the two countries would remain poor. There were significant exceptions of course, such as the efforts toward dialog during the administration of former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. Yet on the whole, progress has been disappointing, which is the responsibility of both countries.

It is ironic that Mr Goldman's article finishes with a recognition of the right to free speech, given how much his own article resembles those found in countries with strict media censorship. It's all pretty much the same fare - "we are the good guys, with superior values and deeds, and they are the bad evil doers". It's an approach to journalism that any dictator would be satisfied with.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Amman, an ancient city still growing up

People have been living in what is today Amman, Jordan for many thousands of years, with archaeological evidence pointing to the existence of Neolithic civilisation in 6500 BC. In one respect, Amman is a very old city indeed. In other respects, it is a rapidly growing pugnacious youngster. It lacks the Grand Bazaar found in other Middle Eastern metropolises. It lacks the parks and historic monuments. Despite the fancy five-star hotels and advertisements for global cell phone companies, it still retains a somewhat village feel.

For instance, yesterday I visited the Post Office to mail a package overseas. The man in the Post Office was kind and helpful, informing me that it closed at 3:30 p.m. I returned at 3:20 p.m., thinking I had plenty of time to spare. Alas! While the door to Post Office was indeed open till 3:30 p.m., there were no services available from 3 p.m., because as he explained he had to count the day's takings. Curiously, the Post Office contained no postal supplies like envelopes and boxes. He informed me that I needed to buy them somewhere else. The next day I found a stationery shop which did sell such supplies. However the shop had only one padded envelope, and it was very large. I was unsure whether the Post Office would accept it. So the shopkeeper told me to go to the post office and check, and if it was okay, I could then return and pay him for the envelope. Given that we had never seen each other before, I thought that was really very kind and trusting of him.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Pervez Hoodbhoy, modern Muslim hero?

I met Pervez Hoodbhoy in 2001 at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. We spent some hours together. We exchanged ideas on religion and science, and he shared a little of his relationship with the great Pakistani intellectual Eqbal Ahmad. From these all-to-brief discussions I formed an immense admiration for Dr. Hoodbhoy, which I still hold. For I knew at once I was in the presence of a man whose goal was to serve his people as best he knew how. He could have easily been working in a prestigious Western university, living a comfortable lifestyle. Instead he chose to work in an environment which is at times deeply hostile to his cherished ideas on science and humanity. For years now he has been publishing a range of articles carefully advancing his views on science, religion, progress, intellectual freedom, history, and more.

Consider this recent article on science and the Islamic world. These are the words of someone passionate about his subject, yet respectful of people who hold differing views. His appeal is to Muslims who think critically, regardless of their personal religious views. Whether his readers be atheist or devout Muslims, there is something in his writings to seriously reflect on and ponder, which in my mind is a sign of excellent writing. It is in this sense that I think of Dr. Hoodbhoy as a modern Muslim hero. Having placed himself at the service of his people, who are Muslim, he has engaged Islam. He has taken the time to study Islam and its history. Islam benefits from Dr. Hoodbhoy because he poses challenging, vital questions for its followers in a dignified and respectful manner.

I say these things mindful I have till now completely ignored Dr. Hoodbhoy's individual religious views, and in this sense it is certainly deeply presumptuous of me to suggest he is a "Muslim" hero. Yet when I look to his dedication to his cause, pursued not out of a desire for fame or fortune, I cannot help but be reminded of the spiritual yearning for truth and freedom from the bonds of ignorance that exist within every major religion, including Islam. In this spiritual sense he is more "Islamic" than many practicing believers are. If more religious people were to serve their people instead of their intolerant arrogance, their religion and their community would flourish!