Have you heard about this yet? A couple days ago at the UN Conference Against Racism, Iranian president Ahmadinejad railed against Israel (yet again). These remarks led to a number of European delegates to walk out of the room. So just exactly what did he say? According to the BBC, this was the gist of his “hate speech”.
Mr Ahmadinejad, the only major leader to attend the conference, said Jewish migrants from Europe and the United States had been sent to the Middle East after World War II “in order to establish a racist government in the occupied Palestine”.
He continued, through an interpreter: “And in fact, in compensation for the dire consequences of racism in Europe, they helped bring to power the most cruel and repressive racist regime in Palestine.”
In fact, never mind his speech, his very presence in the conference alone was deemed so inflammatory that a number of countries (US, Canada, Australia, Netherlands, Poland, etc) boycotted the event altogether. A few observations here.
First off, the guy is hardly popular in Iran. His mis-handlings of the economy has led to huge year-on-year inflationary pressures, his off-kilter rants at international forums have confused and alienated friends and enemies alike. Those bad performances, along with his inability to absorb ideas from the intelligentsia class and younger generations have made him the butt of jokes on Tehran streets. But the complex political and theological structures still point to him as the candidate to beat in the coming June election. But for the average Iranian, this may very well be a case of he-might-be-prez-but-I had-nothing-to-do-with-it. In fact, Iranians are often described as one of the most sophisticated populations in the Muslim world. It is a place where one is expected to encounter less anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism than, say, in Egypt.
Secondly, quick flashback to set the acrimonious scene. Back in September of 2007, Ahmadinejad landed at Columbia University for a public speech via a UN summit. Odd choice, since New York is probably as Jewish as you would find it north of Florida. And any potential Muslim supporters would more likely belong to the Sunni sect than the Persian Shi’ism. Through CNN at work, we watched in horror and amusement as Columbia University president Lee Bollinger introduced his guest speaker. The congeniality and the constructive environment was ruined as soon as the words “cruel and petty dictator” were uttered.
Next, political grand-standing and bullying happens just as much on the international stage as it does on children’s playground. What went through the minds of Arab heads of states at those summits when Bush spoke of his preferred method of spreading democracy during his presidency? Yet they gritted their teeth and stayed put. It’s all about the big picture and saving face. After all, diplomats are paid to do just that, being diplomatic. That said, given Ahmadinejad’s lack of credibility and Iran’s general vilification in the last few decades, the synchronized march-off performed by those European delegates was the perfectly diplomatic thing to do. Power dynamics and prevailing international opinions mandate it so.
Lastly, the above-mentioned gesture has little to do with reality on the ground in Europe. Thus my first reaction upon reading his speech: that’s it, that’s all he said? Granted, he has said a lot worse, mostly to inflame and rally support, and to ensure internal cohesion. But this time around, the criticism was rather mild, no?
Europe is torn on several fronts. One the one hand, its frustrating inability to deal with its own Muslim populations and the measures taken to curb its home-grown unstable elements have spurned allegations of racism and human rights infringement from the outside. On the other hand, its unrelenting commitment to the over-arching ideals of human rights, equality, its lingering anxiety and subsequent rejection of guilt (particularly from Germany) of the Holocaust-era have made it first confused, now indignant at the happenings of Israel, Palestine and those disputed territories.
Media reporting, at least the TV variety, is less ideological and more balanced than its US counterpart. European political leadership is also vague and sometimes critical of Israeli’s use of force, in stark contrast to the can-do-no-wrong pedestal that Israel is placed on in America. When in doubt, European students pop over to Israel and Palestine to see for themselves, as government-subsidized school trips in the region are not uncommon. They return with more conviction and condemnation for the lopsided David versus Goliath struggles taking place.
Bottom line, Ahmadinejad cemented his reputation as an unstable actor on the international stage (yet again )by this round of so-called outburst. But behind the curtains, the very European leaders that stormed out of the conference room represent populations that have little goodwill for their supposed ally. In this case, the battle for political support has ranged on for the past half century. Conflicts and fighting are so institutionalized, as to have become permanent fixtures in our collective consciousness. Is it really possible to assume anyone can remain innocent through all these?
picture source: ~jfliesenborghs
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- James Meek: The double-hype of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (guardian.co.uk)
- U.S. engagement with Iran ‘entirely smart’: Blair (cbc.ca)
- Hooman Majd: Dear Mahmoud (huffingtonpost.com)
- Will Obama Push a Grand Bargain with Iran? (mideast.blogs.time.com)