Iranian scholar Ali Quli Qarai says the US has it all wrong in its perception of Iran’s President Ahmadinejad. The advice that seems to come from his very fascinating commentary (eve if you find his words repugnant) is that we shouldn’t always trust the interpretations of his words and that we need to be aware of liniguistic and cultural differences when parsing the speech of newsmakers from different countries. And he adds that there is a difference between the statements “there are no gays in Iran” and “there are no gays in Iran like the ones you have in the Western world.” It makes most interesting food for thought. Do read the whole thing; the author does make some compelling points about the nuances of language, the importance of knowing what someone really is saying, and the importance of civility, even between enemies.
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.