I can’t quite settle on what shocked the West more: 9/11 or the popular democratic uprisings sweeping throughout the Middle East. 9/11 certainly came easier for some to explain. Testament to this are the endless column inches and books about the otherness of a world of Islamists at war with humanity; added with the current titillating literary imagination of powerless women victims held in bondage by their men and their faith.
That these very Muslims want democracy has to be the real shocker though. Well it certainly negates the truth of all the regular intelligence agency national dossiers, the think tank country profiles, the political proclamations and so on.
As I try to search for answers of such gross miscalculation. I can’t help but remember personal encounters with such experts. I had written a book about the phenomenon of the Iranian blogosphere that a Times columnist had quoted from telling his readers that “Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi, the head of the Iranian judiciary, recently described the Internet as a ‘Trojan Horse carrying enemy soldiers in its belly.’”
Within days I received a gentle enquiring email from an Iran-based foreign correspondent of a renowned western publication asking me about the source of the quote. It was a well known speech that had been widely reported at a time when most media outlets did not have online archives. As I had written most of the book in Iran, I still had the newspaper clippings. So assuming that he wanted to write about a cause close to my heart — how the internet has opened a new virtual space for free speech in Iran, a country dubbed the “the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East” — I asked a friend to scan and send me the whole report. This however took longer than I had anticipated and in the intervening days I received further less-gentle emails that questioned the veracity of the quote.
I could understand his reservations about the claims I had made in my book about the possibilities of the power of collaborative, electronic, social media in a young educated country like Iran. After all it was 2005 and I had encountered such widespread scepticism when trying to publish. But what honestly surprised me, was when he wrote that anyway “Trojan Horse” was not a phrase that a mullah would use. He basically assumed that a Shia cleric was unlikely to be aware of the Trojan Wars of the ancient Greeks.
At that point I could not be bothered to reply or to inform our “Iran expert” that for centuries Plato’s “The Republic” has been one of the first basic texts used and debated in the Shia seminaries. Indeed classic Greek texts were first translated into Arabic and thus four-hundred-years later reached the West in the 12th century.
The fascination about the western world has gone on to this day unabated. Young clerics read debate and more importantly try to nullify western ideology. Today I’m told Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order is a much appreciated text amongst the most radical seminarians as it endorses and justifies the ideologies that they will preach from the pulpits of the land.
The Middle East has been ruled by dictators for decades, not simply because the hapless citizens must do or die. Even the most tyrannical, like Muammar Gaddafi justify their rule through ideological national pride and Arab honour.
In my native Iran the state uses every particle of hostility to blame any domestic problem or upheaval on foreign powers, the United States and Britain above all. It is skilled too in sustaining the alarmist message that internal enemies are in the pay of or serving the interests of these nefarious outsiders. In turn it has received the helping hand and three decades of sanctions and suspicion from the west have nurtured revolutionary Iran’s sense of siege.
These others, whose uprising has shocked you, know more about you than you care to know about them. Wander through any inner city from Cairo to Tehran and American-style fast food joints are crammed with crowds; ordinary families are glued to TV screens watching films that you have made. They also want a little bit of what you have: accountable governments that represent their needs and wants.
Just thinking back to my student days in London I was never made to feel like an outsider or treated with disdain by my contemporaries. So I can’t believe unawareness of the East comes from malice. What many of us have experienced in the West is a ‘live and let live’ attitude. But as the body count all around continues to grow; the West can no longer afford to be taken by surprise.
Nasrin Alavi is a British Iranian who lives both in London and in Tehran. She is the author of We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs.