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The only thing which seems to be on the minds and mouths of many these days are the apparently ‘racist’ remarks made by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmedinejad at the second Durban conference on anti-Racism which recently took place in Geneva. From equating Zionism with racism to the eerily synchronized walkout by European states, the speech has been warranted nothing short of the most negative of criticism – but has this negative criticism been justified?
Most of what has been shoved down our throats has been through the feeding tube of the news media. With snippets and questionably paraphrased remarks taken out of context, the image of Ahmedinejad as the second coming of Adolf Hitler has been given another finishing brushstroke. The powerless Iranian leader has come to take on a personality greater than deserved. Powerless in his country, thanks to the complex and bureaucratic Iranian system of governance, Ahmedinejad has found his role in the vast international stage as one of diplomacy unbound by unfavorable power relations with Western states and as the anti-colonialist hero and savior for the masses. For many others, however, his role is that of a menace, nothing short of ‘evil’ – whatever subjective meaning that word seems to carry nowadays.
Regardless of one’s personal convictions regarding Ahmedinejad, it is hard to concoct a factually correct argument proving that the man has done anything worth the merit of ‘evil.’ His most heinous action was, perhaps, the conference revolving around the factual accuracy of the Holocaust. As he proclaimed, he was not second guessing the occurrence of genocide, but rather the particulars regarding the numbers killed. Many supporters of Ahmedinejad claimed that there was absolutely nothing wrong in engaging in an academic discourse regarding historical facts pertaining to genocide while others claimed that it was a clear showcase of anti-Semitism, meant to provoke the world Jewry’s self-proclaimed homeland: Israel. While it is nothing new to academia to question, or explore for a more politically correct term, facts regarding genocides (be they the Armenian or Rwandan or Bosnian) the highly suspicious motivations behind Ahmedinejad’s effort are certainly deplorable and one is left begging: why the Holocaust? This question, in and of itself, makes the desired point of the conference known. Yet, does this make Ahmedinejad evil? Not really. His actions make him despicable, just as anyone who denies the genocide of the Armenians or that currently raging within Darfur or the current plight of Sri Lanka’s Tamil population.
Yet Israel and its associates have taken the burden upon themselves to show Iran and its buffoon of a leader as a threat to international security and the very existence of Israel. The Israeli government, much like any other government, has sustained both domestic and international legitimacy through constant use and perpetuation of an “other.” Iran has done its share to acquire hostility from Israel, specifically in regards to its support to Hizbollah and Hamas. Its talk of nuclear proliferation has also caused Israel some concern, as it would be the first Middle Eastern country – Israel aside—to develop a nuclear program, most likely to be used for energy and deterrence purposes as opposed to the complete and utter destruction of Israel (and some Palestinians, held dear to the Iranian regime’s heart, who would get caught in the mushroom cloud). Israeli opposition to Iran has allowed for Ahmedinejad to also gain international and domestic legitimacy. Not the most charismatic or useful of Presidents, Ahmedinejad has had to employ his rhetoric as a means through which support and minimal popularity has been gained at home and in, essentially, non-European countries. His words wage war against neo-colonialism and imperialism, topics of penetrating importance to the aforementioned category of countries. He speaks their language, words they know and experiences they have hold close to their memories. Israel has been at the centre of his rhetoric given it’s largely acknowledged existence as a neo-colonialist state. Regardless of Israel’s geographical location, it remains far more European and Western than Middle Eastern. Its treatment of the Palestinians, either at its most or least oppressive, is resonant to millions around the world of their histories of colonialism. These characteristics of Israel have allowed it to be categorized under the auspices of Western imperialism. And it is hard to argue otherwise – Israel follows the patterns of several other former colonialist states. History serves as a lesson which is never easy to swallow.
Thus in one another, Israel and Iran have found an “other” upon whom they can use to build support at home and abroad. Yet the aggressiveness that Israel has taken towards Iran since 2003 is unprecedented by the Jewish state, hinting at a first-attack nuclear strike if it suspects the Persian state is up to no good—a position meriting outrage from the international community which has seemed somewhat silent. Israel and its associates claim that Iran has made the first step in provocation by announcing to the world that he wants the Jewish state to be ‘wiped off the map of the earth.’ There are two initial problems with this as a use of justification for a first-strike nuclear attack: First, if this is to be taken as a threat to the existence of Israeli state, then perhaps quite a few other countries should be added to list and secondly this is simply not true. It has been proven repeatedly that in the infamous speech made, the Iranian President never said that he wanted Israel to be wiped off of the face of the planet. In Farsi, the President said “Emam ghoft een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e Qods bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad” The words “rezhim-e ishghalgar-e Qods” were translated to be understood as Israel, as a country, to be wiped off the pages of history, whilst the actual translation of the words deciphers to “the regime (rezhim-e) occupying Jerusalem (Qods). The sentence in its entirety translates to mean “The Imam (Khomeini) had said that this regime which is occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the pages of time.” Additionally, the context of the speech in which this was said is vital in understanding the aforementioned remark at more than just face-value. The speech was given at a conference held by the President entitled a World without Zionism, most likely designed to boost his popularity and image as the anti-colonialist leader and perpetuate the use of the “other.” Regardless of his intentions, he has stated repeatedly in his speeches that the Zionist regime must be brought down and a government which respects and treats all of its citizens equally must come to replace it. Somewhat ironic, yes.
Now, to Durban.
Holding the second Durban conference on anti-racism, the United Nations proved again that no matter what it did it would never achieve complete and utter approval from the international community. From the get-go, the United States and Israel had persisted that they would not be attending the conference given the resolutions being brought forward by several Muslim nations, alleging Zionism was equal to racism. The real controversy, however, was brought when Mr. Ahmedinejad stepped up to the podium. We were told that his speech wreaked of anti-Semitism, forcing several nations to walkout in protest amidst his diatribe. Ahmedinejad did not deny the Holocaust this time, but he did call Israel a racist regime and equate Zionism with racism, the voices blared on our television screens. Further accusations of Nazism were thrown at the President, and we the public, for the most part, have fallen victim to believing them. Some of us believed to be proven correct in our beliefs of his anti-Semitism, while others believed he had said nothing short of the truth, appropriate for a conference on racism. And then there is the group which agrees with the sentiments expressed by the Iranian President but found the use of the conference as a platform for another anti-Zionist rant as lacking diplomatic tact.
But, many of us, regardless of where we stand on Ahmedinejad’s speech, have neither heard nor read the infamous words. What we have been subjected to continuously are bits and pieces and biased commentaries and opinions by politicians and news agencies with heavy agendas and jobs to maintain. This is not how opinions should be formed, but unfortunately the ill-informed opinions of others behind a façade of truth become the popular way of discerning our own perspectives.
When read and seen in its entirety the speech is not a racist diatribe or rant. The words bellow against all forms of modern neo-colonialism. Ahmedinejad rages against Zionism, of course, but along with it he rages against several other notable instances, which clearly appeal to the audience he actually cares for and the audience which forms his international support base. He first criticizes the logic behind the formation of the United Nations Security Council, claiming it to be against the basic tenets of humanity and spirituality. He asks his fellow delegates, “How can we expect the realization of justice and peace when discrimination is legalized and the origin of law is dominated by coercion and force rather than by justice and the right?”
He continues: “Although, today many proponents of racism condemn racial discrimination in words and their slogans, a number of powerful countries have been authorized to decide for other nations, based on their interest and at their own discretion. They can easily ridicule and violate all laws and humanitarian values, as they have done.”
Now, while the hypocrisy and irony is rather clear throughout many instances in Ahmedinejad’s speech, the point still is strong and valid and it speaks loudly to the overwhelming majority of the world’s countries, a point to which we will return.
He then moves onto condemning the pretext reasons for the creation of Israel: colonialist grounds which have allowed for a racist ideology, Zionism, to persist and oppress the previous inhabitants of the land. What he then goes onto say echoes the criticism of the Israeli and pro-Israeli lobby groups – their influence in governance and the media. He even alludes to Obama’s recent ascension to power as nothing near real change as the support for the Zionist cause will remain. He then continues to discuss the questionable reasoning behind the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, begging to know if peace and security had been achieved anywhere. Finally, he touches upon perhaps the most universal of examples: the financial crisis. Speaking to a crowd consisting of countries who knew the negative effects of the world banking systems long before any major companies went bankrupt or needed federal assistance to continue, Ahmedinejad fiercely slams the “inequitable economic regulations” promulgated by “political power on the international economy” by the United States and Europe.
Ahmedinejad then ventures towards a spiritually laced appeal to end ignorance:
“Undoubtedly, racism is the symbol of ignorance which has deep roots in history and it is indeed a sign of frustration in developments in human society. It is therefore crucially important to trace the manifestations of racism in situations or societies where ignorance or lack of knowledge prevails. This increasing general awareness and understanding towards the philosophy of human existence is the principal struggle against such manifestations.”
He then returns to the topic of Zionism, timely given the recent invasion of Gaza in late December, calling out the boycott of the conference by certain countries as indicative “of supporting the blatant example racism.” He urges that “in defending human rights it is primarily important to defend the rights of all nations to participate equally in all important decision-making processes without the influence of certain world powers. Secondly, it is necessary to restructure the existing international organizations and their respective arrangement…this conference is a testing ground and the world public opinion today and tomorrow will judge us.”
He ends his speech with two important points he asks his fellow delegates to consider: first that it is possible to improve the unfortunate existing situation of the world and second that is vital for progress and improvement that the international community revisit the dominant understanding of the human being by returning to ideals of respect and justice for all and not some.
The irony is, again, apparent throughout Ahmedinejad’s speech. He is, after, the President of a country which does not exactly have the best human rights record. But all of this is not to act apologetic for Ahmedinejad or defend his political career – rather, it is to show that the recent fanaticism which has captured our trusty news media and our not-as-trusty politicos is baseless. Scratch that. A base does exist, but it is built upon something completely other than Ahmedinejad’s speech in Geneva.
What has not received the rightful negative criticism by our media has been the undiplomatic disruption courtesy certain members of the audience and the pomposity of the pre-planned walkout by several European states amidst the early moments of the President’s speech. In the aftermath of the five-day conference, many have said that Ahmedinejad’s speech and the presence and hypocritical cries for human rights by some of the worst perpetrators of such rights tainted the entire conference. Such an assertion has its definite merits, but rings a bit of absurdity. There is no state without its gross violation of human rights. I am, by no means, attempting to justify violation of human rights by any country, but there is an oft-ignored point many seem to forget when bringing in the “human rights violation” argument. No one country holds a moral high ground over another when it comes to this crime. Be they past human rights violations or current, every government participates – this is our rather unfortunate realpolitik state of affairs, after all. I call it torture, you call it enhanced interrogation techniques – violations of the most basic of human rights, even in the most unapparent or unrecognized of ways, occur in every state at every moment.
But the presence of such countries and Ahmedinejad’s address were not what ‘tainted’ the conference. Rather, the complete unwillingness of certain audience members and several European states to lend their ears to the President showcased the grossest lack of diplomacy at the conference. The former group has every right to protest, as does any group. The continuous ridicule of Ahmedinejad, however, throughout a speech which lacked any “racist” sort of offense just lacked tact. The three students dressed as clowns, members of the French Jewish Union, ‘protested’ with the intention of wanting “to show that [Ahmedinejad’s] speech and the entire conference [was] a joke.” Classy.
Even that, however, can be overlooked and forgiven.
But the walkout by the European Union countries is a completely different story which lends itself to never be forgiven. The delegates had very succinctly planned to leave the conference, in that wonderful uniformed fashion, at the first and mere mention of the state of Israel.
An outcry against Ahmedinejad’s intolerance, the walkout was ironically enough the greatest example of intolerance at the conference. By pre-planning their diplomatic strut, the participating European states showed that they were not interested in hearing what the Iranian President had to say. By walking out, these states proved that they had fallen victim into the propaganda that has been created by Israel and its associates against Iran. By walking out, these states proved to the rest of the world that they were unwilling to listen to any criticisms of Israel.
Most importantly, however, by walking out these states proved that there is still a huge audience which is willing and wanting to listen to Ahmedinejad.
As recently pointed out in a column featured in The Guardian, the legged protest was carried out by white European countries – against a conference and speech about racism; countries which have the greatest obligation to mend their bloody and cruel pasts and fix their current attitudes. Yet, arguably, the most violent perpetrators of racism – in the form of colonialism and slavery – were the ones to boycott and protest the conference.
And what about the ones who remained?
The ones who remained were those to whom the rhetoric of Ahmedinejad spoke at the greatest volume and it is precisely this which should cause fear amongst the nations of the West. An overwhelming majority of the world knows all too well the evils of racism, in the form of colonialism and slavery two evils mentioned in great detail by the President. Regardless of ‘evil’ Ahmedinjad is made out to be to those of us residing in the West, he has become the face of the anti-colonialist and post-colonialist struggles, along side Hugo Chavez. The countries which stayed behind, showed their support for a conference which, however futile, at least took the opportunity to address an issue which remains to be the big gorilla floating around the general assembly room as well as for a leader who has had the light of Hitler cast upon him. To these countries, Israel is a colonialist enterprise. It was created through an international body which has concentrated immense power into the hands of five countries; it displaced an entire people from their homeland; it imported the tremendous majority of its initial population from Europe and the Americas. Israel treats its previous inhabitants as second class citizens and, for the extremely multi-ethnic state with a massive minority of Palestinians, it continues to push itself as a country based primarily on the Jewish identity.
This is the reality that several countries have experienced in one shape or another; case in point, several South American countries, which have seen complete annihilation and plundering of their native peoples. From them we see the greatest opposition to Zionism and the great support for Palestinian self-determination. Another example consists of the Aboriginal populations of the Americas as well as of Australia, among the greatest victims of the worst forms of colonialism, who also overwhelmingly see Zionism as an offshoot of colonialism. For these countries and groups, Zionism along with the international monetary system, the United Nations (the Security Council in particular), the invasion of Iraq, among several other instances, lie upon a colonialist continuum.
This, however, is not about whether such an assessment is accurate, whether Zionism is a strong remnant of colonialism and whether Israel is the last colonialist state. This not about the ‘real’ intentions behind the Iraq war. This is about about the ‘true’ goals of the World Bank and IMF. All of that becomes irrelevant when European and Western nations boycott and walkout on a speech addressing what has been the greatest reality of racism for well over a billion around the world for hundreds of years. All of that becomes irrelevant when the room, albeit lacking in European decor, erupts in applause for what a man deemed evil by the very nations whose bloody histories he rhetorically digs up and presents to the world upon a podium.
We may stand against the Iranian President, but let the second Durban conference be a warning that there are far more who stand in solidarity with Mahmud Ahmedinejad. It is also perhaps a warning to us, that we realize and come to terms, no matter how frightened we are, what our standing in this world, outside the ‘official’ and power-stricken ‘international community,’ actually is.