CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — Sometimes in the world of journalism the story writes itself. And other times that square peg has to be pounded into the round hole with a fury that can only be fueled by the overwhelming desire to prove some preordained vision of it true. Such were my thoughts as I sat with other reporters at the Kennedy School of Government yesterday watching the bomb sniffing dogs head in to get a whiff of my computer and waiting for former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami to grace us with his presence.
“It’s so exciting to have a chance to hear a moderate, democratic Islamic voice from the Middle East,” a young female reporter with an NPR knapsack gushed. “Our government’s got everybody convinced they don’t exist.”
“Well, an Iranian liberal is probably isn’t all that democratic or moderate,” a middle-aged male reporter responded with a sheepish smile, as if he’d just broken some taboo.
“Go to Canada and they’ll say the same thing about America,” she snapped back, her own smile quickly fading, annoyed that the good vibes train had come to a halt. “And they wouldn’t be totally off base, either.”
A few minutes later Khatami bounded into the room, three floors of Harvard students craning their necks over banisters to try to get a look at him. It’s exceedingly easy to see how people get taken in by the man. Whatever terrible things you know he’s condoned, Khatami nevertheless has an easy smile and an exuberant presence. If current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad looks the Persian cousin of one of the murderously primitive rubes from Deliverance, Khatami has a comforting grandfatherly aura.
When during his introduction, for example, it was noted President Bush himself had granted the former Iranian president a visa because he was, as he put it, “interested in learning more about the Iranian government, how they think, what people think within the government,” Khatami looked on with a wry, can-you-believe-it grin, as if he was Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears had just endorsed his new record.
Yet, while Khatami’s demeanor fit the storyline, the rhetoric most certainly did not. Oh, there were plenty of rejections of violence, including a jab or two at Osama bin Laden for defaming Islam, and there were plenty of paeans to democracy, which Khatami labeled “the most fitting method of collective life and progress.” Nevertheless, any criticism he had of his own sphere of influence was for “the East” and not Iran directly, while his attacks on American policy and its culture’s lack of “spirituality” were acidic and unforgiving. Not the best combo for a supposed bridge-building outreach tour.
It’s true that Khatami finds much to be admired in America’s grand experiment. Unfortunately most of what he admires occurred before the actual founding of the Republic. “The pleasant ring of the word ‘Puritan’ has always delighted the lovers of freedom, compassion and humanity,” Khatami said early on in his speech, praising the Puritans’ desire to “combine worldly success and wealth with spirituality.” (It’s almost as if this guy doesn’t believe in the separation of church and state.) Somehow America went and screwed it all up, though. “Relying on the remarkable power of America,” Khatami continued, “politicians who ought to have followed the free spirit of the Puritans” — you know, witch hunts, retrograde biblical interpretations — “started to nurse dreams of world domination.”
Ironically enough, the unannounced subtitle of Khatami’s speech “The Ethics of Tolerance in the Age of Violence,” seemed to be, “Please Harvard, Save Iran!”
“Can the American nation and particularly its well-meaning elites cast a new glance at international affairs informed by their own history and free from the delusional atmosphere created by the powerful?” Khatami asked.
Because only progressive Harvard can return us to our Puritan roots, right?
FOR THOSE UNFAMILIAR with the anthropological tics of the modern journalist, allow me to share one bit. Many carry around some sort of recording device with a little numbered counter that allows them to easily return to a certain segment of the speech, interview or what have you. So when observing a reporter in his or her natural habitat you can tell when they’ve discovered what devotees of Andrew Sullivan call the “money quote” because suddenly they’ll shoot a hard glance at the recording device.
It’s very telling. It allows you to see what a reporter finds of real consequence; and what he’s going to be pursuing as a direct quote rather than paraphrasing. It quickly became apparent that the young female reporter’s preference — Americans can learn a thing or two from Iranian moderate — was indeed the preferred storyline.
Thus, for example, when asked whether he agreed with current Iranian President’s “proposition that the world would be better off if Israel were wiped off the map,” Khatami answered, “I have never wanted the elimination of any person or nation from the international sphere, but” — you have to love a “but” halfway through a sentence like that — “we must not forget that for the last 50 years both in theory and in practice a nation by the name of Palestine has been eliminated from the map,” drawing the loudest applause of the afternoon. A quick glance over at my fellow reporters, however, confirmed that this was not a money quote.
“So long as we are thinking killing and eliminating we will not find a solution from our problems,” Khatami added. “We should not be thinking about how we can kill each other better. We should be thinking about how we can live and coexist together.”
Mark the time, friend. We’ve got a keeper.
One knew from all the yarmulkes in the room that wouldn’t be the end of the Jewish Question for Khatami and soon enough, despite the applause, another brave Harvard Jew was pressing him about Ahmadinejad’s persistent Holocaust denial. No, no, Khatami said, what Ahmadinejad actually contends is that if the Holocaust did occur, it was at the hands of the Europeans, which is “admitting in a way that he does believe in the Holocaust.” That’s a fairly roundabout way of acknowledging genocide, but there’s some logic to it. Khatami, readers will be relieved to know, however, does believe in the Holocaust and even that it was “a human tragedy,” but can’t quite leave it at that. “I also condemn if Holocaust will be used as a tool to persecute other people.”
That’s not so quotable, but the Ying to this particular Yang came only moments later in Khatami’s response to a young man challenging his past characterization of “Zionists” as unnaturally aggressive in which he brought out the old standard of anyone back-peddling on some racist or sexist remark — “I have very good friends among the Jews.” Oh, and, “I am against violence. It doesn’t matter if it comes from a Jew, Muslim of Christian.”
Mark the time. We got another good one.
THERE WERE SOME FALSE MONEY quote alarms, as when an Iranian student began his question expressing his hope that Khatami would have a chance to visit Walden Pond, where “Thoreau, who was a great practitioner of civil disobedience, lived.” What a lead that would be! Khatami Connects With American Tradition of Non-Violence. Hopes were dashed, however, when the student ended up giving an impassioned speech about the arrest, torture, rape and murder of Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi, aided and abetted by Tehran prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi, who now sits on the United Nations Human Rights Council.
The notebooks went down. Illiberal tendencies? Torture? Murder? This isn’t what we came to see.
If the student’s speech didn’t fit the preordained storyline, Khatami’s cold reply was even less so. While allowing the Iranian judiciary was “not in conformity” with his views on the case and he wished it had been resolved in “a more pleasant manner,” Khatami nevertheless barbed, “Maybe if the relatives of Kazemi had not made into such a big political issue it could have been resolved a lot quicker and more to their liking.” Good luck finding that bit in today’s newspaper.
Likewise, when Iranian funding of Hezbollah was brought up, Khatami said, “If we support Hezbollah it is only spiritual support,” but nevertheless added, “We should be fair and not write off justified resistance as terrorism.” Need an example? Khatami’s got one! “Today the resistance the French showed in the face of German attack is not condemned,” he said.
And who are the Nazis in that little allusion? It’s no big deal, though. Khatami’s got Jewish friends!
KHATAMI’S DEFENSE OF Hezbollah was doubtless not the only uncomfortable moment for those bound and determined to see him as an agent of tolerance in the face of American extremism.
One such moment came when a student pointedly brought up the persecution and prosecution of gays in Iran, to which Khatami answered simply, “homosexuality is a crime in Islam and crimes are punishable” and, further, that “punishment is seen as a response to violence or deviance. If there is no punishment in a society, society cannot run.” Many other religions, including “important sects of Christianity,” felt the same way, he said.
Can you guess what CNN’s headline on the Khatami visit is? Do you think it was “Khatami: ‘Society Cannot Run’ Without Punishment of Homosexuals” or “Khatami Slams bin Laden”?
The question of whether Khatami would bring up the Sept. 11 attacks was not answered until the end of his speech when he switched from Farsi to English for a short address to “the hospitable American people.”
“As a human, as a Muslim, and as an Iranian, I stand before you to once again express my deepest sympathy with the families of the victims and with all the great American people,” he said.
Never mind that Khatami’s speech had been one barb after another how America was turning the world into its own giant “military camp in the name of human rights and democracy.” Mark the time. There’s the ultimate money quote.
So long as he mixed enough of the gooey I-only-want-to-see-America-live-up-to-its-ideals stuff in to carry the preferred storyline, the less palatable stuff can be excised fairly easily.
LATER, AT THE BUS STOP, a girl plopped down next to me on the bench and continued a very loud cell phone conversation.
“My bus is late because traffic is insane,” she said. “Some Middle Eastern big shot is here trying to make it like we’re the terrorists and his religious government that does all these crazy bad things to people is perfect. I don’t know, I got the story second-hand on a barroom stool. I’m pretty buzzed.”
That’s about as crude and uneducated a political assessment as one can get. And yet this drunk, politically oblivious girl probably managed to get a lot closer to the truth than the paid observers yesterday afternoon at the Kennedy School of Government.
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