Wednesday, March 18, 2009

COMMENT: On Mohammad Khatami ...

Well, it looks like Mohammad Khatami is visiting Australia as a guest of La Trobe University's Centre for Dialogue. The Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne will also have some hosting to do when Khatami arrives in Melbourne. I'm not sure if he will make it to other cities.

Certain Jewish organisational heads are becoming rather stroppy with Khatami's tour. They are shocked that someone like Khatami, former President of a country that allegedly wants to wipe Israel off the map, could be hosted by the Anglican Church.

These same organisational heads have been hosting visits by the likes of Raphael Israeli. No doubt they won't have much objection to a visit by Israel's new neo-fascist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a man who wants to deprive Israeli Arabs of even basic rights should they not swear absolute allegience to the Jewish state in the manner he deems appropriate.

(I somehow doubt Iranian Jews would be treated in this manner. The last public claims made about Iranian Jews were refuted by an Iranian Jewish MP!)

Here's what John Searle, President of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV) had to say in a letter to the Centre for Dialogue and quoted in a report published in the Australian Jewish News:

I reiterate it is not possible for the Victorian Jewish community to participate in an organisation ostensibly committed to dialogue when it hosts Sayed Mohammad Khatami, former president of Iran, a man whose views on the State of Israel are clearly inimical to true dialogue and peace.
On that basis, I trust Searle will oppose any visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, the official position of whose Party is to oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state. Such views could hardly be deemed consistent with true dialogue and peace. And I trust that Searle would not even contemplate hosting Lieberman, a man who effectively wants to turn Israel into an apartheid state where only Jews are afforded basic rights.

Anyway, back to Khatami. He was elected to the Iranian Parliament in 1980. He speaks fluent German, English and Arabic (and of course Farsi). In May 1997, he was elected President in a landslide victory, gaining just under 70% of votes cast. He was then re-elected in 2001, increasing his margin to 78%.

Khatami was regarded as a reformer and liberaliser (if such a word exists). He allowed newspapers and magazines to flourish, including those critical of the government and the religious establishment. He also sought improved relations with other countries, even appearing on CNN in January 1998.

In September 1998, during an address to the UN General Assembly, Khatami proposed that 2001 be declared the year for Dialogue Among Civilisations". Al-Qaeda showed in September 2001 what they thought of the proposal.

Here's how BBC contrasts Khatami from his successor, Mahmud Ahmedinejad:
The moderate tone of his comments contrasted starkly with the strident talk of President Ahmadinejad.
There's an interesting profile of Khatami and his role in post-revolutionary Iran on the Tehran Bureau blog. I'm not too familiar with this blog or its biases, but its material seems to be well-written and nuanced. Here are some excerpts:
Mohammad first read about Mohammad Khatami when he was the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance. While there, Khatami had drawn the ire of Islamists by championing Iran’s new filmmakers then coming into prominence. Two former architect students were behind Iran’s new cinema wave, Mohammad explains as we sit to tea one evening. The pair enjoyed a close relationship with Mir Hossein Mousavi, prime minister of Iran during the 1980's, and a close confidante to Ayatollah Khomeini.

Khatami was one of Moosavi’s ministers. Through Khatami’s support, these two filmmakers were given some space to develop Iranian cinema in their own vision, said Mohammad. This appalled the conservatives. “The Hezbollahis didn’t like the bleak, abstract outlook of these art films,” Mohammad said. And at one point he read that Khatami had quit his post.

Mohammad never heard of Khatami again until his name was floated as a presidential candidate in the Iranian presidential elections of 1997.
So how did Khatami defeat his rival, Parliamentary Speaker and hardliner Nategh-Noori? Was it all about good looks and posters? Tehran Bureau continues:
Using his power base as speaker of the Parliament, Nateq-Noori was campaigning on promises to improve the economy, and to “keep away the United States and enforce stricter Islamic law,” the New York Times reported. Khatami “the leading underdog,” it said, was pledging “more personal freedoms, more jobs and no more male supremacy.”

“On television, they constantly broadcast pictures of Nategh-Noori going here and there, taking part in ceremonies,” Mohammad said. “It was basically screaming from every door and wall that we should vote for Nategh-Noori. And it got to a point where Ayatollah Khamanei came on TV and said everyone knows who the maslah—the better one—is. Everyone understood that to mean we were supposed to vote for Nategh-Noori.”

But to Iran’s suppressed youth, teeming with testosterone, armed with satellite TV and the internet, there was no competition between the two candidates. To Iran’s persecuted second-class citizens—women—the tremendous support of the conservatives for Nateq-Noori was the strongest reason to vote for any other candidate.

Though Nateq-Noori posters outnumbered Khatami’s by a ratio of 10 to 1, Mohammad said Khatami’s posters were superior. “Khatami had glasses on, the other one didn’t,” Mohammad said. “Khatami’s glasses were key. Later in the campaign, [Noori] also adopted glasses—fake prescription glasses—to appear attractive to women and students” ...

... Khatami, “he had a poster like this,” Mohammad said, posing with his chin resting on his hands. “Khatami had great photographers. His posters had a black background. He always had a smile, a big smile that showed off his teeth. Mullahs don’t show their teeth when they smile. At most, they manage something like this,” he said clasping his lips together and faintly turning curving the corners. “Nategh-Noori’s photos were boring—just like photos of the shahs.”
And what about polling, exit-polls etc? What happened at the ballot box and afterwards, when votes were counted?
According to Mohammad, the government conducts polls in secret, and based on those predictors during the 1997 campaign, the conservative camp sensed doom.

“There were a few polls out toward the end of the campaign—we didn’t know it then, we found out later—that showed Nategh-Noori losing. There are polls in Iran, but they’re confidential. Sometimes certain newspapers with close government sources will reveal something. But polls are generally taken in secret ...

On the morning of the election, Mohammad and a friend went to the polls near his house. “There were a lot of religious people there, a lot of young people, of course, and surprisingly a lot of chic women, too. All had turned out to vote for Khatami—all of them. This was such a great opportunity to say, ‘Mr. Khamanei, we desperately need a change.’ The vote was a message to Khamanei more than anything else ...
More to come.

Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf

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