Why West’s misinterpretation of Iranian statements is dangerous
The world’s media appears to believe that the Iranian judiciary is poised to abolish the country’s Guidance Patrol, the so-called morality police that beat Mahsa Amini to death in September. This claim was reported in The Times of London and on the front page of The Wall Street Journal.
It was reported that Mohammed Jafar Montazeri, the country’s attorney general, was quoted in Iranian state media as saying that “the law requiring veils, known as hijabs, was under review by Iran’s parliament and judiciary, and that the morality police had been abolished.”
But what these reports missed was the instantaneous reaction among the Iranian diaspora and Farsi speakers around the world. They interpreted things quite differently.
Activists said that Montazeri’s statement was a lie. It was either a baldfaced deceit of protesters in a bid to decrease the incentive to demonstrate, a clever obfuscation of the truth or the representation of a reorganizing of the forces of the state under new names.
What the activists, protesters and analysts had predicted came to pass just a day later.
It seems that the reports published by the Western papers were completely untrue. When Montazeri spoke, he was just obfuscating the judiciary’s role in the running of the Guidance Patrol, saying that it was a question for parliament and was currently under discussion. And more accurate translations of his statement revealed that he did not say that the morality police was being abolished, but rather reassessed or reorganized.
Later comments from Iranian state figures represented their efforts to capitalize on the false interpretation of Montazeri’s words rather than his true intent.
Similarly, all talk of the hijab law being changed was either premature — in the most optimistic reading — or wholly false. This was a reminder of the way the Western press reported that the Taliban would stick to its promise of keeping teenage girls in education after its takeover of Afghanistan last year — a promise that was immediately broken and has been broken for more than 400 consecutive days since.
It is worth examining why the false interpretation of Montazeri’s statement was widely believed and reported. In part, it was because reporters sought something to be chalked up as a major victory for the protesters. The protests have been condemned by officialdom since they began nearly three months ago. They have been met with immense violence, with hundreds visually confirmed to have been killed and 15,000 people arrested.
Previous reporting overstated internal developments within Iran in another direction. When the parliament voted to pass death sentences on all arrested for protesting — a vote that had little legal weight — the Western world acted as if all protesters had been sentenced to death. Now, similar misunderstandings have gone the other way.
The announcements that were misinterpreted might, had the newspapers been right, have indicated a change — although it would not necessarily have been a positive one. They could have represented nothing more than a trial of conciliatory language, with an attempt to persuade protesters off the streets on the back of an untrustworthy promise.
But even if the announcement had been correctly interpreted and translated, the protesters would still have been in danger. The regime may change the morality police’s name or mandate, but its people are not going home. The state’s men will not leave the streets for as long as the protests continue. The abolition of a shadowy force like this does not send violent men home or give them other things to do.
Across the Middle East, there are different names for groups of men, unemployable otherwise, who beat people up on government orders. In Syria, they are the “shabiha,” who terrorized protests against the Assad regime. And when those protests were attacked in the beginnings of a civil war, they became paramilitaries, carrying out the same violent function under different names.
The regime may change the morality police’s name or mandate, but its people are not going home.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
In Iran, such men — even if their official body were to be abolished — would be reformed under a different banner.
The regime has too much to lose to begin making real concessions of this kind. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps controls roughly half of Iran’s economy. The clerical regime is a state within a state, whose religious dictates must be enforced on the public if the clerics are to have any power.
As much as the Western news media would like to report real changes in Iran — and real victories for the demonstrators — they are yet to arrive. And any twisting of official statements to give them the appearance of reform or moderation merely puts the protests, and protesters, in more danger from misinformation — as well as the bullet.
- Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is director of special initiatives at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington D.C. and the author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim