I’m no Middle East expert. The situation there has been far too volatile and complex for far too many centuries for me to attempt to make heads or tails of it. I would never profess to offer solutions. All I can offer right now is my grief.
The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of hot takes by talking heads on social media — many of whom, I suspect, would have a hard time pointing to Iran on a map.
As little as I may know, however, I do know this irrefutable truth: as old, self-serving, privileged, war-mongering politicians in positions of power continue to chest-thump and call for military escalation and retaliation, as they continue to callously incite violence in feeble attempts to save face and exact pointless acts of revenge or hawkish shows of military strength, innocent people and pawns who always look suspiciously like the rest of us continue to die on both sides.
Watching the rise of jingoism and calls to war online has been sickening. Trump tweets an American flag after the killing of Major General Qasem Soleimani. The advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader tweets the Iranian flag after the missile attack on the U.S. air base. It’s all so juvenile, laden with toxic masculinity, and pathetically immature. These people are in charge?
When Iranian-American poet Sholeh Wolpe writes, “Here come the octopi of war, tentacles wielding guns, missiles, holy books and colourful flags,” she’s pointing the finger at both the deadly imperialism of America and the murderous theocracy of the Islamic Republic. The leaders — macho, tough-talking, belligerent men who refuse to care about the people who get hurt in their wake — are very much the same.
Yes, Soleimani was a butcher responsible for the blood of many Americans and Iranians, and the Islamic Republic is a repressive regime, but Soleimani was also the man credited with pushing back ISIS. Several military experts had concluded that taking him out would be too costly in terms of retaliation. The butterfly effect has a way of taking down innocents, and you’d have to be a blind Trump supporter not to acknowledge he’s now responsible for the dangerous spike in regional tension.
The difference between governments and people
Americans have been raised to believe that the Middle East is a tinderbox of hate. They rarely have the self-awareness to see that hate has often been a self-fulfilling prophecy resulting from their own invasions and sanctions, which have caused death and destruction in so many countries.
The U.S. likes to tout itself as “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” in stark contrast to the suffocating and repressive theocratic Middle Eastern regimes that are clearly jealous of all that American freedom. It never occurs to them that another narrative might be at play.
When Soleimani was killed, and as talk turned to retaliation, a quote by Iranian author Marjane Satrapi sprung to my mind. In 2005, the author of the internationally acclaimed graphic novel Persepolis gave an interview discussing the difference between people and governments:
The world is not divided between East and West. You are American, I am Iranian, we don’t know each other, but we talk, and we understand each other perfectly. The difference between you and your government is much bigger than the difference between you and me. And the difference between me and my government is much bigger than the difference between me and you. And our governments are very much the same.
A repressive theocracy is in no way equal to a democracy, as flawed and compromised as the latter may be. But Satrapi wasn’t engaging in moral relativism; she wasn’t sizing up governments and pretending they were equal. She was pointing out the fact that both governments — as different as they may appear to be — are indelibly similar in the way they choose to ignore the safety and well-being of their own people, both callously sending them off to war as sacrificial lambs in some vile pissing contest between scowling old plutocrats. She was reminding us that there’s a huge difference between a country’s leadership and its people.
A history of foreign interference
American foreign policy has always been one of military aggression and underhanded interference. Syria, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Cuba, Greece, Afghanistan, Iraq.… I could fill an entire paragraph with the names of countries the U.S. has illegally invaded, destabilized or attempted regime change in this past century alone.
The average American has more in common with the average Iranian than they do with megalomaniac billionaires ruling over them and making decisions that put them in harm’s way for their own self interests. A man who avoided military conscription because his rich dad paid off some doctor to diagnose him with bone spurs is playing Mr. Tough Guy on the international stage, endangering the lives of innocent, less connected, less fortunate people, while the dehumanization of people in Middle Eastern countries continues unabated.
Why do some Westerners scoff at the suggestion the U.S. and the Iranian governments may have things in common? The U.S. government never seems to have money for universal healthcare or education, but has trillions for bombs. Iran, too, is a country that spends billions on weapons, while ignoring many of its citizens’ basic needs. The U.S. government is currently headed by a hothead who threatens to bomb cultural sites and is surrounded by sycophants and evangelical Christians celebrating the Middle East strike and people’s deaths as some sort of moral victory. The bearded mullahs, declaring it’s God’s divine power that will strike America down, are not that different.
In the meantime, the deaths of innocent people just keep piling up. Iraqis were killed by U.S. airstrikes. Iranian civilians were killed at Soleimani’s funeral and in the Ukrainian passenger plane crash near Tehran, where 176 people lost their lives including 63 Canadians, tragically resulting from an accidental missile strike by Iran.
Innocent people died because Donald Trump assassinated an Iranian general in order to divert news coverage away from his impeachment process and Canadians incurred massive casualties senselessly and as a direct result of a conflict between Iran and the U.S. It’s almost too horrific to contemplate, but — when one glances at history — all too predictable.