Michael Ignatieff was in Iran on the eve of Ahmadinejad’s victory in 2005. He gave talks, met with reformers and students, and wrote it up for the New York Times Magazine. The piece is worth reading now for all kinds of reasons: It gives a nice snapshot of the state of the reform movement at the time, and helps explain why Ahmadinejad was so popular in the first place. It also contains some of the cut-rate intellectualizing that makes Ignatieff’s academic positions so shaky, such as when he replies to a cleric’s demand for proof that rights are universal with the following:
I gave the answer I use in my class at Harvard — that if I were to go up to him, right now, and smack him across the face, anywhere in the world the act would count as an injustice and an insult. Human rights law codifies our agreement about stopping these intuitively obvious injustices.
Well, not quite. Anyway, it’s easy to go back over things written in different contexts and pull out Telling Quotes or Portentous Passages, but I thought this was interesting:
Many young Iranians I talked to were so hostile to clerical rule that I found myself cautioning them against going too far in the other direction. Many seemed in favor of a secular republicanism in which religion was excluded from politics altogether, as it was in Turkey during the rule of that country’s modernizing dictator, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. As Isaiah Berlin warned, however, if you bend the twig too far, it will snap back in your face.
And especially this:
In any event, America has almost no capacity to promote democracy inside Iran, and some capacity to do harm to Iranian democrats. Every Iranian I met wanted to spend time in the United States — and wished there were more scholarships to take them to America — but nearly every one of them laughed when I mentioned the recent Congressional appropriation of $3 million to support democratic opposition groups inside and outside the country. Iranian democrats look on American good intentions with incredulity. It would be fatal for any of them to accept American dollars. ”Do they want to get us all arrested as spies?” one said to me.
Hence the paradox: the Middle Eastern Muslim society with the most pro-American democrats will strenuously resist any American attempt to promote democracy inside it. It is easy to understand why. ”We fought for our independence,” Semnanian told me. ”You think when our people fought to drive out the invaders from Iraq for seven years, we were fighting only Saddam? We were fighting the U.S.A., Britain, the whole world. We saved our country. And now we are free.”
Read the whole thing.