Fighting the Fundamentalists: More Books Please

In a report about Ayatollah Khameni’s regressive and anti-Semitic views on feminism, this nugget:

Earlier this month, Khamenei issued a speech warning that “cultural attacks by the enemy are more dangerous than military attacks”, hitting out at human rights groups and think tanks.

The speech itself concerns the Iran-Iraq war. Khameni believes that intensive discussion and celebration of the ‘Sacred Defence Era’ will culturally fortify Iranians against the pernicious influence of Iran’s enemies. His definition of ‘culture’ is of course extremely narrow. But there is nevertheless something refreshing about the idea that cultural influence is more important and effective than military force!

That said, it is a mistake for Ayatollah Khameni to fight on this turf. Like any dictator, he equates his own conception of ‘proper’ culture with the culture of his country as a whole. He speaks of the importance of resources, both natural and cultural. And yet he is blind to the diversity around him and ignorant of the economic and cultural strength that such diversity can provide to a country.

So let’s meet the Supreme Leader on the cultural battlefield. If he wants a culture war, we should bring him one. Instead of deploying military equipment to the region, let us lob literary ordinance into Iran.

This does not mean delivering purely Western cultural output to the people (though they have a right to that too). Instead, we should counter the Ayatollah’s meagre idea of what constitutes Iranian culture by promoting the diverse voices that already exist within Iranian society.  We must support minority and dissenting voices within Iran and from around the Middle East.

I think often of Andrew Sullivan’s ‘Outing Iran‘ blogging around the time of the Green Revolution, which sought to highlight the diverse “cultural milieu of young Iranians”.

And of course my employer English PEN has sought to give a platform to Iranian writers too: translation grants for We Are Iran and Khomeini, Sade and Me, and campaigning for poets like Mahvesh Sabat (who is still languishing in Evin Prison).

More international publishers and cultural bodies should follow this example. Such literature enriches Iranian culture and strengthens the country, even though – or perhaps, precisely because – the Islamic fundamentalists disapprove.

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