Friday, 23 July 2010

Burying Uncle Napoleon

For days, Iranian media have been celebrating the triumphant homecoming of “kidnapped” nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri. Now we learn that his story is to be adapted into an action movie, Islamic Republic–style.

The narrative peddled by the regime was already the stuff of spy thrillers. Mr. Amiri did not willingly defect in search of the American dream, state-run outlets told us. Nor was he forced to return, presumably after the regime put pressure on his family. No, Mr. Amiri was abducted by American agents while on pilgrimage, brought to the United States, and brutally tortured. Thankfully, by deploying skills that would be the envy of a Jason Bourne, the scientist made a daring escape via the Islamic Republic’s interest section in the Pakistani Embassy.

Right. This is a preposterous narrative, but one perfectly designed to exploit Iranians’ national neurosis: the “Uncle Napoleon complex”—the all-too-common tendency among Persians to ascribe supernatural powers to evil Westerners whose conspiracies lurk behind every political development. The specific diagnosis has its origins in Iraj Pezeshkzad’s comic novel My Uncle Napoleon. Published six years prior to the Islamic Revolution and banned by the mullahs, the novel cleverly satirizes the conspiratorial Persian mind. Its title character is the senile patriarch of a petty aristocratic family who imagines himself a national hero and the target of a dastardly British revenge plot for his patriotic activities.

Generations of Persian readers have gotten laughs out of Dear Uncle Napoleon’s attempts to smoke out the British conspiracies at work in the banal goings-on of his declining clan. But the Uncle Napoleon complex is no laughing matter. It is an insidious—and dangerous—part of Iranian political life.

Its most disturbing manifestation today is undoubtedly the virulently anti-Semitic ideology of the regime. The IRI expends enormous sums of money conjuring Jewish conspirators that would have made Dear Uncle Napoleon’s foxy Brits look like Pollyannas. And shameful Holocaust-denial conferences are only part of this campaign. Iranians are told, for example, to boycott Pepsi because the soft drink company is an organ of Zionism whose apocryphal name actually stands for “Pay Each Penny Save Israel.” Tom and Jerry are in on the Zionist conspiracy too. Well, maybe just Jerry. According to an education ministry adviser speaking at a televised film seminar, Jerry was created by the Zionists to combat the justifiable image of Jews as “dirty mice” that dominated pre-War Europe.

Such crude anti-Semitic schlock is produced by the regime’s ideologues mostly for domestic consumption. But, alas, many Iranian democrats in the West are just as prone to similar, albeit far more sophisticated, anti-Semitic conspiracism of the kind prevalent in certain segments of the left. In these circles, the “dirty Jew” is replaced by the ominous, think-tank-based “neoconservative” secretly wielding American power against Iran. The Uncle Napoleon complex has thus trapped many otherwise enlightened and well-intentioned Iranian democrats in the West into advancing the very foreign policy proposals favored by the mullahs they oppose. The neurosis is a product of the complex interplay of a number of historical and political conditions. Lack of education among regime fanatics is certainly a factor. The sordid history of Western colonial intervention in Iran is surely another. Indeed, if any generation of Iranians was at least partly justified in being paranoid about Western influence, it was the one represented by poor Uncle Napoleon. The lack of democracy with its attendant culture of transparency is also to blame. Without access to a free press and open institutions, too many Iranians are condemned to explaining events like the Amiri defection through phantasmagoric prisms and anti-Semitic lies.

But none of these explanations on its own or in combination with the others is fully satisfying. The final and most important factor behind the Uncle Napoleon complex is Iran’s failure to reconcile itself with its own history. That history—viewed broadly and with a few exceptions here and there —amounts to 2,500 years or so of gradual imperial decline. Iranians have yet to forgive themselves for this decline. Take, for example, their view of the political geography of Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. Like Greeks and Italians, Iranians are heirs to an ancient tradition of imperial conquest. Yet only modern-day Persians seriously lament the passing of the glorious days when far more territory and many more peoples were subjected to their beneficent imperium. In the Uncle Napoleon complex, then, they seek a way to relinquish their historical agency and avoid taking responsibility for the present.

This suggests that even if the Islamic Republic were to collapse tomorrow, Iran and the rest of the region would not rest easy until Iranians confront—and bury—their Dear Uncle Napoleon.

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