The Western media’s penchant for using ill-defined, and misleading, terms such as ‘hardliner’ and ‘moderate’ does not aid our understanding of the Iranian elections, writes Navid Zarrinnal.
In recent weeks, the English-language global media has been providing us with daily reports and updates on the 2013 Iranian presidential election and its aftermath. These reports and updates are equipped with a distinctive vocabulary for Iranian politics that should make learned observers of contemporary politics in Iran uneasy. But, more importantly, this distinctive vocabulary leaves curious readers about Iranian politics in a descriptive vacuum. Terms like “religious moderate,” “moderate,” “hardliner,” “extremist,” and “opposition” are thrown around without any attempt at defining or explaining them. No attempts are made at defining, say, a hardliner, or explaining how he may be distinguished from his logical opposite a softliner! Similarly, we hear Hassan Rouhani, now Iran’s president, characterized as a “religious moderate,” without any attempt at teasing out what makes him a moderate as opposed to an extremist, or delineating the measures of moderation versus extremity.
A BBC article, for instance, attempting to introduce Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, tells us that he is a “religious moderate,” also attributing a statement to him where he criticizes “hardliners.” Even outlets like Al Jazeera use the same vocabulary. In one of the better articles on the candidates’ profiles, Qalibaf, the man who came second in the presidential election, is identified as a “conservative” who “has also made statements designed to appeal to hardliners.” Again, there is not even a single line of explanation on what makes someone in Iranian politics a conservative or a hardliner: how is a conservative distinguished, if at all, from a hardliner? Does conservatism in Iran have any similarity with conservatism in the United States or other nations with self-identified conservatives? Is conservatism here being used as a coherent political ideology or more loosely to denote a deference to the status quo? The use of this term in isolation without any attempt at teasing out its meaning as applied to Qalibaf leaves readers uninformed on Qalibaf’s politics and on Iranian politics more generally. The same article identifies the candidate who came fifth in the presidential election, Ali-Akbar Velayati, as “a hardliner who has described Iran as the ‘backbone’ of the Muslim world.” Again, careful readers should be baffled here, not informed – it remains unclear what makes someone a hardliner and how Velayati’s description of Iran as the backbone of the Muslim world, whatever that means, has any relevance to his hardline status.
The other problem has to do with the fact that terms like “hardliner” have very little to do with Iranian political discourse. Concepts close to the Iranian political lexicon are replaced by the reporter’s own inventions, which themselves are rooted in the authoritative voice of global media like BBC, Al Jazeera, and others. It is true that Iranian politicians, newspapers, and people have been using terms like e’tedaal (moderation). In fact, this was a key term during Rouhani’s presidential campaign, and surfaced on the frontpage of newspapers and on social media right after the election results were announced. However, such terms are more useful for political purposes than they are for an honest, informative coverage of Iranian politics. Reporters and commentators should not take political campaign slogans, like moderation, and run with it – or if they do, they should attempt to tease out what exactly makes a particular candidate a moderate as opposed to an extremist.
And, lastly, a word on the us and them mentality that is perhaps the most problematic aspect of this distinctive vocabulary. The distinctive vocabulary at issue has been invented by English-language Western media – infecting other global media outlets as well – to deal with “them,” with Iranians over “there” who have unfair political processes, nothing like “our” lively and participatory democratic processes over “here.” Definitionally-vacuous, non-descriptive terms like “hardliner” are reserved for “them,” not for “us”– for Iranians and not for Westerners. A “hardliner,” though remains undefined, seems to indicate an Iranian politician who will be very deferential towards the political status quo. If that is a chief definitional characteristic of a hardliner, then we must wonder: why back in the 2012 presidential race, Mr. Mitt Romney and President Obama, who are profoundly deferential to the status quo in American politics especially when compared to candidates like Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, were never identified as hardliners?
Latest posts by CME (see all)
- “Terrorist, plain and simple”? The misleading strategy behind the “terrorist” tag. – October 6, 2015
- Letter Smuggled out of Egyptian Prisons: Esraa El Taweel Speak – July 14, 2015
- We must not forget Abu-Salim – July 7, 2015