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Orwell might have been writing about Iran

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LONDON — If the dread visions of George Orwell pertained only to far-off lands suffering under revolutions betrayed, they might be obscure to us now. Orwell’s triumph was to bridge the imaginations of East and West by setting his Soviet-inspired satires of political cruelty, control and deception in familiar England.

Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four touch truths so universal that they unsettle the citizens of established democracies. Orwell pertains everywhere, but, even in the absence of the Stalinist superpower that honed his perceptions, a handful of states continue to provide unabashed variations on the "Orwellian" — particularly Iran.

Orwell provided the world a new vocabulary for modes of oppression. When, in January, Iranian authorities pressured Cafe Prague, a popular hangout for Tehran’s students and intellectuals, to install cameras whose footage the state could access, the cafe’s owners protested by closing down their business. Their explanation: "We take comfort in knowing that we at least didn’t let Big Brother’s glass eyes scan and record our every step, minute and memory from dawn till dusk."

Meanwhile, on the western side of Orwell’s bridge, Iranian journalists working for non-Iranian media — in particular, BBC Persian — accused their government of forging websites and Facebook pages in their names, built around salacious themes. Close readers of Nineteen Eighty-Four will recall not only the Party’s fabrications and forgeries, but the cheap pornography it distributed to the "proles" of Airstrip One, Orwell’s dystopian England.

As if to confirm Iran in its Orwellian moment, Washington-based opposition cartoonist Nikahang Kowsar, well-known for portraying Iran’s theocrats as animals, generated fresh controversy by caricaturing Iran’s former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, as Napoleon, the porcine leader and hypocrite of Animal Farm. "Comparing Orwell’s story with the 1979 revolution," Kowsar explains, "you’ll see that no Iranian politician has ever changed the rules to his own benefit like Rafsanjani."

And though the agents of the Islamic Republic may not actually read Orwell, they appear, on a subconscious level, to regard him with unease: An article on the government-affiliated Press TV website, which described the British monarchy as anti-Muslim, carried a Freudian slip of a photo caption, since corrected, which read:

The history of Islam has gone through sensitive [eras] in the British Isles... during the reign of rulers such as George Orwell and Elizabeth II, marked with a rise in Islamophobic sentiments.

It seems a pity, against this background, that Orwell wrote so little about Iran (or, indeed, about Islam). Having coined the term "cold war" in print, he died in 1950 at age 46, predeceasing only slightly a signal episode in that struggle that would have tested his political convictions and gone some way to determining his reputation in Iran.

The 1951 attempt by Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co., as well as his overthrow two years later in a CIA-backed coup, would have thrust Orwell’s values into vivid juxtaposition — even conflict. The case would have tested his anti-imperialism (which did not always mean admiration for anti-imperialist leaders, because he disliked Gandhi), his distrust of the Soviet Union (into whose "sphere of influence" U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration believed Mosaddegh was leading Iran), and his socialism (when Britain’s welfare state relied on cheap Iranian oil) — not to mention his contempt for lies and dirty tricks.

Because of the role Orwell’s best-known novels came to play in the Cold War imagination, attempts to apply Orwellian analogies to Khomeinist Iran are apt to stoke a recurring debate about the applicability of Cold War thinking to the Islamic Republic, a critique neither wholly satisfying nor entirely possible to dismiss.

Iran’s leadership itself seems unsure how to handle Cold War comparisons. In 2000, after it became fashionable in the West to compare Iran’s nominally reformist president Mohammad Khatami to the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei announced that the United States had devised a plan to subvert the Islamic system along Cold War lines. America was mistaken, he warned, for Khatami was no Gorbachev and Islam was not communism. Furthermore:

The popular system of Islamic Republic is not the dictatorial regime of the proletariat... [Americans] have underrated the pivotal role of the religious and spiritual leadership in Iran.

Yet, in reaction to the 2009 Green Movement demonstrations (which themselves drew tactics and aesthetics from the "colour revolutions" of the post-Soviet sphere), Iran’s leadership warned against "velvet revolution," in reference to the collapse of Moscow’s dominance of Czechoslovakia. (Needless to say, state harassment of Cafe Prague takes on added significance in this light.)

If Orwell’s satires apply plausibly to the Islamic Republic, it may be because Soviet and Iranian history "rhyme" in ways that complement his world-view. Orwell’s materialism and anti-theism were, unlike the Soviet variety, anti-utopian, while Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s vision of Islamic government was theistic, anti-materialist, and utopian.

Orwell saw in both religion and political utopianism a failure to imagine lasting happiness convincingly. In his 1943 essay Can Socialists Be Happy? he described the utopias of H.G. Wells and Jonathan Swift as uninspiring, and Christian and Islamic visions of paradise as somewhere between unappealing and nightmarish. A persuasive description of happiness, he argued, necessarily involved pleasures fleeting and incomplete.

Yet Orwell had no trouble imagining the elation of revolutionaries in their moment of triumph, and he conveys movingly the animals’ overthrow of drunken farmer Jones in Animal Farm. The animals’ happiness doesn’t last. Mirroring closely the history of Russia from the 1917 revolution to — appropriately for this article — the 1943 Tehran conference, Animal Farm’s allegory to the Islamic Republic is limited by specifics, but complements the broader narrative of revolution betrayed.

Khomeini resembled Orwell’s Napoleon only insofar as he shifted the aims of a once-popular revolution, but he differed from Orwell’s pigs in that he seems to have had no pecuniary motive and appears to have lived, more or less, by the strictures he set for others. Here, Khamenei has a point: Islam, as understood by Khomeini, was not Soviet communism. Nor does Iranian history provide any ready analogue for Old Major, the Middle White boar representing Karl Marx, who prophesies revolution from his deathbed.

On the other hand, the tripartite rivalry between Animal Farm and the neighboring farms of Foxwood and Pinchfield does mirror the early Islamic Republic’s dual enmity with the United States and the Soviet Union, while Napoleon’s exile of his revolutionary companion, Snowball, corresponds to the Islamic Republic’s marginalization and house arrest of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who was expected to succeed Khomeini until he clashed with the founder over his bloody excesses.

Orwell depicts the axis between religion and power in the form of Moses, Jones’ tame raven, who consoles the other animals in their hardship by promising them afterlife in a paradise called "Sugarcandy Mountain." He flees the revolution in its happy stage, only to return — with the pigs’ acceptance — once the ideals of the revolution are lost. While the Khomeinist story arguably reverses this narrative, it may interest readers to know that, in opposing the Shah of Iran, Khomeini urged his followers to act "like Moses before the Pharaoh of our age."

Nineteen Eighty-Four, by contrast, makes for a smoother satire on modern theocracy. The novel’s protagonist, Winston Smith, lives in Airstrip One, a devastated future Britain belonging to Oceania, the English-speaking bloc in a world of unending tripartite conflict. Under the totalitarian surveillance of Big Brother - a dictator who may or may not exist — he is employed in the demoralizing work of fabricating, forging, and falsifying historical records, backing up a notionally infallible party line, and destroying the reputations of heretics.

Citizens of Oceania are required to gather regularly for mass expressions of hatred for Oceania’s enemies. There are public hangings. But apart from political behaviour the state expects, Winston observes, there are "no laws." ("There are no laws here!" is a common expression of frustration with the style of Khomeinist rule in Iran, though not literally true.) Winston’s private rebellion in the form of a love affair, as well as his acceptance of a forbidden book, leads to his arrest and torture in the Ministry of Love by the "urbane" Inner Party member, O’Brien. (Urbanity, this author has heard from people detained in Iran in 2009, is a trait of Iranian Intelligence Ministry officials, who speak well and dress to the height of fashion. The ministry, amusingly, was founded in 1984.)

O’Brien’s breaking of Winston takes the form of an inquisition in which Winston’s heretical thoughts are examined and re-subordinated to consensus. "God is power," O’Brien tells Winston, adding, "We are the priests of power."

Here, parallels from the early days of the Iranian revolution leap to the fore. O’Brien boasts that the Party is not interested in wealth or luxury — which Khomeini wasn’t. He asserts that the Party determines the laws of nature, recalling revolutionaries’ claim to have seen their imam’s face in the moon. His warning that "The proletarians will never revolt... The rule of the Party is forever" reflects the Islamic Republic’s current claim to have the permanent mass support of the pious poor — whose 33 years of political quiescence validate the Khomeinist experiment in perpetuity.

Happily for Iranians, no country is Airstrip One, and Iran is unlikely to fulfill O’Brien’s prophecy of "a boot stamping on a human face — forever."

Yet the slights the state continually directs at Iran’s secular, urban liberals — such as holding a public hanging at the Artists Park or interfering with their refuge at Cafe Prague — are exercises in dominance and submission. Orwell’s O’Brien gives a convincing explanation for why dictatorship (whether for God, the proletariat, or its own ends) can never afford to be benign:

"How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?"

Winston thought. "By making him suffer," he said.

"Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own?"

Even the curtailing of small pleasures embodies this sadistic logic and demonstrates that all animals were never equal in Khomeini’s rural imagination.


Roland Elliot Brown writes on arts and politics from London. The author wishes to acknowledge the contribution of Nikahang Kowsar, who suggested Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri’s similarity to Snowball.


—Foreign Policy

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