Iran: The Mullahs’ Discomfort With Persian Language

Like in most Indo-European languages, sentence arrangement in the Persian language is based on subject, object, verb or SOV in linguistic code. (In Arabic it is the other way round!) This means that the first thing that a Persian sentence does is to identify the subject (in Arabic: Fa’el), the doer of what is done. The key advantage of that sentence structure is clarity. You know who did what to whom before learning when and how and why.

But what if, for whatever reason, you fear clarity and wish to hide reality behind a fog of delusion and diversion.

In clerical terms, what if you wish to practice taqiyeh (obfuscation) or “kitman ” (dissimulation).

Throughout the ages some writers, many of them mullahs, have tried to cope with that problem by using a lexical device called “nakereh” (unknown) that allows the writer or the speaker to be vague about the subject of the sentence. Thus, instead of identifying the subject at the start of the sentence you might say “It happened that…” Or they did …”

Examples of the use of this device are numerous in the writings of Shi’ite theologians from Muhammad-Baqer Majlisi to the more recent and far deeper Alameh Tabataba’i.

But the device has also been used by politicians and diplomats. In 1941 when Russian and British troops invaded Iran to use its railways to ferry arms to the Soviet Union, the then prime Minister Muhammad Ali Forughi had this to say on Tehran Radio: They come, and they go, and they won’t bother anyone!”

He couldn’t bear telling the truth in good Persian: “The British and the Russians have invaded our country!”

In 1989, when the late Ayatollah Khomeini was forced to admit that he cannot march to Jerusalem via Karbala in Iraq, he didn’t say that his tragic gable had failed. He said: “It has been decided to accept the ceasefire.”

More recently, the Islamic Republic team that concocted the Obama “nuclear deal” used the device in drafting the Persian version of the 179-page “fact-sheet” in which you read that this or that “will be done” without ever finding out who is supposed to do it. Anxious to secure some legacy for Obama, the Americans fell for the trick, going around claiming that Iran was going to do this or that.

Some writers, like my late friend Jalal Al-Ahmad, who moved from Communism to Islamism, used a different version of the device by putting the verb in the middle of the sentence in his writings, creating the confusion he desired.

There are many disadvantages to the use of that device, especially in politics as the public are never told exactly who the competing sides in any argument are.

Consider this from newly re-elected President Hassan Rouhani’s talk with reporters in Tehran last week: “Some pretend to be experts in measuring people’s piety and attachment to revolution, and cut down whoever is taller than them!” Asked by a reporter to name who “some” are, Rouhani said: Beyond them there is one taking decisions”.

Without saying who that person was. (Rouhani’s utterances were censored on state-owned Islamic radio and TV but are available on YouTube!)

The “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also sues the verbal trick. Addressing a group of militant “students” last week, he said: “Of course, my words are addressed at everyone to do what they can and if {institutions} of state don’t do their functions to act on their own as in battlefield when time comes for free fire.”

It is obvious that Rouhani and Khamenei are ultimately referring to each other in the context of the struggle for power within the narrow Khomeinist clique of which both are members. Yet, neither of them is prepared to adopt a normal political posture which is to identify the “other side” in a debate, spell out any difference there is and ask for public support for one’s own position. The myth of “Islamic unanimity” must be maintained at the cost of the truth.

Last week, some members of the Islamic Majlis, Iran’s ersatz parliament, used the trick to show their unhappiness about the government’s failure or unwillingness to provide a coherent account of the terror attacks that shook Tehran.

Here is one member, Ahmad Zamani: Six days after the attacks there is still no account of what really happened.

And here is another member, Muhammad Qassim Zamani: The attackers must have had command and control and support network about which we know nothing.

And another member, Muhammad-Reza Tabesh: Help must have been there for terrorists, otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to do what they did.

Like Khamenei and Rouhani, the three Majlis members wish to please their real or imagined constituency without committing to any clear position. They are not prepared to name the security services, the military and their supposed political masters, and blame them for failure to provide a credible narrative of the tragedy.

Language is a medium for exchange of information, ideas, and sentiments in all walks of life, including politics. In the Islamic Republic, however, language is used either to hide things or to relay coded messages that only insiders might understand.

Not having the courage of one’s declared convictions may, at times, be needed for self-protection in a hostile environment, hence the justification some mullahs cite for taqiyeh.

But what about politicians in an environment controlled by themselves?

One might understand why critics of the regime might be censored or otherwise silenced. But, what about state-owned media censoring the incumbent president, not to mention former presidents who have become non-persons?

Rouhani claims that he is a moderate and reformist without ever telling us on what precise issues he is seeking moderation and which aspect of current policy he wishes to reform and how.

For his part, Khamenei is constantly warning against “plotters and Zionist agents” who are trying to sabotage the revolution from within but never tells us who these are and why are they allowed to pursue their misdeeds.

Khomeinist grandees don’t speak or write Persian the way it is supposed to be. This is why the more they speak, the less people know. The only authentic sound is that of knives they are sharpening behind the scenes.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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