Unmasking The Iranian Identity In The U.S. Media

September 28, 2009

With Iran continuing to dominate international news media, I thought it an important exercise to distinguish Iran from other Middle Eastern countries. 

Because of the representations of the Middle East that the U.S. is exposed to through various forms of mass media, Americans hold many stereotypes about the region: lavish sheiks, militant clerics, harems, cruel punishments, oil, and totalitarianism represent the Arab portion. The Israelis are viewed as being heroic, outnumbered, and tough. Yet, accurate representations of non-Arab countries like Iran often get lost due to the tendency of Americans to confuse and oversimplify cultural representations. 

The mass media perform an educative function. They produce learning whether distorted or not. In situations like foreign news broadcasting, Americans are regularly taught about areas and subjects of which little was previously known. Americans depend heavily on news media for their understanding and attitude of foreign cultural products. But the U.S. news media strives for “hooks” and “angles” in their reporting so that a story will become more interesting to the American public. Such stories usually contribute little to the American public’s authentic understanding of a country. These stories regularly result in disorderly and ethnocentric, conflict-oriented coverage. 

For an undistorted view of Iran, journalism must recognize the importance of providing a socio-historical context. This does not mean that I believe all reporters should utilize anthropologists in their information gathering. But reporters interpret the information that they gather, and such an interpretation is culturally bound. Western reporters view such information with a Western lens. So to overcome this shortcoming, reporters should be aware of how their own biases can color a story. In the end, the press frames on a day-to-day, situation-to-situation basis a highly generalized sense of things. 

Iran is populated primarily by Shiites. In the United States, Shia Islam is identified primarily with militancy, anti-Americanism, and terrorism. These representations have obscured the cultural richness of the Shia religious tradition, its diverse belief systems, and its differing attitudes. Shia is a religion born out of oppression. The origins of the denomination go back to the death of Islam’s prophet Mohammed. The community was plunged into crises over who would succeed the prophet as leader. The transition of leadership set in motion a sequence of events that led to early division, rebellion, and historic conflict in Islam. The Shia community itself has since split into two major branches over the issue of leadership. The branches are known as Twelvers and Seveners. These numerical designations stem from the death or disappearance of their respective Imams and the resulting disruption of succession within the branches. Shia theology has resolved the problem of the Imam’s absence with the doctrine of the “hidden Imam.” This doctrine explains that a messianic figure known as the Madhi will usher in paradise at the end of the world. 

The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has implicitly claimed to be the Madhi when he did not deny being the figure during an interview. Analysts have used this as one of many reasons as to how the Ayatollah has been able to hold onto power. 

Local belief, practice, and culture heavily influence how Shia Islam is practiced and understood from area to area. Shia’s particularly venerate the shrines of local Muslim saints. These shrines have been historical targets for destruction by Sunni militants, because many Sunnis’ denounce the worshipping of saints, and in some cases, their appearance did not conform to Wahhabi iconoclastic aesthetics. As in Catholicism, locality plays an important role in Shiite’s preferences for saints and customs for worship. Yet with all of the diversity in Shia Islam, the news media tends to clump the immense and innumerable Shia traditions together into a giant muddied whole. 

Islamic revivalism has stunted Iran’s march toward “Western” modernization. The causes of the resurgence varied by region within Iran. Failed local political systems, local economies, and a widespread loss of identity (both local and national) were leading causes. Iran remains a security (mukhabarat) state whose rulers focus on retaining their power and privilege by focusing on military and security forces at the cost of societal modernization. 

The country’s official language of Persian (Farsi) helps to keep Iran culturally isolated from much of the Middle East where Arabic is the dominant language. While Persian and Arabic share an alphabet, they are completely different languages with completely different pronunciations. This causes difficulties with Iran sharing in cultural products such as news, entertainment, and religious services with the majority of the Middle Eastern region. This fact is especially important to consider when grouping Iran into the rest of the Middle East in the American imagination. 

For a more systemic and accurate picture of Iran, future news reporting will have to nuance how local issues help shape national debates in Iran; as well as, how Iran does and does not shape larger issues within the Middle Eastern region.

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