William O. Beeman, formerly of Brown University and now professor and chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, as well as president of the Middle East section of the American Anthropological Association, has some strange ideas about the theocratic regime in Iran.
He seems to think that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recurring threats to annihilate Israel and the regime's forging ahead with a nuclear program against the wishes of the international community, holding Holocaust denial conferences, taking British soldiers hostage, detaining a number of foreign and domestic pro-democracy intellectuals and activists, all the while repressing its own population and actively aiding the murderous insurgency in Iraq, constitutes the "exquisite art" of "politeness."
Beeman indicated as much in a July 23, 2007 article for New America Media titled "How to Talk the Talk with Iran" (scroll down to second article). As he put it:
Politeness is an exquisite art in Iran; it is especially appreciated in difficult negotiations. One can see this demonstrated in public encounters between Iranian officials themselves.
This confounding comment appeared alongside other inanities, mostly regarding Beeman's belief that the U.S. government, in its dealings with Iran, should prostrate itself at the feet of the mullahs and do all it can to avoid inflaming their apparently delicate sensibilities. He phrased it like so:
If the talks are to be about stability in Iraq, the United States must not bias them by making pre-conditions about other issues - such as Iran's nuclear program. It must acknowledge that Iran has an equal and respected position in creating stability in the region. Language must be unfailingly polite and humble.
The United States must avoid making accusations against Iran. Frankly, from Iran's perspective, the United States has no standing to make such accusations. It is neither respected as a social or cultural superior, nor has it acted as an acknowledged patron of Iran or its people. If talks are productive, the accusatory matters can be handled once relations are on a more even keel.
…The first rule in Iranian negotiations is that both sides must exhibit mutual respect, even if they harbor virulent hatred for each other. Iran is a hierarchical society, and negotiations are stabilized by balanced reciprocity in terms of respect. Each party elevates the other party in status and humbles him or herself in turn. In this way hierarchy is preserved, but mutuality is maintained.
…Second, Iranians will not tolerate accusations or accept blame except from those with whom they have a personal relationship that embodies respect because of their superior social or political position, morality or accomplishments.
…Finally, the United States must speak with sincerity about mutual desires to cooperate with the Iranian government on matters of mutual interest. Nothing could be more essential to both nations than stability in Iraq. There can be ho holding back here. The message must be from the heart, and unqualified.
Apparently, Beeman thinks that obeisance is the key to good negotiations, as long as it's demonstrated by just one-side---the United States, that is. In his relativistic universe, where the belief that a democracy has no inherent moral superiority to a theocratic and oppressive regime is deemed valid, it's the Iranian government that's the aggrieved party, not those on the receiving end of its aggression. Given that Beeman is the author of a book (reviewed by Middle East Quarterly editor Michael Rubin) titled The "Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs": How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other, his equivocating isn't surprising.
It's also curious that in the New American Media article, Beeman makes no mention of fellow academic Haleh Esfandiari, who was detained by the Iranian regime while visiting her mother in May of this year and has been imprisoned ever since. Esfandiari is the director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and, along with fellow Iranian-American Kian Tajbakhsh of the Soros Institute, and Iranian-Canadian academic Ramin Jahanbaglou, she was forced to take part in a televised "confession" to the effect that her promotion of democracy and women's rights in Iran was part of a U.S. plot to undermine the regime.
Other Iranian-American detainees include Radio Farda journalist Parnaz Azima, and founding board member at UC Irvine's Center for Citizen Peacebuilding Ali Shakeri. The regime is accusing the entire group of being spies, a crime that, in Iran, merits the death penalty.
One has to wonder: were it Beeman rotting away inside Tehran's notorious Evin prison and facing possible death, would he take such a sunny view of the Iranian regime's "exquisite art" of "politeness." Somehow, I doubt it.
Update (7/27): The following is Professor Beeman's response:
Dear Campus Watch,
Cinnamon Stillwell badly mischaracterizes my article published through New America Media ("University of Minnesota's William Beeman Praises Iranian Regime, Ignores Detainees" July 26, 2007).
I do not "praise Iran" in the article, which Ms. Stillwell has not read carefully. The article explains Iranian communication dynamics, and offers advice for those who would enter into negotiations with Iranians. I explain that elaborate courtesy for both parties is a normal feature of Iranian public communication, and does not imply any actual approval or positive evaluation of the other party--as Ms. Stillwell would have her readers believe. This and other structures of Iranian communication is analyzed in my Language, Status and Power in Iran.
Dealing with the detainees was an issue that was irrelevant to the article, but for the record, I have condemned the holding of Iranian-American detainees Haleh Esfandiari and Kian Tajbakhsh in public forums, in print and directly to the Iranians themselves on their own broadcast media. In fact, I am to my knowledge the only person anywhere who has condemned these detentions on Iranian television or radio.
William O. Beeman
Cinnamon Stillwell responds:
It was certainly not my intention to mischaracterize Professor Beeman's New American Media article, but, rather, to read it as would a lay person. That is, with common sense. And in this light, the article still comes across to me as an apologia for the belligerance of the Iranian regime. Certainly, communication styles vary among different cultures, but this does not mean that there aren't certain underlying truths that cross all cultural boundaries. In its dealings with the Iran, therefore, I do not share Prof. Beeman's contention that it is the United States government that needs to alter its mannerisms in order to appease a regime that has done nothing but express hostility and outright aggression towards America and its allies, but rather the other way around.
Furthermore, I highly doubt that adjusting our "structures of communication" will in fact succeed where all other approaches have thus far failed. When one side of a dispute is bent on the outright destruction of the other, there is little one can do, short of rising to the challenge at hand, to convince them otherwise.
Prof. Beeman's approach asks that the United States alter itself accordingly, but not that the Iranian regime reciprocate. This is where my impression that he is not placing both on an equal footing, but, rather, implying the superiority of one over another comes in. His reference to the "exquisite art" of "politeness" allegedly practiced by Iranian officials, coupled with condescending advice to the United States to be "polite and humble" only strengthens this impression. However, I will concede that this may not have been his intention.
As for Prof. Beeman's lack of reference to the foreign academic and activist detainees currently being held by the Iranian regime, I was specifically pointing to the New American Media article at hand. It just seemed odd that in a piece that took such pains to advise the United States to kowtow to Iranian mores, he would leave out the fact that the regime in question happens to be holding U.S. citizens, among others, hostage. This hardly strikes me as "irrelevant" to the article at hand.
But I appreciate the fact that he has otherwise condemned the inhumane actions of the Iranian regime in this regard, including appearing on Iranian television and radio (which, it should be noted, are entirely state-run). I would only hope that Prof. Beeman uses these spheres of influence to impart a clear and unequivocal condemnation.