Radical-Right Demonization of Soleimani and Iran: Islamophobic Weaponry in the Public Sphere

 

Major-General Qasem Soleimani

“We all know Iran, don’t we? Or at least we think we do”. So said John Simpson, BBC World Affairs Editor, on air in the early 1990s. A veteran Iran reporter, Simpson had accompanied Ayatollah Khomeini on his return flight to Iran in 1979 from exile in France. The point he was making was that Iran had become so demonized in the Western media that objectivity and facts about Iran were not in the public perception. The common ‘armchair’ judgement by people ignorant of Iran and its people was: Iranians are a bad lot. This widespread demonization has continued and become more entrenched over the past 25 years, as successive US administrations, aided and abetted by gullible, lazy – and yes, prejudiced – journalists and commentators, have pumped out endless pieces of anti-Iranian propaganda.

Whatever is claimed as justification, such propaganda has not only demonized Iran but also added to a general climate of post-9/11 Islamophobia. The overall effect of Islamophobia has developed beyond a basic fear of Islam and Muslims and engendered hatred of them[1]. Indeed, Lukinykh (2015, 129-136) refers to deliberately false assertions and falsification of facts aimed at provoking fear and hatred of Muslims.

This article examines one particular contributr to Islamophobia (namely, the demonization of Iran) through one particular case i.e. the US government and radical-right justification of the US assassination on 3 January 2020 of Major-General Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force. For economy and focus, the article does not consider the rights and wrongs of his assassination, rather it seeks to understand what created Soleimani’s world-view and drove him to embark on a lifetime mission with the Quds Force. Was the reality of the man close to or very distant from the egregious assertions and characterisation of him by Trump, the White House, their Alt-Right supporters in the media, and the US’s close allies?

An Ordinary Young Man in Extraordinary Times

Soleimani was born in 1957 in a village in Kerman Province into a poor working class Iranian family in which austerity coupled with Muslim observance of modesty and morality would have been typical*[2]. As he grew up, not having, nor being encouraged to have, any big expectations of life, was the social norm. During his childhood, the family moved to Kerman, the capital city of the province, and in his late teens he got a job with the local water company. All this ordinary and uneventful life was about to change. Throughout 1978 , there was increasing social unrest across Iran, largely focussed on what the public perceived as Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s triple failures (Waring, 2018, 210-213): (1) to ensure that his ‘enghelab-e sefid” or White Revolution, designed to modernise Iran in such areas as the economy, jobs, technology, land reform, education, social reform, and female emancipation, actually delivered to the population, (2) to stand up to the US who had been controlling Iran’s government since the CIA-orchestrated coup of 1953 with the Shah as its puppet, and (3) to curb the Americanisation of all aspects of life in Iran (so-called gharbzadegi or ‘westoxification’ (Al-e Ahmad, 1982; Ansari, 2006) and the erosion of Iranian culture and Muslim values.

As Waring (2018, 213-215) summarises, a revolution (often misunderstood in the West) was brewing and by September 1978 martial law had been declared in most of Iran’s cities[3]. Another misconception is that Khomeini’s return marked the inception date of the Islamic revolution. Rather, it marked the inception of an interim government in which a spectrum of political interests co-existed, in line with popular expectations of creating a secular parliamentary democracy with pluralistic representation. Those hopes and expectations were dashed, as over the next 18 months Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic Republican Party systematically eliminated, repressed or outlawed all groups who threatened their position. It was during this period that Soleimani joined the fledgling IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps).

Forged Under Fire

On 22 September 1980, Iraq under Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in what became an eight-year war. Cities such as Khorramshahr, Abadan and Ahwaz in the oil-rich southwestern Khuzestan Province bore the brunt of the initial attack. The fighting in Khorramshahr was so fierce throughout the war that it became known as ‘Khuninshahr’ or City of Blood. These frontline cities became a testbed for Iran’s urban guerrilla and asymmetric warfare techniques in the face of superior Iraqi firepower (see e.g. Yahosseini and Houshang, 2015). Soleimani was in the thick of such resistance, where he earned distinction as a bold and fearless frontline and behind-enemy-lines leader who never wore a flak jacket, a lifetime idiosyncracy.

In many ways, fighting for national survival became coincident with fighting for the survival of the Islamic revolution. For Iranians, the war became a war against all ‘shetanha-ye farangi’ (foreign devils) seeking to either dictate to Iran or destroy it. At the time, it seemed to many Iranians that the whole world (led by the US) was ranged against them and determined for Saddam Hussein to defeat them. For Soleimani, it became an epiphany whereby he understood that he now had a bounden duty to fight evil, especially where it threatened Iran, and this meant that, psychologically and spiritually, he was on a permanent war footing, which carried on after the war ended. He is quoted thus: “The warfront is mankind’s lost paradise”.

Soleimani’s transformational wartime experience was not unique. I have met a number of Iranian veterans who prior to September 1980 were variously young bank officials, office workers or wealthy playboys. Suddenly, one was a tank commander fighting tank battles on the western front and others were in self-organised militias using small arms, Kalashnikovs and RPGs in the bloody house-to-house fighting in Khorramshahr. All of them emerged from the war having lost most of their comrades and were paranoid about Iran’s external enemies. While still mostly ‘secular’ Shia Muslims (e.g. not going to the mosque regularly or praying three times a day), after the war they nonetheless adopted Muslim principles of faith as a moral compass giving them strength of purpose to do good and defeat evil in their daily lives. Patriotism is a key characteristic of Iranians and, as in 1980, even those today who long for regime change would, in an instant, rally to the flag (‘zeereh parcham!’) at any threat of foreign invasion.

ISIS and Other Existential Threats

However, Soleimani’s life mission of saving Iran and the world from evil was most certainly not a version of the Sunni extremist ‘jihadi’ concept, despite what many among the Western radical-right have asserted. For example, there is no evidence that he or those around him have ever engaged in proselytising, forced conversions, enslavement, Sharia law punishments or maltreatment of non-Muslims. Indeed, it was his revulsion at the sheer evil of Al Qaeda and ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) on such criteria that made them an enemy that must be defeated. He became known popularly as ‘Hajj Qasem’ (Holy Qasem).

When Soleimani became leader of the Quds Force in 1998, he organised around him old wartime comrades, including his deputy General Esmail Ghaani, who is now the new Quds Force commander-in-chief. They all share Soleimani’s world-view that since Iran’s enemies (US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and their proxies in the region, plus ISIS and Al Qaeda) threaten Iran’s sovereignty, independence and security, then precautions must be taken to defeat them, deter them and keep them away from Iran’s borders.[4]

Was He a Saint, the Epitome of Evil, or a Ruthlessly Successful Commander?

To some, Soleimani was Hajj Qasem, a true shaheed (martyr) who put Iran and issar kardan (self-sacrifice) before all else. Ayatollah Khamenei called him “a living martyr of the revolution”. To others, such as Trump, he was “a monster”, the epitome of evil with blood on his hands. To yet others, he was a masterful military strategist and tactician and a ruthlessly successful commander who led from the front. Of note, even adversaries such as retired US General David Petraeus and Brigadier-General Stanley McChrystal, both of whom met Soleimani during their years in Iraq, have expressed their respect for his professional skills and dedication. Despite accusing him of masterminding deadly IED (improvised explosive device) attacks against Coalition forces, they have never referred to him as an evil monster. Such experts also acknowledge Soleimani’s crucial role in the defeat of ISIS in Iraq. The Trump White House and its radical-right supporters and commentators, however, are happy to stop such facts getting in the way of their ignorance and emotional prejudices. Fake facts aim to discredit Soleimani’s character, rubbish his military leadership, dismiss his key contribution to the defeat of ISIS, and paint him as a crazed, bloodthirsty Islamic terrorist.

Regrettably, as the White House propaganda machine and all its useful repeaters are so dominant in the media, it is inevitable that their egregious version of Soleimani will prevail in the West. The fallout from this is a reinforcement among the public of Islamophobia and a very outdated view of Iran.

Dr Alan Waring is a retired risk analyst and former Visiting Professor, now Adjunct Professor, at CERIDES (Centre for Risk and Decision Sciences) https://www.cerides.euc.ac.cy at the European University Cyprus. He is author of several books on risk, including editing and contributing to the two-volume anthology The New Authoritarianism: A Risk Analysis of the Alt-Right Phenomenon (2018, 2019 Ibidem Verlag).

© Alan Waring.  Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

References

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Allen, C. (2010). Islamophobia. (Abingdon: Routledge).

Allen, C. (2020). Reconfiguring Islamophobia: A Radical Rethinking of a Contested Concept. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan).

Ansari, A. (2006). Confronting Iran: The Failure of American Foreign Policy and the Next Great Conflict in the Middle East. (New York: Basic Books/Perseus Books Group).

Blumi, I. and Hacisalihoğlu, M. (2015). ‘Introduction to the Special Issue: Islamophobia in Europe’ in Halit Eren (ed), Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture, IRCICA Journal Vol III, Issue 6, 2015, 13-28.

Bangstad, S. and Helland, F. (2019). ‘The rhetoric of Islamophobia: an analysis of the means of persuasion in Hege Storhaug’s writings on Islam and Muslims’. Ethic and Racial Studies, 17 April 2019, DOI:10.1080/01419870.2019.1615630.

Bayrakli, E. and Hafez, F. (eds), (2018). European Islamophobia Report 2017. Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA). (Istanbul: SETA).

Feldman, M. and Allchorn, W. (2019). ‘A working definition of anti-Muslim hatred with a focus on hate crime work’, paper presented 15 May 2019 at CARR Conference on Islamophobia 15-17 May 2019, American International University, London.

Kallis, A. (2018). ‘Islamophobia in UK: National Report 2017’, in Enes Bayrakli and Farid Hafez (eds), European Islamophobia Report 2017. 672-706. Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA). (Istanbul: SETA).

Lukynich, E. (2015). ‘Patriotism as the modern justification of Islamophobia’ in Halit Eren (ed), Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture, IRCICA Journal, Vol III, Issue 6, 2015, 123-153.

Mondon, A. and Winter, A. (2018). ‘Liberal and illiberal Islamophobias’, in Isobel Ingham-Barrow (ed), More than Words: Approaching a Definition of Islamophobia, 36-37. (London: MEND Muslim Engagement and Development, June 2018).

Waring, A. (2018). ‘The Alt-Right anti-Iran project’, in Alan Waring (ed), The New Authoritarianism Vol 1: A Risk Analysis of the US Alt-Right Phenomenon, 207-245. (Stuttgart: Ibidem Verlag).

Yahosseini S.G. and Houshang, S. (2015). Navy Rangers in Khorramshahr (in Farsi). 3rd edition. (Tehran: Sayed Ghassem Yahosseini).

 

[1] See e.g. Allen (2010), Allen (2020), Bangstad and Helland (2019), Bayrakli and Hafez (2018), Blumi and Hacisalihoğlu (2015), Feldman and Allchorn (2019), Kallis (2018), Lukinykh (2015) and Mondon and Winter (2018).

[2] *One biography lists his religion as Christian. Although possible, we can allege that this category seems unlikely.

[3] A common misunderstanding in the West is that the 1979 revolution was an Islamic one. Certainly, Muslim clerics at all levels in the Shia hierarchy were prominent and many showed leadership during the growing turbulence.  They owed their allegiance to Ayatollah Khomeini, the Shia leader exiled in Paris. However, the revolution was as much popular as Islamic and would have almost certainly failed without the engagement of a broad social spectrum – workers, technocrats, bazaaris, intellectuals, socialists, Marxists, nationalists, democrats, students etc. The Shah buckled and went into exile on 3 January 1979, with Ayatollah Khomeini arriving in triumph from Paris on 1 February.

[4] This Soleimani doctrine called ‘the axis of resistance’ is known in the West as the ‘arc of control’, whereby Iran has either supported pro-Iran regimes or proxies (e.g. Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen), or backed anti-ISIS Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria, or backed pro-Iranian political groups and militia in Iraq whose population is two-thirds Shia Muslims.