what is this i don’t even? (rachel maddow and iran edition)

Rachel Maddow had a frankly bizarre segment on her show yesterday (no embed because FYWP!) that I feel compelled to comment about even though that’s already been done by Shirin Sadeghi at HuffPo. Apparently other countries have funny holidays HAHA THEY ARE NOT LIKE US AND THEREFORE STRANGE AND SILLY.

What the fu–?

She opens by remarking that our next federal holiday is some ways off and that America, generally, observes a paltry number of federal holidays (only 10!). In a country that shamefully trails the rest of the industrialized world in humanely allowing workers to take paid time off, this seems like an excellent jumping off point for a “liberal” voice with a big media platform to make a case for bringing our national policies in that area in line with countries where workers are, say, less miserable than we are here. But no! Maddow veers off into some weird segue about dictatorships and how they “force” citizens to celebrate SO MANY WACKY HOLIDAYS THEY ARE SO WEIRD LET US POINT AND LAUGH AT THEM. This is offensive enough as it is; are we supposed to agree that one of the truly heinous things that unaccountable dictatorships do is…make people take time off? What makes it worse is that her first target of derision is Iran (a whopping 28 national holidays!), and she gets so many things wrong about Iran that it’s almost impossible to know where to begin (quoting Sadeghi):

Except, oops. She places the beginning of the Iranian dictatorship at 1979, with the return to Iran of Ayatollah Khomeini and the formation of the Islamic Republic, unknowingly omitting the unfortunate debacle we’ll simply refer to here as “the monarchy,” which was led by “the monarch” whose autocratic failures are too numerous to detail here.

And, double oops. The dictator Ayatollahs didn’t tell Iranians to celebrate Nowruz, as Maddow has listed on her graphic — quite the opposite, they tried to ban it, calling it un-Islamic and blasphemous. The fact that it’s on Maddow’s list in 2013 is a testament to the Iranian people who continued and continue to celebrate this ancient holiday as part of their cultural tradition no matter who or what is in power.

As a final nail in the coffin of her ignorance (either that or her shortage of qualified interns), the graphic which Maddow used for the segment included a number of typos, not least was a curious reference to an April 14 Iranian holiday called “Martyrdom of Hazart Fatemesh,” an unfortunate reference to what Iranians refer to as the martyrdom of Hazrat Fatemeh or Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet (hazrat being an honorific title), an individual who is highly revered throughout the Muslim world but who Maddow and her team saw fit to mock.

Now, I’m willing to give Maddow the benefit of the doubt on Nowruz (full disclosure: I kind of like her, but then I really haven’t watched much prime time cable “news” in a long time with the exception of tuning in around the election, so maybe she’s this bad on other stuff too), because she just includes it on a list of Iran’s national holidays without explicitly saying that Iranians are “forced” to observe it (though the implication is clear and totally inaccurate, but maybe also unintentional). But there’s other stuff wrong with this little segment too.

First is the insistence on referring to Iran’s political structure as a “dictatorship,” which seems true only if we’re redefining “dictatorship” to mean “any system of governance that we don’t like.” Iran is ultimately governed by a single figure, the Supreme Leader, chosen from among the leading Shi’ite scholars of the nation. He (and, unfortunately, something really ground-breaking would have to take place to change that to “he or she”) has full veto power over the other branches of the government as well as direct control over national security, foreign affairs, and religious affairs (including the judiciary). Dictatorial, yes. But underneath the Supreme Leader is an elected presidency and an elected legislature that usually have considerable latitude to act on purely domestic affairs. There’s another body, called the Assembly of Experts, that is also elected. Their job? To choose a new Supreme Leader upon the death or removal of the incumbent. These are not the institutions of a dictatorship. Now, there is yet another body, the Guardian Council, made up of 12 senior jurists (half selected by the Supreme Leader, half by the elected legislature) that acts a bit like our Supreme Court in that it can overturn laws deemed to conflict with the Iranian Constitution or with Islamic Law, but that also gets to vet candidates for national elections to ensure their compliance. This limits the democratic elements of the system since real outside voices are usually not even permitted to stand for election. Still, this is a theocracy for sure, but dictatorship? It’s no more dictatorial than the above-mentioned “monarchy” was.

Now, I knew a lot of this already, but because I wanted to check myself I Googled “Iranian government” and had all of this available to me without having to do any further research. Rachel Maddow’s team at MSNBC can’t do that?

There’s more to complain about. Sadeghi mentions the butchery of “Hazrat Fatimah” above, and notes the “outright Saidian orientalism” of the whole thing, but the idea that observing Shi’ite martyrdoms is about celebrating “other people the dictatorship wants you to celebrate” is ignorant and offensive in the extreme. Iran observes six national holidays around the deaths of seven important figures in Shi’ite history (two, Muhammad and his grandson Hasan, are honored on the same day). These are figures who have been honored by Shi’ites everywhere for centuries, their martyrdoms in particular since the often-violent struggle against the majority Sunni branch of Islam is the dominant narrative of Shi’ite development. The martyrdom of Imam Husayn, Ashura, is a national holiday in Iraq, because Iraqi Shi’ites observe it, and not because the Iranian “dictatorship” makes them. This is deplorably shoddy journalism, to the extent that it’s supposed to be journalistic at all.

Oh, and HAHA THEY HAVE A HOLIDAY ON THE DAY WHEN SOME IMPORTANT NATIONAL FIGURE DIED, which is so arbitrary and weird, not like our totally sensible and not at all arbitrary celebrations of the days when important national figures were born.

The whole thing then veers again into a discussion about North Korea, which again VILE DICTATORSHIP CELEBRATES MORE HOLIDAYS THAN WE DO AND MUST BE DESTROYED. Maddow ties Kim Il Sung’s upcoming birthday, a national holiday for North Korea, to whatever Kim Jong Un is doing with his missile/nuclear program at the moment, and for all anybody really knows about North Korea belittling Kim Il Sung’s birthday may be offensive too. Maddow’s assumption is that people are forced to celebrate the holiday by their repressive government, but how does she know that for sure?

Not a strong segment, for sure.


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