Morality, authoritarian fetishes and Iran tourism

Iran's Revolutionary Guards (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iran's Revolutionary Guards
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘Journey 2,500 years back in time to discover the ancient secrets of Persia in this 13-day itinerary incorporating some of the most well preserved archaeological sites in the world. Welcome to the once-forbidden land of Iran.”
Sounds exotic. And the really nice thing about journeying back 2,500 years to Iran at the time of the Achaemenid Empire is that one would encounter a civilization more liberal, tolerant and progressive than the current Iranian regime. But there’s a catch.
As revealed by the indefatigable writers at, The New York Times is behind this weirdo tourism campaign-cum-propaganda for the ayatollahs. The Algemeiner raised the question of whether homosexuals, Israelis or those with an Israel stamp in their passport would be able to take this $7,000 trip through time. It also noted that according to the Times, the time travelers would be accompanied by “Elaine Sciolino, [who] was the Paris bureau chief for the New York Times, and has been traveling to Iran since 1979.”
Sciolino’s claim to fame is that, as she told one interviewer, “The first time I ever went to Iran was with Ayatollah Khomeini, the father [of] Iran’s revolution, on his plane.” She might seem likely to white-wash the Iranian regime, but has been outspoken on its abuses: In her 2001 book Persian Mirrors she pulls no punches in illustrating how Iran suppresses minorities. Bahais, who she says “practice a religion of peace and tolerance,” are persecuted as “infidels... the Islamic Republic considers Bahais infidels and gives them no protection under the Constitution. Bahais cannot vote, but they have to pay taxes and young Bahai men have to perform two years of compulsory military service.”
On the face of it, traveling to Iran to meet “average people” and take in some archaeological sites sounds like an interesting prospect.
However, it brings up the interesting issue of the degree to which morality and tourism should be intertwined. For example, consider a tourism campaign inviting you to meet “average people” and check out ancient battle sites in 1942 Germany. There is something wrong about tourism against the backdrop of mass murder. And what about a visit to Tibet? Is that supporting Chinese repression, or can it be seen as also supporting the local culture? The problem is that once one starts making human rights a tourism litmus test, it becomes difficult to travel anywhere. Many countries are committing various abuses.
Many are dictatorships or have oppressive laws. However, while travel for the sake of travel is one thing, willful blindness and the making of excuses for the brutal nature of many regimes is another.
A good example of such willful blindness is the academic community’s tourism collaboration with dictatorships. Several years ago I was on the academic conference circuit. One international geography conference I attended was held in Tunis. The “Big Man” Zine el-Abidine Ben-Ali’s portrait adorned every other billboard, and posters festooned walls in the city and near the conference venue. No one spoke a word about the government during the conference. Two years later it was overthrown.
Another academic conference ran a special trip to “explore Syria.” No mention was made during the trip of President Bashar Assad’s human rights abuses. This was made almost comically evident in a paper by one Gianluca Serra, who wrote about opportunities for “ecotourism in the Palmyra desert, Syria” in February 2007. He gave a special thanks to “her excellency Mrs. Asma al-Assad” in the article.
Serra’s ecotourism proposal for an area once run by Assad and currently run by Islamic State is just a kind of tip of the iceberg. Is it willful blindness or outright support for these regimes that drives the multitude who want to visit their countries, and excuse their behavior? In a post on a travel website called Adventure Divas, a woman asks: “I’m heading off for a Muslim land soon and, well, I’ve just got a thing about veils. Hate everything I think they represent. What’s the origin of them, and as a Western progressive grrrl, am I just inappropriately projecting my own politics on the situation?” The “progressive” response she receives is that “you need to wear a veil in Iran,” and the author notes, “The practice of veiling pre-dates Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him – get used to saying that every time you mention his name). The veil symbolizes not just women’s modesty, but men’s as well. Men are not tempted to act like jerks when they can’t see a woman’s body, face and hair.”
The author’s premise here is that people should honor the rules of those whose houses they enter – and this is where tourism crosses the line into total submission to moral relativism and subjugation of the self. It is one thing to take one’s shoes off at a temple in India, it is quite another to embrace every cultural code of Indian society. In Qatar people beat their maids. Should you beat a maid to blend in? The “progressive” travel writer thinks so: “As an outsider, would you travel into White Is Right territory in deepest Mississippi and walk around trying to convince the folks that we should all practice Eracism?” I for one don’t see why I have to accept racism to travel to Mississippi – not to mention the fact that her caricature of Mississippi caters to the lowest common denominator.
Rabbi Brant Rosen’s ill-conceived trip to Iran in 2008 is symptomatic of how interest in the ‘other’ becomes white-washing of nefarious policies. Along with Hebrew Union College rabbinical student Saran Bassin and Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb. They hung out with Ayatollah Bojnoordi, and there is a spooky photo of them making mock gang signs in front of what appears to be a mosque.
Rabbi Rosen claimed that “Americans (and especially American Jews) chronically misunderstand Iran.... The most essential thing I’ve learned is in some ways the most basic: Iran is a beautiful country with a venerable history and wonderful, gracious people.”
Instead of condemning president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he claimed there was “rhetorical debate over the actual Farsi meaning of Ahmadinejad’s words,” apparently relating to whether Ahmadinejad wanted to wipe Israel off the map or just Israelis. Either way, the Iranian president’s claim that there “are no gays in Iran” and calling gay people “ugly” is indisputable, and yet not condemned.
It is the happy smiles and earnest expressions of Westerners meeting religious leaders who enforce discriminatory laws that is most shocking. Why do the most progressive people in Western society have such an fetish for the most repressive authoritarian regimes? If a religious leader in their own American communities were to call homosexuals “spawn of the devil,” claim that people should be hung publicly, whipped or stoned, or that women should have to cover conceal their whole bodies under a black tent while in public, these same liberals would be the first to step forward. They shout about voter-ID laws in Texas and gay marriage in Arizona, while laws of a far more cruel nature abroad are purposely excused – or even embraced.
That is the essence of what is currently happening with Iran. Those who like Iran tend to have a soft spot for it, or other dictatorships, that they don’t have for perfectly decent democracies. There are 12 countries in Latin America, but let’s be honest, the one that is “misunderstood” and full of “venerable history and wonderful, gracious people” is Venezuela. Of some 28 countries in Caribbean, we all know that the only truly exotic one, the one with the really amazing people living in it, is Cuba.
There is nothing wrong with having an interest in travel. But interest in Iran and other countries guilty of monstrous human rights abuses often extends beyond a mere fetish for “the people” and the history, also becoming a careful whitewashing and solipsistic support for its “misunderstood” culture and leadership.