Does Benjamin Netanyahu dream of Iranian jeans?

Haroon Moghul

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Some days ago, Benjamin Netanyahu elicited the derision of the international community by claiming Iranians couldn’t listen to Western music, wear jeans, or vote in free or fair elections. Seemingly, half of Iran responded with photogenic evidence to the contrary—Persian genes in jeans. It was the social media equivalent of a body slam.

Sometimes you can sense a politician slipping; usually because he’s—yeah, he’s a he—spent too long at the top. Wasn’t the Prime Minister’s past address to the United Nations, in which he called upon Wile E. Coyote, chastisement enough? Mr. Netanyahu has little sense of how many of his accusations can be turned around, and even less what kind of pickle that puts him in.

Time for a wake-up call

If jeans are the symbol of freedom, what do we make of the places where freedom never exceeds the clothes that next to no one can afford?

Haroon Moghul

In Israel, faith fuses with state. (See Noah Feldman’s obituary of Rabbi Yosef). A near majority of Mandatory Palestine cannot vote in elections either free or fair. Practically all of the planet knows this. Which is why the Iranian regime is running public relations circles around Likud and why Tel Aviv needs a wake-up call. Reasons include: Israel and the U.S. are drifting; our urgent challenge is not Rowhani, but the Tea Party.

More reasons involve the policyscape: Israel’s lost its Turkish alliance—possibly inevitable given the rise of populist democracy but a blow all the same—and suffers an uncertain partnership with an Egypt facing escalating violence. Add an Iran trying to come in from the cold and we have a severe scenario. It’s one thing to put every policy egg in a solitary basket, it’s another altogether not to know they’ve passed their sell-by date entirely.

While America becomes a majority-minority nation, Netanyahu’s tone-deaf charge against Iran reminds us of an era happily or at least hopefully in the planet’s rear view mirror: When we judged people by the clothes they (allegedly) wore—or did not wear. Though this attitude retreats unevenly, as this juxtaposition of Al Arabiya headlines reveals, still it retreats. A multipolar planet has no uniform uniform.

A preferential dictatorship

I once asked a colleague why he endorsed the Egyptian coup even after undeniable evidence of a massacre. We had to establish a dictatorship, he told me, to prevent the Brotherhood from establishing one. Why, I asked, is an actual dictatorship preferable to a potential dictatorship? Also, why is your preferred dictatorship morally superior to someone else’s—if that was even what the Brothers were planning? (Quite the assumption).

This colleague had prejudged “them” as morally inferior, that’s why. Right and wrong did not for him inhere in the action but the actor. People who wear jeans can be trusted. Though, only one country ever employed nuclear weapons: the one that invented jeans. (Details, details.) “If we hadn’t stopped the Brotherhood,” my colleague ranted, unaware of how (and who) he sounded (like), “they would’ve turned Egypt into Iran!”

“Did you know,” I countered, “that despite sanctions and war, Iran has a higher Human Development Index than Egypt?”

He blinked an apocalyptic blink, for he did not know. Bearded and turbaned mullahs couldn’t have realized a superior standard of living than the supposed secular warriors who led Egypt to abrupt defeat in ’67 and a more leisurely one in ’73, except that they had. This is not to excuse the obvious crimes of the Iranian regime, but to ask why some people find the very same crimes acceptable if those committing them meet a sartorial standard.

What's freedom?

If jeans are the symbol of freedom, what do we make of the places where freedom never exceeds the clothes that next to no one can afford? What, in turn, to make of places where the turbanned and headscarved outperform the global mean, bringing returns in growth, development or culture? I highlighted Turkey’s mustachioed mavericks (see Riada Akyol’s delightful phrasing), who helped oversee their GDP’s trebling while the average Egyptian’s income rose by some $5.

Again, nothing.

Iran may have missed out on the economic revolution, as Afshin Molavi argued, but it can catch up. Egypt will have a harder time. Its challenge is apparently the same as Netanyahu’s. That is, to exit a world of unfounded assumptions and enter the world of what actually is. “Stop and smell the rosewater,” you want to scream. There’ll always be money and power in the world. It just won’t stay in the same hands.

If your moral argument rests on the color of those hands, or the length of sleeve that precedes them, then a rude awakening is waiting right around the corner. The world’s largest gathering of billionaires is the Chinese Communist Party’s yearly congress. Bollywood outproduces Hollywood. Dubai Mall attracts more visitors than live in America’s Northeast Corridor, except the latter’s rail service might wow 1980’s Turkey. Thomas Friedman’s flat planet keeps striking back.

On what standard shall we judge our new world? “He who has laughter on his side,” Theodor Adorno once promised, “has no need of proof.”



Haroon Moghul is the Fellow in Muslim Politics and Societies at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School. He is a graduate student at Columbia University, a widely-recognized speaker on Islamic thought and Muslim history, and the author of The Order of Light (Penguin 2006). Haroon's writings have been featured on Foreign Policy, Boston Review, Salon, Tikkun, Religion Dispatches, Al-Jazeera, Today's Zaman and Dawn. He is a Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and serves as an expert guide to the Muslim heritage of Spain, Turkey, and Bosnia. Twitter: @hsmoghul

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