By Parnaz Foroutan
I remember this from my childhood, that we fled the Iran-Iraq war in 1983 when I was 6 years old, that we found safety in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, that my father would come home in the evenings from work, exhausted, sunburnt, and he would immediately turn on a radio station that broadcast BBC news in Farsi.
He would pace back and forth in the small living space of our apartment, his hands clasped behind his back, as the reporter talked about the situation in Iran, then named the neighborhoods that had been recently bombed. His eyebrows knit in deep thought, I knew to remain very, very quiet. One evening, my father turned to me and said: “These reporters do not always speak the truth. But I listen for what they do not say.”
In order to make a living, you play the part of a patriot, even if you spit upon the mention of Soleimani’s name in the privacy of your own home.
Since Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani was killed last week, I have been listening very carefully, to hear what is not being said. I have done this because these many decades later, I have witnessed Western media fail to discern between the public display of ideology sanctioned by the Islamic Republic of Iran and the quickly silenced protests and opinions of those who dissent.
I listened to The New York Times say that “Iran is in mourning” after his death. Headlines repeated the word mourning and showed crowds in the streets of Iran weeping and holding signs that promised revenge for the death of a beloved hero. The news has repeatedly referred to Soleimani as revered by the Iranian people.
What has not been widely said is that this revered hero was the same man who oversaw the deaths of at least 1,500 Iranians protesting the regime just this fall, when it blacked out the internet and its security forces opened fire on the millions who took to the streets — a response understood to be under Soleimani’s orders, given his role in suppressing dissent. I haven’t heard anyone refer to Soleimani’s statement, which I heard broadcast on my Los Angeles radio station only weeks ago, that he was ready to kill millions more of his own countrymen in order to protect the regime.
I remember this from my childhood, that in the morning’s lineups on the yard of our Tehran elementary school, we had to swear our allegiance to the state and to Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini. And that within the classroom, our school teacher told us, each day, that if our parents listened to music at home, or drank wine, or talked bad about our beloved ayatollah, they were very bad people doing very bad things, and that we would be very good children to report them.
And when I went home and told my parents this, they looked at each other and turned to me and said, “We are not bad people doing bad things.” I learned then, at a very young age, the need for doublespeak.
The news has widely shown crowds weeping and chanting, images carefully curated, the angle of the cameras intending to show the congestion of mourners in the streets of Iran, among them close-ups of weeping children, to suggest unequivocal support for the regime.
But the media hasn’t made much mention of how students are forced to participate or that public transportation in Iran has been at a standstill, family members in Iran tell me, since all available buses are being used to round up scattered supporters throughout the country to fill the frame of the lens.
I remember this from my childhood, that once we reached Los Angeles, my parents would call Iran, desperate to hear from loved ones left behind in the darkness of the Iran-Iraq war and the Islamic theocracy that ran the country. But that in those conversations, they seemed to ask the most inane questions.
Until my grandmother explained to me one night that when they asked about the well being of an aunt who didn’t exist, they meant: Are you safe? And when they asked, each time we called, “Did you sell the television?” they meant: Do you have enough money to survive? “It is our secret code,” she told me. “We must talk like this because the lines are tapped by agents listening, and we must keep our family there safe.”
People who hate Soleimani are afraid to voice that hatred publicly. They are afraid to speak of it on WhatsApp or to write it in an email. Because in a police state, surveillance of citizens is key to the survival of that state. And to create fear about speaking one’s mind, even to those closest to us, is a simple tactical move that makes control easier.
The international press has reported on those who have made public statements in Iran, their tear-filled condolences for the death of this revered hero, but virtually no one in the press has mentioned that some might be forced to do so in order to protect their livelihood. Because the state controls everything in Iran. If you want permission to build an apartment, shoot your movie or display your artwork, or you need a loan to start a business or to get the deed to your own home, you are at the mercy of government officials.
In order to make a living, you play the part of a patriot, even if you spit upon the mention of Soleimani’s name in the privacy of your own home, in front of those you trust with your life. Because to dissent is to risk your life. In a dictatorship, under the reign of a murderous government, you either show your devoted allegiance, you do what you are told, or you die.
Certainly, there are devout hard-liners in that crowd, and there are people won over by the propaganda of the state. And certainly, the regime will use this death to create a saint out of that man, and then use his death to sell the narrative of martyrdom. The people of Iran have witnessed what U.S. intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan has meant for the people of those nations, and the regime will use those wars to propagate greater fear and nationalism in order to unify its citizens after this strike on a military leader.
Propaganda creates complex emotional landscapes. It holds people hostage, acts terrors upon them, and then shows kindnesses, too, protecting them at crucial moments, so that those held hostage come to believe and trust the very people who imprison them.
Iran has 83 million people. Who will give voice to the other millions who did not take to the streets?
The global media covered the funeral of Soleimani. It printed aerial shots of crowds that the state government claimed to be several million strong. The Associated Press wrote that satellites seemed to attest to a crowd of at least 1 million. The pictures were there, as proof. Say that the satellite images were accurate, and a million people willingly came to show their grief, to mourn. Iran has 83 million people. Who will give voice to the other millions who did not take to the streets?
The press has quoted the threats of Soleimani’s daughter. The press has written extensively about Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s teary displays and promises of retribution. Random supporters in the funerary crowd were quoted demanding blood for blood. But what of the others, the millions of others, who are silenced by fear? Who are watching this one-sided narrative that depicts complete support of a corrupt, murderous police state they have been enduring for decades? Who will speak for them?