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Prejudiced Portrayals: How Western Media Misrepresents Iran

Opinion | December 8, 2014

As Americans, there are a number of things we associate with Iran: fundamentalism, oppression, deception, irrationality, and brutality. America and Iran are fundamental opposites: they can never and will never get along.

Or so they say.

Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, stereotypes have underscored the American understanding of Iran as a nation What this image leaves out is the depth of the culture, the history, and the Iranian people. Perceptions of Iranians are under the looming shadow of the government. It’s time to disassociate our previous associations, and to address the parts of Iran that have been forgotten.

As an Iranian-American, I have been a part of both cultures and have spent time with both Iranians and Americans. I have seen the distrust that is attached to Iranians, or anyone vaguely Middle Eastern, in the United States. I read the articles that are published about Iran with unease, knowing that they are not telling the whole story. I have seen the fundamentalist and anti-American image that the media has created of Iran, and I know that it is not the truth.

The stereotypical image of Iranians equates them with their government, and forgets that they are not at all the same. This comes at a serious cost to perceptions of Iran and Iranians. According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, almost 69 percent of Americans have unfavorable views of Iran, and 93 percent strongly oppose Iran’s nuclear program. Given the image of Iran that has been painted by the media, the high statistics come as no surprise. The country is often seen as America’s enemy, especially after George W. Bush labeled it as an “Axis of Evil.” This image of “evil” has become a one-dimensional, and prevalent portrayal of Iran. And we cannot allow an “evil” country to have nuclear weapons.

Americans are told the story of a nation of total oppression led by a malicious government. As far as news stories go, there has been very little deviation from this main narrative. Editorials, from Fox News to The Guardian, express fears at how Iran is trying to take over the “free world,” and they tend to equivocate the population with the oppressive regime. It’s not only news sources doing this, either. State officials publicly condemn Iranians, including Speaker of the House John Boehner, who said, “I don’t trust the Iranians,” and Wendy Sherman, a state official involved in nuclear talks with Iran, who stated, “deception is part of the [Iranian] DNA.”

Even when the media is not so blatantly “anti-Iranian,” there is a serious lack of diversity in terms of what is reported about Iran. The beauty of a country with a long and rich history, of a people who have accomplished and are still accomplishing so much, is lost in this one-dimensional narrative. Stereotypes are created and perpetuated, stereotypes that are not the whole truth. According to Professor Kamran Rastegar of the Tufts Arabic department, there are many complexities within the “changing, urbanizing, industrializing” Iranian society, but they are “obliterated by misrepresentations, by the caricatured images of Iran that circulate so widely in the West.” Through the stereotypes of the media, portrayals of Iran have formed a mold that is difficult to break out of.

When I visited Iran this past summer for the first time in eight years, I didn’t know what to expect. The last time I had been there, I was too young to wear the hijab, too young to be truly involved with the culture. What I found was that Iran had been shifting in the time I had been gone, and a new political and cultural sphere has been created in the old one’s place.

Just as Americans are constantly pushing to improve our nation, many Iranians have been striving for changes in Iran. Rastegar commented on the “savvy” ways in which Iranians are pushing back against the image that has been imposed upon them. He stated that the Iranian people are “not being co-opted by a government that [they] don’t agree with … not being co-opted by social forces that [they’re] against … so [they] can actually engage in necessary social critiques at home.” The Iranian people are not conforming to the East versus West binary that seems paramount to American news coverage. Their progress is not a form of westernization, nor is it in sync with the Iranian government. The Iranian people are on their own side, fighting for changes on their own terms—whether that means pushing the boundaries of the hijab, like one of my cousins who wore a chic bright yellow hijab that would not have been accepted a decade ago, or producing Eminem-inspired hip-hop, like another one of my cousins who formed a makeshift recording studio in his own room.

Where was this Iran in the media and why was it not receiving more attention? It seemed like the only way to get a holistic view of Iran was to visit Iran itself. Unfortunately, not everybody is allowed this opportunity. Thus, American perspectives are limited, for the most part, to what the media and news relays, making it so much more important for them to offer a holistic image.

In an effort, perhaps, to address the changes in Iranian society, The Economist recently had a special report titled “The Revolution is Over,” describing the ways in which the Iranian landscape has shifted. It attempts to clarify much of what is missing from most portrayals in Iran by describing the ways that Iranians have changed in the time since the 1979 Revolution, whether that means less religious fervor, increasing education, or further urbanization. However, the feature was met with criticism. Clifford May from The Washington Times asserted that the article was “fallacious” with “extreme prejudice,” falling back on criticisms of Ayatollah Khomeini as a way to show that the country has not changed, missing the point entirely.

It seems that every tentative step forward, though few and far between, is met with backlash. The “religious fundamentalist” perspective of Iran has become so ingrained that those who try and point out the holes in stereotypes are labeled as Islamic “apologists.” Perhaps, then, it is easier to fall back onto the stereotypes and to use the narrative that has already become so familiar. However, this simply perpetuates the problem and leaves the image of Iran as one-dimensional as ever: a pessimistic view of an oppressive, incompatible nation with which we could never cooperate.

Yet, there have been attempts in the media to offer more complete images of Iran. In 2012, Humans of New York photographer Brandon Stanton had the opportunity to travel to Iran, and was able to capture many individual Iranian stories, painting a portrait of a nation that was very different from the characterization of its government. More recently, Anthony Bourdain visited Iran as part of the television program, No Reservations. In an article accompanying the segment, he described the ways in which the nation surprised him, and the divide that he saw between the government and the people. It was not the typical caricature of Iran; it was instead something multi-layered that addressed the good parts of Iran, as well as the bad parts that we are already so familiar with. According to Bourdain, “This is not a black-and-white world—much as people would like to portray it as such. That’s not an apology for anything.”

Of course, this is not to say that the entire American media has been completely inaccurate in its portrayals of Iran. There are issues evident in the government and the way it treats its citizens. There are problems in Iran, and those problems must be addressed. However, it is important to acknowledge that these aspects of Iran do not encompass the multifaceted Iranian population. Else we fall into the hatred that we accuse them of, and compromise, on nuclear weapons or otherwise, becomes impossible. Addressing Iran’s strengths, as well as its weaknesses, does not make one an apologist. It simply breaks through the binary and sees clearly past the contrived image to the complex nation that lies beneath. O