Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is back in New York for the annual fall gathering of heads of state at the U.N. General Assembly meeting. As expected, his remarks to the body on Wednesday provoked outrage, walkouts, and general condemnation by various states and the media. If all you did was read the press reports about it, you’d think that in his speech he once again denied the fact of the holocaust and threatened to wipe Israel off the map. In fact, if you watch the speech, or read it, it’s much less inflammatory than the media reported, and in some respects merely echoes the condemnation of Israel’s invasion of Gaza contained in the report issued by the UN Human Rights Council Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, led by Justice Richard Goldstone. It’s interesting how any criticism of Israel is read as anti-semetic in this setting.
I mention Ahmadinejad’s speech because it’s hard to believe it’s been two years since he came to Columbia University as part of our World Leaders Forum. As you may recall, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger “introduced” President Ahmadinejad with an anticipatory condemnation of what the Iranian President might say, calling him “a petty and cruel dictator,” and closed with the charge that “I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions.” The tone and content of the introduction drove some members of the University faculty to bring to the full arts and sciences faculty a motion criticizing Bollinger for violating core principles of academic freedom. See more here.
What garnered the greatest attention from President Ahmadinejad’s talk, however, were his remarks in response to a question about the mis-treatment of women and homosexuals in Iran. He declared: “women in Iran enjoy the highest levels of freedom,” and then asserted that “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like you do in your country. We do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who’s told you that we have it.” The media frenzy in response included a New Yorker Magazine cover tying the Iranian President to Larry Craig.
Lesbian and gay human rights organizations the world over immediately condemned these remarks as ignorant and hateful. “Of course there are gay people in Iran – we are everywhere!” they proclaimed. But Ahmadinejad’s remarks and the responses they received demand much more complex thinking about the role of lesbian and gay human rights in global politics. For this reason I’ve written a short paper trying to offer one such thicker reading of what happened when President Ahmadinejad came to Columbia. I’m giving it as part of our Feminist Theory Workshop series next Tuesday, and you can read the draft here. But it concludes:
Once we recognize that the normative homosexuality that undergirds human rights discourse is not merely a “fact” in the world, but more of complex value, it becomes easier to see how the state’s embrace of the sexual citizenship of these new human rights holders risks rendering more vulnerable a range of identities and policies that have refused to conform to state endorsed normative homo- or hetero- sexuality. This is true both for queers whose desires refuse to orient themselves ineluctably toward marriage, or Muslims with sexual norms and practices of polyamory, homosociality, and modesty. Under this scenario, newly patriotized gay subjects find themselves implicated, whether they want to or not, in the construction and identification of the “enemies of the state.” Witness the ingenious strategy of StandWithUs and the Israeli Foreign Ministry to appeal to gay rights supporters in their efforts to shore up Israel’s foreign policy with respect to Palestine and Iran.
So does this discussion leave us helpless in the face of a critique that eschews both the epistemic violence of securing human rights for global gay subjects on the one hand, and state politics as cynical, manipulative, instrumental and tragic on the other? To be sure, this is where some find themselves. But we can do better than that. Critical awareness of the state’s role as now-fundamental partner in the recognition and protection of a form of sexual rights should push us to regard these “victories” as necessarily ethically compromised.
The moral atrophy that has kept us from recognizing the tragedy of these strategies and outcomes is where more critical, and indeed discomfiting, work needs to be done. By theorists and activists alike. This means rethinking the horizon of success in this work. “Victory” in the sense of gaining the state as a partner, rather than an adversary, in the struggle to recognize and defend LGBT rights ought to set off a trip wire that ignites a new set of strategies and politics. This must necessarily include a deliberate effort to counteract, if not sabotage, the pull of the state to muster rights-based movements into its larger governance projects, accompanied by an affirmative resistence to conceptions of citizenship that figure nationality by and through the creation of a constitutive other who resides in the state’s and human right’s outside.