40-odd years ago, Iranian filmmaker Shin Nazerian produced a movie about a tough guy from a rough Tehran neighborhood who ends up in New York. A comedy of the clash of cultures, it was an instant hit.
One of the first things our tough guy did on arriving in the Big Apple was to "edit" his name to Mr. Small, to reassure the natives. This week, another visitor from Tehran came to New York as part of a U.S. tour that included a session at Harvard University - and took a cue from Mr. Small.
The visitor was the former president of the Islamic Republic - Hojat al-Islam wa al-Moslemeen Sayyed Muhammad Khatami. He too, decided to "edit" his name to cut a less outlandish image with his American interlocutors. Gone was the title Hojat al-Islam wa al-Moslemeen ("Proof of Islam and of Muslims") and the sobriquet of Sayyed ("master") used by those who claim to be descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.
Throughout, he presented himself as former president of "Iran," rather than of the Islamic Republic - although, legally speaking, there is no state known as Iran. He also insisted on describing himself as hich-kareh - someone with no official position at all - hiding the fact that he is a member of at least 11 organs of the Islamic Republic, including the all-important Assembly of Experts.
Khatami altered more than his identity: He edited Islam into a lovey-dovey cult that abhors the use of force, is uncomfortable with capital punishment, would never fight except in self-defense and actively welcomes other faiths.
He never mentioned his ideological guru, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - knowing that this would revive memories of the hostages seized by the late mullah. Nor the current "supreme guide," Ali Khamenei - who is, according to the constitution in force in the Islamic Republic, the world's only truly legitimate ruler.
He used a vocabulary carefully designed to hoodwink the Americans without angering his fellow Khomeinists back home. The trick was reinforced by the fact that he often said one thing in Persian, while the interpreter said something else in English for the benefit of the Harvard audience.
For example, Khatami would speak of khoshunat, which means "roughness," but the interpreter would translate it into "violence" or even "terror." Thus, the Harvard audience would think that Khatami admits that there may be terrorism in the realm of Islam - while back in Tehran, he would appear talking only about "roughness" and "coercion."
In Persian, he would speak of "sodomy," but the Harvard audience would hear "gay sex." Referring to the leader of al Qaeda, he would say "that gentleman" (Aan Agha) in Persian, but the interpreter would say "Osama bin Laden."
Asked what he thought of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's various outrageous statements, the Hojat al-Islam never mentioned his successor by name. In Persian, he took pains to endorse Ahamdinejad's basic position - but in English he gave the impression that he did not fully agree with his successor.
Khatami was also in total denial about the bloody history of his eight years as president. There was no mention of the 1,347 men and women executed during his two terms. And when it came to the murder of intellectuals and journalists by his henchmen, he pretended that other organs of the Islamic Republic had been responsible, without his knowledge. An Iranian student raised the murder of Iranian-Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi - and Khatami, with a broad smile, said he wasn't quite sure how the poor woman had died in one of his prisons.
He spoke a great deal about the need for dialogue, tolerance and understanding. But he made no mention of the fact that he had closed down 150 Iranian newspapers, imprisoned scores of journalists and unleashed his Hezbollah hounds to crush the student revolts against his regime. His "dialogue of civilizations" had not been extended to thousands of Iranian workers bullied, beaten, murdered or forced out of their jobs simply because they had gone on strike.
Khatami also forgot to mention that there was no dialogue among Iranians inside Iran itself while he was in power. Nor did he tell his Harvard audience that he had refused to meet with Iranian-Americans or grant interviews to their media, especially in California.
The Harvard audience applauded the Hojat al-Islam, forgetting that during his reign Iran had had the largest number of prisoners of conscience in the world, and that Khatami had been a member of the "Committee for Islamic Cultural Revolution" that shut all Iranian universities in the early '80s and purged tens of thousands of teachers and students because they opposed Khomeinism.
Khatami was practicing an art known as taqiyah, which could be translated into "dissimulation" or "obfuscation." This began as a theological tool to allow Shiites to hide their beliefs in hostile environments - but Khatami used it as a political tool to deceive Americans who obviously longed to be deceived.
Toward the end of the Harvard "Taqiyah fest," however, the tail of the cat began to show out of the Hojat al-Islam's bag. Someone mentioned Hezbollah - and Khatami began waxing lyrical about his love for what most Iranians regard as a terrorist outfit created and controlled by the Islamic Republic.
According to Khatami, Hezbollah has never been engaged in any act of terrorism and is nothing but a "national resistance movement" comparable to the French during the Nazi occupation. In other words, Israel is like Nazi Germany and Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah's branch manager in Lebanon, is Gen. Charles De Gaulle.
Was Hezbollah justified in triggering a war without informing the Lebanese people and government? Yes, said the Hojat al-Islam. Why? The war was justified because Hezbollah had to liberate occupied Lebanese territory. What territory? He mentioned the Shebaa farms - a piece of land the size of Central Park which, in fact, belongs to Syria.
The "dialogue of civilizations," the discourse of deception, had reached its limit.
The Harvard people who gave Khatami a tribune from which to deceive the American people might want to know an old Persian saying: "When a mullah calls, an undertaker is sure to follow."
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