TEHRAN – Richard Falk, a professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, says letters by Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to the youth in the West five years ago suggest “prophetic character” in view of daily protests in the West led by youth against racial injustice and state violence.
In an exclusive interview with the Tehran Times, Richard Falk, who also served as UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, says “the unusual focus on the role of youth” in Ayatollah Khamenei’s letters “is particularly striking and instructive”.
The Leader’s addresses to the youth are known as “Letter 4 You” or “Letter for You”.
Following is the text of the interview with Professor Falk.
1: In his letter to the youth in Europe and North America on January 21, 2015, Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said “I find that the sense of quest for truth is more vigorous and attentive in your hearts”. What was or is the importance of the letter?
Answer: It needs to be understood that as far as I can tell the January 21, 2015 letter to the youth of Europe and North America is not all known in the West. This is unfortunate as the letter is a very special communication by a leader who combines political and religious authority in an important country that directs his appeal to ‘youth’ as distinct the ‘people.’ The reasoning behind this focus is made clear, expressive of the idea that it is the youth that have the power and responsibility to overcome mistakes of the past and present. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seems to base his attitude of hopefulness on faith that the youth of these societies will seek a better understanding of Islam and Muslims. The current world scene of daily protests in the West led by youth against racial injustice, solidarity with Palestine, and state violence suggests the prophetic character of Ayatollah Khamenei’s two letters written five years ago.
“The reasoning behind this focus is made clear, expressive of the idea that it is the youth that have the power and responsibility to overcome mistakes of the past and present.”
It is also important to contextualize the letter in events that were occurring in Europe in 2015, particularly the terrorist attack, two weeks earlier than the date of the first letter, upon the editorial offices in Paris of the satiric magazine, Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 persons, including its main editor. The Algerian-born perpetrators were brothers, resident in France, and were self-proclaimed jihadists killed in the incident. The attack, provoked by the ironic and irreverent treatment of the prophet Mohammed in the magazine, undoubtedly abetted by the Islamophobic atmosphere in France and elsewhere, was interpreted by governments in the West as an attack by Islamic terrorism on fundamental Western values, particularly the right of free expression, an occasion for mass protests led by leaders of European states. A French court had previously rejected formal allegations that such mockery of Islam by the magazine should be prohibited and punished as hate speech, declaring that these insults were directed not at Islam as such but at its fundamentalist excesses, and thus what appeared in the magazine was permissible speech.
The letter is significant for its clear repudiation of terrorism, identifying such violence as a common enemy of Islam and the West, while calling upon the youth in these countries to study the Koran and other sacred writings to acquire a truer understanding of Islam as anti-terrorist, without ever mentioning the Charlie Hebdo incident or voicing specific criticism of the behavior of particular states. The letter combines a rejection of terrorism with a plea to avoid an acceptance of Islamophobic attacks on the religion of Islam and its adherents while declaring common cause between Iran and the West with regard to anti-terrorism. Ayatollah Khamenei’s second letter was released on November 30, 2015, again directed at youth in the West, that more pointedly repeated the central message of the earlier letter but indicting state terrorism and anti-Islamic behavior of particular states in the West, and calling more urgently for a vigorous reaction by young people. ,
2: The Leader said he was writing to the youth because politicians and statesmen in the West “have consciously separated the route of politics from the path of righteousness and truth”. How do you analyze this statement?
Answer: This expression of the motivation for the letter is an accurate recognition of the degree to which the politics and diplomacy of the West have adopted positions that are driven by greed and ambition rather than moral standards that draw careful distinctions between good and evil. The Trump presidency underscores the illuminating assessments contained in Ayatollah Khamenei’s letters. Donald Trump does not distinguish between opposition to terrorism of various kinds from broad traditions of religious faith and civilizational identity. His attempts to ban entry of Muslims to the United States implies that the religion itself is tainted, and encourages a kind of religious racism directed at Islam. Not all Western leaders are nearly as blunt in their assessments, but most subtly endorse this conflation of religion and criminal violence in the form of terrorism by extremists who falsely invoke Islam.
We can observe the analogous problems of racial stereotyping and abuse in the current protests against police brutality that has been victimizing African Americans for centuries. The sustained outcry against the police murder of George Floyd on May 25th seems a world-shaking event that is in some respects similar to the Charlie Hebdo incident, and in other ways quite opposite. The police terrorism in Minneapolis derives from the structures of government, while in Paris the terrorism was the work of political extremists, but in the one case it was reacting to Islamophobia and in the other, the violence was itself the expression of American racism that remains an ugly legacy of slavery.
The Leader by choosing to address youth, and youth alone, rather than the governing authorities nor even the general citizenry, implied a confidence, or was it a hope? that youth needed to play a strategic role in shaping a more humane future for the societies in the West. And it is worth observing, that it is indeed youth that have dominated the protest movements sparked by the death of George Floyd, although the leading media voices of African American outrage are often drawn from older known black opponents of racism.
3: In his letter at the time, Leader said the histories of the U.S. and Europe “are ashamed of slavery…. and chagrined at the oppression of ‘people of color’.” This approach that people of color are treated badly is demonstrated in the behavior of some supremacists. What do you think the West or the youth, in general, should do to end such discriminations?
Answer: The dominant surface beliefs in the West do exhibit feelings of shame about the past abuses of people of color through slavery and colonialism, but present policies and practices exhibit the persistent virus of racism that continues to be present to varying degrees throughout the West. The anti-immigration backlash to neoliberal globalization and the failure to address the ongoing Palestinian ordeal and struggle for justice have given political support from the older governing elites to renewed supremacist policies that have caused so much past suffering.
This expression of the motivation for the letter is an accurate recognition of the degree to which the politics and diplomacy of the West has adopted positions that are driven by greed and ambition rather than moral standards that draw careful distinctions between good and evil.
There is no assured path to justice and an end to racism and Islamophobia, but youth more than other sectors of society are disillusioned by conventional politics based on parties, elections, and top-down reforms. To address these challenges to human decency it is necessary to rely on movement politics that creates a mandate for change from below, which was of course the path followed by revolutionary challenge mounted against the Pahlavi dynasty over 40 years ago. Such political movements are by their nature threatening to the established order, but it is often only effective way to address underlying conditions that give rise to injustice implanted deeply in a society’s past and present. In my view, even a comprehensive repudiation of racism and discrimination in the West is insufficient, especially, given the roles played by the U.S. and NATO outside the West, as well as the gross inequalities stemming from economic globalization. Overcoming injustice in our world makes it essential to oppose militarism and predatory capitalism if we want the diverse peoples throughout the planet to coexist in ways that respect their individual and collective identities.
4: Don’t you think that the Leader had predicted such rifts and racism would open wounds in the Western societies in the years to come?
Answer: Yes, I think that the analysis and critique in these two letters of the Leader written five years ago do anticipate the kind of opening of wounds that is now sweeping across Western societies, and most of all, America. The unusual focus on the role of youth is particularly striking and instructive. Perhaps, also, the emphasis on youth is an acknowledgement that these societal evils are legacies from the past, as carried into the present. Ayatollah Khamenei clearly recognizes that youth has a greater freedom to overcome injustice, being less tainted by legacies of past injustice than are older generations and, especially, the political class.
5: And how the West, especially the youth should heal the wounds of division and racism in their societies?
Answer: If the moral and political dimensions of the challenges have been exposed, it offers youth a particular opportunity to step forward and seek transformative change that overcomes racism, Islamophobia, militarism, and predatory capitalism. And maybe this is beginning to happen against the background of the pandemic that makes all aware of the precariousness of life itself. The accompanying economic and social dislocations and uprisings following the Floyd murder were the spark that set the fire.
As suggested earlier, a movement of sustained protest dedicated to fundamental change is needed to challenge the complicity and complacency of systems in being.
The history of the Islamic Republic of Iran exemplifies the transformative potential of such a movement.
6: What is your suggestion about the Leader’s advice that the youth in the West should fight disinformation campaigns by certain media outlets against Islam?
Answer: Youth, and of course others, should follow the advice of the Leader to study Islam in a sincere and authentic manner, and on this basis shape a critical understanding of the tensions between the West and Islamic countries. With such an understanding it would become possible to form strategies and tactics that reject both terrorism and Islamophobia. It would then also become possible to adopt appropriate policy adjustments in the West, starting with military disengagement from the Middle East and restoration of the 2015 nuclear program agreement with Iran. (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action-JCPOA). Yet this is not enough. Youth need address common human problems, as dramatized by the COVID-19 experience, in a globally cooperative spirit, and extend its vital concerns to climate change, global migration, poverty, international law, the UN, and world peace.
“Overcoming injustice in our world makes it essential to oppose militarism and predatory capitalism if we want the diverse peoples throughout the planet to coexist in ways that respect their individual and collective identities.”
To advance a positive program for change with justice it is also imperative to clear away the obstructive effects of Islamophobia and other forms of disinformation by seeking to contest mainstream distortions of social and religious realities and by developing media outlets that disseminate reliable accounts and understandings of violent crimes. Both of these developments are starting to happen, thanks the protests and the disorienting impacts of the pandemic, but whether the effects will be temporary or more transformative remains uncertain at this stage.
7: Injustice against the people of color is not in no way comparable to the degree of brutality against the Palestinians at the hands of occupiers. In his second letter to the Western youth on Nov. 29, 2015, Ayatollah Khamenei said, “This (brutality) is done without even giving them (Palestinians) time to gather their belongings or agricultural products.” In your view, what the youth in the West are expected to do in regard to the sufferings of the Palestinians?
Answer: I do not think it is helpful to evaluate the suffering endured by people of color with the apartheid conditions of subjugation and exploitation endured for so many decades by the Palestinian people. In both instances, the brutality and suffering are intolerable, to be opposed, and ended by forces of good will. We do not need to decide which is worse.
While not developed with a specific plan, the implication of Ayatollah Khamenei’s message is that the youth of Europe and North America have an obligation to expose the nature of Israel’s criminal domination of the Palestinians and seek justice based on the equality of Arabs and Jews. The youth of America have a particular obligation as it is the U.S. Government that has lent its geopolitical muscle to Israel’s defiance of international law and morality, and continues to subsidize Israel’s behavior with large annual economic subsidies. The denial of fundamental Palestinian rights in their own country epitomizes the colonial past of the West’s relations with the Middle East and also is the defining injustice of the imperial present in which indigenous rights of a native people have been cast aside by terroristic methods to uphold structures. These wrongs must be rectified if a sustainable peace is to be achieved.
These letters of Ayatollah Khamenei deserve reflection and response, and not only from youth in the West but from the entire population of each country that is being indirectly challenged. If this is done in a sincere manner it would be the beginning of the end of both terrorism and Islamophobia and would allow countries to coexist with respect for their civilizational and religious differences once correctly interpreted and acted upon.