The New Internationalism Literature Politics

Marg bar Bowden? (A Fairly Tame Book Review of Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam)

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By guest author, L.P. Omid

If you want to find out why Mark Bowden wrote his latest book, Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam, a journalistic account of the events of the U.S. Embassy seizure and the subsequent hostage debacle over twenty-five years ago, beyond the obvious financial benefits to the author and his publisher, you won’t find the answer in the 637 page book itself. In the press packet that accompanied the review copy of the book, Bowden answers the question “Why did you decide to write about the Iran Hostage Crisis now?” Here is his full reply:

I decided to write the book in the early summer of 2001. It seemed to me that the forces of militant Islam were gathering strength in the Middle East and elsewhere, and that we were all due for a showdown with them. To me, the heart of the menace is Iran, and the defining episode for the United States was the embassy takeover. I have long been fascinated by the crisis, which started literally on the day I began working as a reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer. It was a huge story, and, as a rookie, I had no part in covering it. I was sent off to cover a small local story in north Philadelphia. So maybe the book is my revenge.

After reading the book, I was left wondering: who is Bowden seeking revenge against, his former employers or Iranians? Or are the Iranian people merely collateral damage in Bowden’s personal vendetta? His choice of words (“militant Islam,” “showdown,” “menace,” “crisis,” and, of course, “revenge”) in answering this straightforward question only scratch the surface of the verbal shrapnel he projects in his book, perpetuating the same stereotypes that, frankly, are at the root of the problem of U.S.-Iranian relations.

Egregiously, and perhaps self-disclosively, Bowden contradicts the above answer with more thoughtful reasoning for undertaking this project later in the press packet information when in response to another set of questions [How do you think our current problems with Iran relate to the hostage crisis? How about our confrontation with militant Islam?], he replies:

I think they are one and the same. The book Guests of the Ayatollah explores the roots of the Iranian and Islamist hatred of the United States. It is a dramatic story of captivity and attempted rescue, but it explains the origin of the global conflict in which we are engaged. I think that the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979 was conceived as a small thing with local motivations and goals, but it was immediately swept up by an international tide of anger and hatred that is still gaining strength today. Not even the hostage-takers anticipated the enormous response their action would generate, and, in a sense, became hostages to that response themselves. If we want to understand what we are up against, and why this struggle happened, we need to understand what happened in Tehran in 1979. I hope this book helps accomplish that. [Emphasis added, mine.]

It does not. In this regard, Bowden’s book is a total failure.
Bowden is a story teller, one who “fortuitously” has the eye of a filmmaker. Like a good movie, the reader is expected to get fully absorbed in the “action,” to feel every agony, small victory, sense of relief, heartbreak, and so forth, that the characters [in this case, real people, not fictional creations] endure. In short, the reader is not supposed to sustain a critical perspective; the reader is, even in this non-fiction book, expected to suspend their disbelief. Consequently, little mind will be given to the actual language Bowden uses to describe the events. It is assumed, unthinkingly, that the adjectives, for example, he uses are the only or factual descriptors available to the author. The critical thinker, the intellectual posture of the so-called enlightened Western world, ought to ask: Is the historical event giving itself to Bowden? Or is Bowden giving us his account of the historical event? If it is the latter, then let us see what “understanding” of Iran and “militant Islam” Bowden grants his audience.

All compassionate, well-intentioned humans share the pains of those taken hostage (or any other natural or human-caused suffering, e.g., news of a tsunami or a school shooting). Thus, a neutral telling of the events—i.e., sound journalism—would suffice to stir emotions in caring persons about the precarious circumstances of the hostages, the trying ordeal of their families and friends, the political strain on the U.S. government, and so forth. But it is to Bowden’s advantage to portray heroic characters—especially in our culture of hero worship and cinematic idolatry. Heroes are on the side of good (i.e., “us”) and without a villain or villains (i.e., “them”), heroes would be rendered impotent and meaningless. In predictable fashion [see Edward Said’s book Orientalism, 1978], Bowden pronounces the “obvious” dichotomy between the forces of good and evil.

Examples abound in his massive text which vividly describe the ordeals of the hostages, from humiliations (having to wear underwear that are too small), to violent outbursts (beatings), to hunger. Indeed, Bowden does succeed in reporting the blatant contradictions between the rhetoric of the hostage takers (describing the hostages as “guests” and insisting that they are being treated hospitably) and the brutal reality of the daily torment, physical and psychological, of the hostages.

However, in order to demarcate clear, identifiable lines of right and wrong, Bowden stealthily interjects unproven, even absurd commentary. What has always made the Other frightening is their supposed chaotic actions and illogical reasoning [see Richard Kearney’s book, Strangers, Gods, and Monsters: Ideas of Otherness, 2002]; therefore, it serves Bowden’s purposes well to demonstrate that the revolutionaries (i.e., Iranians en masse) were irrational and unjustified. The best example of his gross efforts to make monsters of them appears on page 117. He offhandedly dismisses any just motives of the revolutionaries when he writes, “As tyrants go, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi was fairly tame.” This type of incredulous statement could only be made when the author (rightly or wrongly) assumes that his audience is utterly ignorant, and, consequently, reduces all sympathies to collective identities. That is, American readers ought to empathize with the U.S. hostages and their crisis only because they are fellow Americans. The afflictions of the Iranians, under the rule of Bowden’s “fairly tame” Shah, ought not be as compelling since they are, after all, Iranian, not American. Right? Or was Bowden’s research that haphazard? Something is amiss. Read, for example, the Iranian poet and literary critic Reza Baraheni’s account of his experiences while being imprisoned by the Shah’s secret police force—trained by the CIA after the Shah was reinstated by a U.S. led coup of Muhammad Mossadegh—SAVAK.

There were also two other iron beds, one on top of the other, in another corner of the room. These last two, I later learned, were used to burn the backs, generally the buttocks, of the prisoners. They tie you to the upper bed on your back and with the heat coming from a torch or a small heater, they burn your back in order to extract information. Sometimes the burning is extended to the spine, as a result of which paralysis is certain. There were also all sizes of whips hanging Electric prods stood on little stools. The nail-plucking instrument stood on the far side…. The gallows stood on the other side. They hang you upside down and then someone beats you with a club on your legs, or uses the electrical prod on your chest or your genitals, or they lower you down, pull your pants up and one of them tries to rape you while you are still hanging upside down…. There were in the other torture rooms worse instruments which other prisoners would describe: the weightcuffs that break your shoulders in less than two hours of horrible torture: the electric shock treatment, apparently a recent introduction into the Iranian torture industry; and the pressure device which imposes pressure upon the skull to the extent that you either tell them what they want or let your bones break into pieces…. First he [the prisoner] is beaten by several torturers at once, with sticks and clubs. If he doesn’t confess, he is hanged upside down and beaten; if it doesn’t work, he is raped; and if he still shows signs of resistance, he is given electric shock which turns him into a howling dog; and if he is still obstinate, his nails and sometimes all his teeth are pulled out, and in certain exceptional cases, a hot iron rod is put into one side of the face to force its way to the other side, burning the entire mouth and the tongue…. At other times he is thrown down on his stomach on the iron bed and boiling water is pumped into his rectum by an enema.

Other types of torture are used which have never been heard of in other despotic systems. A heavy weight is hung from the testicles of the prisoner, maiming him in only a few minutes…. In the case of the women, the electric baton is moved over the naked body with the power increased on the breasts and the interstices of the vagina…. Rape is also a common practice. Thirteen-year-old girls have been raped in order to betray their parents, brothers or relatives. (Reza Baraheni, Crowned Cannibals: Writings on Repression in Iran, 1976)

Quite tame, indeed! Or, is Bowden employing the ever-so-present logical fallacy popularly dubbed the Argumentum ad Hitlerum; i.e., the Shah’s orders to torture innocent Iranians pale in comparison to other despotic rulers, namely the arch-tyrant, Hitler.

In his Epilogue and as indicated in his reply quoted above, Bowden equivocates all actions in the Islamic world as “militant Islam.” Has Bowden not heard of making an argument? One cannot merely assert something as true; one must make the case that it is true. He forgoes the premises and jumps right to the “conclusion,” surely violating even the most basic principles of objective journalism. Formal argumentation requires more than a series of anecdotes. Bowden assumes his audience knows the basics of Islam, that they are aware of the various schools of Islamic thought, that there is a consensus among scholars or practitioners, even, of what “militant Islam” is, and so on. These are empty phrases without definition and authentication. Bowden, consequently, fails to make an argument, but relies entirely on the power of words and the images they paint to tug at the heartstrings (not appeal to the reason) of his audience.

At the heart of the matter is Bowden’s willing participation in the Orientalist legacy brought to light in Edward Said’s magnum opus written and published before the 1979 Iranian Revolution even occurred. Said’s scholarship does not stand alone, either, as many other scholars and critics have contributed to the thoughtful dialogue on Western-Iranian/Islamic relations. But Bowden’s work, echoing the popular discourse on these issues in our media, ignores these thinkers. It is outright irresponsible and, I propose, unethical for authors such as Bowden to disregard the readily accessible resources on these subjects. The omission of the works of noted scholars such as Nikki Keddie, Hamid Dabashi, Abdolkarim Soroush, Ramin Jahanbegloo (recently imprisoned in Iran), Omid Safi, Said Amir Arjomand, Abbas Milani, Ervand Abrahamian, William O. Beeman, and others, in Bowden’s “Source Notes” (which laughably includes Azar Nafisi’s popular novel Reading Lolita in Tehran! Why?), begs a thoughtful reader to question his sincerity for “understanding” and also causes this reviewer at least, to wonder how five years of supposed research resulted in what amounts to be a damaging text to the efforts of those working toward authentic understanding and reconciliation?

The power of narrative is nothing new. Nor are the stories (or myths?) we all tell ourselves in our attempts to live meaningful lives. Bowden’s book on the plight of the U.S. hostages conveniently nestles within the dominant narrative about the Islamic world in general, and Iran in particular, that our current government and media promote. In order to maintain their own suspension of disbelief, so that they are equally convinced of their own stories, they ignore any competing narratives, legitimate as they may or may not be. William O. Beeman, a professor at Brown University, has written a book truly aimed toward understanding, The “Great Satan” vs. the “Mad Mullahs”: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other (2005). Why isn’t his book featured on the front tables of your local bookstore instead of Bowden’s? Is it too thoughtful for a banal public? One wonders.

Accompanying Bowden’s book is a documentary made for the Discovery Channel. Worse is the likelihood that Bowden’s book will be made into a Hollywood film (as was his book Blackhawk Down), an even less likely place to find critically distanced audiences seeking objective truth over and above subjective consolation and entertainment. Rather than add to our understanding, as he claimed in the press packet interview to be doing, Bowden reinforces the static stereotypes and prejudices that prolong the draught of polemic free dialogue between the U.S. and Iran. On the precipice of escalating conflict between Iran and the U.S., I couldn’t think of a less useful book to be published and aggressively promoted than Bowden’s.

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