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Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Yusef Zuleykha, 1488. Via Wikimedia.

Yusef Zuleykha, 1488. Via Wikimedia.

A broader look at the Sahel — it’s not just al Qaeda. Plus, France’s tactical challenges in “Operation Serval”.

Foreign fighters gain popular acceptance in Syria. If pundits can agree about Syria, why won’t the US act?

Khamenei shuts down calls for “free elections” in Iran.

Thinking the unthinkable: The Gulf States and the prospect of a nuclear Iran (via Dan Byman).

Noah Millman on realism, non-interventionism and Obama.Larison pushes back on the idea that “realism” is a useful identifier among policymakers.

Mark Thompson interviews Peter J. Munson on his new book War, Welfare & Democracywhich I look forward to reading.

Thanassis Cambanis reviews Fred Kaplan’s The Insurgentswhich I also plan to pick up.

Forecasting is complicated!, and cherry picking data doesn’t help.

Having just finished Iain M. Banks’ The Hydrogen SonataI finally got to the highly-recommended Duck of Minerva forum on the novel. If you’ve read the book, check it out.

James Vincent McMorrow – From the Woods

Rational Causes of War in the South Atlantic

1982 Argentine magazine, via Wikimedia.

“We’re Winning.” 1982 Argentine magazine, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is once again making noise over the Falklands dispute. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the unresolved dispute over the islands is once again causing diplomatic trouble — recent petroleum exploration around the islands has raised the stakes of the conflict — but the real takeaway is that the status of las Islas Malvinas continues to draw popular ire among Argentines.

Jorge Luis Borges famously described the Falklands War as “a fight between two bald men over a comb.” Borges’ comment pithily summarizes the perceived futility of the war, but frivolously dismisses the conflict’s real impetus — states may fight over worthless territories, but they rarely do so for irrational reasons. The 1976 Argentine military junta initiated the war not in an irrational grab for the harsh islands themselves, but instead in a reasonably-sophisticated bid to legitimize their unpopular government through a popular military victory the war’s architects judged readily attainable. That fact that the junta’s initial assumptions about the UK’s commitment to defend the islands were wildly inaccurate does not mean, in and of itself, that the war decision was irrational.This explanation for the 1982 war suggests that renewed conflict over the islands is unlikely.

Las Islas Malvinas command a unique place in popular Argentine thought. Among Argentines, the sentiment that the Falklands rightly belong to them and that the status quo is an unjust colonial holdover is widespread. In this framework — that identifies the British claim to the Falklands as nothing more than open colonialism — the islanders’ desire to remain part of the UK is irrelevant; the very fact British people live there at all is an injustice. I’ve spent only a brief time in Argentina, but vividly remember noticing a cartoon map of the country, part of a corporate logo, that included the islands. Even in this trivial context, las Islas Malvinas are Argentine.

The Argentine junta’s 1976 overthrow of the Isabel Perón civilian government was intended to facilitate the remaking of Argentine society and force an end to the country’s historic liberal-conservative conflict. But the junta’s frustrated inability to usher in stability and clearly unsustainable brutality of the Dirty War made their rule increasingly untenable, and the invasion was a last-ditch effort to bolster the junta’s popularity. Allusions to combs and bald men aside, the Falklands conflict was never about territory itself; instead, it was fought over the symbolic value of the islands’ sovereignty. The junta saw themselves as the defenders of Argentine society. Facing the prospect of the overthrow of their regime, the potential legitimizing payoff of a successful invasion of the islands made war a reasonable choice.

Importantly, the Falklands was not the junta’s only prospective legitimizing victory. Argentina’s military government had long-standing territorial disputes with Chile, where Pinochet actually encouraged settlement of the country’s harsh south out of the fear that Argentina would sieze the sparsly populated territory. But despite almost going war with Chile over disputed and geopolitically important Beagle Channel islands in 1978, the Argentine junta only escalated a territorial conflict to war in 1982, when they faced a severe domestic legitimacy crisis. In Argentina’s zero-sum political climate of the early 1980s, a face-saving military victory would salvage the critically unpopular military government’s rule. Of course, the conflict had the opposite outcome, but at the time the invasion was a reasonable bet.

Today fears of renewed conflict are mostly based on this populist logic: as long as an Argentine government perceives itself as domestically unpopular, so the thinking goes, stoking nationalist sentiments over the islands will be a tempting policy. But the belief that the Argentine government’s behavior is governed by a rational cost-benefit logic suggests that actual war over the islands is unlikely. Yes, Argentina’s continued economic downturn and erratic growth both reward populistic nationalism and increase the appeal of offshore energy exploration. But the current government faces nowhere near the legitimacy crisis that prompted the junta’s decision to invade in 1982. The Falklands War was a desperate act launched by a domestically embattled government that associated its own legitimacy with national survival. That is not true today. Rather than the culmination of a century of left-right conflict, today’s Argentine government is comparably unexceptional. The modern Argentine government is also aware that the expected costs of conflict would be greater than it judged in the days before the 1982 invasion. Despite the British armed forces’ shrinkage since the 1980s, the 1982 war is evidence that the UK is willing to fight over the islands, while the junta’s war plans were benchmarked around the assumption that Britain would not contest the invasion. Given the lower domestic incentive and higher expected costs of conflict today, a rational choice for war is unlikely.

Making diplomatic noise over the Falklands question is a low-risk strategy for bolstering the Argentine government’s domestic popularity, and it is unsurprising that President Kirchner continue to press the issue. But this does not mean that renewed war is likely.

Note: This post has been edited for clarity. 

Nationalism For Us, Not For Them

By Taylor Marvin

Thomas L. Friedman has a new column out. While it’s arguably futile to critique his writing — Friedman’s been penning self-congratulatory paeans to conventional wisdom for a decade now — but it does touch on an interesting fallacy that dominates US foreign policy thinking: the belief that the US’ policy preferences are so evidently righteous that their appeal is universal. The key to resolving foreign disputes, it follows, is not moderating US preferences, but taking them directly to the people and bypassing intransigent foreign leaders. Friedman makes this point most strongly with regards to Iran:

“Rather than negotiating with Iran’s leaders in secret — which, so far, has produced nothing and allows the Iranian leaders to control the narrative and tell their people that they’re suffering sanctions because of U.S. intransigence — why not negotiate with the Iranian people? President Obama should put a simple offer on the table, in Farsi, for all Iranians to see: The U.S. and its allies will permit Iran to maintain a civil nuclear enrichment capability — which it claims is all it wants to meet power needs — provided it agrees to U.N. observers and restrictions that would prevent Tehran from ever assembling a nuclear bomb.”

For someone who prides himself on his travel record and whose propensity for quoting insightful taxi drivers is viewed as a running joke, Friedman seems to have little ability to empathize with the people he speaks for. Iranians aren’t all ignorants who only need the US government to spell out its position in Farsi to happily accommodate American demands — they’re autonomous human beings fully capable of holding views contrary to the United States’. Friedman’s inability to reach this obvious conclusion is striking.

International concern over Iranian nuclear program is justified. But think of how American opposition to their country’s nuclear program looks to Iranians: the United States, which remains the only state to use nuclear weapons in combat, insists that it and other nations can maintain nuclear weapons capability, but Iran cannot. This prohibition, in Iranians’ view, is even more unjust coming from the United States: many are old enough to remember the brutality of the American-supported Pahlavi regime, and the terror of US-abetted Iran-Iraq war. Is it surpassing that reasonable people within Iran would object to America’s attempt to forbid them from accessing what they see as a prestigious and security-assuring technology? Is it really logical that the only barrier to a US-Iranian accord is that the US hasn’t made the message simple enough? Isn’t it possible that the median Iranian objects to the “offer on the table” itself, and its implicit coercion?

This lack of empathy — the ability to recognize the biases of others — is the core deficiency in Friedman’s worldview. Friedman’s entire schtick is that the world is flat, fundamentally simple, and readily understandable. If the world is as simple as Friedman claims, then reasonable people divided by culture and national experience cannot hold fundamentally different interpretations of the world; if policymakers can just express their positions clearly, opponents will come to an accord. The US and Iran haven’t failed to reach a mutual understanding not because they hold mutually exclusive views of each other and their own security, but only because American leaders haven’t made themselves clear. Friedman argues that the US should “say to the Iranian people over and over: ‘The only reason your currency is being crushed, your savings rapidly eroded by inflation, many of your college graduates unemployed and your global trade impeded and the risk of war hanging overhead, is because your leaders won’t accept a deal that would allow Iran to develop civil nuclear power but not a bomb.’” But of course this is a fallacy. To many, if not most, Iranians the blame for economic stagnation rests on the outside world, whose sanctions threaten their livelihoods and health. To them the reason that “the risk of war hangs overhead” is not their own leaders, but a belligerent United States that threaten regime change. Attempting to convince Iranians otherwise plays into regime messaging’s hands.

Friedman counsels that incoming-Secretary Kerry should “break all the rules” by talking directly to the people. But this rests on the assumption that foreign populations must agree with the US’ liberal worldview — an assumption that denies them the agency to hold legitimate grievances against the US hegemon. Is it any wonder his column reeks of condescension, not measured wisdom?


Daniel Drezner has a similar critique of Friedman’s column. Drezner correctly notes that the nuclear program is broadly popular in Iran, and that the US is unlikely to win a propaganda war within the country. I would note that the IRI’s nuclear policy is as much driven by path-dependent public opinion as it is a top-down government imposition, and that the regime — historically inclined to nationalistic populism — likely is “listen to ordinary Iranians on the nuclear question” anyway. However, Drezner’s piece is valuable, and the dual arguments that US public diplomacy is at best counterproductive within Iran and any hint of outside-influenced public campaigning is delegitimizing within Iranian society is a strong argument against US conservatives who denounce President Obama’s perceived failure to support the Green Movement.

War in the Western Pacific? Not So Fast

By Saad Asad

Map via Wikimedia.

Map via Wikimedia.

This week the Economist published an overly-alarmist warning of potential conflict between China and Japan, which are currently competing over the control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Although China’s actions may seem more hostile recently, the situation is a far cry from war.

Arguing that China’s anti-Japan rhetoric has grown increasingly more hostile, the Economist points to selections from two Chinese newspapers, China Daily and the Global Times. Although Chinese media is heavily regulated, we should be wary of conflating editorial opinions with official government policy. The Global Times is an overtly nationalist publication, and would still call for war had Japan ceded the islands to China. Admittedly, the China Daily is a more mainstream, albeit conservative, newspaper, but in selecting these two editorials, the Economist is forcing a narrative. In contrast to these two papers, Xinhua, the official press agency of the government, recently argued that “negotiation should be the way out of the rift” between the two countries.

Next, it seems the Economist is placing most of the blame for increased tensions on China. But the crisis ultimately stems from Japan’s decision to claim the islands in the first place. Though initially at risk of falling into the hands of Tokyo’s ultra-nationalist governor, the Japanese government’s decision to make the islands into a national initiative only escalated the situation. For the past few decades, China seemed willing to leave the islands’ status quo in limbo, but Japan forced the issue.

In fact, Japan has not stepped back in an attempt to de-escalate tensions with China. China did move surveillance vessels near the island, but this is hardly different from what the United States does to China. In response to acts like this and the Chinese patrol plane that buzzed by, Japan has readied its F-15 fighter jets and considered stationing them closer to the islands.

Viewed from the Chinese lens, Japan can easily be seen as the aggressor. From asserting control over the island, readying its military, increasing military spending, and spreading its influence to China’s neighbors to the south, Japan could arguably be seen as attempting to contain China. This is not to say that China has been pacifistic in their behavior, but the blame cannot fully be laid upon China’s feet.

Moreover, it is misleading to compare rising China of today to rising Japan of yesteryear, as the Economist does. China is not attempting to claim swathes of inhabited territory across an entire continent. The most notable existing claims are to a few islets it once owned (Diaoyu/Senkaku), and stronger control over the South China Sea.

It is also alarmist to fear China’s rise, as the Economist would also like us to do. Its economy is largely dependent on exports, and the government has accepted the neoliberal world order devised by the IMF and the World Bank. China would have to risk its modernization efforts in going to war, and shows no signs of forsaking prosperity. The PRC has consistently spent 2 percent of its GDP on the military, never deciding to forego civilian production for increased defense spending like the USSR did.

Western pundits must begin to accept China as a rational actor who will not go to war over a few rocks. China’s rhetoric may be bombastic and we may not like the idea of a nondemocratic world power, but China is here to stay, and is not as fearsome as Chinese nationalists would like us to believe.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Edmund Dulac, 'Prince and Princess', 1911. Via Wikimedia.

Edmund Dulac, ‘Prince and Princess’, 1911. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

France in Mali: the end of the fairytaleHow the French got airstrikes in MaliA primer on the country’s armed groups.

Voices from contested Mali — the French intervention remains popular.

Rape has become a “significant” part of the war in Syria. Assad remains confident he can endure the conflict. Also see Marc Lynch on the lost opportunity for diplomacy.

CJ Chiver’s fascinating look at how Iranian ammunition has entered Africa’s wars.

2013 is the year of the settlement, Michael Koplow writes.

Another brutal condemnation of Zero Dark Thirty’s torture politics, this time from Steve Coll.

Growing up gay in Iran. Relatedly, sanctions, unsurprisingly, are not popular in Iran. “Many Iranians, however, don’t just blame the Islamic Republic for the dire economic conditions — they blame the financial sanctions, which they view as hostile as any armed attack.”

Ólafur Arnalds – Everything Must Change

Irrationality and BMD

By Taylor Marvin

David Weigel closes his Slate profile of Senator Rand Paul’s recent trip to Israel with an interesting quote. When asked what he thought of Israel’s Iron Dome rocket defense system, Paul took his support of the system further, proposing that the US field a similar system:

“But absolutely I’m in favor of it. Think about on 9/11. There’s no reason our White House, our Capitol, and our major cities shouldn’t have a missile defense… I argue that there will be irrational actors on the stage. There’s no way to stop irrationality from eventually getting weapons into the hands of people who might attack us.”

Really, it’s pointless parsing this statement: Senator Paul clearly means this less as a carefully considered defense policy position and more of a hyperbolic demonstration of his support for Israel: whether policy or military hardware, when it’s good enough for Israel, it’s good enough for the US.

But it’s worth remarking just how misguided this proposal is. Iron Dome is a worthy system that has saved lives. But it is a particularly poor analog for a US-based ballistic missile defense (BMD) system. The Qassam rockets Iron Dome is designed to intercept are short-range, travel relatively slowly, do not maneuver, and do not mount decoys or other systems to increase their survivability. No terrorist would ever fabricate a similar limited-range rocket in the US. Instead, a ballistic missile launched at Washington, DC would be exponentially more difficult to successfully intercept than a Hamas rocket to the point that the two are incomparable. A prospective city-defense ABM system would more resemble the 1970s-era Safeguard program proposed to defend US ICBM sites from a Soviet counterforce attack, which relied on nuclear interceptor warheads and was only briefly operational. Anyway, this entire discussion ignores that fact that terminal-phase BMD for civilian targets is probably unworkable — even a successful interception by a modern non-nuclear interceptor would still leave fast moving debris flying towards the target — and can easily be defeated by low-cost countermeasures.

More pertinently, Senator Paul appears to not devote much time to contemplating strategic rationality. As is frequently noted, the concept of rationality does not denote any moral judgement, only that a rational actor’s behavior follows a reasonable cost-benefit calculation and is in accordance with their desired end. Al Qaeda’s attack on the US was not irrational; rather, it was a rational outcome of bin Laden’s desire to kill Americans given his limited means. Deeming it — and other terrorist campaigns — rational is not an endorsement of its morality.

Paul’s focus on irrationality is simply a rhetorical strategy. A rouge state launching a limited ballistic missile attack on the US would indeed be an irrational act — that’s precisely why it is unlikely. Despite protestations to the contrary, legitimately irrational regimes rarely arise; after all, attaining and holding leadership status in an organization as complex as a nation-state — thus far the only groups capable of deploying the ICBMs required to attack the mainland US via missile strike — requires sophisticated decision-making, the precise decision of rationality.

This is important, because accusations of irrationality are a frequent argument by neoconservatives keen to justify military intervention. This argument was a prime driver of the Iraq War, and is repeated today to justify a strike on Iran. Reasonable observers conclude that an Iran armed with nuclear missiles would be unlikely to risk national destruction by launching a nuclear strike on Israel. Hawks sidestep this conclusion by arguing that, contrary to all evidence, Iran’s leaders are not rational at all — in this argument, mutually assured destruction may have deterred the Soviet Union, but the fanatical Iranians only care for destruction. Of course, this argument is more based in racist assumptions of Muslim fanaticism than any real scholarship. While Paul is a relative moderate on US-Iranian relations, his willingness to adopt the same rhetoric as hawks is support of a nonsensical BMD advocacy is lazy. Today accusations of strategic irrationality have become more of a rhetorical shortcut to war than a evidence-based concept.

When the word “irrational” leaves a politician’s mouth, be doubtful.

Argo, Neglect, and Giving the People What They Want

Argo2012PosterBy Taylor Marvin

At Slate, critic Kevin B. Lee has a brutal takedown of Ben Affleck’s Argo, yesterday’s winner of the Golden Globe for best motion picture drama. Unfortunately, the review quickly descends into self-parody. Lee’s main problem with the films is its focuses on the “Canadian Caper” chapter of the hostage crisis, rather than the US history of meddling in pre-revolutionary Iran — in short, his complain is that it isn’t another film.

“Instead of keeping its eye on the big picture of revolutionary Iran,” Lee complains, “the film settles into a retrograde ‘white Americans in peril’ storyline.” Yes, that is literally the plot: Americans, regardless of the country they represented’s previous crimes in Iran, were in peril. There are many historically-inspired films that deserve criticism for needlessly highlighting the experience of white people — The Last Samuraito name a particularly egregious example — but Argo isn’t one of them. Criticism that the film doesn’t focus on the experience of Iranians is misplaced because, strictly speaking, it isn’t a story about Iranians at all. Instead, it’s a story about Americans in Iran that for plot expediency reduces Iranians to mostly antagonists. Again, given the film’s historical inspiration, this isn’t in and of itself problematic. That isn’t to say that the stories of Iranians don’t deserve to be told, but the dramatic experience of American hostages isn’t invalidated by this neglect in American cinema.

Complaints about “zombie-like hordes” aside, Affleck does a reasonably fine job of suggesting that while the abduction of American embassy staff was unjustified, and the fury revolutionary Iran held towards the United States was both real and valid. While this alone is progress, I don’t mean to overstate Argo’s Orientalism-challenging credentials. As J.R. Jones recently remarked, “making an anti-Iranian action flick in Hollywood isn’t exactly a daring act” (via Bahman Kalbasi). Despite its opening chronicling US support for the Shah’s brutality, the film is American comfort cinematic comfort food: wronged American victims, a charismatic hero, and the ultimate triumph of American daring, ingenuity, and showmanship over a foreign menace. Iranians are most often seen, through the eyes of the hostages and their would be rescuers, as menacing threats. But context is everything, and in the context of the narrative, this menace makes sense — the Iranians were menacing, if you had the misfortune to be a hostage!

A more nuanced critique centers less on Argo and more on mainstream American filmmaking’s hesitancy to tell stories unflattering to the US. Lee hints that this is his real complaint:

“Ironically, the larger narrative of the hostage crisis would make for a more compelling movie from both a plot and action standpoint: A great filmmaker could make an amazing sequence of Operation Eagle Claw, a failed rescue mission that resulted in two helicopter crashes, several dead U.S. soldiers, and a subsequent overhaul of U.S. military operations. Imagine the last act of Zero Dark Thirty, but with an unhappy ending.”

The problem is this film’s essentially already been made: 1986’s Chuck Norris vehicle The Delta Force.* Of course, The Delta Force isn’t a — how do I say this — strict adaption. While the film opens with the humiliating failure of Operation Eagle Claw it invents a triumphant mirror image of the failed operation, climaxing with Norris’ rescue of American and Israeli hostages in Beirut. Delta_force_poster

Of course, the point is that while narratives about the cost of US foreign policy may be worth telling, Hollywood is rarely willing to do so, for the simple reason that movies — especially high-budget military blockbusters — are a business. Lee indirectly acknowledges this, admitting that a faithful adaption of Operation Eagle Claw “wouldn’t go over well with the home audience.” Indeed, films that do show US military defeats typically obscure the message somehow. A Bridge Too Far depicts an over-ambitious operation that ends in catastrophe, but in the wider context of American WWII triumph. Black Hawk Down ably depicts the sacrifices of American soldiers, but ignores both the Clinton administration’s strategic confusion that deployed them to Somalia in the first place, as well as the post-Cold War US military’s difficulty fighting low-intensity counterinsurgency wars in foreign cultures. Avatar shows the defeat of rapacious and clearly American-inspired imperialists, but does so in a speculative setting — one not distant enough to prevent conservatives from attacking the film as anti-American.

Films that showcase American victories are inherently more flattering, equally problematic. As Elias Isquith recently wrote in The AtlanticHollywood as a vision of American ascendency is nothing new. Zero Dark Thirty’s perceived endorsement of torture understates, rather than defies, the type, Isquith writes [disclaimer: I have not seen Zero Dark Thirty]:

“While it may be true that some American viewers will see Zero Dark Thirty and “feel good about themselves,” it’s not true that this represents something new, that it is a ‘sign of the times’… Judged against Frank Capra’s 1942-1945 series of pro-war “documentaries,” Why We Fight—directly commissioned by General George Marshall and soon thereafter championed by President Roosevelt himself—Zero Dark Thirty looks meek if not downright subversive. The times, it turns out, aren’t a-changing.”

Argo depicts an American triumph and makes American audiences ‘feel good’ about their country and the CIA. But it is not a film that refuses to challenge the assumptions of US foreign policy, or descends into jingoism. Lee mocks critics who laud Argo as progressive. But by the low standard of most other American cinema Argo’s suggestion that the US government, though not the hostages themselves, had laid the seeds for the crisis is practically subversive.

American foreign policy would likely pursue a more constructive course if domestic audiences were widely exposed to films illustrating its costs. But complaining that Hollywood doesn’t tell these stories ignores that fact that, for the most part, audiences don’t want to see them.

*Edited to add: I was introduced to The Delta Force in Dr. David Najar’s 2008 class.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

William of Tyre, Reconstruction of the Temple of Jerusalem', 15th century. Via Wikimedia.

William of Tyre, Reconstruction of the Temple of Jerusalem’, 15th century. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Hints of Syrian chemical push set off global effort to stop it — “I think the Russians understood this is the one thing that could get us to intervene in the war.”

How apocalyptic gun-rights ideology wrecks democracy.

Phil Arena reviews a new paper — “Borrowed Power: Debt Finance and Resort to Arms” — by Branislav Slantchev, who taught one of my favorite classes at UCSD.

Check out Duck of Minerva’s working paper ‘I Can Has IR Theory?’, a further response to the Walt/Mearsheimer ‘not enough grand theory’ argument

Offshore control is the answer in the western Pacific. Not as far as I’d go, but limit, limit, limit is the watchword.

Emily L. Hauser on Obama, Hagel, and feminism.

In Jacobin, Remeike Forbes asks why Django Unchained ignores slave uprisings. Adam Serwer has a convincing defense of the film. I personally think that Tarantino’s depiction of the majority of the film’s slave characters as too mentally oppressed to resist is a strong depiction of the dehumanizing effect of enslavement. [spoiler] Django isn’t one in ten thousand; he’s just lucky [end spoilers].

Cloud Nothings – No Future/No Past

Surprises and 17th Century Knowledge

By Taylor Marvin

On the subject of social perceptions of what constitutes female “modesty”, a friend recently brought my attention to an interesting fresco at Chehel Sotoun, an archeological site in Isfahan, Iran. Chehel Sotou is a royal pavilion constructed by Safavid Dynasty Shah Abbas II in the mid-17th century, and is decorated with numerous frescos. One particularly interesting series depicts, through Persian eyes, contemporary French nobility.

Photo by Kiana Ashtiani.

Clearly the artist got a lot right — the rapier and clothing shown on the rightmost panel are all representative of contemporary French fashion. This is particularly interesting because it’s reasonable to suspect that the artists had no first-hand knowledge of France: in the 17th century direct contact between France and Persia remained rare, and any cultural knowledge would have been diffused through numerous intermediaries.

Another fresco is even more interesting.

Photo by Kiana Ashtiani.

Photo by Kiana Ashtiani.

Again, a depiction of French nobility. But the woman wears a very low-cut top that exposes her entire chest. My first thought is that this is a snide expression of the artists’ perception cultural superiority over the Europeans. For millennia Western Asian cultures had viewed the European West as a backwater. Already conditioned to view Europeans as decadent barbarians, it isn’t surprising the artist would exaggerate the low-cut of contemporary European female fashion. This exaggerated depiction wouldn’t even have to be a conscious choice: if knowledge of Western Europe tended to reach Persia through numerous intermediaries, exaggeration — no doubt influenced by each intermediaries’ preexisting cultural prejudices — would be expected. A 17th century Persian popular understanding of Europeans as immodest decadents is considerably less fantastical than medieval European’s belief that the East was the home of mythological beasts and other wonders. If anything, there’s a delicious, if ultimately harmful, irony to Persian depictions of Europeans as sexually decadent, given that the inversion of this narrative would be a dominant theme in later Orientalist art by Westerners — “Occidentalism” by the Chehel Sotou artists, indeed.

But it turns out my initial understanding of the fresco’s significance was incorrect. In a recent piece at Slate on the history of female toplessnessDaniel Engber points out that 17th century Europeans held considerably different views on exposed breasts than modern culture. “Extreme décolletage was well-received in the English court throughout the 1620s and then returned to haute couture in the 1680s,” Engber writes, highlighting a a contemporary woodcut of the future Queen Mary II of England.


This positive depiction of the princess depicts her with her breast fully exposed. Another, more formal depiction of the future queen by court artist Peter Lely shows her with her nipples covered, but with far more of her chest exposed than deemed formal in the modern American understanding.

Peter Lely, "Mary II", 17th century. Via Wikimedia.

Peter Lely, “Mary II”, 17th century. Via Wikimedia.

So, rather than exaggerating distant reports of European fashion, the artists at Chehel Sotoun instead painted a fairly accurate depiction of the contemporary Western European nobility! Given that Engber identifies a height of extreme décolletage fashion in the 1620s, the Chehel Sotoun’s half-century lag time places it perfectly to reflect diffused knowledge of this fashion. This isn’t to say that 17th century Persians didn’t feel a sense of superiority over their far-off European contemporaries, but it evidently didn’t influence this particular work of art. Fascinating, right?

Agency is Agency, No Matter What It Wears

By Taylor Marvin

At The American Prospect E.J, Graff has a thought-provoking piece on rape culture in the US and abroad. If Americans are tempted to view the horrific torture, rape, and murder of a New Delhi woman as evidence that rape culture is endemic only to foreign societies, they’re wrong; in Graff’s words, rape culture “lives anywhere that has a ‘traditional’ vision of women’s sexuality.” This, of course, includes the US, where slut-shaming is epidemic, politicians restrict their sympathy for survivors of “legitimate” rape, and all too many people continue to blame rape survivors for being the victim of crimes.

Graff makes her argument in graphic detail, and her piece is well worth reading. However, one troubling line jumps out:

“A culture in which women must cover up or be threatened is a rape culture. You’re thinking of hijab and burquas, right? Think also of the now well-known SlutWalks, which were launched after a Toronto police officer told young women that they could avoid rape by not dressing like ‘sluts.'”

Graff’s point is that the coerced covering of female bodies in the West is just as indicative of rape culture as in the Muslim world. The reference to hijabs and burquas is evoked to emphasize this point: if Canadian police telling women not to dress like “sluts” is comparable to Muslim head and body coverings it must be oppressive, because the veil is a perfect synonym for patriarchy. Here the Muslim world is the alien other, identified only by definitional oppression. There’s the threat — if we, the West, don’t change our ways we’ll be like them.

This is a troublingly Orientalist view of the female experience in the Muslim world. This isn’t to say that Muslim societies are not crippled by widespread misogyny and sexual violence; they clearly are, and the costs of patriarchy are arguably higher in these societies than anywhere else. This also doesn’t suggest that hijabs and other female religious garments are not a product of patriarchy. In an alternative reality where Islam — and of course Christianity — arose in egalitarian, rather than patriarchal, societies, it’s difficult to believe that these religious traditions would stress concealing clothing for women and not men. But assuming that the veil always represents a denial of female freedom is a condescending and simplistic dismissal of a complex tradition, and denies agency to the millions of Muslim women who chose to wear the garment.

Artist unknown; please contact me if you know.

Artist unknown; please contact me if you know.

Are many women forced to wear clothing they otherwise would not, on the justification of religious tradition? Of course. But assuming that all women wear the hijab because they are forced to compresses millions of Muslim women’s varied experiences into a single condemnation of their culture. In this view, Western women’s choices are valid, while Muslim women’s are not. It is difficult to imagine a more condescending narrative, because this story of oppressed, subservient Muslim women denies them the agency to choose. Reza Aslan ably explains this distinction in his history of Islam, No god but God:

‘The fact is that the traditional colonial image of the veiled Muslim woman as the sheltered, docile sexual property of her husband is just as misleading and simpleminded as the postmodernist image of the veil as the emblem of female freedom and empowerment from Western cultural hegemony. The veil may be neither or both of these things, but that is up to Muslim women to decide for themselves. [p. 73]”

To Westerners, the narrative of the veil as a tool of oppression is both satisfying and comforting: satisfying because it reaffirms the West’s cultural superiority, and comforting because it simplifies a bewildering variety of religious and cultural traditions into a simple narrative of backwardness. Again, this does not mean that patriarchy is absent from the practice — as Aslan notes, reading the veil as empowering freedom from the male gaze is just as simplistic as understanding it solely as patriarchal barbarism. But lumping all women who wear the veil into the category of pitied victims reflects an inherent narrative of cultural superiority. It is up to individual Muslim women, not non-Muslim observers, to decide whether the practice is oppressive. The veil is not incompatible with feminism; only the lack of female agency is.