Language can be detrimental to how we see the world and what kind of actions we consider permissible. Public perceptions and worldviews, and our judgment of the “other,” are partially constructed by language. One such example is the contested definition of a terrorist. It is said that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter: states and political players often fight to normalize their own designation of terrorism, which has become an increasingly powerful and effective discursive tool to delegitimize opposition. Such elusive definitions, however, induce an ambiance of fear and anxiety within public discourse, serving interchangeably as both scapegoat and justification. In some cases, such discursive tools and politically charged constructions of reality belittle, or even totally deny, the actual suffering of human beings and whole nations.
The most recent event that tests the impact of this lexically-constructed reality is the assassination of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a top Iraqi commander, and their companions.
One classical aspect of the use of language to otherize and legitimize hostile behavior is the omission of facts and perspectives that could lead to a humane image of the adversary. Focusing on the case of the assassination of Soleimani, and given that we are Iranians, we will try to demonstrate how the construction of his image in the west differs from the ordinary Iranian’s understanding of Soleimani. We believe that putting aside misperceptions (and sometimes “willful” ignorance) and making an effort to create a more accurate understanding of not just Iranians, but all “different” people, will lead to more informed decision-making by American politicians, which will benefit the American people as well as those living in Iran.
A MULTIDIMENSIONAL FIGURE
While top US military and political officials have celebrated the assassination, describing Soleimani as a “monster,” “ruthless and vicious,” or an “evil genius” who had “the blood of hundreds of Americans on his hands,” the US Secretary of State claimed that thousands of Iranians would celebrate Soleimani’s death. In reality, he was a popular political figure in Iran, with 82% of Iranians viewing him favorably according to a poll conducted by the University of Maryland in October 2019. To this point, the massive turnout of millions of Iranians to his multi-city funeral procession is believed to be the largest since Ayatollah Khomeini.
Conscious and unconscious omissions which contribute to the construction of the image of Soleimani as a monster serve to legitimize his assassination on a domestic and international level, and mute any questioning of the morality and legality of the related operation that took place on Iraqi soil.
The perception and understanding that Iranian people have of Soleimani is a multidimensional one. He was a man of the people, which is something important in Iranian culture: that someone who has risen to a high political or military position does not disassociate himself from ordinary people. He was personally present in the aftermath of last year’s devastating flood in Khuzestan province, monitoring the flood aid efforts and engaging with the people and also with the aid providers, and actually getting his forces involved. This, along with his noted presence on battlefields as well as in national and religious ceremonies, cultivated an image of someone who came to assist Iranians in all kinds of emergencies, whether military or civilian, domestic or foreign.
Soleimani’s popularity also stems from his role during Iran’s battle with ISIS. After fighting in an eight-year war against Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime, he was assigned as the commander of Iran’s Quds force. The threat of ISIS terrorism was very serious for Iran, given that the caliphate had just established itself and was expanding its territory, rapidly approaching Iran’s borders. Iranians also had a fresh and bitter memory of terrorism and were wary of the rise of ISIS. Many civilians, including politicians, and ordinary men, women, and children were assassinated on the streets of Tehran and other towns and cities in the 1980s by the Mojahedin-e Khalq, a group that, until 2012, was designated by the US as a terrorist organization.
Soleimani’s popularity in Iran increased after the 2017 Tehran attacks, a series of two simultaneous terrorist attacks carried out by ISIS against the Iranian Parliament and Ayatollah Khomeini’s Mausoleum that left 17 civilians dead and 43 wounded. In retaliation, the IRGC successfully launched a series of medium-range precision missiles at an ISIS headquarters in Dayr al Zouwr from inside Iran.
Interestingly, Soleimani also enjoyed a global profile for fighting terrorism. The Guardian emphasized the significant role of Iran and the Quds force at the time of the falling of the city of Mosul and the rapid reaction of Iran through Soleimani, which prevented the widespread collapse. On some occasions, even the US military worked with Soleimani — notably in 2014 to free the town of Amirli from occupation and likely genocide. He was regarded as integral in stopping the spread of the terrorist mutation in the body of Middle Eastern countries and freeing lands from their despotic control
In the days that followed Soleimani’s death, however, Iranians were surprised to see that not only was their viewpoint largely omitted from the mainstream global media, they were also barred from expressing themselves on social media platforms like Instagram. Posts sympathetic to Soleimani were deleted, and some accounts even received threatening messages, warning them that their posts or accounts would be deleted if they insist on sharing similar content. In other words, the unfavorable designation voiced by one side legitimized the silencing of a whole nation’s narrative.
A SLIPPERY SLOPE
Despite these wildly varied perceptions of Soleimani before his death, the US attack marked a definitive shift in how the world spoke about him. The news coverage of Soleimani’s murder is reflective of the role of language in public and political discourse, and how it can be used to justify an act of terror: killing a high ranking official of a country in a third country in an international airport. In 2011, the Obama administration sanctioned Soleimani and designated him as a terrorist on the allegation that he had plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US in Washington. By designating him as a terrorist, an act of terror to eliminate Soleimani was effectively justified and legitimized.
What’s more, word choice has been used to legalize the strike. In the statement released by the Department of State immediately after the assassination, the murder of Soleimani is labeled as “killing” and not “assassination” to dismiss the act as a politically motivated murder, which has been illegal under US federal law since 1981. In addition, referring to the act as “defensive” to an “imminent threat” — without providing any evidence — justifies the legality of the murder under Article II of the US Constitution.
The White House narrative and justification of the assassination has fluctuated so much over the course of the past days and weeks, with officials struggling to explain what exactly they mean by “imminent” and “threat,” and in some instances, using their best guess to explain what the president meant. The attempt to provide an objective and acceptable rationale for the assassination, however, finally collapsed with Trump’s tweet stating: “it doesn’t really matter because of his horrible past!”
THE BOTTOM LINE
Foreign policy towards Iran — such as the “crippling sanctions” that included pharmaceutical products and aviation equipment that led to the death of ordinary patients — has received little opposition or criticism on moral terms among mainstream media or analysts. In this case, the branding of a sovereign nation as a “regime,” as “terrorist,” suffices to legitimize the suffering of its people.
There are many different narratives on Soleimani as an influential character with global influence, but as Iranians, we’ve tried to recount the oft-untold side of the story from our people’s perspective. Conscious and unconscious omissions which contribute to the construction of the image of Soleimani as a monster serve to legitimize his assassination on a domestic and international level, and mute any questioning of the morality and legality of the related operation that took place on Iraqi soil. Such a political application of language as a tool to shape public opinion and legitimize certain hostile policies — including military action — is dangerous, and calls to mind past mistakes.
The war in Iraq was sold to both the public and politicians based on fabricated tales and a perceived link between non-existent WMDs, al-Qaida and the Saddam regime. The constructed dichotomy of “good” versus “evil” — salient rhetoric based upon which the American audience is conditioned to expect evil from “Muslims” — not only justified the war but made it a moral imperative. The assassination of Soleimani and overall political discourse on Iran appear, unfortunately, to follow the same pattern. If it is not stopped, it will lead to the same type of catastrophe.
Elham Kadkhodaee is an Assistant Professor in the department of West Asian & North African Studies at the Faculty of World Studies, University of Tehran. She is interested in constructivist international relations and critical discourse analysis. Her research is mainly focused on the US–Israeli relationship, and the relationship between the US and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Zeinab Ghasemi Tari is an Assistant Professor of American studies at the Faculty of World Studies, University of Tehran. She is interested in colonial and post-colonial studies, Orientalism, Iranian diaspora and Iran–US relations. Her current research and writing interests include an interdisciplinary approach to media representation of Iran in the United States, Iran–US relations and Iranian studies in the United States.