Gone but Not Forgotten

Why we should take exiles seriously.

“And who’s going to start a revolution in Russia? Surely not Herr Bronstein sipping coffee over at the Café Central!” With those quite possibly apocryphal words, the Austrian foreign minister of the time is alleged to have scoffed at the news of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia—not realizing that Herr Bronstein, better known to the world as Leon Trotsky, was about to become considerably more famous than himself.

It’s one of those stories that has now passed into tourist-guidebook folklore (along with the Viennese waiter who supposedly remarked, “I knew Lev Bronstein would go far but never thought he’d leave without paying for the four café mokkas he owes me”). But it reflects pretty accurately what most politicians inside governments usually feel about politicians outside governments who are in political exile. A few years ago in an auditorium on Capitol Hill, I heard a group of North Koreans tell their utterly harrowing stories of arrest, starvation, labor camp, and escape. The audience, mostly junior congressional staff, listened politely at first. But the exiles rambled, the translation was terrible, and the microphones blurred their not-entirely-relevant speeches. Quietly, and perhaps understandably, the staff members one by one slipped out the door at the back of the auditorium.

The trick, of course, is to avoid the mistake of the Austrian foreign minister and to recognize the importance of exiles, however pathetic and incomprehensible they may seem, before they suddenly take power again. Or at least to take note of what they say, since it may reflect arguments that are going on within a closed society but can’t yet be spoken aloud.

That’s the thought that leads me to draw your attention to a statement written by a group of Iranian exiles, printed this week in the New York Review of Books (read the whole thing here). Titled “On the Holocaust Conference Sponsored by the Government of Iran,” the statement is a response to the bizarre gathering of Holocaust deniers that took place in Tehran last month under the aegis of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and that was mostly accepted without comment in the Muslim world. Disturbed by this silence, more than 100 Iranians living in the United States and Europe, including writers, journalists, film directors, historians, scientists, and human rights activists—people with a very wide range of political views—have signed a statement designed to show the world that there are some Iranians, at least, who abhor their government’s attempt to “falsify history.”

“We the undersigned Iranians,” the statement begins, “notwithstanding our diverse views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and “considering that the Nazis’ … campaign of genocide against Jews and other minorities during World War II constitute[s] undeniable historical facts,” deplore the way that the “denial of these unspeakable crimes has become a propaganda tool” of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The statement goes on to recall that the current Iranian government has “refused to acknowledge, among other things, its mass execution of its own citizens in 1988” and concludes by paying homage to the “memory of the millions of Jewish and non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust.”

What does it mean? Maybe nothing: After all, these 100-odd exiles speak for no one but themselves. They do not represent a hidden group of pro-Western or pro-American Iranians living in Iran, let alone a hidden group of Israeli sympathizers. In fact, they do not represent anyone in Iran at all. The organizers of the group statement did not ask Iranians in Iran to sign it, since they didn’t want anyone inside the country to be arrested. That makes their effort especially easy to dismiss as an unimportant effusion of exiled coffeehouse intellectuals.

On the other hand, in an era too often overprone to mass stereotypes and demonization, maybe it’s better not to ignore this kind of effort either. If nothing else, it demonstrates that there is in fact another Iran: an Iran that admires neither Ahmedinejad nor the Islamic “establishment” that now opposes him, an Iran that believes in open engagement with the West and an open discussion of history. The intellectuals who signed that statement are sufficiently connected to their country to care what happens there, yet sufficiently independent to oppose the anti-Semitism currently fashionable across the Islamic world and the Holocaust denial that is now official Iranian government policy. They are politically independent—many disliked one or another element of the statement—yet dedicated to the idea of historical truth-telling for its own sake.

If nothing else, their names will travel to Iran, via the Internet, where they hope their statement will inspire debate. We should take them and their effort to inspire discussion in their country seriously: Who knows? Maybe they will succeed.