Students and special guests filled Gaston Hall this past Sunday for a screening of Comedy Central show host Jon Stewart’s directorial debut film Rosewater. The screening was followed by a discussion with Stewart and Maziar Bahari, whose memoir was the adapted for the film.
The event was primarily organized by the School of Foreign Service and co-sponsored by several organizations, including the Lecture Fund, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, IranWire, and Open Road Films.
The conversation was moderated by Karim Sadjadpour, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment and adjunct professor at Georgetown. The discussion focused on Bahari’s experience. An Iranian-born journalist, Bahari was arrested, held in solitary confinement, and tortured for over 100 days for bearing witness to government violence against protesters who cited the illegitimacy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory over Mir-Hossein Mousavi during the 2009 Iranian elections.
During the discussion, Stewart and Bahari talked about the themes in Rosewater, including the importance of the millennials in spreading democracy in the Middle East, as well as the role of media in fostering political and societal change. Bahari hopes that the Iranian government will see how irrationally it acted during that time.
“The film shows how ridiculous the behavior of some people in government [was],” said Bahari. “I hope that irrational people within the Iranian government will watch this film and see their actions and how ridiculous and brutal they [were] and understand that … they are undermining their own authority.
Stewart, though he agreed with Bahari’s sentiments, also cautioned listeners to not be hasty in making judgements on Iranian society.
“On the flip side, I would hope that those who would demonize Iran would look at the film and see the complexities of their society, and that they’re not a monolith,” said Stewart. “There are incredible nuances within Iranian society that we must remember … The general sentiment is to say, ‘You are the axis of evil.’ That’s a caricature that’s one-dimensional.”
Tamara Sonn, a Georgetown professor specializing in the history of Islam, explained, for instance, that the principle of democracy actually aligns with Islamic ideals of governance.
“Iran’s form of governance has many features of democracy … but its counterpart of our Supreme Court is extremely powerful and can—and has—placed serious restrictions on legislation, against the expressed will of many Iranians. Allegations of corruption abound, particularly in the 2009 election,” Sonn wrote in an email to the Voice. “Some Iranians therefore turn against the control of legislation imposed by the Iranian clergy, advocating secular governance. But the most important voices of reform in Iran call for true democracy in accordance with Islamic principles.”
Sonn further explained that it’s important for people to realize the differences between the government and citizens.
“The most important thing to keep in mind, I think, is the difference between a people and its government … The most productive approach to judging other countries is to evaluate their governments’ policies. [At the same time] keep those evaluations separate from evaluations of random citizens [who are] governed by those policies,” Sonn wrote.
Throughout the event, students were offered a glimpse into just how complex—as Stewart put it—the competing interests within the society, and even throughout the Islamic world, are.
Elani Owen (SFS ‘16), who is majoring in International Politics with a special interest in Islamic studies, for example, thought that the event showed the importance of combating Islamophobia.
“There is a lot of Islamophobia and misunderstanding in the media today, with a misunderstanding of Iran in particular. It’s necessary to realize, though that Iran is an important power in Middle East, and our relationship with the country will be important in future,” said Owen. “Jon and his movie [are] seeking to get rid of negative perceptions of Iran, or at least present a film that has a dynamic outlook on Iran that explores all sides.”
One of the main points both Stewart and Bahari emphasized, which had particular relevance to the student participants, was the role of social media during the protests.
“In 2009 … there was an explosion in social and digital media. Millions of people came to the streets. If this had happened in the ‘80s or ‘90s, the government wouldn’t have cared as much and would have been able to crush it faster,” said Bahari. “People used social media in order to gather information, share information with each other, and also mobilize themselves. The combination … really scared the government.”
Bahari ended the conversation on a brighter note by emphasizing his commitment to his Iranian identity, despite the negative interaction he had had with the government.
“Iran has a rich culture and rich traditions,” said Bahari. “I was born there, I have family there, friends there, and I love parts of the culture … I am an Iranian, and I want to be an Iranian. What we are witnessing now is just a small part of the history.”