Sloppy Reporting on Iran Could Inadvertently Start a War

I’m not qualified at all to translate Persian into English, so I look to people who are fluent in Persian to do that kind of work for me. Professor Juan Cole tells me that Iranian president Hassan Rouhani said our president has a mental illness. To explain his translation, he does a little philology, which seems reasonable to me.

[Rouhani] said that in addition, “the White House is confronting mental illness (ma`luliyat-i dhihni).”

The phrase he used comes from medieval Arabic medicine. An `illah is an etiology or cause for a disease. Someone stricken with a symptom is `alil, i.e. sick. Some purists have argued that `alil, which signifies a person to whom something has been done, is more accurate than ma`luliyat, which has the marker of an abstract noun (like the English “-ness”) attached to a passive participle. But be that as it may, both `alil and ma`lul have come to mean “ill” in Persian, with these high-falutin’ Arabic words equivalent to the simpler Persian bimar.

Ma`luliyat-i dhihni is thus means precisely “mental illness.”

It does not suggest impaired intelligence, just impaired sanity.

I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of what Professor Cole is saying here, although I’m certainly willing to listen to other opinions. Even in English, the term “mental illness” is poorly defined, but it is not commonly applied to people who are born with mental disabilities. The suggestion is usually that something has gone wrong. A person has become ill.

Nonetheless, my phone sent me an alert from the New York Times this week informing me that Mr. Rouhani had just called our president “mentally retarded.” Some people will take offense at a foreign leader launching childish insults at our head of state. Others will be offended at the particular term, as “mentally retarded” is now considered the kind of politically incorrect insult that can get your kid suspended from school. It seems like a prejudicial and inflammatory thing to do to blast out a nationwide message to people’s phones that inaccurately translates what the Iranian president said in a way that will anger most Americans in one way or another.

Ordinarily, I’d see this as irresponsible but not very consequential. But this isn’t a questionable translation from Norwegian. President Trump authorized and then called off military strikes against Iran on Thursday of last week. One reason Trump may have refrained from going through with the attack is that he knows public opinion does not favor war with Iran. Sending out prejudicial blast messages to people’s phones seems like a good way to change public opinion on that score, so unless news agencies want war they should be more diligent and cautious about what they report. Reporting that the president of Iran said “the White House is confronting mental illness” doesn’t have the same effect as reporting that he called Trump “mentally retarded.” I don’t think too many people will fail to see the difference.

What’s more, Rouhani’s made extended remarks which provided context for the “mental illness” statement. He didn’t just walk up to a podium, launch an insult, and drop the mic. He was responding to a near attack on his country that was followed by the imposition of new sanctions that impact the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Professor Cole explains that, as Iran’s senior cleric, Khamenei receives religious donations from all over the world which he redistributes as charity, much like Pope Francis does in the Vatican. According to Rouhani, the new sanctions will impact these religious donors. We may not care about this side effect, perhaps because we don’t think Khamenei distributes this money exclusively for religious purposes, or because money is fungible and we just want him to have less of it to throw around. But it’s not hard to see how others might see this policy as an affront to their religion and an extreme overreaction.  I don’t know what people expect an Iranian politician to say in this context when a president is seriously considering bombing their country and imposing sanctions on the devout. Accusing the “White House” of mental illness actually seems rather mild to me.

I didn’t get any of this context when my phone sent me the alert about “mental retardation.”  It’s not going too far in my mind to say that this kind of reporting could start a war and get a lot of people needlessly killed.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com