Hazem Saghieh

Death to America: The History of a Slogan (1979 - 2020)

With the death of Qassem Soleimani, the slogan “Death to America” has returned to the forefront, with tens of thousands of people in Iraq and Iran chanting it furiously. This slogan/chant that oscillated, for years, between strategic expansion and a tactical recession has a very rich history. It was launched during Khomeini’s revolution in 1979, particularly after the US embassy in Tehran was taken over. At the time, this seemed like a great victory: The underdog humiliated the arrogant, and those who could not be insulted were insulted.

As with myths, birth stood against death. The revolution was born, and its enemies had to die. Indeed, those were glorious days for the death/birth binary. The “new dawn” would put an end to dark nights and oppression. “West, your face has died,” wrote Adonis.

Some in the East found that their desire to move from the position of the humiliated ill man to the position of the humiliating avenger had been satisfied. In 1904, they were proud that Japan, an Asian country, defeated Russia, a European country. Maoist phrases like “The winds of the East defeat those of the West” and the Nasserist “Raise your head, brother” still echoed in peoples’ heads.

At the time, Khomeini seemed like the person volunteering to fulfill our dreams: In his shadow, we will transcend our divisions to an Islamic unity that can achieve. Under his leadership, we will pray in al-Quds, and on the way, we would liberate Palestine. Nothing would stand in the way of he who insulted the US. As for the same prototype itself, the fact that he was a new face protected him. He was never tried before, so any argument against him would be unjust.

However, one loose stone could destabilize an entire building, regardless of how well built, and the loose stones were many indeed. Between the war with Iraq in 1980 and the Oslo Accords in 1993, millions of Arabs, including Palestinians, left the tunnel of the binary between Iran, the absolute good, and the US, the absolute evil. Between these two dates, Tehran resorted to suicide bombers in 1983 and not “human droves” to kill Americans in Beirut. The Iran-Contra affair widened the margin for doubt of the purity of the Qom Imams. When the USSR collapsed, many became certain that death haunted the US’s enemies. Despite the demonization of the latter after the Iraq War in 2003, that did not lead to the veneration of Iran as it was treated as a partner in that crime. In 2005, the majority of Lebanese people started to see in Tehran’s ambitions a completion of Tel Aviv’s ambitions. This conviction was strengthened after Beirut was invaded in 2008. In the meantime, the Green Movement in 2009 dampened the minimal enthusiasm for a model that barely worked to begin with. As for Syria, after the revolution, Iran’s rulers were seen as butchers. Some Syrians saw in them the most extreme colonial project they had ever witnessed.

Indeed the Arab revolutions have all dampened the voice of ideology towards the US and have raised the voice of national reconciliation instead: Some American positions warrant critique while others warrant admiration. Judgment is no longer wholesale but retail.

On the other hand, Iranian expansion into Iraq after both the Saddam and Taliban regimes were overthrown by the eliminated whatever remained of that image of absolute hostility to the US disseminated by Khomeinism. The later coexistence in Mesopotamia, which has only recently been seriously challenged, confirmed that the two supposed opposites are not always actually opposite.

On another note, with regards to culture, there is a balance between Iran’s strengths and weaknesses. It draws its strength from the age of identities. It has replaced its economic critique of the West as imperial with a cultural critique of it as a cultural invader. The other face, however, to this cultural issue is that it did not work in its favor: The culture of Iran’s youth is globalized, to the same extent as anywhere else, and perhaps even more. Though it is true that this does not hold true across classes, regions and ethnicities, the general opinion of the youth in large cities, which is also propagated by the media, is very hostile towards the regime. After the enthusiasm for the regime became limited to a particular set of the youth, not to be underestimated, as the streets of Iran show today, the enthusiasm in Iraq has started to seriously diminish, and such is the case in Iran itself. For politics is no longer the only form of social identification, the rejection of Trump’s policies by the youth does not mean they cannot admire his country. The US also represents music, image, fashion, university, hospital and many other things that ought not to die. In turn, the ruling ideology in Iran failed where others like it had succeeded; it did not lead to a production of consumable icons on its margin that could be circulated outside its sect. It remained a cold corpse, resilient to the market and against the image and dynamism. What had consecrated this lack was life in the barricade and the lack of financial capabilities, especially after the sanctions.

As for Israel, it certainly still poses a significant problem for the US, but it is no longer sufficient to wish death to the US and life to Iran. Furthermore, Tehran’s wishes, however violent, are colliding with the sensitivities of the peaceful youth, insistent on their new demand and its swift delivery. The naive discourse that the US is the murderer of Red Indians and the destroyer of Vietnam is dull. Alone are the orphans of a consciousness that has died over the last few decades, still shared today only among those who are not bored by violent slogans that they’ve repeated for 80 years and have remained enchanted by Iran. Unfortunately, they are the ones dying today.