The American Interest

The authors of “The End of History” and “Reading Lolita in Tehran” discuss coronavirus, Iran, James Baldwin, campus culture, and why imagination and literature are essential to combatting authoritarianism.

The American Interest recently convened TAI Chairman Francis Fukuyama and Azar Nafisi, author of The Republic of Imagination and Reading Lolita in Tehran, for a wide-ranging conversation. They discussed the coronavirus pandemic, news from Iran, identity politics, campus trends, and why imagination and literature are essential to combatting authoritarianism. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Francis Fukuyama: Let’s start with the obvious issue, which is that we are now going through an unprecedented global coronavirus crisis. One of the countries that’s been hardest hit is Iran. I’m wondering what you think this crisis reveals about their government, and then maybe you can speculate a bit about where things could go. Obviously, Iran was under a great deal of pressure before this crisis hit, and now it’s in even worse shape. What do you think?

Azar Nafisi: One thing that has been on my mind for the past few weeks is the similarities between what happened in my first home, which is Iran, and what is happening in my second home, which is America. The Iranian regime is a totalitarian one and Iran is not a democracy, but totalitarianism as a mindset can be anywhere. The first thing that the Iranian government did was to deny that the virus had hit Iran. The second, coming especially from the Supreme Leader, was to say that this is a lot of fuss over nothing. Some even blamed “enemies” of the Islamic Republic or claimed that the virus was created in laboratories. The third thing I noticed was their utter incompetence.

I get so many WhatsApp messages from Iran, from friends who are living under the most excruciating conditions, and I talk to a few on a regular basis. Here, two important things should be noted about the Iranian people. The first is their sense of humor. Frank, I wish I could show you the jokes I am seeing, the majority of which are directed against the government and the clerics. They’re hilarious. Then there are so many videos of people dancing and singing, saying that that is how they’re going to be resisting the virus and the regime. The second thing is the fact that people have taken things into their own hands. They are not expecting anything from the government. The hospitals, the doctors and the nurses, and the Iranian people as a whole have all been helping one another. They have had way stations where they deliver disinfectant and supplies to people who need them.

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