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Category: International

Movement or Revolution? Learning From Developments in Iran

| July 2, 2009

Yesterday in Iran, presidential challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi called the government illegitimate and asked for protests to continue. Iranian-American commentator Sahar Driver tells us that, whatever happens in the near future, the reform movement has already achieved significant gains.

As of this past weekend, the protests in the Islamic Republic of Iran have died down a bit—for now. On Monday the Guardian Council completed its partial recount of a random sampling of 10 percent of the votes and again declared Ahmadinejad the winner of the elections. While this development may be disappointing to many, it should not be read as the failure of this mass movement or its end.

Such impatient determinations by some analysts in the United States and Europe reveal a lack of faith in the very systems and values they claim to support. Have we forgotten that the Civil Right movement in the United States took more than a decade before we even began to see real changes—changes that are still in progress today? The fact of the matter is that opposition candidate Mousavi is just a figure; the real movement at play in Iran is for reform.

Why is revolution a thing so many outside of Iran support when by and large the Iranian people have so carefully attempted the opposite: a peaceful movement for reform within the current government of the Islamic Republic? The movement for human rights and democracy in Iran has been underway for at least 20 years now. Brave women, labor organizers, and defenders of free speech have been building momentum for change under the most hostile conditions. Would moving at a hastier pace than this truly serve the Iranian people? Did the last revolution serve the Iranian people? These are questions worthy of pause and consideration.

We should not be quick to dismiss what the recent protests have achieved. The movement has: 1) successfully drawn attention to the demands of a large part of the Iranian population for social and political reforms; 2) made it impossible to ignore the political divides that exist within the government of the Islamic Republic; and 3) disrupted monolithic interpretations of Islam that circulate in the West. Thus the recent unrest provides an important opportunity to rethink how we have understood Iran, how we have understood Islam, and how we have understood democracy.

Major fissures between clerics and officials in the Islamic Republic have not only been revealed; they have grown deeper. The voice of the people and the violent response of the Republic have caused many within the regime to take a step back and reconsider what they have been doing; there have been calls from within the establishment to examine the recent government-led violence; some important leading clerics have begun to discuss possibly restructuring the balance of power to limit the influence of the Ayatollah within the Republic; and there is the renewed interest of a large portion of the Iranian population in a movement they might have given up on prior to the protests. While the government of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei has been using violent tactics to successfully quell the unrest, this has not been without its costs. Ahmadinejad’s image and what he stands for have now been sullied, something that will not be forgotten anytime soon.

What we have seen these past two weeks in Iran is a people demanding democracy, demanding their rights, and demanding reform of the current Islamic system. We have also witnessed the ways Islam is largely seen by protestors as compatible with democratic values. We have heard our beloved protestors calling from their rooftops at night: “Allah-o-Akbar” (God is Great). The Ayatollah Montazeri, a very important and senior cleric who has been under house arrest for years now, has repeatedly denounced the violence against protestors as un-Islamic. What has become abundantly clear is that “Islam” is subservient to politics and power in Iran. Defiantly, Islam has emerged from the thick of politics in the Islamic Republic … as multiple.

We should be increasingly suspicious of sloppy stereotypes that define an evil-enemy-other in simplistic ways. Comparisons of Ahmadinejad with Hitler and of these recent clashes with the Holocaust are not only hyperbole, they are offensive and disrespectful to Jewish Holocaust survivors. The use of stereotypes is an age-old tactic for consolidating what is nuanced, erasing context and history, and dehumanizing a group of people for the purposes and interests of those in power. The media plays a significant role in perpetuating such stereotypes and can therefore play a powerful role in dismantling them.

Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council has suggested that the recent demonstrations in Iran were more viable in the climate of diplomacy and engagement that has been introduced by the change in tone of the Obama administration. What human rights workers on the ground in the Islamic Republic have been saying for years is that the tougher the United States gets on Iran, the harder the Republic clamps down on their movement. To ignore this fact is to ignore the will of the Iranian people.

Finally, we must not forget that here in the United States during the recent presidential campaign, John McCain sang “bomb-bomb Iran” to a Beach Boys’ tune and his fellow GOP candidate Rudy Giuliani said he’d consider a preemptive nuclear strike; they should now be eating their words. The very people they wished this upon have been risking their lives for freedom and democracy. I am concerned about Obama’s statements last week that the possibility of direct dialogue with Iran has been affected by the recent clashes. This is not a time to play the silent game; this of all times is one for dialogue. I am even more concerned about the recent vote by the House Appropriations Committee to increase sanctions that would limit the functionality of Iran’s petroleum industry. How do sanctions do anything but force a suffering people to rally around a government they may not wish to support? We should not suffocate the movement before it’s even had a fighting chance.

I fear the government crackdown will get worse before it gets better; but the fires have been stoked and the will of the people is in play.

We should continue to voice our support for the struggle of the Iranian people for their rights and freedoms. We should vehemently denounce the recent call for the execution of protest leaders by a senior cleric. We should not, however, support military, political or economic interventions; these will only undermine a healthy, strong and inspired movement.

We should not take our eyes off of Iran; the minute we stop paying attention, our silence gives license to further violence. Emails circulate in Iran showing pictures of the mass rallies that have occurred all over the world on their behalf. Our solidarity inspires Iranian freedom fighters, giving them the strength to continue on.

Lets commit to taking our lead from the demands of the Iranian people. Democracy yes. Intervention, no.

Tags: Iran