'Them, Not Us'
08 Jul 2009 13:22
No foreign hand: Iranians killing Iranians.
Dispatch from Tehran | 8 July 2009
It was June 20. The day after Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had addressed tens of thousands of the government's strongest supporters at the weekly Friday prayers gathering at Tehran University.
Apart from standing unequivocally by the disputed victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Khamenei had linked protesters with the familiar panoply of foreign countries and external organisations intent on overthrowing the Islamic Rebublic. Here, he had effectively given the green light to Iran's official and unofficial security forces to treat them as the enemy.
On my side of Unity Street, disconcerted-looking Basij militia men in desert camouflage outfits which looked like they had not long been removed from their original packaging, were periodically moving to push protesters north, back in the direction from which they had come. On the other side of the street, protesters had the upper hand. They were flowing freely past the uniformed men in a steady stream towards the junction of Freedom Street.
I attempted to cross but my approach prompted one older member of the Basij contingent to address me before I was able to reach the far curb. From his white stubble and round belly it was clear that he wasn't part of Iran's security elite.
"Look, go back or you'll get hurt," he said, trying hard but failing to summon an aura of authority. His baton-wielding arm was outstretched to motion me away.
"Are you going to hit me if keep going?" I replied.
I don't know exactly what had possessed me to answer back like that. Perhaps I sensed a flash of genuine humanity in his voice. Perhaps I was testing the boundaries of my own personal level of participation in this mass show of dissent. His baton, pressing lightly against my back, felt more like a fatherly hand than a weapon capable of breaking my bones.
"We're not the ones that beat you people," the old soldier said, motioning me away. "If I let you go further down, the anti-riot police will corner you in an alley and charge at you. That's how they work. Now go on home."
Hearing this reminded of a scene described to me by a journalist friend. Having directed a fierce verbal assault at a policeman, accusing him and his fellow police of beating innocent people, the officer had replied that it was not the police who were dishing out the beatings but the 'special guard' who had been flown in from Lebanon.
Taxi cabs had been buzzing with this rumor for days. "I heard them talking to each other and they were speaking Arabic" was a favorite. Others had told me that they had heard from "members of an Iran Air cabin crew" that Lebanese Hezbollah militiamen had been admitted onto flights to Tehran without tickets or passports.
It wasn't the truth or falsehood of the claim itself that interested me. After all, the past weeks have seen no shortage of state violence perpetrated by members of the security forces whose Farsi was as effortless as their baton-work.
What fascinated me was the need for transference, the need to absolve oneself, one's affiliates, one's culture from guilt.
Arabs are an easy target. Notwithstanding the official government position of support for "Muslim brothers" in Palestine and Lebanon, Iranian attitudes towards them as a culture and a people are tinged with feelings of superiority and racism.
Underlying this is the curse of being Iranian; to live with a distinguished history which, though gone forever, casts a long shadow over an unsatisfactory present. Iranians are a people who strongly (and to some extent, rightly) believe that their ancestors were somehow responsible for gifting the world with civilization. One of the most damning criticisms an Iranian can lay against a person is to accuse them of being "without culture."
How then can a distinguished culture, which has withstood violent conquest from external enemies for centuries, now be responsible for violence towards its own? How much easier then to assert "It is not us, it's them."
State news this week quoted a statement by the current head of Iran's Basij movement which blamed violence and public damage on individuals who had worn clothes associated with the organization in order to damage its reputation.
Hosein Ta'eb complained that it was "too easy for people to join the basij and carry out ugly and undeserving acts which damage the image of the children of the nation."
A measure of genuine bad conscience can perhaps be detected behind the usual recourse to external infiltration and subterfuge. Civil unrest and state suppression is no source of national pride but projecting blame on an external other is -- like the Friday prayers speech by Ayatollah Khamenei -- a diversion from more troubling truths.
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau