Iranian Greens are not Revolutionaries
by AHMAD SADRI
25 Oct 2009 07:22
[ comment ] It has been four and a half months since the Islamic Republic of Iran, like the giant of fables, foolishly broke the jar that contained its life. By committing massive election fraud, this wobbly theocracy has sealed its fate. For three decades the Islamic Republic that had never gained religious legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of Shiite jurists, leaned on the crutch of democratic processes. Now in absence of democratic legitimacy, the regime is left teetering on the tip of its own dagger. The Zoroastrian image of walking barefoot on a hot, razor-sharp bridge over the flames of hell -- imagery that has been retained within the eschatology of Iranian Islam -- is an apt description of the situation of the Iranian regime these days.
If desperate times call for desperate measures, one must not be shocked that the Iranian leaders would attempt to rule at the point of a bayonet, and by street thugs, torture chambers, rape and an elaborate "ministry of truth." Savagery and mendacity may not be the best ways to rule, but they are the last refuge of an unpopular tyranny.
The scale and intensity of the violence perpetrated in the last months against dissidents and peaceful demonstrators is shocking even by the standards of the Islamic Republic. Show trials are not new in the history of Iran. But now dissident intellectuals and leaders of the reformist opposition are kept imprisoned long after airing their obligatory confessions. One prisoner is writing self-deprecating blog posts from prison and others have appeared on stage-managed roundtables to continue their contrite self-accusations.
The horrific record of human rights abuses in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a record that ranges from mass executions and extra-judicial murder of dissidents to arbitrary arrests and persecution of journalists, is particularly shocking for a different reason. This regime is not a garden-variety Third World autocracy. It is the result of a genuine, people-based revolution. It came in with the promise of the kind of freedom that would make a thousand flowers bloom. Polish Solidarity and other Eastern European velvet revolutions learned from the Iranian Revolution. It was the result of courageous mass action of the kind we see today in the streets of major Iranian cities.
One of the billboards of the revolution was a naïve painting of the Ayatollah Khomeini with a line from the Persian Poet Hafez that read: "Only when the Devil departs shall the Angel arrive." The Iranian Revolution was as radically idealistic as the French and Russian Revolutions. Like them, it rejected the actual institutions and political culture of a nation-state with deep historical roots. Just like the French Revolution 190 years before it, the Iranian Revolution marked the triumph of a universal, abstract idea over an actual state.
When the first signs of tyranny and oppression appeared in Iran I, was a graduate student at the New School for Social Research in New York City, dabbling, like everybody else in that enclave, in Hegelian philosophy. One gloomy afternoon, I happened to look at the picture of one of the ruling Ayatollahs and noticed that a strange change had occurred. The face that had once loomed angelic now appeared as a cartoonist's depiction of an evil character in a graphic novel. This was not a hallucinatory delusion or a religious experience but a philosophical vision. I thought that, at that moment, I understood Hegel's critique of the French Revolution, in which he describes the arc of descent of a utopian revolution into the pits of a regime of terror.[i] Abstract revolutionary visions that refuse to start with the actually existing institutions, embodying the collective national lived experience can "flip." Because they are pure negations, because they are a collage of clichés divorced from reality, these Manichean visions can turn into their equally empty, negative counterparts. And they turn on a dime: divine halo turns into satanic aura and Absolute Good becomes Pure Evil.
I believe that my vision represents a common realization in post-revolutionary Iran. This explains the dogged moderation and peacefulness of the current Green movement of Iran. Yes, there are some (mostly in exile) who are calling for the gallows to be erected and for heads to roll. But the movement itself, despite savage repression by the state, has refused to sound the revolutionary note. It is true that Iranians have seen what happens in a Revolution, but this is about more than just collective learning. Iranians have not merely lived through a revolution; they have lived a revolution. Indeed they have been the revolution; they know it as self-knowledge, in the deepest possible sense of that word. They know the price of idealism and radical social engineering that turns utopias into dystopias, dreams into nightmares and romantic comedies into interminable horror stories.
The Iranian Greens are not calling for a revolution or for liberating invasions or even sanctions against the Islamic Republic. They are only calling on the world to recognize that the leaders of Iran do not represent the people of Iran or even the revolution to which they are heirs. Iranian Greens are not against anyone -- not even the presumed president Ahmadinejad. This movement is for achieving a disestablished, secular democracy. It calls on the US and EU leaders to demand that the Iranian regime observe the universal standards of human rights -- rather than pursuing the double standards of nuclear coercive diplomacy. Iranians Greens are gradualists who know how to wait and fight. Taking the advice of that old Chicago gadfly Studs Terkel to heart, they are determined to "take it easy, but take it."
As nuclear negotiations proceed, the US and EU leaders must beware of the significance of the seismic changes that are transubstantiating the Iranian nation. Let them negotiate for narrow geopolitical advantages but let them not do so against the tide of much larger historical changes.
Ahmad Sadri is Professor of Sociology and James P. Gorter Chair of Islamic World Studies at Lake Forest College. He is the author of Max Weber's Sociology of Intellectuals (Oxford University Press 1992, 94) co-editor of Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of Abdolkarim Soroush (Oxford University Press, 2000). He has published four books in Persian and is a former columnist for the Daily Star of Lebanon and the reformist Etemade Melli of Iran.
[i] from Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Paragraphs 590-593 "...that universality that does not let itself advance to the reality of an organic articulation... divides itself into extremes equally abstract... it has completed the destruction of the actual organization of the world, and exists now just for itself... wholly unmediated pure negation.... The sole work and deed of universal freedom is therefore death, and indeed a death that has no inner depth and filling... it is thus the coldest and meanest of all deaths, with no more significance than cutting off a head of cabbage or taking a gulp of water... the terror of death is the vision of this negative nature of itself... The universal will... changes round into its negative nature... its negation is the death that is without meaning, the sheer terror of the negative that contains nothing positive, nothing that fills it with content.
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