Gradual change more likely than revolution, experts say
by LEILA DARABI & SANAZ MESHKINPOUR in New York
05 Dec 2009 20:48
Prominent Iranian academics gathered Saturday at Columbia University to say, in essence, don't hold your breath. As Columbia Professor Hamid Dabashi has said on repeated occasions, "This is not another revolution, this is a civil rights movement."
Dabashi moderated the event's opening panel during which experts evaluated the current status of political opposition in Iran.
The definition of freedom, itself, has evolved since the 1979 Revolution, said sociologist Asef Bayat. Iranians once saw liberation as simply overthrowing an unjust Shah, without much thought as to what would come next. Thirty years later, that definition has grown to include concepts of individual civil liberties. This has led to a far more mature civil society, that seeks change in increments, not explosive revolution.
Though experts often reference the Iranian Reform Movement of the 1990s in terms of its failures, Bayat argued that the movement made significant headway within the confines of a theocracy. During Khatami's presidency, media operated more freely, and Iranians experienced greater freedom of speech. These gains, however, disappeared when President Ahmadinejad took office.
Young Iranians are most frustrated by these setbacks. "For most young people, the major concern is this claim of youthfulness," said Bayat. "They want basically to act like other young people in other parts of the world. To choose where to go, what to wear, what to think, to listen, and who to marry or not marry."
Young Iranian women have been central in advocating for women's rights, and played a strong role in organizing the post-election protests, said panelist Shahla Talebi.
Historian Ervand Abrahamian compared recent show trials of political prisoners and televised forced confessions to those conducted by the government in the early days of the Islamic Republic. The then-fragile regime began using these tactics in the 1980s, fueled by paranoia of outside intervention. After thirty years, Abrahamian said, Iranians have caught on and these tactics have lost their power.
"The expectation was that this would be a repeat performance of the 1980s, that it would be fully dramatic and equally effective," Abrahamian said. "In fact, it sort of fizzled out."
These tactics may have failed, but Iranians are still aware of the regime's willingness to use force against them, said Bayat. In this setting, political organizing has to happen underground.
"They cannot have a fully fledged organized structured movement in the way that you have in Western countries--with leadership, with constituencies, with offices and newspapers--because they would easily be the target of appraisal and repression," said Bayat.
Thus, Iran's green movement operates largely through loose networks of friends, family, and colleagues, he said.
From the outside, looking in, this may seem like the movement has been squashed. But, Bayat said, Green Movement leader Mir Hossein Moussavi's first priority is to ensure the very survival of an opposition movement--even a dormant one.
At this time, he said, the reformist camp has made the strategic choice to quietly wait for opportunities to take to the streets--such as the upcoming 16th Azar University Students Day.
This tactic could backfire, Bayat said, because movements without structure tend to lose momentum. The green movement must find ways to remain spontaneous and innovative, or risk dwindling in stagnation.
Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau