From Birmingham to Tehran
by SOHRAB AHMARI
19 Jan 2010 05:44
"The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community. The aftermath of nonviolence is redemption. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation. The aftermath of violence is emptiness and bitterness." -- Dr. King
[ opinion ] As the United States celebrates Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it's worth wondering whether the great civil rights leader would equate the American present with his "beloved community" where children "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." The U.S. has certainly made tremendous strides -- including the election of an African-American president -- towards realizing Dr. King's dream. Nevertheless, deep racial inequality in the form of de facto -- if not de jure -- segregation persists in many areas of American life, particularly housing and education. Dr. King's struggle, then, should retain its resonance for generations of Americans to come.
But Dr. King's legacy is also an international one. His bequest to the world is a comprehensive methodology for effecting social change that has inspired people of conscience everywhere seeking to assert their universal rights. The nonviolent strategies Dr. King and his associates pioneered in their fight against American Apartheid have been put to good use by activists across the planet to challenge autocratic governments, reduce gang-related violence, and achieve post-colonial reconciliation.
Iran today is arguably the most vital proving ground for Dr. King's ideas. The Iranian Green Movement has consciously transposed to its setting techniques once used by African-Americans to face down vicious white deputies and their attack dogs. In Iran, the role of the southern deputies is taken up by the baton-wielding Basijis, who mercilessly veer their motorcycles into crowds and indiscriminately beat protestor and bystander alike. As numerous YouTube videos attest, the Iranian protesters more often than not retain the moral high ground by refusing to use violence against the Basijis they capture; rather, the people offer water and tend to their brutalizers' wounds.
Dr. King's historic March on Washington too has been matched by the solemn and awe-inspiring silent march of hundreds of thousands of Tehranis toward Meydan-e Azadi on the 25th of Khordad. And the Alabama bus boycott has found its Iranian version in the form of throngs of Tehrani commuters spontaneously erupting into "Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein!" and other opposition chants as they wait for the subway.
The faith-based dimension of Dr. King's activism has been paralleled by the Green Movement's re-appropriation of Islam as a liberatory faith. As Abbas Milani has explained, "[t]hinkers and theologians identified with the democratic movement have been offering a new reading of Shiism that makes the faith more amenable to democracy and secularism." Just as Dr. King's struggle against American Apartheid was rooted in his conviction that "all of God's children" deserve full civil rights, so the Iranian democrats have sought to discover a Shiism which condemns suppression of dissent, discrimination against women and minorities, and state-sanctioned brutality.
As the regime ominously vows to unleash even more violence against dissidents, it is important to note that Dr. King did not just leave behind a tactical toolkit for civil disobedience and nonviolent protest. He also offered a holistic vision of social transformation and transition that can provide powerful moral and practical guideposts for the Green Movement today. Reconciliation and forgiveness are critical components of this vision.
Some Iranians rightly fear that the potential fall of the Islamic Republic, like that of the Shah, might give way to yet another tyranny or worse. If and when the Islamic Republic does collapse under the weight of ever-growing popular discontent, the new generation of Iranian change agents can avoid the tragic mistakes of the 1979 generation by hewing closely to King's guideposts.
This might mean, for example, that even the very worst human rights offenders in the previous regime be afforded the right to fair trials and procedural safeguards -- despite the fact that many such offenders have denied these same rights and safeguards to the Iranian people for some three decades. It may also involve the recognition that Islam is likely to remain a part of Iran's political culture, even under a post-Islamic Republic democracy. This recognition should in turn lead to an understanding that attempts to forcefully banish religious parties from the polity are likely to backfire and lead to future instability.
Finally, Dr. King's warning that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" should be a clarion call for people and governments of conscience around the world to continue to stand in solidarity with the Iranian pro-democracy movement.
Sohrab Ahmari is an Iranian-American blogger and Northeastern University law student.