Khiabani on the Arab Street
by MOHAMMAD KHIABANI
22 Jan 2010 11:18
I recently traveled to Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria, partly to see what Arabs of various stripes thought of the Green Movement and its effects on the region at large. I discovered not only that their opinions on Iran are more complex than often assumed, but also that it would be wise for Iranian democrats to be more conscious of how their own nationalist movement is being perceived elsewhere.
The Green Movement is nationalist, to be sure. It, like most democratic movements, would not exist without a sense of self that goes beyond the individual. After all, going out on the street with a low likelihood of being killed, a not-so low likelihood of being arrested, and a relatively high likelihood of getting knocked around by a riot cop or Basij is not a decision easily taken.
Nationalism is a dirty word in many circles, often by those who can afford to do without it. Nationalist myths are full of, as the anthropologists say, the "invention of tradition." Iran is no exception, whether via the myth of unbroken millenia of culture and statehood, the myth of a pre-Islamic heritage preserved in pristine form despite centuries of state manipulation, or the myth of an Islamic essence that makes Iran, as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently said, "the most important nation in the most important region in the world." These myths come from projects of community and state-building throughout history, some quite old, others surprisingly new.
Yet, in the recently proliferating lists of movement demands, whether from Mousavi's own pen or from others, one easily sees a positive side of nationalism -- a call for a set of rights to be universally granted to citizens of Iran, whether along the lines of the current constitution, or, if that is impossible, a new one. This is a civic nationalism that sees the current social movement in Iran as a collective endeavor to re-make the Iranian nation itself. The shock of the election results, the anger at the growing lists of political prisoners, the blatant repudiation of rights to assembly and free speech -- these are things that many Iranians believe Iran, as a nation, does not deserve.
However, there is another side of nationalism, one perhaps more negative. This is an ethnic nationalism that goes beyond the self-identification of a community and its culture, and posits other nations as inferior or deserving of animosity. Most nation-states have this sort of nationalism as well, usually residing at the level of jokes. It can be heard, or read, in a significant amount of the popular discussion of the Green Movement. I recall a recent outburst proclaiming that the movement is for the "Iran of Cyrus [the Great], not the Iran of Arabia." That such a comment and its implications belie any understanding of the actual history of the region and the long relationship between Islam and different parts of Iranian territory is, I would hope, obvious. That such a comment is heard so often by Iranians of a particular milieu, however, is a sign of its resonance.
Iran has a long history of ethnic chauvinism intertwined with various intellectual efforts that attempted to understand the country's place in the world. Ahmad Kasravi, perhaps Iran's most famous twentieth-century historian, is a notorious example. Kasravi argued in the 1920s, for instance, that the language of Iranian Turks in Azerbaijan, Azeri Turkish, was actually a dialect of Persian. This was not only historically inaccurate, but also insulting to the millions of ethnically Turkish citizens of Iran. Yet Kasravi wrote that his argument was "good for Iran." The entire promotion of the "Aryan people" as a superior ur-race of Persia, which was an idea only introduced in Iran's intellectual circles in Reza Khan's time, and borrowed from now-debunked nineteenth century European research, is still deeply embedded in the national culture.
I had this in mind when one young intellectual in Cairo told me, "I support the Green Movement," but he was also dismayed at a political cartoon he had recently seen on a Web site. In it, a hammer in the shape of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was striking the country of Iran, and was labeled "Nejad" instead of "Nezhad," using the Arabic letter jim. Arabs do not have a "zhe" in their alphabet, and the implication that this man read into the cartoon was one where Ahmadinejad, who he did not particularly like, was portrayed as some kind of secret Arab force of repression. In fact, the cartoon was produced by a London-based Arab newspaper, so the spelling was not the intended joke, but his feelings had been formed through reading about Iranian democracy efforts and uncovering a darker side of anti-Arab racism. A trip down to Khuzestan and a chat with a few of the million or so Arab Iranians, which I recommend to any self-proclaimed Iranian nationalist, will produce similar complaints about Persian chauvinism.
The young man also stated, "Imagine if millions of Egyptians took to the streets for democracy here. Not only is it so unimaginable that just saying it makes me laugh, but even if it did happen, the resulting bloodbath would dwarf the number of deaths seen in Iran. The Mubarak regime would literally be able to act with impunity, given its U.S. backing." Here was not only an understanding that Iran had produced a mature mass movement, one that Egyptian secular liberals were envious of, but also that the Islamic Republic's desperate attempts to shore up legitimacy amidst international isolation might actually produce political space for the Green Movement's maneuvers. In a country as tied into the U.S. project of re-making the Middle East for the last thirty years as Egypt, and where national memory is so traumatized and emasculated that the Egyptian flag is rarely seen except on state buildings, Iran was viewed as the rare Middle Eastern country where a nationalist movement could actually produce a democratic outcome.
In Lebanon, Iranian influence is not so distant. Yet, from the standpoint of southern Beirut, or other parts of Hezbollah-led Lebanon, it would be difficult to argue that political Islam in the Levant is an arm of the Islamic Republic. One wealthy Shia businessman told me, as we discussed regional politics over some very fine whiskey, "I don't personally agree with Hezbollah's stance on everything. But they were able to force out Israel after so many others promised and failed. Now I can go down to my village in southern Lebanon with my head held high. Hezbollah allowed me to do that." Due to giving voice and hope to a group long excluded within the Lebanese political system, as well as (in the eyes of many) winning the first war against Israel in the Middle East since 1967, Hezbollah is less an Iranian clone than a successful nationalist militia movement that is now in the governing Lebanese coalition. That being said, not everyone is a fan -- another Shia individual who desired a pluralist secular Lebanon said to me, "Hezbollah is good for the Middle East, but bad for Lebanon."
Iran sends several millions of dollars a year in aid to Lebanon. Many of the Israeli-bombed roads in the south of the country were rebuilt with Iranian help, and signs alongside the highways proudly boast "brought to you by the IRI." Yet there is an autonomous Shia establishment who separates its interests from the IRI's. "If Mousavi wins," another man asked me, "what would they do about Hezbollah?" I replied that it was very possible a Mousavi-led, more democratic government in Iran, given that it would be subject to all sorts of nationalist pressure from both the public and from other political elites to appear "independent" vis-a-vis the West, may keep the relationship with Hezbollah exactly the same. The man, well versed in Iranian politics and its players, nodded in agreement.
In this respect, the phrase "Neither Gaza nor Lebanon, my life for Iran," chanted by Green protesters in the post-election months, whether it reflects anti-Arab feelings or simple Iranian isolationism, was a political blunder. Not only did it give a freebie to the regime establishment, who could use it in Friday sermons and newspaper op-eds as a sign of the treacherous foreign influence on the opposition, but it also alienated democratic allies around the world who sympathize with the movement's goals. It was a completely understandable chant, given Iranians' exaggerated perceptions of IRI support of Hamas and Hezbollah, but it was not strategically savvy. Mehdi Karroubi disowned the statement soon after its emergence, but the damage had been done. Wherever I went on my trip, it was brought up.
I crossed the border into Syria, which I had always held as the ideal-typical "police state" in my head, compared to the rather incompetent security apparatus in Iran (they did not disappoint, tracking me down at my stated residence only seven hours after I had arrived there). Unlike Egypt, Syria is no socioeconomic basket case. It is a smaller country, but its infrastructure and standards of living were impressive for a middle income country. And, as it is often pointed out there, Syria never officially succumbed to capitulation to the West (Syria's actual foreign policies were always a bit Machiavellian, but it at least has a veneer of independence that is completely lost in Egypt).
I had a long conversation with a conservative small businessman -- religious, patriarchal, very nationalist, and a pan-Arabist of the old sort. It was obvious he did not care too much that people in Iran were getting thrown in jail for protesting, writing, or speaking out. What de-legitimized the current regime in Iran for him were the prison rapes. He repeatedly asked me if the stories could be true. "How could a government call itself Islamic if they allow this to happen?" he yelled. "After this happens to a Muslim girl, her life is over!" Lest we forget, this was also the deciding factor in defections by many Iranian conservatives back in June and July of 2009. Most important for my Syrian interlocutor was Iranian stability and continued independence -- all the Syrians I spoke with mentioned Iran as having "troubles," reminiscent of the way that the British shiftily spoke of Northern Ireland for decades.
While many in these countries like the current President of Iran, and told me so, the notion of unquestioned popular Arab support for the IRI's right-wing is a caricature of the truth. What seems more accurate is that, because of some combination of the 1979 Revolution, its independent survival in the face of international isolation, its vibrant intellectual and public culture, its written Constitution, its semi-democratic institutions that occasionally produced a surprising outcome, or its impassioned social movements, Iran is actually a proxy for the hopes of many others in the Middle East, whose nationalist dreams are still simply dreams. Allegiances can switch, be appealed to, and won over. As the Green Movement continues to mature in the months ahead, it would behoove them to remember the two faces of nationalism in their efforts.
Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau