Freedom of Speech... But Not Today
by REZA VALIZADEH in Paris
13 Apr 2010 23:57
[ analysis ] Several months after beginning their march alongside the people and camaraderie with them, the leaders of the Green Movement eventually started to scrutinize and censure demonstrators' slogans. This appears to mark a retreat by the leaders of the Movement from the people's demands; it can even be seen as the declaration of a tactical ceasefire with the regime. This moment has been considered by some as a point of no return, while others believe that the former relations can be restored.
The collective rise of the Iranian people in protest, as what the world now recognizes as the Green Movement, although it involves a spectrum of beliefs and a diverse sets of demands, is now clearly coordinated by the Reformists. Spurred by further repression, the slogan that originally arose in reaction to the election results, "Give back our votes," has transformed to "Give back our country." As witnessed in many videos, slogans like "Autonomy, Liberty, Iranian Republic," "Gaza, not, Lebanon, not, only Iran My Devotion's Got," "Down with the Rule of the Jurist's Rule," and "Death to Khamenei" have been heard during various demonstrations. They have become a focal point for the government-controlled media, as well as the intelligence and security organizations.
The recognized leaders of the Movement, Mehdi Karoubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, at first did not react publicly to these slogans. Meanwhile, in the opposing camp, these slogans were exploited to ascribe a Western ideology to the Movement's leaders, to escalate the oppression and suppression of the demonstrators, and to associate them with the external enemies of the Islamic Republic. The regime's propaganda machine has repeatedly insinuated that a traceable line connects these slogans to Western agents, foreign subversives, and agents of the MKO (now called National Council of Resistance).
The leaders of the Movement ultimately tried to present these slogans as reactions to the harsh response of the regime. In several carefully worded announcements, they called such slogans distracting, and even deviant, and that they provide the regime an excuse for further attempts at suppression. Mohammad Khatami, an unofficial supporter of the Movement, also called people's blunt slogans "perverse and wrong." Hashemi Rafsanjani took a similar, if less explicit, position.
Contradictions of the Green Movement's Leaders
In his invitation to the people to rally on February 11, the anniversary of the 1979 Revolution, Mousavi wrote, "The sole desire of this force that has appeared on the scene is a return to the mandates, values, and principles of the Islamic Revolution. Instead, it has been insulted." He added, "The Green Movement takes everyone, even those who don't hold the same beliefs as us, as friends, because they are part of our nation."
At the same time that Mousavi, and Karoubi behind him, suggest people's slogans and demands as recalcitrant, they portray themselves as "disciples" and "supporters" of the Movement. They say that they are not its leaders, that their will and motivation arises out of the Movement, and that they are only its "followers." Reformists describe this approach to leadership as an inverted pyramid, with the leaders at the bottom. Yet, traces of potential future strategies are visible in their communiqués, indicating different aims than following the people.
Prior to the February 11, the leaders of the Movement, along with the Jaras and Kalameh websites tried to promote a roster of compromised slogans, containing nothing but calls for the re-creation of the Islamic Republic.
Silence in the Face of Derision
Although none of the Movement's other prominent figures or any distinguished political activists, within or outside Iran, took public note of the leaders' censure of the people's own slogans, one could find pro and con reactions within certain conclaves and on the margins of cyberspace. The left came together in opposition to criticizing slogans, while the liberals, the Reformists, and others saw it as a prudent strategy. Unfortunately, the discussion of the issue did not go beyond airing of historical legitimation of the various groups to an analysis of the censure as a political act, with due assessment of its harm.
The left and the secularists believe that criticizing and deriding mass slogans and dictating new, ideological ones to a populace composed of different groups with diverse demands, more than anything else, stands in contradiction to people's rights in a democratic society. From this point of view, there is no effective difference, concerning the slogans, between the stances of the Green Movement's leaders and that of the Islamic regime. By labeling their expressions recalcitrant and wayward, the Movement's leaders treated the people in a manner similar to the way the regime has, drawing lines between "us" and "them."
Confiscating a People
Perhaps the foremost danger of derision of people's slogans is disregard for the rules of a democratic civil society and reducing a diverse populace to an indistinctive mass.
The Reformists who condemn the regime for treating the people with fundamentalist zeal apparently believe that they are gradually rehabilitating the regime. But their abusive use of domineering language against people's demands and slogans brings them into contact with the same disease, fundamentalism. The people, above all, want a true Iranian republic. Does not the labeling of their slogans as wayward conjure the image of Movement leaders and their influential associates viewing the people as their political subjects, just because they use the color green?
To follow a path that, instead of uniting people, seeks to consolidate them into an unindividuated mass, overlooks the characteristics of the current movement. The Greens have been composed of diverse social groups, such as labor unions, women's organizations, artisans' syndicates, teachers' organizations, student associations, political parties, journalists, and so forth. All of them have accepted to stand under the Green banner of protest, but this does not mean that their demands and the ways they express themselves must be forced into a uniform color, shape, and style. The operating principle should be exactly the opposite: the movement must develop paths that lead to each and every one of these groups attaining its rightful demands. This is the exact definition of civil society, which is composed of independent groups with their own specific philosophies and beliefs, free from the obligation to follow the uniform prescriptions of any regime.
Although at present, the Green leaders show respect for the diverse and autonomous groups that constitute the Movement, they have never taken an unambiguous stance in support of any group's distinct demands. For a clear example, we can point to the leaders' failed response to the women's movement and the actions it was considering for March 8. When the Green Movement does not openly recognize and support the occasions chosen by its constituent groups to highlight their demands and mobilize the backing of others, it denigrates their unique identities and promotes their forcible alignment into a uniform mass.
On the day after the International Day of Palestine, Mousavi proclaimed, "Our victory will not mean anyone's defeat." He went on to stress his respect for the beliefs of those opposing the Movement, and effectively declared that, because of his conviction in freedom of speech, the suppressors of the people also have the right to their views and to expressing them. This stance was cheered by his adherents and many others, but it is very difficult to reconcile it with the derision and censure of people's slogans and demands.
Although many of Mousavi's and Karoubi's backers consider the criticizing of people's slogans part of a strategy to reduce the regime's excuses for suppressing demonstrators, they fail to recognize the other side of the coin. Like a coin stamped in a Machiavellian thought foundry, that other side reveals a fundamentalist vision devoid of trust and honesty. Even if we accept Henry Bergson's saying, "Truth can not necessarily be revealed through method alone," and acknowledge that victory in any struggle is the result of better tactics, the language chosen by the Movement's leaders to explain their strategy contradicts the view of the protestors expressed in their proclamations. To believe people's slogans wayward is equivalent to believing they have perverted thoughts and deeds.
Cruel Historical Tragedy
A number of analysts, mostly in the left and secular blocs, do not consider the leaders' purported strategy an effective one. Some argue that the leaders are, in fact, seeking the re-creation of the Islamic Republic and, as Mir Hossein Mousavi has repeated stressed, a return to Ayatollah Khomeini's ideals. These analysts tend to repeatedly recall the murder of prisoners during the late 1980s, depicting it in terms that evoke a holocaust; with a few exceptions, the Reformists have largely been unwilling to reflect and take a stance on this history and its meaning. The analysts I refer to believe that these murders, and many others, were carried out under the supervision of today's Movement leaders and other reformists under the cover of Ayatollah Khomeini's ideology, and that utilizing the energies of today's protesting public for the re-creation of such a regime would be both a cruel irony and a historic tragedy.
Other analysts believe that the Reformists, a defeated gang within the regime, are working to keep the Islamic Republic's system intact by finding ways to shield it from the popular battering. The accuracy of these analyses aside, the Reformists insist that a revolution would exact a high cost on the nation and ensure fundamentalist domination. They assert this even as they appear to have adopted practices identical to those of the regime in their attempt to convert the aggrieved population from autonomous groups into a uniform horde of supporters.
Guardianship of the Reformists
In the face of such contradictions, the discussions and disputes among political groups in the Iranian diaspora are producing clearer divisions. Those expatriate groups and individual Iranians living abroad who express their demands clearly in direct, forceful slogans are also being subjected to the derision of the Reformist bloc.
Groups outside Iran, from workers and communist parties, MKO, and the monarchists, believe that today's struggle, which the Reformists are attempting to mold as a uniform movement against the current regime, is the same one they have been engaged in since the 1980s, the same one for which they have sacrificed lives and suffered exile. Now the Reformists, who were pushed out of the game, suddenly have donned anti-regime uniforms and will not acknowledge any other combatants unless they carry the swords of their camp.
It appears that the Reformists' view of the opposition in the diaspora is not much different from that held by the regime. They are considered fossilized groups which dream of only one thing, the total eradication of the Islamic Republic, and if they ever succeed and return, it is said, they will immediately raise the gallows to take revenge on all. Iran will then turn into a colonial outpost of foreign powers.
It goes without saying that the Reformists have gained widespread acceptance among the people of Iran. The full range of reasons for the admiration with which they are viewed is beyond the scope of this discussion. However, the central issue, the one that has led to the Reformists becoming the de facto guardians of the popular opposition movement and allowed it to seize the right to deride and denounce the Movement's slogans and demands, is the number of their members currently incarcerated by the regime.
Considering the news about the prisoners, it could well appear that virtually all those who have been detained since the elections are from the Reformists' camp. More than anything else, it is the volume of news about detained Reformists, propagated by the media close to their camp, that has swayed public opinion. Close to a thousand people have been arrested in street skirmishes, but we have heard about only the prominent Reformist figures, the politicians, journalists, and activists among them. By contrast, no one has been able to offer an accurate picture of the political identities of most of the others who have been imprisoned, and they go largely ignored. The reasons that we are unaware of the political stance of most of the detainees and those murdered during the demonstrations and afterward include their lack of access to the media and fear for their families. As a result, unlike the Reformists, there is little discussion of them in the Western media.
This fact has enabled the Reformists to induce the majority of the people into its philosophical sphere and thus encouraged them to believe it is fitting to take ownership of the people's slogans. Compared to the figures associated with other opposition groups, inside and outside the nation, Moussavi and Karoubi are the most widely admired, thus able to direct events and mobilize social forces for the protest movement.
Referendum through Divisive Spectacles
There are more than a few who consider the adoration expressed by Moussavi's supporters as all too similar to that of those who would sit amorously around Ayatollah Khomeini's pulpit. Thus, they fear the re-creation of a fundamentalist regime that will have few substantial differences with the current Islamic Republic. On the other side, followers of Moussavi and Karoubi claim that the censure of dissident slogans is a strategy for safely guiding the Movement to victory. Once that victory is achieved, they say, all the demands of the people, including the transparent investigation and demystification of the holocaust of the 1980s, will be addressed.
People have accepted this strategy based on their trust in the leaders of the Movement and the belief that their demands will be met when victory is achieved. They have come to believe that they will get to participate in a referendum to choose between an "Iranian Republic" and an "Islamic Republic." Whether the Movement's leaders actually share this vision, held by so many of those they would mobilize, is the question.
Could it be that, upon victory, the dissident movement being directed by the Reformists will actually hold a referendum in which supporters of Ahmadinejad's government, monarchists, workers' communist parties, the MKO, and all the Iranian political groups inside and outside the country will be present? Can we honestly assume that the Iranian people will have a multiple-choice referendum? In light of Mossavi's declaration, "Our victory will not mean anyone's defeat," can we truly hope for a full referendum, covering all of the rights for which Iranian citizens are currently struggling? The censure of people's demands and their slogans, through which they voice their vision, insinuates a different image of such a referendum, one in which it is difficult to discern how many of the hopes of today's popular opposition will be considered indispensable.
Until recently, Reza Valizadeh worked at state broadcaster Seda va Sima. He participated in every demonstration before having to flee Iran. This article first appeared in Farsi at Tehran Review.