Media fantasies in Iran – Abbas Barzegar
It was only a matter of time before revolution in Iran, believed dissidents and media in the west. They were wrong
It’s not about the election, Ahmadinejad, or the even the protesters. The world has been captivated by the events in Iran because for many, Iran is to Islamism what the Soviet Union was to communism and presumably today we are somewhere near the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Indeed as the media has been telling us, all the right ingredients are here: a charismatic leader, fractions in the political hierarchy, and a critical mass of protesters. The opposition has begun shouting “Allahu Akbar” from the rooftops and wearing black to commemorate their martyrs just like they did 30 years ago. Iran’s diaspora pundits and dissidents have come out in droves to tell us about the unwillingness of the police to use force on the protesters … just like they did 30 years ago. There are even dissident clerics in the fight, and better yet the protesters now have Twitter and Facebook to help.
I don’t know whose cruel joke this is, but these protests have never been about a revolution nor have any of the opposition leaders ever suggested that. The accidental Mousavi social movement has been galvanised and sustained by bottled-up anger, not an ideological political vision for the future. It has rallied disparate sectors of society unhappy with the burdens of Islamic social restrictions, an economy whose horizon is always bleak, and three decades of international isolation. Crowds emerged to protest the election results but it wasn’t until the ever prudent Ahmadinejad dismissed them as rubbish and blamed them for the “sin” of homosexuality that they poured on to the streets in masses. Even as they grew to the hundreds of thousands, they raised posters of Mousavi next to Khomeini and were quick to silence any hints of provocation. Yet we said this was a revolt for democracy, liberty and a Big Mac.
Our fantastic political analyses spring from idealistic liberal hopes and are symptomatic of the larger problem we have in understanding political Islam. That this crisis has been presented as one between the “Iranian people” and its government is among the greatest errors of the media coverage this week. The competing crowds of millions for and against Ahmadinejad should have been enough to indicate that the conflict was as much a social issue as it was a political one. But phrases such as “a lot of Iranians” or “Mousavi’s broad constituency” make weaker soundbites than “the Iranian people.” So, from Sarkozy to Sky News, the only “Iranian people” that seemingly exist this week are those wearing green.
But bias is not my gripe; the good Muslim v bad Muslim game is an old one. I care about misrepresentation. By ignoring the millions of Ahmadinejad supporters (even after counting for mass fraud) journalists and pundits have mistaken Iranian Islamists as communist bureaucrats on a payroll that might easily fold when forced to attack other Iranians. Instead, we have seen Basiji volunteers jump at the opportunity to smash their batons across the faces of men, women, and anyone else in their way.
Iranian Islamists’ allegiances do not lie with saffron rice and Hafez’s poems. They love God, then country, grind through life as factory workers and farmhands in addition to getting PhDs in engineering and medicine. Iranians loyal to their Islamic project recite prayers for their president, relish the martyrdom of Hussein, and wait for the return of their messiah. So did anyone really think that his terrestrial representative would allow more than a week of bank burnings and highway closures? Are we really shocked that the military would close rank, dissidents would be arrested, and political threats be neutralised as 250,000 US troops sit on the country’s borders and Cheney’s $400m support for regime subversion gets stamped by Obama?
Instead of trying to understand the complexity of Iranian Islamism and its fusion into the international political system, intellectuals in the west have dismissed its architects and supporters as brainwashed fanatics controlled by wicked priests. We have lived vicariously through its dissidents and exiles. We have cherished stories such as Reading Lolita in Tehran and recommended films such as Not Without My Daughter and Persepolis to our closest family and friends. It was only a matter of time, we so desperately believed.
But a match can only be lit once. Mousavi was from a generation that stood in front of the Shah’s helicopter gunships, slept in trenches before Saddam’s tanks, and waited hours in line for flour. But Tehran’s tech-savvy are far from Frantz Fanon’s lumpenproletariat. The hundreds of thousands trickled down to a few hundred this week precisely because they never came to revolt. Had they wanted a revolution, they could have had one when they crammed the streets in front of the state television and radio station. The bazaar shop owners, much less the oil refinery workers, have not gone on strike, nor will they. The opposition’s tiny political infrastructure has all but been destroyed. The revolution will not be televised – or Twittered – because it was only going to happen in our imaginations.
Soon, Iran will fade from the news cycle and its horrors will blend with those of the rest of the world. Ahmadinejad will serve four years as a lame-duck president, tempered by Khamenei domestically and internationally. Mousavi, along with Khatami, will probably retire from politics while Rafsanjani secures his assets as quickly as possible. Larijani will be the supreme leader’s new man and after leading the charge on election reform will probably be the next president.
Meanwhile, the “Iranian people” will continue living under the double sanction of a repressive state and an international boycott regime designed to cripple their development. Then intellectuals, journalists and diaspora Iranians such as myself can return to imagining them any way we want.