Looking in the wrong places
Arab analysis of the crisis in Iran reveals more about latent defeated mentalities than the crisis itself, writes Hamid Dabashi*
In his astute take on the current electoral crisis in Iran ('An alternative reading', Al-Ahram Weekly, 25 June-1 July 2009), by far the best in the literature so far, Azmi Bishara lays out a very concise premise for our reading of the unfolding event but, alas, reaches a hasty and flawed conclusion. What I respectfully submit bellow is in a spirit of utter solidarity with the leading Palestinian intellectual whom I admire as a guiding light in our critical assessment of where we stand in our contemporary world.
Having carefully outlined the totalitarian disposition of the Islamic Republic, Bishara proceeds to identify two ways in which it differs from other totalitarian regimes: that it has a democratic component that allows for two opposing camps to compete for elected office, not in fact too dissimilar in their political formations to the Republican and Democratic parties in the US; and that it is in fact religion that constitutes state ideology and not an alien or imported ideology shared by the political elite but foreign to the rest of society.
Compared to China and the Soviet Union, Bishara rightly concludes, "looking at Iran from the perspective of its degree of democratic competition, tolerance of criticism and peaceful rotation of authority in accordance with set rules, it is much closer to the pluralistic democracies in the West than to a dictatorial regime." Be that as it may, he is equally aware of the fact that indeed a totalitarian ideology permeates all spheres of private and public life in Iran, not unlike the power of consumer ideologies doing pretty much the same in North American and Western European societies.
All these accurate and insightful observations, however, begin to move on more fragile grounds when Bishara observes that "the criticisms levelled at the regime on the part of a broad swath of youth who have joined the reformists, especially those from middle class backgrounds who are more in contact with the rest of the world, are reminiscent of the grievances aired by the young in Eastern Europe, who held that their regimes deprived them of their individual and personal freedoms, the freedom to choose their way of life and the Western consumer lifestyle."
This careless use of the key term "middle class" soon coagulates into a more solid assertion that is even more seriously flawed: "While not dismissing or belittling such criticism," Bishara observes, "it is important to bear in mind that these people are not the majority of young people but rather the majority of young people from a particular class [i.e. middle class]... Most of the youth from the poor sectors of society support Ahmadinejad."
From this false premise, Bishara then proceeds to assert that "the mood among those who think that their votes carry more weight qualitatively than the numerically greater votes of the poor, and who may actually believe that they represent the majority because they form the majority in their own parts of town, even if they are the minority in the country, has an arrogant, classist edge."
The assumption that supporters of Mousavi and/or Karrubi, or indeed that masses of millions of people who have poured into the streets of Tehran and other cities, come from "the middle class" is a common fallacy that Bishara shares with quite a number of others who are watching the Iranian scene from a theoretical distance that conceals more than it reveals. Even a seasoned historian of contemporary Iran like Ervand Abrahamian, a distinguished professor of history in New York, has opined a similar assessment, though with more qualified phrasing. "The core of the support for Mousavi," Abrahamian told Amira Haas of Haaretz, "is in fact university graduates and educated people, who can be described as middle class, and who are a clear product of the welfare state and the policy of expanding social services in force since the establishment of the [Islamic] Republic. Ahmadinejad's support base is whom I call 'evangelical' rather than 'fundamentalist'. These are not the poor, but the religious poor -- between 20 and 25 per cent." Abrahamian's latter point about what he calls the "evangelical poor" has a number of other serious holes in it, which for now I will leave alone.
The problem with the false impression about this mysterious "middle class" is not only that it distorts the reality of what we are observing in Iranian cities, but that it also inadvertently fuels the conspiratorial theories among certain segments of the North American and Western European left that take this observation one delusional step further and believe that CIA (on behalf of neoliberal economics) is behind this "velvet revolution". That particular pathology needs a separate diagnosis, but the false premise of "middle class" support for Mousavi, particularly by people I deeply admire, needs more urgent attention.
Of a total Iranian population of 72 million, upward of 70 per cent are under the age of 30. While the total rate of unemployment under Ahmadinejad, predicated on correspondingly high numbers under Khatami's two-term presidency, is 30 per cent, this rate, according to Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, the most reliable Iranian economist around, for young people between the ages of 15 and 29 (some 35 per cent of the total population) is 70 per cent. So seven out of every 10 people in this age group can scarce find a job, let alone marry, let alone have children and form a family. In exactly what phantasmagoria definition of "the middle class" can they hope to be included?
Let me cite other statistics. You must have noticed the overwhelming presence of women in these demonstrations. Right? Now, 63 per cent of university entrants in Iran are women, but they make up only 12.3 per cent of the workforce. In other words, one out of every two women university graduates earn their degrees and then go back to live with their parents, remain a burden on their limited budget, and can only hope to leave their parents' home if they find a husband among those three out of 10 young men who may be lucky enough to find a job that would enable them to marry. In what Marxist, Keynesian, or neoliberal definition of this blessed "middle class" would they fit?
Consider another fact. If we were to believe the official tabulation of the presidential election, which I have no way of proving otherwise (though that they are rigged is now a "social fact"), twice as many of these young voters have voted for Ahmadinejad as they did for Mir- Hussein Mousavi, Mahdi Karrubi and Mohsen Rezai put together. In other words, the official results shoot the argument of a pro-Mousavi "middle class" in the foot, for we will end up either with the bizarre proposition that pro-Mousavi Iranians voted for Ahmadinejad, if the results are accurate, or else the perfectly plausible possibility that the unemployed -- and thus by definition the poor -- voted for Mousavi, if the results are rigged. Either way, the supporters of Mousavi are not the upper middle class bourgeois class that thinks its votes are worth more than others.
But all these and similar statistics pale in comparison to another statistic that shows the real horror at the heart of the Islamic Republic -- for which not just Ahmadinejad but the entire militant disposition of the ruling elite is responsible. In 1997, some three million high school graduates participated in the Iranian national university entrance examination, of which only 240,000 managed to pass through the Seven Tasks of Rostam and enter a university. So the full capacity of the entire Iranian university system is less than 10 per cent of the total applicants. What happened to that more than 90 per cent? Where did they go? What job, what opportunity, and what education?
The answer is frightful. A significant portion of this remaining 90 per cent is absorbed into various layers of the militarised security apparatus, including the Basij and the Pasdaran. If in fact anyone qualified for that dreaded "middle class" status it is precisely this component of the 15-29 year olds who have not made it to the university system and have joined the security apparatus of the regime, for they have a steady job, can marry, form a family, and have a solid investment in the status quo and be considered "middle class". In other words, instead of spending the national budget on expanding the university system, and then generating jobs, the custodians of the Islamic Republic, not just Ahmadinejad, insecure of their own legitimacy as they are, would rather spend it on fortifying a security apparatus that keeps their ageing banality in power.
Of course Ahmadinejad is not entirely responsible for this sad state of affairs. The Iranian economy is 85 per cent oil-based and an oil-based economy is not labour intensive, while the Iranian "middle class" has always, since the 19th century, been a feeble and shaky proposition. But Bishara's assumption that "Ahmadinejad is less a representative of Iranian conservatives than a rebel against them from within their own establishment," or that "he has lashed out against them, including corrupt clergy, using the principles of the Islamic Revolution as his weapons" is deeply flawed. Of course there was corruption in the two previous administrations of both Khatami and Rafsanjani that preceded him, and that gave free reign to neoliberal privatisation and its catastrophic consequences. But in what particular way has Ahmadinejad corrected that course? The answer: in no way. The battle between Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani is not a battle between revolutionary purity and ageing corruption. It is a battle between a retiring elite and an emerging, previously lower-ranking, echelon that is coming up for grabs. It is a romanticism of the most dangerous sort to imagine Ahmadinejad as a man who "wants to restore the revolution to its youthful vigour and gleam". He is so patently transparent that all you have to do is sit through 10 minutes of his charlatanism during the televised presidential debates to see through the rampant lumpenism with which he operates. The only way that "he distributes oil revenues among the poor" is by recruiting them into the multi-layered and brutal security apparatus of the Basij and the Pasdaran. This, again, is not his invention. He simply carries on an innate insecurity of the regime by over-investing in security forces.
Bishara is far more on an accurate course when he rightly observes that "Ahmadinejad's populist rhetoric has come as a boon to racist Western policies towards the Arabs, Muslims and easterners in general. The certificate of exoneration he has handed Europe for the holocaust is catastrophic in every sense." And yet again he overrides his own insight by suggesting, "Ahmadinejad has also shocked the West with a set of correct principles that challenge the colonialist legacy and that are rarely uttered now that everyone has been tamed to the axioms of Western racist arrogance." How so? How could a banal and parochial reiteration of certain truisms about colonialism and imperialism qualify Ahmadinejad for "correct principles"? Just because the Arab and Muslim world is cluttered with gutless collaborationists in positions of power does not mean that an irresponsible demagogue qualifies for courage or "correct principles". Quite the contrary: Ahmadinejad's imbecilic speech in Geneva in the course of Durban II in April 2009 was chiefly responsible for whitewashing the Israeli massacre of Palestinians in Gaza in December 2008-January 2009.
The cause of Palestinian national liberation has to be rescued from such demagoguery and re-written into our democratic aspirations in an emerging geopolitics of which these young Iranians, men and women, lower and middle class, demonstrating in the streets of their cities are a vanguard. Democratic institutions and civil liberties ought to be equally salvaged and rescued from the combined banality of neoliberal and neoconservative economic and political chicanery. Israel loves nothing more than its own mirror image in the region -- fanatical regimes that make it feel at home in the neighbourhood. And it would much rather deal with corrupt collaborationists from one end of the Arab and Muslim world to another, punctuated by populist demagogues.
This is a moment in our history that requires visionary leadership. Consider the case of Hassan Nasrallah. After his initially wise and judicious position, refusing to take sides, he rushed to congratulate Ahmadinejad for his "victory". This was a terrible strategic mistake. He must have known for a fact that the solidarity of Iranians with the noble causes of Palestine and Lebanon is not contingent on Ahmadinejad's victory or defeat. His subsequent move, that "Iran is under the authority of velayat-e faqih and will pass through this crisis," was of course far more astute but too little too late, coming after Ali Khamenei had authorised the bloody crackdown of the uprising. Why could Nasrallah not show the same judicious poise displayed when Hizbullah lost the recent Lebanese parliamentary elections to the March 14 coalition of Saad Al-Hariri? What is the difference between the cause of democracy in Lebanon and in Iran? But lest my criticism of Nasrallah is abused by people in Tel Aviv and Washington, let me make sure they know that we are more than capable of tolerating the principle of democratic dissent, even in the direst circumstances, without losing sight of what racist colonial settlement is -- the single most dangerous threat to democracy in our region.
We are witness to an epistemic shift in our received political culture. We must learn from those who are risking their lives in the streets of Iran and muster courage and imagination to face and read it proactively, rather than collapse back to a structural-functional analysis of the status quo in which we are, in effect, saying to ourselves, "Listen folks, we are Orientals. Oriental despotism is written into our DNA, and charlatans like Ahmadinejad are the best we can produce," as our false guilt mistakes their lumpenism for their proletarian origins and projects, and then allows for our intellectual reticence to theorise their victory as self-evident. We need, for the sake of posterity, to think better of ourselves.
* The writer is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.