Iran is self-destructing
The point of no return has been passed: Iran's violent theocratic tyranny is now facing the people, and it will lose, writes Hamid Dabashi*
Ma bi-shomarim / We are countless
-- Slogan of the Green Movement in Iran
Within minutes of the picture of a frail and fragile Mohammad Ali Abtahi appearing on the Internet, the blogosphere was flooded with split images of him before and after his predicament. Having lost some 20 kilos since his incarceration in late June, his handsome, always smiling and endearing, face thinned beyond recognition, disrobed of his clerical habit, his turban lost, and clad in unseemly prison pajamas, the former vice president under President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), a leading reformist, and particularly popular with bloggers because of his own weblog, Abtahi's case was particularly heart- wrenching to his young admirers.
The belligerent custodians of the Islamic Republic had forced him to confess to crimes that would make a dead chicken laugh, as we say in Persian, and as an oppositional figure quickly pointed out. This is a velvet revolution, he was made to say, plotted by the reformists, supported by the "Enemy," and there was nothing wrong with Ahmadinejad's landslide victory. Instead of sadness and disappointment, the blogosphere was abuzz with love and admiration for Abtahi. He was instantly declared a national hero. "For the first time," said one blogger, "I learned to love a cleric -- and then I looked again; he had no clerical robe anymore." Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the leading Iranian filmmaker now active in support of the Green Movement, delivered the most memorable punch line in support of Abtahi and dismissing his forced confessions. "If Khamenei were to be treated like Abtahi in jail, the Supreme Guide would come to national television belly dancing!"
Every state is founded on force, Max Weber believed early in the 20th century. What Weber termed "legitimate violence," as the defining apparatus of any state, is predicated on what he called "external means" and "inner justification": the more a state has to resort to external means (use of violence), the less its claim on inner justification (constitutional mandates) on its citizens. The massively orchestrated and naked violence that the Islamic Republic has launched against its own citizens (young and old, men and women, rich and poor) has not only delegitimised its claim to the notion of a "republic", it has, ipso facto, discredited any claim to "Islam" that it may have while bordering on discrediting Islam itself, which is the reason why so many prominent, high-ranking, Shia clerics are coming out so forcefully and categorically denouncing the violent crackdown of peaceful demonstrations, in both juridical and rational terms. There were many Iranians who doubted the accuracy of the June presidential election results, and there were those who thought they were perfectly accurate. But the vicious, blatantly criminal, activities of people in positions of power in the Islamic Republic have now assumed a reality sui generis, beyond anything that any critic of this election had ever uttered. The Islamic Republic of Iran is self-destructing.
Over the last two months, scores of innocent young Iranians have been cold-bloodedly murdered, either in the streets or else under torture in the dungeons of the Islamic Republic. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, three different and autonomous human rights organisations, have independently documented and condemned atrocious acts of human rights abuse -- of arbitrary arrests, kidnappings, illegal incarceration, indiscriminate beating and torture, and cold-blooded murder of ordinary citizens. To the haunted names of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, Bagram Airbase, and even the Gulags now has to be added the dreaded names of Kahrizak and Evin as sites of appalling atrocities perpetrated by the security apparatus of a self-consciously illegitimate tyranny. Never will any official of the Islamic Republic be able to utter a word about the criminal behaviours of the US army in Iraq or the equally atrocious acts of the Israeli army in Palestine with a straight face and without ipso facto implicating their own atrocities against their own innocent citizens. Mehdi Karrubi, a leading oppositional figure, recently said even the Zionists (proverbial for their brutalities against the Palestinians) behave with more self-restraint in Gaza than the Iranian security apparatus does against Iranian citizens. The horrors of the Islamic Republic do not whitewash the terrors that the Jewish state perpetrates against Palestinians in their own homeland. They underline them. Ahmadinejad is no moral voice to point a finger at Israel. The dead bodies of Neda Aqa-Soltan, Sohrab Arabi, and scores of other young Iranians murdered in the prime of their lives are.
The security apparatus of the Islamic Republic behaves like a wild beast, chasing after its own tail, maiming and murdering anyone in its way. Innocent citizens are arbitrarily arrested, or more accurately kidnapped off the streets (like the prominent human rights lawyer Shadi Sadr), incarcerated in their hundreds, at times viciously tortured, or even cold-bloodedly murdered, and their bodies given to their families on the obscene condition that they utter no word of protest and bury their loved ones quietly. Leading public intellectuals, political activists, reformist journalists, university professors, and political analysts are arrested, charged with treason, forced to confess to outlandish charges, and then paraded in front of national television in kangaroo courts to humiliate and break them in the public eye. Anyone with an ounce of intelligence, a caring intellect, a moral fibre in her or his being is suspect.
It took 30 years of an Islamic Republic to cleanse it of its innate banalities and to produce a leading cadre of public intellectuals who deeply care about their people, love their country, abide by the law of their land, and with a perfectly legitimate range of positions and opinions on social and economic matters wish to work for a better future. And it took exactly that many years for yet another generation of opportunist charlatans to gather around Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to kill (like a number of public intellectuals in the late 1990s), paralyze (like the chief reformist strategist Said Hajjarian), force into exile (like Abdolkarim Soroush, Mohsen Kadivar, Akbar Ganji, Mohsen Makhmalbaf or Ata Mohajerani), or incarcerate, torture, humiliate, discredit or kill (too numerous to name) anyone who dares to speak truth to power. That intellectual elite is systematically eradicated, murdered, incarcerated, discredited, forced into exile in order to pave the ignominious path of a medieval banality codenamed welayat-e-faqih, a keyword for the rule of fear and fanaticism, structural ignorance and religious fascism. Farhang-e-nokhbeh-koshi, the "culture of eliticide" is what one perceptive Iranian analyst has called this dark age of tyranny.
Meanwhile, whatever has survived of this eliticide and gathered around an innocuous but hopeful green colour to codify an unprecedented civil rights movement is now the target of even harsher attacks by a certain quixotic side of the expatriate "opposition" that discredits anyone who might harbour a glimpse of hope for the future. They do nothing but malign any public figure that this movement has chosen as a leader. They point to shadows in the past of people like Mousavi, Soroush, Ganji or Makhmalbaf, and by discrediting them wish to discredit the entire Green Movement. Much legitimate anger lingers in their prose, degenerating though into an illegitimate malignancy of moral retardation and political impotence. What they offer instead is the mouldy residues of old clichés, arrested in their mind and soul in some Neanderthal age of convictions, without an iota of critical or creative intelligence about them. They are a sorry and sad scene: much coarsened convictions and yet not an iota of hope, of trust, of crossing the psychological barrier of getting muddied with the nuts and bolts of a magnificent civil rights movement that belongs to no one in particular and is in need of every ounce of creative intelligence that comes to its aid.
These parasitical noises notwithstanding, the central volume of the movement is crystal clear and rising. The Green Movement does not belong to anyone, from Mir-Hossein Mousavi inside Iran to Reza Pahlavi and Masoud Rajavi of the Mojahedin-e Khalq outside. But in and of itself it moves like a beautiful river, self- propelling, like the Hudson or Karun, now thunderous and dangerous, now calm and quiet. Fortunately no charismatic rabble-rouser has any legitimate claim to it. The most significant dimension of this movement is its historic transvaluation of values, its categorical denunciation of aggression in face of ungodly violence that seeks to put an end to it. It will not end. The belligerent custodians of the Islamic Republic capture and torture Mohammad Abtahi, and force him to confess to bogus charges on national television, and yet within hours masses of emails and weblogs shower him with love and forgiveness, understanding and tolerance, hope and happiness. The Islamic Republic wants to humiliate Abtahi, but the people turn him into a national hero and publish thousands of "confessions" of a similar sort to make him feel better and to express their love and solidarity with him.
Putting their lives and liberties on the line are not just ordinary citizens in extraordinary courage and imagination. The most learned juridical authorities of the land, and high-ranking Shia clerics from Ayatollah Montazeri to Ayatollah Sanei, to Hojjat Al-Islam Mohsen Kadivar, reminiscent in their courage and conviction of the best that the Constitutional Revolution of 1906- 1911 produced, have gone public denouncing these naked brutalities of the Islamic Republic. One of the most distinguished Shia scholars of the land, Seyyed Mostafa Mohaqqeq Damad, in an open letter to Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi, the Head of the Judiciary, denounced the absurd kangaroo courts that have robbed innocent citizens of their rights; he speaks to the highest juridical authority of the land not as a jurist but "as a citizen". These are groundbreaking moments in modern Iranian history, and no stone will be left unturned.
The Islamic Republic may die a quick death or else suffer ignominy through a languorous demise -- that will be determined not by its unending brutalities, but by the grace and pace of a civil rights movement that is changing the moral map of this godforsaken term we inherited from our colonial past, the "Middle East". The rise and demise of the Islamic Republic follows the simple law of diminishing returns: there is only so much abuse that a people can take, or that an outdated idea can exercise. After that, the more abuse you heap on a people the less effective it becomes. For 30 years, the Islamic Republic violently distorted a multifaceted cosmopolitan political culture and crudely cut and shoved its limbs inside a medieval juridical apothecary box, and to suppress and silence its own people assumed a warring posture against regional atrocities of entirely different origin and destination. If Iraq is in shambles, Palestine is brutalised, Afghanistan is marred by highway bandits and supersonic bombers, none of those calamities justifies the banalities of an Islamic Republic that has abused them for far too long to be able to continue to justify its parasitical persistence.
Today, the Islamic Republic has finally outsmarted itself and hit the plateau of decline, where its opportunist warring postures in the region can no longer hide the horrors of its own criminal theocracy. This point of diminishing returns is where all tyrannies ultimately end. It is not just the Islamic Republic that has finally outsmarted itself and is beginning to self- destruct. The same fate awaited George W Bush and the Christian Empire he sought to build, and where the US military and material wherewithal could not afford such imperial largesse and began to unravel in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The Islamic Republic is self-destructing because it played its transparent hand for too long, and too clumsily, precisely the same way that the Jewish state has played its victimhood for too long and too clumsily. Nobody could defeat Zionism, so Zionism defeated itself, by being too arrogant, too indulgent, and too brazen in its disregard for basic human decency, thinking it could just wipe Palestine and Palestinians off the face of the world. Well, Palestinians were not wiped off. They are still there, and they are fighting back -- tall, towering, and upstanding. But belligerent Zionism, just like militant Islamism, and just like Christian and Hindu fundamentalism, has run morally aground. The 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the 2008-2009 massacre of Palestinians in Gaza were the ultimate signs of its moral and military meltdown, its naked brutalities exposing the fact that it, too, just like its Islamist counterpart in Iran, has hit the point of diminishing returns, where people no longer buy its outworn commodification of victimhood, as best documented and argued by Norman Finkelstein.
The dawn of a new beginning is brightly upon us, not just in Iran but also in the entire region. The non-violent civil rights movement in Iran is changing the moral map of the region, its normative vocabulary, its visions, vistas, and prospects of itself. It crosses over any Sunni-Shia divide, Arab-Persian racism, Arab-Israeli conflict, religious-secular chasm, and bridges over much troubled and muddied water. To mark my point, here is a passage from a young Iranian blogger that I quote to salute my distinguished Israeli detractor who calls me typically "Persian and emotional":
In the history books of the 21st century, the first chapter will be about us. In the introduction, they might write that important events have happened before us, events like 9/11 and war on Iraq and Afghanistan, but those were the remnants of the previous century, with an outdated language and with 20th century tools: airplanes, bombs and bullets. And then they will write that the first chapter is dedicated to us because we have been the true children of our time ... They will write that we were the first social movement of which all of us were its leader and all of us were its organiser ... They may make a subsection to describe how a movement without a command centre was acting so well- orchestrated. How its ideas, desires and slogans were suggested, criticised, and completed so well, and then one day they were expressed in such a harmony as if all these millions had practiced them together for years ... In the same chapter they will write that we lived the last days of guns and bullets and we showed that where awareness, information and channels of communication for human connection exist, bullets are pointless. They may put a picture of a single bullet somewhere in our Freedom Museum and write for its caption "the last bullet that was ever pulled out of a magazine." _
* The writer is Hagop Kevorkian professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University and author of Iran: A People Interrupted .