The crisis of an Islamic Republic
The greatest success of barbarity is when it dictates the terms of all opposition to it, writes Hamid Dabashi*
These are the times that try men's souls... Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.
-- Thomas Paine
The Islamic Revolution (1977-1979) began by a concerted mobilisation of political forces against the Pahlavi dynasty and succeeded to establish an Islamic Republic after a violent upheaval of the Iranian polity. The diverse aspects of Iranian political culture not compatible with a militant Islamist take of Ayatollah Khomeini were brutally and systematically eliminated. Thirty years after the force-fed Islamicisation of Iranian cosmopolitan culture, a new generation of public intellectuals, political and social leaders, human and civil rights activists emerged from the very bosom of the Islamic Republic, demanding their civil liberties and wishing to correct the course of the nation. These liberties, they finally realised, are not only constitutional but also coterminous with the multifaceted Iranian political culture that was systematically violated in order to make the Islamic Republic possible. The crisis of legitimacy that has now finally caught up with that republic is not only evident in its vile and violent behaviour towards its own citizens but also in fact coterminous with its very existence. Some 30 years after its violent crackdown on all alternatives, this crisis is now both political and moral.
The forced transmutation of Iranian political culture into a singular Islamic state was an act of epistemic violence that could only be sustained by a militarised security apparatus that forced its intellectual and political opposition into exile or else brutally eliminated it. But the Islamic Republic could not uproot and transform Iranian society at large, and from the older roots of the selfsame political culture new branches have sprouted -- wiser, sharper, stronger, and more intelligent than ever. Iranian civil society in political culture is not just ahead of Iran's backward and retrograde leaders but also ahead of their stilted intellectuals. The civil rights movement that has finally broken out in the aftermath of the 12 June presidential elections is reducible to neither side of any such false binary, for it is, ipso facto, reaching out to retrieve cosmopolitan Iranian culture, to which Islam is integral but not definitive. Unless we come to terms with the worldly disposition of that cosmopolitan culture, the nature of the crisis that the Islamic Republic faces, or the civil rights movement that has now ensued, will not make sense or critically register.
After Mehdi Karrubi, a founding member of the Islamic Republic and an ageing revolutionary, as well as others, disclosed that young Iranians are being raped and murdered in the dungeons of Tehran, and then hurriedly buried in mass graves, something far more crucial than the "republican" claim of Iran became in jeopardy. After violently denying, denigrating, destroying, forcing into exile, or seeking to discredit the non-Islamist dimensions of Iranian cosmopolitan culture, ranging from anti-colonial nationalists to Third World socialists, the Islamic Republic placed all its legitimacy eggs in one Islamic basket. Once that basket was dropped on the hard surface of mass graves in Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, burying scores of young Iranians cold-bloodedly murdered because of their political positions, or simply having voted for one presidential candidate as opposed to another, the Islamic Republic was pulling Islam down with it. It is now Islam, the faith of millions of Iranians and other human beings that must survive the banality of this particular evil.
To retrieve the cosmopolitan culture of Iran, with the rightful and democratic place of Islam in it, we have absolutely no choice but to think of ways to reduce the magnitude of violence unleashed upon us first and foremost by not falling into its trap and reciprocating it. Violence is violence and violence must be condemned -- genocidal, homicidal or suicidal. The Israeli genocidal violence against Palestinians does not justify Palestinian suicidal violence against Israelis; it just exacerbates it. American homicidal violence in Afghanistan and Iraq does not justify Afghan or Iraqi suicidal violence either; it just extends its madness. Muslims, Jews, Christians and Hindus are today at each other's throats. We have inherited a politics of despair that has reduced us to desperate measures. In revenge for what the world has done to Afghanistan, it is as if the whole world is being reduced to Afghanistan -- a disparate people desperately in search of an illusive peace, robbed of their dignity, sustained civility, moral whereabouts, and at the mercy of drug traffickers, highway bandits and supersonic bombers alike. Iran is today ruled by a criminal band of militant Taliban lookalikes, savagely beating, raping, torturing, and point blank murdering the people. They are, as Mehdi Karrubi once famously put it, worse than Zionists, for the Zionists do what they do to Palestinians, not to Israelis. The answer to that kind of indiscriminate violence cannot be violence, for it will plunge us into even deeper layers of hell.
A Nakba of no less catastrophic consequence than that of the Palestinians, though perpetrated against now more than 72 million people, is casting its deadly and languorous shadow over an entire nation. A worldly cosmopolitan culture has been reduced to a narrowly exacting Shia juridical tongue-twisting fraternity club that insists on speaking clerically inflected Persian with Latinate obscurantism. Perfectly beautiful Arabic words, such as tanfidh and tahlif, are clumsily thrown at Persian syntax and morphology and made look and sound strange and self-alienating in Persian when uttered by the band of clerics who think Iran is their paternal inheritance and we ordinary folks are just a nuisance that ought to be regulated in the sanctified letters of their law. In this regard, it really makes no difference how progressive or retrograde a faqih or cleric is, for they are identical in their excessive fiqhification of Iranian political culture. The only reason, as a result, that such prominent clerical figures as Ayatollah Montazeri, Ayatollah Sanei or Hojjat Al-Islam Kadivar are dearer to us than others is because they declare themselves and do their best (and sometime succeed) to speak a decidedly civil language, a language of our common citizenry. As one blogger put it bluntly, referring to a famous story about the first Shia Imam Ali not being able to sleep because one of his soldiers had stolen an anklet off the feet of a Jewish girl: "They are now tearing the pants off our young brothers and sisters and violently raping them, and you want us to think highly of Imam Ali having lost sleep about an anklet?"
These are indeed terrifying times that are trying our souls, a time when principles sacrosanct to who and what we are have become the first victim. The moral and political crisis of the Islamic Republic, however, is the emancipatory passage of both Islam and republicanism from a flawed and murderous mismatch. As political Zionism, militant Islamism (or Christian or Hindu fundamentalism for that matter) has been a horrific historical faux pas. Once Muslims are released from implicating their multifaceted religion in a singularly militant ideology or tyrannical theocracy they are freed once again to embrace their faith and piety in the cosmopolitan worldliness of its historical experiences. And once Iranians are freed from force-feeding their democratic aspirations down the narrow throat of an "Islamic Republic" they have joined a public space in which their societal modernity gives birth to enduring democratic institutions. None of this is either to call for or else to discourage the dismantling of the Islamic Republic altogether -- a historical eventuality beyond any single person's wish or will. This is simply to begin to think through the current crisis of the republic and the ungodly terror it has visited upon a nation for over 30 years, and articulate manners of civil liberties that will be needed to sustain enduring democratic institutions during or after this republic.
The difficult task ahead is that the barbarity of the violent custodians of the Islamic Republic is evidently determined to dictate the terms of not just obedience to it but in fact, and far more dangerously, the manner of opposition to it. It is not that by violence the belligerent leadership of the theocracy demand and exact obedience; it is that by the selfsame violence they are determining the terms of opposition to their illegitimate rule. The Green Movement as a result needs to be exceedingly conscious not to fall into that easy trap. At the writing of this passage, I cannot think of a more noble act of resistance to their barbarity than the peaceful, pious and gracious gathering of the families of the unjustly incarcerated activists in Evin Prison for their Iftar (breaking their fast) on the first day of Ramadan 1430/ 22 August 2009 -- spreading their sofreh and sporting their green plastic plates.
The Green Movement is very conscious not to allow the violent behaviour of the militarised security apparatus of the Islamic Republic to determine the course of its actions, thoughts and strategies. Its central protagonists insist on crossing over their psychological barrier and coming to terms with a future bereft of violence. There is in fact no better way of fighting against this regime than celebrating life, embracing joy -- ba del-e khonin lab khandan biyavar hamcho jam, as the contemporary Persian poet Houshang Ebtehaj teaches us:
With a heart full of blood
Bring forth a pair of smiling lips
Just like a cup of wine.
This assessment is not a wish. It is written to the body of the movement. "I am absolutely convinced," writes Fatemeh Shams, a prominent blogger whose own husband Mohammadreza Jalaipour was arrested and charged with plotting to topple the regime, "that the incarceration of people like Somayyeh Towhidlu, Hamzeh Ghalebi, Mohammadreza Jalaipour, Said Shariati, and Shahab Al-Din Tabatabai is to target a young generation that wishes both to have faith and is committed to reform, is both preoccupied with [the betterment of] our homeland and is committed to legal frameworks and societal principles. This time around, the fundamentalists have targeted a generation that was determined to follow a third path, the path upon which it was possible to be religious but not be retrograde, to be a reformist but oppose the toppling of the regime and violence."
Fatemeh Shams' appraisal of the movement, based on being born and raised in an Islamic Republic, is exceedingly important because there is always the danger that the moral dissolution of the regime and the systemic violence that it is perpetrating upon its own citizens might succeed in dictating terms of opposition to its benighted rule. The transmutation of legitimate resistance to tyranny into tyrannous terms in the opposite direction is already very much evident among the Quixotic expatriate "opposition" that speaks, writes and acts in precisely the same vulgar manner that its counterpart in the Islamic Republic does. Outside the purview of the Islamic Republic and the violent expatriate "opposition" it has generated against itself, the Green Movement needs to stay clear of both and turn to our extended literary humanism to sustain its moral rectitude. For all the terror that the Islamic Republic has perpetrated upon Islam and Muslims, the heart of Islam beats happily and resoundingly, sound and safe, where it has always been, in the best of our poetry, in our literature, in the solitude of our dis/belief -- with one line of Sadi we can rebuild our humanity, with one ghazal of Hafez we will learn how to love anew, and in the aromatic pages of Rumi we will look for God again, just before we turn to our sagacious Khayyam and play hide and seek with Him.
* The writer is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.