White moderates and greens
American pundits who pontificate on the internal affairs of others only reveal themselves as irrelevant and ridiculous, writes Hamid Dabashi*
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice -- Martin Luther King, Jr, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," 16 April 1963
The only reason the world at large should take notice of what American pundits think of the Green Movement in Iran is that their self-indulgent pontificating reveals much about the troubled world we live in and that they think they must lead. Indeed, one of the most magnificent aspects of the unfolding civil rights movement in Iran is that it acts as a catalyst to expose the bizarre banality of American foreign policy commentary and its limitations in dealing with the rest of the world. Those in American circles that are of the "bomb Iran" persuasion are lost causes just like the Ku Klux Klan. It is the equivalent of what in a different context Martin Luther King Jr called "the white moderates" that warrants more attention.
Perhaps the single most important problem with American politics, policymakers and pundits -- left or right, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican -- is that they think that anything that happens anywhere in the world is about them or is their business. The imperial hubris that seems definitive of the DNA of this political culture wants either to invade and occupy other people's homelands and tell them what to do, or else disregard people's preoccupation with their own issues and impose, demand and exact "engagement" with them, whether they want it or not.
Take the most recent piece of nonsense published on the civil rights movement in Iran by Flynt and Hillary Leverett, "Another Iranian Revolution? Not Likely" ( The New York Times, 5 January 2010), which has absolutely nothing to do with or seriously to say about the Green Movement, and yet everything to reveal about the pathology of American politics as determined inside the self-delusional Beltway cocoon.
As early as mid-June 2009, the Leveretts defending the fraudulent election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ("Ahmadinejad won. Get over it," Politico, 15 June 2009). That millions of Iranians had poured into their streets and put their lives on the line did not seem to bother the Leveretts. In addition to a condescending tone, in which the Leveretts partake freely when talking about a groundbreaking civil rights movement about whose origin and disposition they are categorically ignorant, the chief characteristic of their take is that they keep fabricating non-existent targets and then shooting them down. The result: what say has everything to do with the besieged and bunkered mentality inside the Beltway and absolutely nothing to do with the Green Movement. Chief example: "The Islamic Republic of Iran," they believe, "is not about to implode. Nevertheless, the misguided idea that it may do so is becoming enshrined as conventional wisdom in Washington."
Whoever said it was? No scholar or otherwise serious and informed observer of Iran writing in Persian or any other language and still in her or his right mind can predict -- or has predicted -- that the Islamic Republic will or will not fall, and even if it did, one way or another, it would have nothing to do with what "conventional wisdom in Washington" opts to enshrine or not to enshrine. If there are folks inside the Beltway who think the Islamic Republic will fall any day now, Abbas Milani will become the American ambassador to Iran, or the Iranian ambassador to the US, depending on the season of his migrations to the left or right, and Lolita will soon become required reading in Iranian high schools, well that's their problem, and yet another sign of their dangerously delusional politics. That hallucination has nothing to do with the Green Movement, and thus the Leveretts need not have sought (in vain) to discredit a monumental social uprising of whose origin and destination they are oblivious.
These Washingtonians live in a world of their own. A massive civil rights movement has commenced in a rich and diversified political culture of which people trapped inside the Beltway have no clue. Thus what American pundits make of it is entirely irrelevant. This is a civil rights movement some two hundred years in the making, whose course and contours will be determined inside Iran and by Iranians. No Iranian could care less what people in halls of power in the United States think of their uprising, unless and until they start harming it. There are two sorts of harm: economic sanctions, covert operations and military strikes, advocated by the likes of Milani; or else engaging with the illegitimate and fraudulent government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as the Leveretts advocate. These are both interferences in the domestic affairs of Iran. Mr and Mrs Leverett ought to know they will be remembered in Iranian history as the 21st century equivalent of Kermit Roosevelt if they persist, as they have since the commencement of the Green Movement in June 2009, in actively siding with what in Iran is called "the coup government of Ahmadinejad".
The supreme irony of the Leveretts' position is that while the ghastly propaganda machinery of the Islamic Republic accuses anyone who utters a word against their criminal atrocities of being "an agent of CIA", here is an ex- CIA agent acting as the greatest proponent of their theocratic terrorism. The Leveretts' main concern is with President Obama hurrying up to "engage" Ahmadinejad before it is too late. To pre-empt neocon belligerent chicanery the Leveretts seek to push the president in the direction of diplomacy with Ahmadinejad's administration. That legitimate and even laudable and noble concern, however, soon degenerates into an arrogant and ignorant dismissal of an entire civil rights movement as something ephemeral and even non- existent.
The best thing that President Obama has done so far, in fact, is not to engage with the fraudulent and criminal government of Ahmadinejad, listening carefully to the masses of millions of Iranians chanting "Obama, Obama, you are either with them or with us!" And "them" is the brutal theocracy whose security apparatus kidnaps, tortures, rapes and murders its own citizens, when it is not busy putting their political and intellectual leaders on show trials in Kangaroo courts -- facts inconsequential to the Leveretts' realpolitik and yet concerning men -- like Mehdi Karrubi, Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mohamed Khatami -- who have been at the heart of the Islamic revolution, leading it for the last 30 years and who are still deeply committed to the Islamic Republic. It would be utterly catastrophic (both for Iranians and for long term US-Iran relations) if President Obama were to listen to and do as the Leveretts tell him to do.
The entire argument of the Leveretts dwells on a silly number game, like belligerent teenagers comparing the size of their vanities, all set in a prep school adolescent debating club mentality, questioning the numbers of antigovernment and pro-government rallies. Comparing and contrasting the two massive demonstrations in the holy months of Muharram, one against the government and the other orchestrated by it, the Leveretts sound entirely identical with the propaganda machinery of the Islamic Republic that dismisses one as insignificant and peripheral and celebrates the other as "possibly the largest crowd in the streets of Tehran since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's funeral in 1989." In this bogus assessment the Leveretts ignore the fact that in one of these demonstrations people were beaten up, shot at, run over by armoured trucks, or else arrested and taken to the dungeons of the Islamic Republic to be tortured, raped and murdered, while in the other they are provided with complementary food and beverages, paraded on national television, and given the day off from work and school.
This is not to suggest that all who went to the staged rally did so just because their livelihood and monthly paycheques were at stake, for their religious sensibilities were equally manipulated by a sinister and abusive regime. But this entire number game is a silly and useless diversion, and of interest only to discredited expatriate oppositional groups or else to the propaganda machinery of the Islamic Republic, which the Leveretts now echo. Neither do all those who participated in the Ashura demonstrations wish to topple the Islamic Republic, nor are all those who were manipulated to join the counter-demonstrations supporters of Ahmadinejad. This fixation with numbers is played on the false field of a supposition that the Islamic Republic is about to fall, whereas for the last seven months anyone who knows anything about Iran has insisted that this is not a revolution but a civil rights movement; a marathon, not a 100-metre sprint.
Another equally useless and diversionary goose chase that the Leveretts play -- a game that shows they are completely out of touch -- is when they start talking about the seventh day memorial of one death or another. What happened in the seventh day commemoration of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri's death on 27 December 2009, which coincided with the Ashura on 10th of the holy month of Muharram 1431, is integral to a succession of mass rallies that began on 12 June and has taken any occasion to pour into streets, demand and exact their rightful public space, and show their discontent. Come next anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in February, or the next Chahar Shanbeh Suri, Noruz, or Sizdah Bedar in March, people will do exactly the same. The Islamic Republic may or may not last, under pressure from its own internal contradictions that it may or may not be able to rectify. But that possibility, or even eventuality, is irrelevant to the civil liberties that this movement is demanding and will exact from this or any other regime.
The Leveretts are led to believe that their trump cards are three earth- shattering questions: "Those who talk so confidently about an 'opposition' in Iran as the vanguard for a new revolution," they say, putting the word "opposition" in quotation marks as a way of belittling, ridiculing and dismissing it, "should be made to answer three tough questions: First, what does this opposition want? Second, who leads it? Third, through what process will this opposition displace the government in Tehran?" Well, for one thing the whole world knows by now that the triumvirate of Mousavi, Karrubi and Khatami collectively constitute the core of what literate observers have called, in Persian, rahbari-ye ghaltan, a "rotating leadership". This "leadership" is not, as the Leveretts assume, of the revolutionary model of Khomeini in 1979. These "white moderates"
As for what the movement wants, Mousavi has specified five very clear objectives -- subsequently expanded to 10, ranging from the resignation of Ahmadinejad to freeing all political prisoners and unconditional freedom of the press -- in a historic document that every Iranian around the globe is now discussing but has evidently been kept hidden from the Leveretts. As to how this is to happen, again Mohsen Kadivar, a leading clerical opponent of the Islamic Republic who despite his young age is in fact superior in his juridical rank and learning to the "leader" of the Islamic Republic, has just told Le Monde specifically, in three itemised moves, how they are going to achieve their ends. In this interview, Kadivar recommends a referendum with three options: an Islamic Republic without velayat-e faqih (rule of the clergy); a republic minus the adjective Islamic; or the Islamic Republic with velayat-e faqih. As in any other civil rights movement, Kadivar of course does not speak for the whole movement. But in terms of the sorts of objectives that are now on the table, his language is in the main ballpark.
There is a reason that a gargantuan security and intelligence apparatus, magnified by billions of more dollars after 9/11, is still so incompetent, as just angrily admitted by President Obama, that it cannot even prevent a deranged mind like Umar Farouk Abdel-Mutallab boarding a plane headed to the United States when the man's own father had approached US and Nigerian authorities telling them that his son was about to commit a terrorist act. The Leveretts' myopia is not exclusive to them: it is endemic to the American intelligence community and political punditry. Their failure in understanding the civil rights movement in Iran is predicated on the fact that at best their thinking is mechanical (not organic) and synchronic (not diachronic).
Consider, for example, the Leveretts' most obvious blind spot. They are very particular to inform people that there is no popular revolution in the offing that may topple the Islamic Republic, and yet fail to notice that the Islamic Republic is in fact far more in danger of a naked military coup by the Revolutionary Guard, following what millions of Iranians -- including the very founders of the Islamic Republic -- believe to have been an electoral coup. What about that possibility? Should the Obama administration also deal with a military junta (as it does in Pakistan) while a massive civil rights movement is unfolding? How is this realpolitik different from becoming a mouthpiece for a fanatical theocratic absolutism? Are Iranians thought not to deserve or to know any better?
What is happening in Iran is a "revolution," though not in a mundane politics of despair but in form, in language, in style, in decorum, in demeanour, in visual and performative sublimity. This is a movement that began with song and dance, with poetry and drama, with colour and choreography, with joy, laughter, and hope; with an open-ended hermeneutics of what is possible beyond the written text, or the spoken word, or the mandated morality, or legislated signs. This civil rights movement will change the very alphabet of the region, from form to content, from rhetoric to logic, from Iran across the Arab and Muslim world, and beyond. Student activists from Ohio to Beijing are learning from their Iranian counterparts. In inner city schools around New York there is a new idiom, "going Iranian", meaning not remaining passive in the face of nonsense. This movement is iconoclastic, puts veils on men's head, places women in the front row of rallies, showers cool water and love over security forces that come to beat up their own brothers and sisters.
But all of that is beyond the bunkered banality that passes for punditry in the United States. To speak the inner language of the Beltway, there is not an iota of difference between Bush's waging war on Afghanistan and Iraq and the Leveretts' recommendation for an imperial decree for "engagement" with the Islamic Republic, no matter what diabolic regime flaunts that dubious epithet. But the good news is that Iranians could not care less. If the Leveretts want to fight against their country's immoral, illegal and fattening warmongering they have their work cut out for them inside their own country. They have no business imposing their imperial prescription on a people busy doing some housecleaning of their own. Whether this Green Movement attains its objective a year from now or 10, whether the Islamic Republic will accommodate those civil liberties and survive or fails to do so and joins other political dinosaurs, is none of Leveretts' business, or the American government's for that matter. A people, once again, have arisen to demand and exact their civil liberties. So please, if you don't mind, step aside.
cannot think of a country like Iran having a civil rights movement; in their estimation Orientals are only capable of revolution or military coup.
* The writer is the Hagop Kevorkain professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York.