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Iran’s Democratic Upsurge


"A messianic apocalyptic cult…"
 
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Iran and Iranians
 
By design or serendipity, the Israeli claim to be "the only democracy in the Middle East" has suddenly been globally exposed for the ludicrous joke that it is.
 
The June 2009 parliamentary elections in Lebanon will go down in history as a major advance for the cause of democracy in that small but vital country. The victory of the March 14 coalition of Saad Al-Hariri, by which they now hold 71 seats in the 128- member parliament, has left the remaining 58 seats to the Hizbullah-led coalition. Israel and its American allies have been quick to paint this result as a victory for "pro-Western" elements and thus a defeat for Hizbullah. This is not the case. Victory of the March 14 coalition is the victory of democracy in Lebanon — a victory Hizbullah shared.
 
Because Israel is a racist apartheid state, it cannot see the world except through its own tribal lens. The victory of the March 14 coalition in Lebanon is the victory of the electoral process, which now solidly includes Hizbullah and its parliamentary allies. Hizbullah is now not only part of Lebanon‘s civil society, but also its political apparatus and institutionalised democratic process, and Hizbullah achieved this without abandoning its status as a national liberation army that will defend its homeland against any and every Israeli barbarity that may come its way.
 
As the Arab and Muslim worlds celebrate this democratic victory, it is imperative to see it as having nothing to do with Obama’s presidency, or his speech in Cairo, lecturing Muslims in the region on democracy while his army is illegally occupying Iraq and slaughtering Afghans.
 
On the heels of the Lebanese elections, the cause and the march of democracy took an even bolder leap in Iran, and that leap is not because of US promotion of democracy, but in fact is despite and against it. At time of writing, millions of Iranians inside and out of their homeland are angry and heartbroken with the official results. Some go so far as considering what happened a coup d’état. There are perfectly legitimate reasons to question the validity of the official results that have declared Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the clear winner. The only point of which Iranians can be sure and proud is the extraordinary manifestation of their collective will to participate in their politics. This unprecedented participation neither lends legitimacy to the illegitimate apparatus of the Islamic Republic and its manifestly undemocratic organs nor should be abused by bankrupt oppositional forces outside Iran to denounce and denigrate a glorious page in modern Iranian history.
 
Every four years, during presidential elections followed by parliamentary elections, the paradox of the democratic theocracy of the Islamic Republic of Iran fascinates and baffles the world. During this presidential campaign, Iranians boisterously joined rallies and then stood in long queues to vote under the extended shadow of Israeli warlords threatening a military strike. The propaganda machinery at the disposal of Israel will have the world believe that a populist demagogue like Ahmadinejad is "the dictator" of Iran, as one of their spokesmen in New York, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, once put it. And thus on the model of an Oriental despot he represents a backward people whose fate deserves to be determined by others (the US/ Israel, of course). As the prominent Israeli scholar of Iran, Haggai Ram, one of a handful of courageous Israeli dissidents, has aptly demonstrated in his Iranophobia, Israel‘s fixation with Iran has now reached pathological proportions and is a case study of self-delusional hysteria feeding on itself.
 
The reality of the Iranian polity, as the world has once again been witness to, is vastly different to the picture US/Israel propaganda is feeding the world. A vibrant and restless society is defying all mandated limitations on its will and demanding and exacting its democratic rights. The undemocratic institutions of the Islamic Republic — beginning with the idea of velayat-e faqih, or rule of the cleric, down to the unelected body of the Guardian Council — are not obstacles to democracy in Iran but invitations to democratic assault. What the Iranian electorate, young and old, men and women, seem to be doing is far more important than a mere head on collision with ageing and arcane institutions. They are pushing the limits of their democratic exercises in unfathomable and unstoppable directions. The Internet has connected Iran‘s youth to the global context, and they have in turn become the catalyst of discursive and institutional changes beyond the control of the clerical clique in Qom and Tehran.
 
This is more than anything a battle between generations. Iranian society is changing and fast. The ageing custodians of the Islamic Republic wish to limit what can be said or expected. But the globally geared and wired youth, more than 60 per cent of the electorate, is now radically altering the contours of those limits. They are not merely defying them, but are sublimating them. The red line in Iran is thinning by the hour, for facing it are skilful players exercising their political muscles. It was quite evident in the course of the US presidential election of 2008 that an Internet-savvy Obama outmanoeuvred McCain’s arcane operation. The same is true of Mir-Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi’s campaigns, the two reformist candidates, on the one side, and Ahmadinejad’s on the other, with Mohsen Rezai in-between. The social basis of Mousavi’s platform is the urban middle class, the youth, and women. The economic basis of Ahmadinejad’s demagoguery is the rural and urban poor. They are both skilful campaigners in reaching out to their respective constituencies.
 
The rising demographic tide is against the old revolutionaries. Iranian children born after the revolution in the late 1970s have no active memory of its hopes and furies and could not care less about those who do. Every four years since the end of Iran-Iraq war in 1988, and the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, the Iranian electorate has been upping the ante. They voted for Rafsanjani in 1989 and for eight years he rebuilt the economic infrastructure of the country after the war, creating a class of nouveau riche. Then in 1997 they voted for Mohamed Khatami who gave them a modicum of civil society and opened the vista of wide-ranging social reform, and yet did nothing — or very little — to alleviate the poor masses Rafsanjani had left behind. In 2005, those disenfranchised by Rafsanjani’s economic project and indifferent to Khatami’s social and cultural agenda pushed power into the hands of Ahmadinejad. And now, in 2009, a major segment of disaffected voters, in their millions, are investing trust in Mousavi, a former prime minister with impeccable revolutionary credentials, a war hero, and a socialist in his economic projects.
 
Again, the scene is overwhelmed by the massive participation of the youth, students, and above all women, on both sides of the political divide. This new generation is Internet-aware, versatile with Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. It is globally wired. The presence of Zahra Rahnavard, Mousavi’s distinguished wife, is an added aspect of this campaign. A prominent public intellectual and a former university chancellor, a poet, painter and sculptor, and a staunch advocate of women’s rights, Rahnavard is dubbed by some foreign journalists as the Michelle Obama of Iran. "No," retorted one of her Iranian admirers in response, "Michelle Obama could have aspired to become the Zahra Rahnavard of the United States."
 
This election has also been extraordinary because of live televised debates that exposed skeletons collected for 30 years in the closets of the ageing elders of the republic. Ahmadinejad, bastard son of the Islamic Revolution, is fast devouring, in his populist demagoguery, the idealism and aspirations of that revolution. Opposing Ahmadinejad are the architects of Iran‘s creative imagination. More than ever Iranian artists and filmmakers have been active in this election. They have published open letters, produced video clips, and joined others in rallies. From Paris, Mohsen Makhmalbaf wrote an open letter supporting Mousavi and encouraging everyone to vote for him while dispatching his youngest daughter, Hana, to go to Iran to make a documentary about the elections. When Mousavi challenged the official results, Makhmalbaf became a conduit of his campaign with international news outlets, using his connections with foreign journalists.
 
Majid Majidi, another prominent Iranian filmmaker, directed Mousavi’s campaign commercials. Other Iranian directors, actors, producers have similarly exerted their efforts. Student organisations, labour unions, professional associations and women’s rights organisations — all have been engaged, on the streets, on the Internet sites, writing fiery essays, shooting movies, and producing video clips. Rahnavard, a painter with a talent for colour symbolism, chose green for her husband’s campaign (neither red for violence nor white for martyrdom, the other two colours in the Iranian flag). And when Khatami went to Isfahan to campaign for Mousavi, upwards of 100,000 people came together in the historic Meydan-e Naqsh-e Jahan to cheer him and support the reformist candidate. This is democracy from bellow; democracy not by virtue of institutions, but by collective and defiant insistence. Israeli warlords should think twice before aggressing the Iranians.
 
Disappointed by this democratic flourishing are not just Israeli and American Zionists that spent time and money portraying Iran as a diabolic dictatorship deserving to be bombed. Equally scandalised by this election are the colourful band of lipstick jihadi Hirsi Ali wanna-bes who are writing one erotic fantasy after another about Iranian "women", over-sexualising Iranian politics as they opt for "love and danger" during their "honeymoon in Tehran". The representation of Iranian women in the flea market of the US publishing industry began under President Bush with Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and has now come to a new depth of depravity in Pardis Mahdavi’s Passionate Uprisings: Iran’s Sexual Revolution. Between a harem full of Lolitas and a bathhouse of nymphomaniacs is where Nafisi and Mahdavi have Iranian women, marching in despair awaiting liberation by US marines and Israeli bombers. What a contrast to the real work of women, as testified to in this election, and now on the street in defence of the collective will of the nation.
 
On two sides of Iran lie in waste Iraq and Afghanistan, liberated for democracy by George W Bush and now Barack Obama. In the middle, millions of Iranians who would have been maimed or murdered by a similar "liberation" peacefully poured into streets and jubilantly marched to polling stations to vote, in a grassroots, however limited and flawed, but still promising and beautiful, march towards democracy. And now that they think their votes have been stolen from them they are more than capable of demanding them back.
 
Whoever the final winner of Iran’s election may be, fanatical Zionists in Israel and the US, power-mongering Mullahs in Tehran and Qom, comprador intellectuals and career opportunists from Washington DC to California, are its sorest losers. The winners are the indomitable Iranian people. We are witness, regardless of controversy, to a triumph of democratic pluralism, from Lebanon to Iran — a nightmare for the Jewish state that wants the whole region remade in its delusional, racist, apartheid image where sects and factions fight each other to the dogged end. "A messianic apocalyptic cult," indeed, can only describe the country of the man who pronounced it.
 
Mr Prime Minister, thou dost protest too much.
 
The writer is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. 

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