Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sometimes One Good Revolution Deserves Another

How's this for 'Change'? From Hope to Disillusionment

I’m not qualified to write about Iran and the political developments there. But I feel compelled to do so…because through my very limited first hand and more extensive second hand exposure, I’ve developed a deep fondness for Iran. Not the regime but the people.

My earliest exposure to Iran came in the late eighties (I think I was 12 years old) through a Reader’s Digest story about the horrors of the Islamic regime. The anecdote from that article that remains stuck in my mind till today, was about a woman who had her lips cut off for wearing lipstick. Still new to the ways of the world I remember being horrified by the brutality of the action and asking my father if this and the other things the story said were true. His reply was that this was mostly American propaganda. The truth I’m sure, as it usually is, was somewhere in the middle. Despite my dad's dismissal of the article, for years I carried a picture of Iran as a country full of closed-minded, hostile religious fundamentalists who were opposed to most modern freedoms. I didn't distinguish between the regime and the people.

But during a short 3 day business trip to Tehran a few years back, all this changed for me. I landed in Tehran after trips to the UAE (Dubai, Sharjah, Ras al Khaimah and Abu Dhabi) and Muscat and it was quite a shock to discover that in many ways Iran seemed more liberal (at the time) than the Arab societies in those cities (except perhaps for Dubai) In Muscat for example, all my business meetings were with men; where women were present they were usually Indian and usually in the role of assistants. In the main market in Muscat maybe one in ten of the people milling about were women; all were in full length, head to toe black burkhas, with a veil covering their face leaving only a slit for the eyes. In Tehran over 2-3 days in six or seven meetings I met at least 3 women executives; there was the usual ‘healthy’ mix of men and women in the streets; you saw women driving cars alone late at night (something they would not be able to do in Saudi Arabia any time of the day). I was being guided through the different meetings by a woman sales representative and the meeting dynamics between her and her male counterparts in the companies we visited were no different than they would be in India. The women all wore hijabs of course, as did my host, but they were of many colours; the head scarves were usually colourful, the faces were not veiled for the most part and yes – many women wore lipstick. This is not to say that the country wasn’t a conservative Islamic society – it clearly was. But it wasn’t any more so (and in some ways was less so) than some of the other countries in the region that gain much less notoriety per capita oppression that they impose of their people.

The other thing that made Tehran fascinating was to witness the hundreds of small ways in which the people were choosing to rebel. Combined with the sophistication of the people I met, these signs of rebellion endeared the Iranian people to me, forever. For I’m nothing if not a romantic. The signs were everywhere you looked: the short knee-length capes that the younger women wore to reveal their fashionable jeans; the head scarves that were allowed to slip back to reveal most of the hair; the wry, self-deprecating comments that several people made to me about the government (one of them asked me what I thought about the Islamic republic of Iran, coming from India as I did, placing an emphasis on “Islamic” in a way that made it clear that he didn’t think much of it at all); Michael Jackson’s Thriller blaring out of a car racing by even though all forms of non-Islamic music are banned in the country; being offered an alcohol free malt beer by another procurement manager who said he escaped to India several times a year and was an admirer of Bhagwan Rajneesh; the young couple holding hands in an intimate corner of a trendy restaurant in broad afternoon-light. The lady who hosted me in Tehran told me that a lot of these small grabs at freedom had become increasingly common since Khatami came to power. She told me how people had satellite dishes at home, all the latest CDs and books that were officially banned. Of raucous house parties that substituted for late night bars and clubs that were conspicuous by their absence.

It was Khatami’s second term, a time when hopes of rapid social liberalization were fading. Despite that the impression you gained was of a society that assumed change would occur, if only more slowly than many people wanted. That the change could come from within the system which provided the “safety valve” of an elected president. That safety valve provided a degree of legitimacy to the regime in the eyes of the people. It also provided the strongest threat to the survival of the theocratic state as it stands today. The presidency in Iran only has limited power and can put progressive change into only the first or second gears. But slow change is still change and the Iranian regime wouldn’t be the first one to resort to naked theft to prevent pesky reformists from getting their hands on the levers of power. Mousavi is widely described as being a reformist in quotes. No one is sure that he would bring a lot of reform to the system…but he is for example, clearly comfortable with an expanded, more independent role of women, going by the role his wife played in the election campaign. That itself is probably anathema to the core beliefs of the conservative old guard. I don’t think this is about Mousavi alone though. 70% of Iran is younger than 30 and following Khatami’s two landslide victories, and the way that Mousavi’s campaign caught fire in just 4 weeks; the religious conservatives probably realized that left to themselves, Iranians would elect progressive, reformist presidents in perpetuity. The system has to be destroyed to save the system. And that’s what Khamenei and Ahmadinejad have done. They’d have probably done this in 2005 if the reformist voters hadn’t largely boycotted the polls obviating the need to do so.

I can understand their motives. The margin of victory is so incredible, the rigging so blatant, that it makes one think that they didn’t just want to cheat but also wanted to let the population know that they could and would cheat. That they are serious about not allowing reform and that anyone who really wants change will have to fight for it. Khamenei and company are betting that the people won’t put up much of a fight. Though the legitimacy of the regime has been blown to smithereens in the eyes of its people, the street protests that have happened till now won’t necessarily mean the beginning of the end of the regime. Michael Elliott has written a great article about this in Time...he mentions the 1968 Prague Spring, the 1956 Hungarian uprising and Tiananmen Square in 1989: flashpoint protests that were quelled by regimes that then continued for 20-40 more years. Burma is another example. If they succed today, over the next few years it’s quite likely that the conservatives will use power to entrench themselves further and intimidate dissidents once the initial furor has died down and the attention of the world has shifted.

On the other hand, from the vantage point of my armchair, this seems a particularly propitious time to fight for change in Iran. The betrayal is farm-fresh in people’s minds. In Mousavi and his wife and in Khatami they have dissident leaders around who the opposition can rally around; not just the reformist forces but also those conservatives who are coming out to reject an illegitimate power-grab. These leaders will probably be neutralized over time. On the other hand, the Islamic regime’s bogeyman, America, has a president who can differentiate between a regime and its people and who understands nuance and subtlety. That somewhat neutralizes the conservatives’ traditional rallying point. Right now the fight can be simply for a presidential election annulment …something that can be achieved in a face-saving way through the Guardian council’s decision. After this the reformists’ will probably have to mount a full-scale revolution which is much more difficult. Freedom comes at a cost and the Iranian people will have to pay it either today by persisting in their protests in face of the inevitable violent crackdown or over time by suffering a more violent and more conservative regime for the next several decades. I hope they choose to pay it today in the form of persistent and escalating protests across the country, even if there's intimidation. It has after all, worked once before in 1979.

My lovely host was in her mid-to-late thirties when I met her and had grown up in the most conservative decades of the Islamic regime, suffering dire restrictions on her freedom. I will always remember, her telling me with unqualified sadness, that she belonged to the "lost generation of Iran". Let's pray that her’s is the last one.

1 comment:

RSN said...

Revolutions are the only way that drastic change can be brought about in any country but they are only successful one if the leader is strong (Is Mousavi a strong enough leader to be able to orchestrate a revolution) and two if the majority of the people are against the existing rule, otherwise its only a massacre.