Islamic Democracy, Oxymoron?

The Supreme Leader

 “Everybody in the Arab world remembers 2009.”

– Marc Lynch, author of The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolution of the New Middle East, on NPR’s ‘Brian Lehrer Show,’ Monday March 26, 2012

THE REAL POWER IN IRAN

It’s hard to remember a time when Iran wasn’t associated with its current president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. With his provocative anti-Zionist declarations to the world and his U.N. Assembly appearances decrying the evils of the U.S., he has become a Western media pariah. His photo adorns most articles about Iran and its defiant nuclear program. I am guilty of this as well.

But more and more Ahmadinejad, both inside and outside of Iran, should be seen as a nuisance who is fading from the scene. The parliamentary elections of March 1, 2012, weakened him. The majles immediately called him out for reckless economic policies and other questionable actions. Now there is gossip about impeachment in Tehran.

Would the Islamic Consultative Assembly, as the legislature is known, go after a president without the consent of Ayatollah Seyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei? Unlikely. Since Ahmadinejad’s latest perceived insubordination—sacking an intelligence chief close to the Supreme Leader—Khamenei has made a public statement about eliminating the office of the president in 2013. Apparently he hasn’t been a big fan of the last few chief executives.

While President Ahmadinejad is no paean to justice and liberty for all, Ayatollah Khamenei, who took over from revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini upon his death in 1989, and the conservative clerics of the Islamic Republic are the true enemy of any Islamic democracy. This was made clear by the rigged presidential election of June 2009 and confirmed by the brutal and immediate reaction to the Arab-inspired Green Movement surge in February 2011.

These Mideast revolts for an Islamic democracy are linked. After the uprisings began in late January, Iran’s 2009 reform candidate Mir Houssein Mousavi claimed on his website: “What we are witnessing in the streets of Tunis, Sana, Cairo, Alexandria and Suez take their origins from the millions-strong protests in Tehran in 2009.” In those mass Arab demonstrations aided by laptop and cellphone, Facebook and Twitter, Iran’s student activist Daneshjoo News saw what they had started, adding a high-tech angle to civil disobedience. The Internet guru of the Egyptian revolution, Wael Ghonim, gave a speech calling for Iranian support of the Arab uprising. He told the people of the Islamic Republic “We learned from you.”

Heeding these calls for solidarity, a reinvigorated Green Movement planned giant rallies in mid-February 2011. But they would be shutdown.

“On the streets of Tehran, a new slogan is being sprayed: ‘Seyed Ali go be with Ben Ali'” says the Wall Street Journal. A sentiment that Khamenei should go the way of ousted Tunisian president Zine Abidine Ben Ali. This would not stand.

Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad found a strategy they agreed upon: Co-opt the Arab uprisings as pro-Islamic, anti-Western phenomena and crush any revitalized movement before it starts at home. The crackdown on protests was comprehensive and included cutting Internet and cellphone reception. Opposition candidates, such as Mehdi Karroubi and Mousavi, were placed under house arrest. Revolutionary Guards and police used tear gas, live rounds and beatings—but were careful not to be caught on video killing protestors this time.

As the Arab Awakening continues in different forms in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and other countries—with everything from massacres to progress—one can argue that the liberal movement in Iran is neutralized. One might conclude that the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council and their armed forces are solely concerned with the preservation of their regime.

FLIRTING WITH DEMOCRACY

It wasn’t always this way in Iran, but how would Westerners know? Back in the late nineties, the American media wasn’t covering President Khatami encouraging a free press to flourish in Iran. The U.S. focus during the liberal Seyed Hussein Khatami’s eight years as president was first Saddam Hussein, then al-Qaeda and the Taliban, then Saddam again.

Khatami allied with the centrist political parties and tried to implement democratic changes at home, while curbing the Islamic Republic’s practice of sponsoring terrorism abroad. When he started reaching a hand toward America, Ayatollah Khamenei slapped it back, re-emphasizing that the U.S. is always a virulent foe. Led by the Supreme Leader, conservatives in the Guardian Council, the body that passes bills from parliament, blocked attempts at legal reforms. Sometimes the Revolutionary Guards went further:

“In July 1999 [the Guards] closed a popular reformist newspaper, triggering six days of severe rioting that shook the foundations of the Islamic regime.”

Indeed, Iranians are no strangers to protest. But they were still under the impression they could speak with their votes, and maybe a movement wasn’t deemed necessary yet. The reform parties continued to win seats in parliament in mid-term elections and Khatami easily became a two-termer in 2001.

THE MOVEMENT’S ROOTS

Having effectively shut down Khatami’s liberal agenda, the conservatives took full control in 2005. The Guardian Council disqualified serious liberal contenders, so after Khatami’s two-term limit, the reformers were forced to run a somewhat weak platform of unknowns. The women and younger voters who turned out in 1997 and 2001 became disillusioned and didn’t vote en masse. The Bush Administration gave the conservatives a boost by including Iran in the Axis of Evil, therefore reinforcing right-wing aggressive stances. Voting results point to the long-time centrist and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani splitting the liberals. But skeptical Iranians would say the Supreme Leader and the conservatives helped hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a surprising victory in a low-turnout affair.

Often seen as an uneducated religious zealot, whether for real or as a tactic, Ahmadinejad awakened the opposition. His nepotism, brashness and ego, which put off even Ayatollah Khamenei, gave disparate liberal groups something to galvanize them. Protests against Ahmadinejad during the December 2006 parliamentary elections helped reformists secure a partnership with Rafsanjani’s centrists. By 2008, according to Iranian journalist Hooman Majd, even conservatives were split over the unpopular president.

For Iranian dissenters, as for the Arab revolutionaries, frustration was like seeping gas filling a room for years. And as the cliché goes, it just needed the spark to spread like wildfire.

JUNE 2009

Was there any way the embattled, unpopular president could have been re-elected with 64 percent of the vote? In his book The Ayatollah’s Democracy, Hooman Majd notes:

“While it would have been impossible to prove that Mousavi was more popular than the president, it is also a virtual impossibility that Mehdi Karroubi, a former speaker of Parliament and liberal cleric, could have received only one-twentieth the votes he did four years ago, and less votes than there were card-carrying members of his own political party.”

Clearly supporters of Mousavi didn’t accept it. According to the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper:

“As the official results were announced, baton-wielding riot police clashed with angry Mousavi supporters in some of the most serious unrest Tehran has seen in years.”

“Riot police on motorbikes used batons to disperse Mousavi supporters who staged a sit-in near the interior ministry, where the results were announced. Up to 2,000 Mousavi supporters erected barricades of burning tyres and chanted “Mousavi take back our vote! What happened to our vote?”

The results according to Wikipedia’s ‘Iranian Presidential Election, 2009’:

“On the night of 14 June the pro-Ahmadinejad Basij paramilitary group raided Tehran University, injuring many.”

“On 15 June millions of protesters marched on Azadi street and Mousavi made his first post-election appearance.”

The mass demonstrations were met with violence by the Basij (security forces) and Revolutionary Guards, just as Khamenei had promised in a speech warning protesters. It took a viral video of a young, attractive woman named Neda shot dead in the street to drive home what was happening. With the help of instant, mobile technology, cyber witnesses around the world experienced a movement creating itself with more immediacy and truth than ever before.

That a web-connected Arab generation wouldn’t be paying very close attention to the 2009 protests in Iran is unlikely. The Heritage Foundation in their “Index of Economic Freedom 2012” cited a correlation between Iran mid-2009 and North Africa in early 2011:

“Facebook and Twitter feeds during Iran’s Green Movement include messages from young Egyptians blaming themselves for not following the Iranian lead.”

“Both the Arab Spring and Iran’s Green Movement were organized by groups of youngsters frustrated with their gloomy economic prospects. Importantly, they had no ties to extremist fundamentalism; they were “non-ideological,” and their solidarity and integrity were unprecedented.”

“The Iranian government’s violent and deadly response to protests … sparked outrage and antagonism against the regime and sowed seeds of discontent against dictatorship and repression that spilled throughout the region, inflaming aspirations for economic and political freedom.

In twenty years, historians and writers will tie the Green Movement to the Arab Awakening (they are only eighteen months apart) as they analyze how technology gave a new era of revolutionaries instant global exposure.

THE FUTURE

Though the liberal movement in Iran has gone underground, the Greens always had a serious disadvantage when compared to the Arab countries with more secular rulers, as the Heritage study observes:

“Iranian protesters faced a regime with strong fundamentalist ideology, wielding a weapon—“religious authenticity”—that other authoritarian regimes in the region lacked, observes Nader Hashemi, a teacher of Islamic politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies.”

Messianic righteousness has historically been used to justify brutal repression, and it has been used to do this in Iran since the 1979 revolution, even though much of Iran’s privileged class is secular. In contrast, the Arab uprisings, awash in speeches of freedom and democratic reform, has resulted in a turn away from secularism and given Islamic parties more power. Thus a fundamental question is brought to the forefront again for Muslims societies in the Middle East: Is Islam compatible with democracy?

There was certainly a pretense of “one person, one vote” and other civil liberties before 2005 in Iran. As Majd writes:

“Years ago, President Seyed Mohammad Khatami had told me elections in Iran were generally fair—fair, that is, if the winner of any election won by more than three or four hundred thousand votes.”

While detailing the conservative conspiracy to rig the election in June 2009, Majd also cites revolutionary leader Knomeini’s promise of an “Islamic democracy” and the seeds it planted in those hopeful of its truth:

“But there are still many believers in the possibility of an Islamic democracy, including leaders of the opposition, backed by some of the senior Ayatollahs, such as Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei.

Sanei and his fellow reform-minded partners, ex-president Khatami and Green Party candidate Mehdi Karroubi, seem to believe a theocracy and a democracy can coexist. But Turkey, the supposed model, still jails those critical of the regime and refuses to recognize the Kurdish minority. But perhaps if the will of the people can bring about open, peaceful transfers of Islamic leadership, the Western powers and Israel can stop inadvertently radicalizing Muslim populations.

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