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A Historic Moment in Iran

By Reza Afshari


In the June 2009 election debacle, the Islamic Republic of Iran faced a legitimacy crisis the like of which it has not experienced since its creation in 1979. I offer my reflections on the country's class-cultural divide. A significant sociocultural realignment has taken place in recent years indicating that the official Iran of the devout multitudes may not be a majority, as compared to the "other" Iran of a largely modern and pragmatically secular citizenry. I argue that neither President Ahmadinejad's class-based political views nor his cultural grandstanding is progressive. The "masses" mobilized by religious fundamentalism play into the hands of national demagogues. I offer my reflections on the pragmatic secular attitudes that shaped the reactions to the June electoral fraud. I argue that the Iranian experience seriously undermines the assumption that the future success in building a democratic polity depends on the success of the discursive rediscovering of Islam's humanistic-egalitarian nature. It seems that Muslim theorists offering their new interpretations of Islam are largely left behind by the young Iranians, whose way of life is characterized not so much by their anti-religious ethos as by their practical disposition towards contemporary needs and desires. Finally, I comment on the emerging phenomenon of a citizen seeing herself as a distinct individual and realizing that to preserve a sense of personal worth within the structure of the modern state she needs the state to respect her human rights. An ordinary person can now be heroic merely by virtue of her own individuality: No cultural or nationalist metanarrative; no collectively conceived claims.

A young woman, with her stunning eyes wide open, dies on pavement, taking her last breath and muttering "I am burning." The image of Neda Agha-Soltan offers graphic evidence of the passing of a significant moment in the history of modern Iran. It is our responsibility to document the events and explain the context within which such images assume historical significance. International journalists, significantly helped by Iranian bloggers, have done a good job in documenting the events. Here I will try to understand the context. As I am writing these words in early July 2009, the regime in Iran seems to have survived its immediate political crisis. However, with its clerical cloth of legitimacy tattered, the future of the Ayatollah's regime is far from certain.

Millions of people have rallied in Tehran and other cities and demanded annulment of the June presidential elections.


I. Two Sides of the Societal Divide

Millions of Iranians bursting upon political scene have drastically altered the prevailing views of the class-culture divide in Iranian society, a culture at war with itself. Most observers, however, seem to ignore a visible change in the relative strength of the two sides of this societal divide. The prevailing assumption is that on one side stood the authentically Islamic Iran, encompassing the multitudes that habitually gather in the state-sponsored events and the Friday prayers, shouting slogans protective of the country's independence and its Islamic identity. It presents the "real" face of Iran-the scruffiness of the lower classes combined with unsophisticated piety and Islamic political militancy. This austere image-so clumsily cultivated by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad-is often contrasted with the "other" Iran of upper-middle-class habits often on display in the economically better-off neighborhoods of northern Tehran. Women with loosely-worn scarves mingling with men with morally slipshod behaviors, they are depicted by state authorities as annoying but insignificant, a minority whose Westernized lifestyles are met with derision and harassment.

The intersections of class and culture have created a bewildering picture that has caused some confusion among observers, particularly those on the Left who look at Iran through the prism of Marxist-Leninist class analysis and/or the familiar anti-imperialist paradigm. The crowds that have supported Ahamadinejad exhibit all the traditional features of the "popular masses." His rhetoric directed against US global hegemony resonates with some anti-imperialists in the United Sates and Europe. They may even be concerned about the US manipulation of the oppositional forces in Iran. The Bush administration's regime-change agenda has cast a pall of suspicion. Some even see the United States sinister hands in the post-election "turmoil." When the regime's officials sound vitriolic against Western intervention, it appears as a propagandist ploy at diversion. When progressive writers in the US make such a charge, insulting the forward-looking commitments of the "other" Iran, it appears as a throwback to the bad old days of the Empire, when it could possibly extend its tentacles far and wide. The anti-imperialist Left in the United States should realize that not every tumultuous event in Iran is about them and their Empire. More importantly, not all voices raised against the Empire are necessary good for the "natives," and not all voices raised against domestic suppression of human rights by a "populist" and demagogic regime can be dismissed as "pro-Western liberal" voices. Finally, the situation in Iran should not be judged defensively by looking at the possibility of it being abused by the neo-conservatives in the pursuit of their own extremist foreign policy.

It can be shown that neither Ahmadinejad's class-based political views nor his cultural grandstanding has been progressive, at least in terms of their predictable outcomes. Ahmadinejad has channeled Iran's raw populist feelings against his domestic opponents. However, the religiously-infatuated minds of the "masses" that have been constantly reminded of the humiliation in the hands of Western new-imperialist powers generate its own psychopathology. Rendered marginalized, the populist crowds, with their broken spirits and sickened hearts, can ignite a militant fundamentalism. They and their ideological pacemakers have shown little inclination in favor of democratic processes. The "masses" mobilized by religious fundamentalism play into the hands of national demagogues. Backward-looking policies ensue. With his bellicose rhetoric unbridled, Ahmadinejad epitomizes that psychopathology. Against such a dark background, the mostly young and better-informed Iranians on the other side of the divide yearn for a more rational politics and a less confrontational relation with the West. Even though they may be more responsive to the economic interests of the middle and upper classes, they may provide a way out of the current impasse, which does not even serve the interests of the urban working classes. Almost all the working class attempts to organize genuinely independent trade unions have been frustrated by the regime. One wonders what Karl Marx would say about this intersection of (non-proletariat) class and a religiously fundamentalist culture. If the nineteenth-century Marx appears alien in such a cultural landscape, human rights scholars of our time are perceptively pertinent. Rhoda Howard, who defends the universality of human rights, observes, matter-of-factly, "If . . . oppressed social groups cannot pursue their collective goals without denying civil and political rights to individuals (whether their own members or outsiders), then they must be reorganized and new goals must be introduced."[1]

Since the early 1990s, the regime has tacitly allowed secular Iranians to keep their relatively modern lifestyle, to get a hold of the latest gadgets and to indulge on American pop culture in the privacy of their homes, provided that they do not pop their heads out too brazenly to sully the pious vista of the "real" Iran. They were also expected to remain apolitical, particularly in the post-reformist period associated with the failed presidency of Mohammad Khatami. Neda belonged to them. However, the events that led to and followed her death have cast doubt over the idea that her side of Iran is insignificant, apolitical, or even a minority. It may in fact encompass a broad cross-section of the population.

There is an abundance of anecdotal evidence indicating a significant sociocultural realignment in recent years. Observers have noted the vibrancy of the young urbanites, whose views on culture and politics show little affinity with the denunciatory mindset of the "Death-to-America" crowds. Some Iranian expatriates residing in the West and visiting Iran offer their first hand impressions. Academic scholars have sometimes been dismissive of their memoirs and travelogues that may in fact present simplified pictures of what appears to scholars as highly complex sociopolitical realities. A few may appear to be catering to the sensibilities of Western readers who see a validation of the "self" in the cultural predicaments of the "other." However, they often contain some perceptive observations and valuable insights. Azadeh Moaveni spent two very productive years in Iran, returning home to America with a husband and lots of notes for what would become the book Honeymoon in Tehran. [2] She began conscious that she belonged to a class "unrepresentative of Iran as a whole." She started hanging out with Iranians on the other side of the divide, hoping to discover "the authentic soul of the country" among what she, with many others, assumed was the representative majority. Instead, she found that the "other" Iran-often dismissively referred to as modern middle classes-constituted "the core of the nation."

Tehran seemed metropolitan, largely modern and pragmatically secular. Within this dichotomous framework, the rest of the country appeared large and traditional.

The divide that matters in Iran . . . is not between city and town, or wealthy and working-class. In any Iranian city, be it Isfahan, Yazd, or Shiraz, the relevant divide was between a minority of religious militants, many of whom had politi­cal and financial ties to the government, and the majority of moderate Iranians, who longed for stability and prosperity. The latter included many devout believers, who revered Islam and lived according to its edicts. But they had grown to consider their faith a private matter. . . .

Secular Iranians-those who fasted during Ramazan but who during the rest of the year also enjoyed an occasional drink; those who believed that the mullahs should get out of politics-composed a sizable part of the population. This was a simple fact of Iranian society, as real as its more conservative, traditional spectrum.[3]

Recent events testify to the accuracy of this view. The sooner we discard the pejorative use of the term "middle class" in referring to the "other" Iran, the better we appreciate the sentiments and actions of the people who constitute "the core of the nation."

But where will this phenomenon, revealed in the blatant electoral fraud of June 2009, lead the country? Those habitual revolutionists who see the advent of a "green revolution" repeating the "orange" ones elsewhere may be disappointed. For my part, while I am deeply saddened by the senseless lose of life, I feel that I have just witnessed the most significant political victory for the generations that have come of age during the rule of the Islamic Republic: This young Iran piercing through the myth of being a "minority" announcing its massive arrival at the political stage and catching Ayatollah Ali Khamenei by surprise. The Shah lost Iran in the late 1970s by his misreading the Iranian population. Today, it is the Ayatollah's moment. He and his military associates panicked, not at the "reformist" candidate himself, but at the political winds gusting from the "other" Iran and catapulting Mir-Hossein Moussavi to an almost certain victory.

An unbridgeable chasm has opened, as never before, between the regime headed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the "other" Iran toward which he has become so politically dismissive in recent years. The Islamic Republic is sometimes depicted as an authoritarian regime with a somewhat meaningful democratic mechanism that allows a degree of participation in selecting the nation's representatives from a preapproved list of candidates. In the aftermath of the recent electoral fraud, such a view will be hard to sustain. At the minimum and within a narrow perspective, the regime's crisis of legitimacy emanates from the denial of at least two internationally recognized human rights: freedom of assembly/association and political participation. The system that the Islamic Republic has created-"free" election from a preapproved list-is patently inadequate. Looking at Iran's electoral system, Western cultural relativists cannot credibly present it as a flexible, non-Western "design" that, although dissimilar to Western electoral processes, may somehow deliver the object of the right to political participation. The anguish shown by millions of mostly young Iranians fervently reclaiming their votes can only be comprehended within the context of the structural limitation that has already been placed on the right to political participation. It was not a "Third World" version of the 2000 Bush vs. Gore.

Within the context of the recent sociocultural realignment as evidenced by the growing presence of the "other" Iran, this incongruity in the electoral processes makes every election cycle potentially explosive; it should come as no surprise that its latest cycle exploded in the face of the Supreme Leader. This seemingly democratic side of the otherwise authoritarian system is supervised by the non-elected Guardian Council that approves the candidacies of those who are internal to the regime and whose loyalties to the basic institutions of the Islamic Republic appear beyond doubt. The Guardian Council rejects all declared candidates who may have a foot on the "other" Iran. The very logic of this carefully designed electoral rule would be subverted by a candidate who may appear willing to be co-opted by the "other" Iran and become solicitous toward the needs and aspirations of those who are not terribly loyal to the institutions of the Islamic Republic. The reasons for such an apparent co-option are complex, often depending on the public image of the individual candidate at a particular time. It is in this sense that Mir-Hossein Moussavi was called the "accidental leader." If the electoral system had no structural constraints, Moussavi could not have been the natural candidate for the "other" Iran. However, the more modern and pragmatically secular Iranians have learned to play the system whenever possible by rallying around an insider who could possibly be tempted to reach beyond the officially approved constituencies. That temptation would not have been strong if the "other" Iran had remained weak, or perceived itself as such. Moussavi appeared on the scene, accidently, as the right person at the right time. He was an insider who had nevertheless refrained from taking an official responsibility since the 1980s. Above all, he was not Ahmadinejad. Mousavi's wife played a role in highlighting their differences. Ahmadinejad's wife had hardly appeared with him in public. Could it be that Moussavi was deliberately courting the "other" Iran-whose women were campaigning alongside men in full public glare-by appearing with his wife, holding hands? She has been a real insider-outsider figure with Islamic intellectual credentials. The candidate Moussavi faced a temptation that was far stronger than the "other" Iran had presented to the candidate Mohammad Khatami during an earlier electoral cycle. Yielding to it, Moussavi rode for a fall. He became an outsider and thus a threat to the system. The Supreme Leader rode roughshod over the entire election. Those who had rallied around Moussavi, now a clear majority, felt double-crossed. Thus, the historic moment. Already frustrated by the structural constraints that had prevented them from fully exercising their right to political participation, they became furious by the system's blatant disregard for its own rule. The widespread demonstrations and confrontations with the security forces in the aftermath of the election were a response to the electoral fraud. But they were rooted in the frustrations that had been accumulating during the earlier electoral cycles. In each cycle, the "other" Iran dealt with a system that severely restricted their options in voting for the candidates of their own choosing. Now, the hitherto ignored Iranians felt, as never before, the strength of their presence, and they no longer felt terribly intimidated. The very nefarious function of the Guardian Council explains the depth and ferocity of the angers that were on display during the post-election days. They could no longer play the system. Its inflexibility undermined its legitimacy. The right to political participation cannot be conditional, no matter what indigenous cultural rationales are being advanced.

The crisis of legitimacy goes deeper. Ayatollah Khamenei's support for Ahmadinejad is perhaps indicative of the militarization of the regime as evidenced by the prominent role played by the commanders of military and security apparatus. In theory, Khamenei holds the Islamic community together as a "deputy" for the occulted Mahdi, the Shiite Imam-Savoir, who will return one day to put an end to all earthy injustices. Paradoxically however, Khamenei's earthy power is upheld by guns in the hands of the Revolutionary Guards and Basij vigilantes. The June 2009 election fiasco has profoundly alienated the "other" Iran. I see very little possibility for reconciliation. This is not Iran's Tiananmen moment, after which the regime would be expected to appease the population through their pocketbooks.

As far as the "other" Iran is concerned, the hitching of the state's political wagon to the ecclesiastical whirlwind of the Hidden Imam has lost all its mysterious allures. The Islamic Republic is supposed to rest on the strength of religious piety, manifested in Shiite messianism that fills the hearts of the devotees with desire for the advent of the Mahdi. In the eyes of many Iranians, Ahmadinejad's countenance disrupts the religious landscape of that desire, a landscape that has traditionally been discernible mainly through the mists of hallowed dreams and the reality-altering contemplations. The pairing of such a landscape with the terrain of the modern nation-state has proven detrimental to the former without concealing the latter's unchecked brutalities, corruptions and banalities. In the eyes of the "other" Iran, the spiritual quality of the Supreme Leader was not advanced by making Ahmadinejad the front face of the Shiite piety in the realm of politics. That Shiite paradigm had already suffered a great deal even before Ahamadinejad's coming on the national political stage. His clownish mannerism, crudely evoking the Shiite messianic imagery in the halls of political power, has debased the Shiite yearning for the Mahdi's return. The Shiite chanting-sloganeering at the official gatherings has become robotic, devoid of the dreamy atmosphere of the devotional Shiite gatherings. The absurdity of the pairing of the Shiite messianism with the modern nation-state was bemusedly demonstrated by an "open letter" written by General Hassan Firuzabadi, perhaps the most powerful military commander in the Islamic Republic, relating his denunciatory views on the post-election turbulences. The letter was addressed to the occulted Mahdi, the Shiite messiah! Released on 12 July, it combines the traditional Shiite lamentations, tearfully evoking the sufferings of the cherished members of the Prophet's household, with the state propagandist denunciations of all the regime's enemies in a virulent language common to the twentieth century dictatorships. He carries a title that is the exact translation of the (US) chief of staff, obviously with no equivalence in Shiism, or the pre-nineteenth century Iranian military traditions. Will the Mahdi be annoyed or amused? The surrealism of the open letter to the occult increases when it is printed next to his photo, showing a rather large, scruffy man in a military garb-with Western-style insignias-that is a cross between the styles of the early twentieth century Italian uniforms and the Maoist Chinese uniforms.

Devout Iranians would have to rescue their messianic dreams from the crudities of political manipulations of a modern nation-state. The political use of Shiite symbols in the early days of the Islamic Revolution facilitated the relatively easy rise of the political clerics to power. As authoritarian rulers with diminishing support, their abuse of such symbols, particularly by the incredibly uncharismatic Ahmadinejad, will herald their fall. The Shiite piety will eventually be redirected toward its traditional channels. The political estrangement of a cross-section of Iranian society seems irreversible.

II. Iran's Pragmatic Secularism and Rereading-of-Islam Projects

The Iranian experience seriously undermines the assumption that the future success in building a democratic polity depends on the success of the discursive rediscovering of Islam's humanistic-egalitarian nature. Religious intellectuals in Iran tend to fall for grand paradigms and to emphasize the importance of systemic ideas-correct Islamic ideas-as the prime mover of the state and society toward a general acceptance of democracy and human rights. The events of June 2009 show that the "other" Iran has arrived at this historical juncture, desiring a new direction for their state, largely through the exigencies of sociopolitical praxis. The educated youths, those who may comprehend this seemingly intricate discourse, have shown little inclination to delve into the competing theoretical constructs or engage in matters of cosmological importance to see which rereading-of-Islam projects is a better guide to their desired future.

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, Iran has reinvented itself as a nation-state. It has been reshaped by a dysfunctional capitalist economy and a bureaucratic apparatus. Today, into such an economy flow lots of money from one source, some two million barrels of oil a day. The state uses the assets under its control to its short-term advantage; the Ahmadinejad administration allocates handouts to a wide swath of his assumed popular base. Putting aside his blatant political abuses, it can be argued that the state had previously used its considerable resources to bring roads, electricity, health, education and other social amenities to underprivileged sectors of the population. The general welfare of these sectors has been improved. However, I argue that in the long run, the religious hardliners, controlling the state and maintaining a restrictive social environment, may not reap the intended political benefits from their benevolent financial-economic policies. The political advantage of such a pseudo welfare agenda has been partially negated by the widespread corruptions across the system. At the level of sheer economic interests, individuals who move up the economic scale in cities would most likely be less focused on their own improved conditions than on the corruptions that enfold the more steep social mobility of those who are far head of them, largely through their connections with the regime.

Moreover, with reference to the urban population, any noticeable economic benefit accruing to citizens of lower economic standing would most likely open the familiar vista of social mobility whose contours the Islamic Republic has largely failed to alter. The "other" Iran still acts like a social magnet. Its values and aspirations shape the social contents of the upward social mobility. The most successful children of the "popular classes," being propelled upward, would likely partake in the sounds, tastes, and the textures of the pragmatically secular culture that prevails in today's universities. Many of them would most likely not return, physically or sentimentally, to their old, religiously restrictive neighborhoods. That would appear beneath their newly gained economic and social standing. By the early 1990s, the hard-line students' organizations, supported by the state apparatus, had lost their religious-political appeals among students. The hardliners in charge of state propaganda have been visibly irritated by this growing trend. Ahmadinejad deliberately displays his own modest, traditional lifestyle in order to show that it has remained unchanged by the temptations of the "other" Iran. Depicting a man-from-the-hood image, a video prepared for his reelection campaign shows him asleep on the floor in a very modest room. A bed with a Western-style mattress belongs to the "other" Iran. This display may not be a sign of strength. It disparages those who move away from the authentic Islamic lifestyle. A confident president whose popularity rests on the solid cultural pillars upheld by the masses does not need to promote himself in such a bizarrely defensive advertisement.

The upwardly mobile would set up their nuclear family on the other side of the Iranian divide. For better or worse, the standards for social achievements in urban Iran are set by the "modern middle classes." In terms of social norms, privatized religious values, and conduct in public, those classes are no longer in the middle. The multi-class character of recent demonstrations testifies to this new convergence of values and norms. They cannot be depicted or dismissed as an insignificant minority.

The general gravitation toward democracy and respect for international human rights in Iran, especially among its educated youth, should be viewed as a pragmatic response to the collapse of almost all traditional social networks and associations. None of the traditional bonds can protect the individual from the naked forces of the centralized state and the dysfunctional market economy. Shifting networks of greed and corruption have replaced the traditional ties. The socially managed symbolic resources and religiously encoded system of meanings are reshaped and largely subverted in interactions with economic-political interests of those in power. In the officially-approved side of the Iranian divide, the traditional sentiments embedded in religious belief are overlaid by self-interest and a relentless pursuit of material gains. The seemingly insatiable greed, grafts, and corruptions pierce through the fog of orchestrated religiosity at the state level.

            It is not the categorical imperatives of Islam, or whatever new readings of them are offered, that shape the contours of the new way of life in Tehran. There is a degree of incongruity between the regime's conservative assertions of culturalism and the accelerated pace of socioeconomic changes. The boundaries of traditional urban neighborhoods are crumbling. The influxes of the rural populations into cities, in particular Tehran, as well as the paradoxical swelling of the size of the middle classes during the clerical rule, have made significant impact on the traditional cultural patterns, including those of familial interactions across generations, marriage, and divorce. Extended families and the culture that sustained their patriarchic bends of minds cannot be housed in apartment buildings designed for nuclear families-couples with one child or two. The desire for modern education-deeply instilled in the minds of the middle classes since the 1920s-has spread outside its original class boundaries. The impressive numbers of university students, among whom females slightly outnumber men, shows this long-term trend. Consequently, women have entered the work force in significant numbers. It becomes somehow surrealistic to speak of traditional communal bonds where the individual sits in a private office, engages in specialized work, and leaves the office behind the wheels of a private car selected to the individual's taste. Even the Islamist hardliners whose denunciations of the "Western" individualism were the loudest are daily chauffeured from the plush houses to their "downtown" offices and mosques.

            A pragmatically secular way of life is gaining acceptance in Iran. It is a reflection of the converging phenomenon of the contemporary civilization. Around it the traditionalists and fundamentalists of all persuasions have been making noises (at times powerful roars). This way of life is characterized not so much by its anti-religious ethos as by its immanently practical disposition and attitude towards the contemporary needs and desires, ultimately rejecting the permanency of anything that claims legitimacy beyond and above its rendered value. Values converge as peoples increasingly partake in a global communality of needs, desire, aspirations, and frustrations. With great cost and immense sacrifices, the civil society has refused to be molded, rebuilt, or remade by the power of an absolutist master plan.

            Most of my reflections here go back to the early 1990s. The following is a segment from an article on human rights and cultural relativism published in Human Rights Quarterly in 1994.

Secular habits have become habitual, and small truths are being discovered which cumulatively replace the Truth of tradition. Already they have proved more tenacious than the zealotry of the Islamist revivalists. As the Islamist storm blows overland, raising a whirlwind of collective hysteria and fear, shrouding women in the dark hijab, and hiding Islamist radicals in the veil of their own ignorance, the secular undercurrent continues to flow under the vast swathes of Iranian life. It seeps through cultural fissures, nourishing habits that conform more with the this-worldly and chaotic ethos of contemporary civilization than with the wisdom of tradition or the revealed word of God. Life on streets of Tehran is a bewildering hybrid spectacle. As the dust of Islamization has begun to settle, new habits are taking hold, pragmatically motivating people to essential socioeconomic actions.

            Having scoffed at and disparaged the westernized intellectuals and having driven many of the highly trained, but socially irresponsible, professionals into exile, the Islamic Republic is facing a dilemma in its developmental quest, not dissimilar to one faced by Mao's cultural revolution (expert and red): How to create an intellectual class that is both expert in modern ways and correct in Islamic attitudes and sentiments. The state is left with no option but to reengage the modern-educated, secular professionals on their own terms, while hoping to create its own Islamically-committed intellectuals.[4]

It was clear to me in the early 1990s that once the secular habits reaffirmed themselves in public life, the highly mixed cultural package they offered to the younger generation would be more attractive than the "authentic" sociocultural identity offered by the hegemonic state. Indeed the cultural habits denounced as un-Islamic proved to be seductive. Even if the contents of the two cultural packages were equal in their intrinsic attractiveness, the one that was forced upon the country proved to be the loosing one. What we witnessed in the presidential election fiasco was a significant hallmark in Iran's societal development whose outline had already emerged in the early 1990s. That "younger generation" has come of age, ironically at the false age of Ahmadinejad, whose phenomenon, accompanied with an increased militarization of the state, may ultimately prove to be a temporary setback along the road to a manifold progress epitomized by the young men and women who, walking shoulder to shoulder, vigorously objected to the insults that the botched election had hurled at them.

The recent interruptions may also help to put to rest another myth that has preoccupied a small group of Muslim intellectuals who have offered post-Islamist reinterpretations of Islam. Here I argue that the accelerated changes outlined above do not occur pursuant to a bookish reexamination of doctrinal Islam. Any evaluation of the possible practical impacts of the rereading of the Shiite traditions should be placed against the historic contexts of Iran's tumultuous sociopolitical and economic transformations.

The rereading-of-Islam projects have generated considerable interest in academic circles. Western scholars, seeking "cultural accommodation," have placed some hope on the Islamic theoretical efforts in creating indigenous Islamic arguments in support of the Universal Declaration model.

These Muslim authors wish to establish a discursive connection to an Islamic past that is unencumbered by its accumulated conservative traditions. They seek an ideological reordering of the historical Islam, which appears to them as a mere collection of cultural artifacts built atop the "normative" essence of the Qur'an. To those who offer rereading projects, the divine words no longer appear altogether divine. They ignore the assumed immutability of their meanings. Applying contemporary linguistics and semiology, they turn the Qur'an into a historically-dated book, from which they can excise "contextual verses" deemed largely relevant to the seventh-century Arabia. What is left behind are the "normative verses" that would guide the citizens of the nation-states to navigate the challenges of modernity unperturbed by the divine restrictions that had defined Muslims for centuries. Given God's penchant for successive prophecies, it is intriguing to think that such a radical reordering of the workings of divine providence is left to the contemporary mortals-all well-versed in secular, postmodernist discourses, espoused by the masters such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault-or in the case of Abdolkarim Soroush by the less august theorist Karl Popper.

Of course they have every right to do what they intellectually desire to do. However, their abstract constructions are beyond the practically-conditioned patience of the younger generations. In the context of international human rights discourse and practice, the re-readers of Islam are engaged in what I call the inshallah (God-willing) projects. The essential characteristic of the inshallah projects is their future-oriented contour wrought by operative words "if," "can be" and "could be." Utilizing different strands of Islamic traditions and using different methodology, each of the re-readers says in essence that if he/she succeeds (inshallah) in constructing an elaborate scheme that can conjoin various rediscovered traditional concepts, artifacts, and refurbished symbols with those modern notions that undergird human rights discourse, the path to human rights would appear less formidable compared to what it is today. Their constructs are often variegated and highly selective in picking and choosing cultural components from Islamic historical storehouses. We obviously face not one constructed formulae, but a passel of different admixtures. There are serious disagreements among different approaches; all are seeking to convince potential adherents. They yearn for true Islamic validity and cultural authenticity. Their proposed ways may prove not to be substantially less difficult than the path advocated by secular human rights advocates. The latter are those who seek legitimacy for human rights by simply showing that they are the best antidotes to the hazards of modern state and capitalist economy, themselves without roots in Islamic history and traditions.

In fact, one does not have to be an expert of Islam to recognize, as Malise Ruthven does, how formidable is "the size of the theological mountain that must be climbed before such ideas can take root."[5] The size does change much whether one looks at it from the Sunni or the Shiite side. This Sisyphean task rests on the assumption that through a successful reinterpretation of Islam, democracy and human rights would be incorporated into the cultural landscape of Islamic societies. The spectacular presence of the "other" Iran in June 2009 showed that the youth of Iran were ahead of the Muslim intellectuals who write treatises on the progressive nature of Islam.

American investigative journalist Robert Dreyfuss, visiting Tehran during the electoral campaigns observed the crowds supporting the two rival candidates.

The women at the Mousavi rally are sheathed in scarves, but their stylish hair is visible underneath; they wear attractive makeup and pink lipstick, and below their short outer garments are visible jeans and, in many cases, high heels. At the Ahmadinejad rally, the women-in the thousands-are segregated from the men, and they are dressed head to toe in all-covering black.[6]

This was a scene the likes of which has often been recorded by those who marvel at the two sides of Iran. I doubt if even a handful of Iranians "at the Mousavi rally" have ever studied different versions of Islam and consequently adopted their lifestyles. New ways of life are being adopted irrespective of the current Islamic ideological constructs. Their upbringing and education have prepared them to acquire a secular education useful for partaking in the global exchanges of ideas, goods, and services. They adopt a progressive outlook, demand secularly defined middle-class occupations, democratic rules, due process of law under an independent judiciary, and a more (and not less) secular public space. They have not arrived at such a pragmatic platform traversing through the labyrinths of Islamic discourses, carefully examining the validity of their doctrinal claims and counterclaims. They most likely have heard of authors such as Abdolkarim Soroush and Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari. University students among them do not show the kind of ideological inclinations that often defined their predecessors in the 1970s. That earlier generation paid close attention to the radical rereading of Shiite Islam offered by Ali Shari'ati in competition with the 1960s-style Marxism-Leninism. Today's youths do not gaze at the newly re-imagined humanistic Qur'anic motifs for their deliverance from the sociopolitical maladies of the modern nation-states.

More than half a century after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there is perhaps little patience left for any irrelevant cultural correctness among many secular citizens of Iran. Are we asking those whose human rights are being violated to endure patiently until the re-readings of Islamic texts bear some tangible results? For those whose rights are being violated and are being demeaned because of their pragmatic secular views, such a prospect-essentially a promise not based on proven record of success-offers no tangible remedy, not even a consolation. The promise may even render their objections to and denunciations of human rights violations insignificant, if not shrill. Nor does it present any viable, alternative road to a desirable human rights destination, one that is attainable in the lifetimes of the living generations. It is worth repeating that the young urbanites of Iran have left behind the Muslim ideologues engaged in their excruciatingly deliberative textual excavations.

In the context of the post-election traumas of June 2009, the Shiite cleric Mohsen Kadivar, who offers his own rereading of Shiite Islam, told Neil MacFarquhar of the New York Times, "If either the reformists or the conservatives can make references to Islamic values in a way that the majority of citizens understand, they will win."[7] Mr. Kadivar is immersed in his own treatises. The youths of Iran are focused on the practical policies of the state and their immediate implications for their vulnerable lives. They understand the concrete needs of the county in domestic spheres and international affairs. Whatever references to Islamic values are made, they are presented at the level of generalities, far removed from any philosophical-theological argumentations one finds in the rereading projects. During the fascinating "American-style" debates between the two main contenders, Ahmadinejad accused Moussavi, the man who wished to free Iran from his embarrassing presence, as being backed by the financially corrupt elite, personified by the former president, the "plutocratic" Hashemi Rafsanjani. Moussavi retorted by depicting his opponent as ignorant and administratively incompetent. Hardly any of them claimed to be on the side of the "true" Islam, at least more than his opponent was.

III. Being a Citizen with Rights Has Become Personal

It is within the context of recent societal changes that the citizens of the "other" Iran-still devoted to their faith, but no longer attuned to Islamic political rhetoric-see the possibility of personal advancement in their civil society, while simultaneously feeling frustrated by the realities of the state structures and policies. In the aftermath of the relative decline of consequential ideologies, including Islamism, what is extraordinary about today's Iran is that an ordinary person can now be heroic merely by virtue of her/his own individuality: No cultural or nationalist metanarrative; no collectively conceived claims. Their patriotism can no longer be submerged under the tides of consequential ideologies. I can even imagine that at least among the educated youths the pride in Iran, as an ancient land with a remarkably poetic culture, is felt at a personal level. Each person is understood to be an individual, separate and distinct. The life of an ordinary citizen has assumed distinctiveness. No Islamic hijab can hide this new, Iranian style, individualism. She is Neda. The same can be imagined about the two men who kneeled over her dying body, helplessly trying to snatch her from the jaws of death.

Since the establishment of the modern nation-state, an ordinary person-citizen has been unmoored from communal niches that ascribed identity and the sense of the self that came with that identity. Lives have been transformed and their narratives have lost the collective sense. Today, an ordinary person considers herself a citizen of the Iranian nation-state and perceives her own personal dignity in terms of her rights as a citizen. She will not accept the status her traditional compatriots still wish to ascribe to her. People are restless; many wish to emigrate. There are many young men and women who search all possible and impossible venues to get entry into a developed country. They place the entire burden of their lives on their on own shoulders. They do not live in an imagined gemeinschaft.

Backed by a subservient judiciary unresponsive to international human rights laws, state authorities use police power to intimidate and silence such a citizen. Violations of human rights have become an affront to the citizen's sense of dignity. Once a citizen undergoes the kind of punishment that only a centralized police state can inflict, humiliation is felt in the depth of one's soul. Prison memoirs testify to this reality. It is also shown in the confrontation in the streets between women and the morality police that imposes Islamic dress-codes (hijab). It generates the kind of anger that surfaces when one is humiliated. Insults pile upon injuries. Incidentally, women dealt the severest blow to the imposed hijab. It was fascinating to watch young women of the "other" Iran demonstrating side by side with young men, vigorously confronting the police and the rampaging militias, and by doing so in effect cancelling out the kind of public demeanors that the hijab was intended to inculcate in the first place. Preserving a sense of personal worth within the structure of the modern state requires respect for human rights. This much the citizens have already imagined. A peaceful demonstration attacked by the armed organs of the state is perceived as an affront to one's personal dignity. Restrictions imposed on private lives are viewed in the same way. State propaganda is perceived as an assault to the civic intelligence of the individual Iranian. The latest example is the portrayal of foreign news broadcasts as the main instigators of the recent "unrest." Public confessions on state-run television have become truly offensive.

One of the fascinating aspects of the 2009 demonstrations was that they took place in a political milieu that was conspicuous by the absence of political parties. Surely there were oppositional groups such as Iran Participation Front. The spectacular interruptions of public discontents occurred almost independently. Between the early 1950s and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, oppositional political actions were collective phenomena. Politics was not personal. Activists belonged to different prescribed political lines and submerged their political identities within their own groups-nationalist, Marxist-Leninist, Islamist, or amalgamations of the three. A political achievement was registered in a group's name. Different political groups competed with each other by brandishing the élan and heroism of their martyrs. In 2009 there was no political party equivalent to the National Front, the ostensibly communist Tudeh Party, or any of their offshoots that came on the national stage during the closing years of the last Shah's rule.

Commentators have often marveled at the activities of Iranian bloggers during and after the June election. It is called a "Twitter Revolution." It was no revolution, however defined. The noticeable "social-networking" was a collection of individuals sharing news, views and images. They gathered by their thousands mainly through cell phone connections and words of month. Individuals have been at the heart of that historic moment in Iran. The BBC's Persian-language television service broadcasting to Iran reportedly received some 10,000 email messages daily and six video clips a minute when the anger in Iran was at its heights. A political party cannot have a Facebook. On You Tube you can only "broadcast yourself," as the advertisement has it. Shared video clips are shared by individuals. Perhaps the appearance of large political parties with national membership would, in the long run, help Iran to fulfill its yearnings for institutional normalcy and respect for human rights. I for one truly cherish their absences, at least for now. I like to see more of Iranian youths engage in "social networking" and strengthening their emerging civil society. To do so without the traditional tutelage of Party Super Leaders is a civil blessing. With the strengthening of the civil society, the political parties of Iran's desiring future may shed the domineering habits that stifled my generation in the 1960s and 1970s.

It is in this context that Neda has assumed in her death a role that she most likely did not want or need in life. It is not that she has become an iconic image of a revolution. Rather, she is going to be the icon of that permanent break with the regime. The bloodied image of Neda in that surrealistic surrounding is already being woven into a complex expression of that permanent rupture. At the moment of her death, she was with her (male) music teacher. Could it get any more pragmatically secular than that, more apt as a metaphor for the kind of Iran the young voters in opposition wish to create?


* Reza Afshari is a Professor of History and Human Rights at Pace University. In 2001 University of Pennsylvania published his Human Rights in Iran: The Abuse of Cultural Relativism. The Choice, magazine of American librarians, designated the book as "an outstanding scholarly title." His latest publications are "On Historiography of Human Rights," 29 Human Rights Quarterly 1 (2007) and "Discourse and Practice of Human Rights Violations of Iranians of the Baha'i Faith in the Islamic Republic of Iran," a chapter in Baha'is of Iran: Socio-Historical Studies (Dominic Parviz Brookshaw & Seena B. Fazel eds. Routledge Press, 2008).

[1] Rhoda Howard, Human Rights and the Search for Community 7 (1995).

[2] Azadeh Moaveni, Honeymoon in Tehran: Two Years of Love and Danger in Iran (2009).

[3] Id. at 216.

[4] Reza Afshari, An Essay on Islamic Cultural Relativism in the Discourse of Human Rights, 16 Hum. Rts. Q. 235, 240, 243 (1994).

[5] Malise Ruthven, N.Y. Rev. Books, 29 May 2008, at 36, makes that observation quoting Abdullahi An-Na'im, Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari'a (2008).

[6] Robert Dreyfuss, Ahmadinejad's Red Tide, Nation, 9 June 2009.

[7] Neil MacFarquhar, In Iran, Both Sides Seek to Carry Islam's Banner, N.Y. Times, 22 June 2009, at A7.

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