Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Freedom Falters: Tiananmen Square to Haft-e-Tir Square

Never a real democracy, Iran has been forced — by forces who favor the most basic of democratic freedoms, a fair counting of the votes — to expose its dictatorial underbelly.

Iran's Supreme Leader, spooked by Mahmood Admadinejad's now firm control of those who own the military hardware, has entirely deserted his customary above-the-fray position to declare, before the sham investigation into election complaints was even begun, that the election results will stand.

As the riot-police truncheons fell and communications jamming continued, word came that one of the protesting candidates had withdrawn his complaint. One can only wonder what deal or threat, or both, this self-described "selfless soldier for the Islamic republic" was offered. Others have retreated into silence or, like the leading opposition candidate, Mr. Moussavi, muted their protests.

Journalists on the ground in Tehran assume, probably rightly, that the hundreds of recent arrests (including arrests of hospitalized protesters, taken right from their beds) will soon issue forth in forced public confessions. It's hardly unprecedented in the evolution of Iran's 1979 Revolution.

The state-run media reported a week ago that President Ahmadinejad will be sworn in for his second term sometime between July 26 and August 19. I have little doubt that that will be the case. Today, Iran's Guardian Council, on the same day it had begun a partial recount of votes, hastily reported that it had found "no evidence" of voter fraud, reporting instead that, in some districts, the vote had even been more lopsided, and then declared with finality that the incumbent president would get his four more years.

And in perhaps the most insulting development of all, Mr. Ahmadinejad himself called for an investgation into the death of Neda Agha Soltan, the 26-year-old student shot dead during a street protest, who has since become a potent symbol of Iranian hopes, particularly of its women. Mr. Ahmadinejad — whose government earlier in the week had insisted that Soltan's death was faked for the foreign press — now contends, of course, that "foreign powers" had her shot, in order to whip up protests against his lawful election.

The short-lived appeal for something resembling real democracy in Iran's sham revolution and the Iraninan elite's transparently obvious attempt to stamp it out hold grim lessons for us all.

Despite the efforts of Iran's conservative clerics and ruling politicians to divert world attention from their own underhandedness by painting the protesters as dupes of the Western press, this isn't a fight (despite some Western journalists' opinions) between "secular" and "religious" forces. The cries of "Allah-u-Akhbar" that still ring from protesters' rooftops in Tehran puts the lie to that simplistic assessment.

I saw no Iranian women tearing their head scarves off or desecrating mosques. In fact, the most remarkable and telling images of the protests were those of its covered women. Stories multiplied of girls and middle-aged women standing in the forefront of demonstrations, being clubbed to the ground and rising back up to continue forward, calling on the less-willing men around them to stand firm.

Indeed, Neda Agha Soltan has become a potent symbol of a battle that today underlies most others in Islamic society. The image of her dying in the street and the one of young girls in Afghanistan attacked by men who throw acid in their faces because they dare to want to go to school have been melded. These images have shocked Western and even some Middle Eastern sensibilities. And rightly, they should. They are horrific reminders that oppression of and injustice against women remain with us.

But before we blend those images together too seamlessly, let's set the record straight: Did you know that the number of women in Iran who are enrolled in institutions of higher education far outstrips the number of enrolled Iranian men? Percentage-wise, the woman/man ratio is greater than that in the U.S. We might want to curb our indignation long enough to sort fact from assumption.

Let me also point out, if I may, that we here in America have no cause to look down our noses at Iran. We have absolutely no grounds for self-righteous indignation. The women's rights movement began here, about 200 years ago. In fact, it was begun by Christian women, and then nearly quashed in the late 20th Century conservative Church by Christian men.

In America, religious or secular, we've never managed to get it right. Rosie the Riveter, for example, helped build the planes and ships American military men used to win WWII, only to be herded back into second-class citizenship when her G.I Joe came home.

And it still goes on: In the U.S., women are still paid much less then men for the same work. In American Christian churches, women are still systematically excluded from positions of power and influence, even in some of the religious groups that claim to be for women's ordination. (I know. I've seen it from the inside, first hand.)

After all these years, did we really expect that a battle not yet won after two centuries in the U.S. would be won in Iran in two weeks?

In their efforts to help Islam's women, many Western men are little better than their Islamic counterparts: French President Nicholas Sarkozy, for example, has now backed up his profoundly secular country's recent legislation banning head scarves in public schools with further calls to ban burkhas from any public place. Similar moves are contemplated in the U.K. Is forcing Islamic women to remove them any better than forcing them to wear them?

Lest we forget, as we compare the protests in Tehran's Haft-e-Tir Square with those that occurred in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989, the latter was crushed by a fiercely secular state in reaction to a quasi-religious groundswell. This and the ongoing tension between Beijing and not-so-semi-autonomous Tibet have deeply anti-religious undertones. We need to ask, in all fairness, what about Sarkozy's anti-burkha campaign differentiates France from, say, China's recent security putsch against public displays during the anniversary of Tiananmen Square?

Whatever happened to the fundamentally democratic ideal of giving people the right to choose -- even to choose religious restrictions? Sarkozy would better serve women by offering to protect those who want to take the burkhas off, while also protecting the rights of those who wish to keep them on. Any other course puts Islamic women in a profoundly untenable position. But what does Sarkozy care? After all, he's a man.

Unfortunately, countries, corporations and churches, in the East and West, still operate, for the most part, on hierarchical systems. These top-down management schemes were invented by men, for men, to benefit men. They are power structures, not people structures, propped up by elaborate systems of authority and backed by the threat of armed force. They benefit the powerful, first and foremost. These organizations inevitably become insular, as they seek to preserve the primarily male-oriented institutions they serve. Sooner or later, they exist primarily to enable the "Good Ol' Boy" networks they inevitably spawn. (The "trickle-down economics" construct once in vogue here in the U.S. is a profoundly male approach to concern for one's neighbor.)

If you doubt my analysis, ponder this: If men birthed babies, there would be day care centers within 100 ft of every Good Ol' Boy's workplace. Tell me I'm wrong.

Ultimately, Iran's battle for freedom is not a fight between secularists and clerics or even women against men. It is a battle between socio-economic classes within Islam. Ahmadinejad's crew controls the rural populace and has the support of a military elite that (unlike the 1979 Revolution's ageing leaders) were on the ground in the bloody war with Iraq. (An Iraq which was supported by the U.S. and acquired from the U.S. the materials it used to make chemical weapons it employed against Iraninas in that war.)

Supporters of Iran's current president don't see the protest stories and images making the rounds on the Net. And they're fine with that. Like other generations who fear attacks from without, Ahmadinejad's cohort is fundamentally concerned with security. Despite its public claims, Iran's nuclear ambitions under the current regime do not spring primarily from the desire for peaceful uses. Iran sits on one of the world's largest deposits of fossil fuel. It's energy needs are not the driver. The motivation is much more understandable as defensive. Distrusted by the West, by Israel and by most of its Arab neighbors, Iran (like India and Pakistan) seeks the power to hold its many detractors at bay.

The current opposition in Iran comes not from Iran's poor and oppressed but instead from the middle and upper classes who have benefited most from the 1979 Revolution. Now better educated, and computer/Internet savvy, these folks have had the opportunity to view the world beyond and would like to engage with it. They're no longer willing to see life in revolutionary blacks and whites. They know that Britain and the U.S., in the past, contributed to the unrest in their country, but they also recognize that the times are ripe for re-assessing those past relationships. They accept that the children of a nation cannot be held to account for the sins of their fathers and mothers. They aspire, like many others, to be citizens of the world, not just Iran.

This is what poses a threat to Ahmadinejad's security-focused constituency. Indeed, the large protests in the three days after Iran's election might have been quashed immediately and much more brutally had it not been for the fact that Mr. Rafsanjani and other clerics also see the need to shed a simplistic world view. They know that it is no longer possible to use the threat posed by various sorts of "infidels" outside Iran to justify continued restrictions on life inside Iran. They fear, and are trying to resist, if only in the background, Admadinejad's increasingly obvious play for power. The current split among Iran's clerics and the surprisingly outspoken words from leaders of the 1979 Revolution are the strongest pieces of evidence that Ahmadinejad did, indeed, steal the election.

When security becomes the uppermost concern, there are predictable side effects. In the last two weeks, stories of Iran's Basij militiamen armed to the teeth and riding around packed into the backs of pickup trucks was a eerie reminder of the K.K.K. and other white supremacist groups whose adherents in the U.S. once openly clutched their quasi-fundamentalist sect's credentials in one hand and their weapons in the other. Although the latter, for years, have kept a low profile here, the God 'n' Guns clubs are hauntingly similar, no matter where you find them.

As if on cue, the news came this week that an American church pastor had invited folks to bring their guns to the parish sanctuary for a "celebration of their second amendment rights." Suddenly, carrying concealed to church, in some Christian circles, is right up there with fiery preaching in the pantheon of Christian celebrity.

This new development is defended, of course, from the Bible: Supporters pluck a single puzzling New Testament verse (Luke 22:36) from its context to justify their actions, ignoring that Jesus later told Peter to put away his sword, healed Malchus ear, and then refused to call down 12 legions of angels to rescue him from Pilate at his trial.

Despite their talk of protecting religious and political liberty, these almost exclusively white and either Southern or Pacific Northwest gun-toters are motivated far less by a desire to preserve their neighbor's freedoms as they are to protect themselves from their neighbor. If you doubt that, try honestly to imagine the enthusiasm these same second-amendment devotees would feel if a bring-your-gun meeting were held at the local mosque. Or in Pastor Wright's predominately black church in Chicago.

God 'n' Guns is all about fear and security. And there's always boogeymen to point to, to keep the troops in line. In Iran, this month, it's liberal journalists and President Obama. It is profoundly ironic that in America, the God 'n' Guns groups (and sympathizers like Rush Limbaugh and certain Fox News commentators) take aim at the same targets.

I think it's undeniable that the current gun groundswell is inextricably tied to the fact that we have an African American as President and the completely groundless fear the NRA has fanned into flame: That Barack Hussein Obama — who many conservatives still believe without a shred of evidence is a closet jihadist — will "pry their guns from their cold, dead fingers." As that pick-up truck bumper sticker slogan suggests, there are reactionary Ahmadinejad's-in-waiting, even here in America.

From Tiananmen Square in 1989 Bejing to Haft-e-Tir Square in Tehran, people who chafe under dictatorships see in Iran their own stories, played out again. But today, as always, there are still far too many (men and women) willing to abdicate their neighbors' personal rights to elites, religious or secular, that demand unquestioning allegiance in trade for the illusion of security.

These elites, no matter their ideological or religious bent or how well they wear the stolen clothes of democracy, seek not freedom, but control. I'm all for cheering on anyone who speaks out in favor of freedom and I deplore those who would trade freedom away for security. The current Iranian leadership is certainly an example of the latter.

Have we forgotten, in the stir of the moment, that we've traded away many of our neighbor's freedoms since 9/11 only to get Guantanano prison and a chilling public debate about the merits of torture as a security tool? That we, too, had a bitterly disputed election (remember hanging chads?) in which a president retained power after falling short in the popular vote? Do we now deny that, not unlike Iran, we were for eight long years distrusted and faced with censure in world opinion?

Let us not make the mistake of making Iran the boogeyman in our efforts to gloss over our own bloody history.

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