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Learning From Iran


The images and words coming out of Iran over the past week resonate strongly with those of us who have spent years poring over and trying to understand similar images and words which flooded out of Iran 30 years earlier. They have an even greater significance for the millions of Iranians who vividly remember the last time disparate coalitions of millions hastily assembled and crammed into Azadi Square to face down a dictator. The events of today spark memories of the last time Iranians gathered on rooftops to chant Allahu Akbar (God is Great) in order to remind a violent and repressive government that standards, ideals and powers exist far beyond its grasp.

In recent days voices in the US have been calling on the Obama administration with increasing tenor to take a more active role in today's Iranian crisis and to both openly and unwaveringly side with the opposition movement as it bravely protests in the streets of Iran. Thankfully, the President and his aides have ignored such calls and have sided instead with a more politically prudent camp which understands that American officials need to keep a firm distance from this internal Iranian situation. If we turn to the last century we see that American administrations toppled a democratically elected Iranian government in 1953, subsequently supported a ruthless dictator in the Shah for nearly three decades, and then armed, encouraged and backed Saddam Hussein in the bloody Iran-Iraq War. Ironically, the latter of these served to empower and entrench the most radical elements of the Revolution in the new Islamic Republic. The only thing to be gained from an official American blessing today is an association with this long and sordid history.

However, what even those prudent and pragmatic observers have missed is that not only is this emerging story from Iran not really about America in any significant way but that we, Americans and others, have something to learn from it as well. Both this administration and the last one have endorsed the notion that freedom is a universal human norm, not an exclusively American one, and that the democratic struggle is one shared among all peoples. But part of endorsing a universal value or idea is realizing that our voice, our ideals, our dreams are but one small component in a human story that by its very definition is continually unfolding in new, different and ever changing directions. As these directions take divergent paths and even contradict one another they help to elucidate the original idea. This is the only process by which any form of universal concept makes sense.

This notion should not surprise Americans, particularly right now. Take the example of Gandhi, a man who held profoundly divergent ideas about humanity, politics, economics, God and the role of religion from our own. Had some of our civil rights leaders of the last century not looked to his example it is highly doubtful that today we would be celebrating the election of our first African-American president, regardless of political affiliation. Had other civil rights leaders of the last century not looked to more radical third-world religious and national liberation ideologues then it might not have happened at all.

The Islamic Revolution introduced dimensions to political discourse that so confused the standard 'Left-Right' political spectrum that even today many political scientists talk themselves dizzy trying to comfortably categorize it in familiar terms. Many simply ignore both the remarkable diversity of thought that comprised these revolutionary forces and incongruous historical elements. Instead they should be adapting their own ideas and language to the fact that there is much to be learned for our own understandings of freedom, democracy and politics from the ideologues and events that led to and comprised the Islamic Revolution. Certainly, the very same can be said for the events of today.

On Thursday we witnessed rallies of mourning for martyrs of the last week's protests -- a process which exhibits another familiar pattern from the revolution of 1978/79. As I write now we are seeing disturbing images of widespread violence from pro-government militias and riot police against peaceful protestors. Whether or not today's rallies will happen and more broadly, whether or not this movement will be successful -- and even what success might look like -- remains uncertain. What is not uncertain is that the challenge of a popular 20th century Iranian Islamist philosopher like Ali Shariati that the unity of humanity, the unity of existence and the unity of God "bestows upon man" an "independence and dignity" which "impels Man to revolt against all lying powers, all the humiliating fetters of fear and of greed," remains as powerful today as it did in the last century. To Shariati that is the definition of "submission to Him alone" who he calls "the supreme norm of all being."

These words, nearly 50 years old now, may not be the ones echoing on the streets of Tehran today where you are far more likely to hear the words of contemporary thinkers like Abdolkarim Soroush or Mohsen Kadivar or, of course, non-Islamic and non-Iranian thinkers as well. But their power as just one example of what we can learn from the ongoing Iranian struggle for democracy and freedom remains. We can recognize these ideas, find corollaries and similarities in some of our own, but their particular arrangement, focus and nuance leads us into areas of thought we hadn't previously encountered. These and dozens more from thinkers like Shariati -- and from his staunch opponents and allies in that 20th century struggle -- represent untold lessons and commentary in just one part of the human story of democratic struggle and freedom.

Similarly, we can already learn profound lessons from the actions and ideas of today's new movement. Few of us will soon forget the images of thousands upon thousands of Iranian opposition supporters peacefully and silently advancing through the streets of Tehran. This provides new answers to both the pragmatic and conceptual problems of equating a democratic mass with an angry mob. The Iranian people are rightly wary of destructive social chaos and mass violence after fighting two revolutions, resisting forty years of the Shah's dictatorship and eight years of war with Iraq. They are trying to show through their words, actions and silences how real, lasting and meaningful change can also take place through the struggle of peaceful protest and not only through the radical violence of revolution; but they have also shown, and continue to show, their resilience and willingness to resist in the face of harsh crackdowns and suppression of speech.

The processes and arenas through which the events of this week have unfolded -- the twittering, the social networks, the circumventing of local censorship by the international electronic exchange of information -- all serve to palpably underline the increasingly anachronistic approach of thinking in purely national or even cultural borders. The idea of something universal may be impossible to define, but today Iranians are demonstrating the possible practical manifestations of just such ideas through both their actions and these exchanges and dialogues. If there is one form of help we can and definitely should provide for the Iranian people, it is ensuring that these international and electronic channels remain open and available in order to maintain ongoing exchanges and foster productive dialogues.

And if there is a message that we should be sending to those people risking their lives in the streets of cities all across Iran, it is certainly not that the American administration supports them or, heaven forbid, is 'behind them.' It is that today, the streets of Iran again, after more than a century of revolutions, are teaching us and the world about democracy and freedom in ways that we have not yet understood and that we, and the world, eagerly await the lesson. So let us sit back for a moment and see if we can't learn a thing or two.