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Death to.. well, "Death to..." Chants & Democracy in Despotic Domains

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They were in the streets of Tehran shouting "Death to the coup d'état! Death to the dictator!"

It was the angry backlash of the young, the optimistic, the moderate religious and secular political believers in something better for Iran.

The government clearly and publicly humiliated them last week, with the sham election that offered the false laurel of change to millions of its citizens. The faux election, whose "results" were delivered in less than three hours in a country where it can take days to bring in election results from the outlying towns and villages.

The government was wrong to toy with its citizens aspirations for more that way. Yet, for all their anger at the state, the Moussavi loyalists chanting in the streets of Tehran were equally wrong in their response.

The mob cried coup!

You cannot have a coup d'état in an election run by the state to benefit the status quo.

There is not really a proper political term for what the ruling mullahs of Iran did to the people. It was more of a publicus simultas, a public humiliation, than a coup d'etat.

The mob chanted "Death to the Dictator!"

Whom, exactly, is that dictator? Surely no one was being brave enough to call out the rulers of Iran: The Ayatollah Khamenei and his council of clerics who are the real power of the state.

"Death to the Puppet!" might be more accurate chant against the rule of Mr. Ahmadinejad.

For all his blustering and heated rhetoric, he is more mouthy marionette than world leader. He does not wield power. He merely amplifies the policies and ideologies of the mullahs who pull his strings.

Of course, shouting "Death to..." anyone really is the death of any pretensions of a crowd yearning for "democracy," as so many western journalists cliamed.

Democrats do not go about the street sloganeering "Death to..." anybody.

In a democracy we do not kill our opponents. We may let them shoot themselves in the foot, metaphorically. No need to kill John Kerry or John McCain. Losing politicians play their hand poorly and kill their career aspirations without a shot being fired.

The "Death to [Insert Your Leader or Western State, Usually America, Here]" rhetoric is the standard-issue invocation of Middle-East peoples who have long histories of regime and religious leadership change through bloodshed, not the ballot box. It is a reflexive cry that must stop if the doorway to more peaceful change at the ballot box is to become possible.

These people in the streets shouting "Death to..." do not put a kinder face on an Iran whose "revolution" has been marked with decades of images of such fists thrust angrily into the skies over Tehran, railing at enemies great and small, real and imagined.

If the people of Iran really thirst for change, the first and most profound change will be when we hear calls for "Justice!" not "Death to..." echo from the streets of Tehran.

Iranians overthrew the Shah only to replace the dictator with an equally despotic theocracy. Mr. Ahmadinejad can rail on about the evils of the Americans, or the Israelis, but he certainly has little to say about the thugs beating down civil protest in his own country over the decades, or the exodus of his own Diaspora of Iranian business might, culture and society which the "revolution" has driven to new homelands around the planet.

How much could have a more tolerant Iran achieved with all of its best and brightest working and living side by side in their homeland?

The revolution, like many revolutions, has had its costs, with true freedom for its people being chief amongst its major casualties of war. The theocracy always looks for an external boogeyman, be it Iraq or America, to help galvanize those who remain in country to rally towards the causes of the state's choosing.

Now, decades later, comes the same push that we have seen in Russia, in China, and elsewhere for the revolution that allows more voices of a people to be heard. Usually these revolutions do not go so well.

In a dark, poetic sort of way, the follow-up this week to the suppression of the remembrance of the 10th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in China was another the suppression of the human rights of a people by their government in Iran.

Instead of answering the call of Moussavi loyalists for change and inclusion, the mullahs retreated to instilling fear in their base of the poor and ignorant, and using the considerable police powers of the state to silence protest and opposition to their policies.

It is the charge of the state-run media and the various thought-police organs of government to try to continue to shape the world to fit the needs of the mullahs running the state.

The brand of politics in Iran that its leading clerics conduct has been mistakenly called "Islamic Fundamentalism," but for many who know and love Islam, there is nothing fundamental about it.

This is a Shia state, run by a centuries-old sect which venerates its connection to the direct descendants of the Profit and its interpretations of the faith largely through suffering and martydom.

The problem is that the Iranian peoples are a diverse lot. They are not all Shia, and, even many Shia in that country do not all follow the dogmatic path taken by the political-religious leaders running modern Iran.

That diversity has been honored internally quietly in the past, with well-camouflaged civil liberties as long as it does not interfere with the image of Iran as a political power for change of the Muslim world that the theocracy's ruling clerics want to project.

An Iran that is trying to turn other countries in the Middle East into Shia revolutionary states that overthrow their Sunni kings, Sheiks and princes, does not want the warmer and more moderate face of a Mr. Moussavi in the presidency. He is not a holy warrior. He cannot inspire the faithful in other countries to rise up against their governments.

The Iranian religious political council is really more of a ulema, a Shia high-council, trying to perpetuate their sect of the faith with a Supreme Imam that follows in the footsteps of the last direct Shia Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi. The Ayyatollah Khomeni, who led the original Iranian revolution, and authorized the taking of the American embassy, was seen as such a figure who galvanized the faithful across nations.

If you are trying to get your head around this in more Western terms, it is not all that different than the papacy which wielded both spiritual and political power across the empires of kings and queens in Europe for centuries.

The problem for the theocracy's aspirations for a Shia world order is that this is 2009, not 1109. Even though many of the kingdoms of the Middle East still politically resemble those nation-states of old, many of their subjects have cell phones and the Internet and know that there are places in the world where the embrace of the aspirations of the individual and group is done peacefully and cooperatively. Democracy and Shia theology which emphasizes strong top-down control are not political soul mates.

Once armed with the knowledge of true democracy and freedom, other than killing everyone with an Internet connection, it is very hard to put that intellectual genie back in the bottle.

This was meant to legitimize the edicts of the theocracy, not to open doors to greater freedom and tolerance.

The campaign leading up to these elections was a whisper of limited freedom that grew into a chant then into a ballyhooed roar that somehow, in a country that has only known interchangeable forms of despotism, some form of republican democracy would prevail.

Iranians took to the polls with the same psychoses that affect Powerball players and Las Vegas high rollers. They could win. Things could change.

You cannot beat the house, though.

What happens to the freedoms of the Iranian people, or their individual will, is of little consequence to men with more narrow interpretations of the quality of earthly life, whose dogma is focused upon larger, tradition-bound spiritual goals, steeped in centuries of suffering and martyrdom.

An individual losing access to their Twitter during an election is not a concern for these leaders.

It is not the puppet that needed changing, rather, the puppeteers.

The ruling mullahs are quite content with their dogmatic pit bull Mr. Ahmaddinejad as the face and voice of their will in the world.