06/06/2010 03:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Lessons from the Millions Mourning Ayatollah Khomeini

Millions turned out to publicly mourn the passing, 21 years ago, of Ayatolla Khomeini, who led the revolution that overthrew the despotic Shah of Iran and replaced him with a totalitarian Islamic theocracy. Worth the trade? I hardly think so. But that is not the most important question today. Certainly not as speeches given by the current leaders at the memorial ceremonies excoriated the United States, rebuked as heretics any who challenged the current regime, and fantasized about the end of Israel.

The real questions today are not about the past. They need to be about the present and how understanding it better can help us build a better future. How do we get past the options of banging the drums of inevitable war with Iran, as some seem to love doing, or of pretending that today's Iran shouldn't scare pretty much anyone able to read this post, as the way to avoid admitting how tough the situation is?

We start by asking better questions about the meaning of those millions who took to the streets to mourn Ayatollah Khomeini. If they are there because they idolize him and believe that today's Iran honors his legacy, then things are far worse than many want to admit.

If the average Iranian believes that the totalitarian theocracy of 21st-century Iran is the best way forward for their nation, then those of us who oppose theocracy and/or totalitarianism need to speak out much more forcefully about the problem of Iran. It does not matter that this has traditionally been an issue for conservatives and/or Republicans. In fact, many of the human rights abuses and church-state (or mosque-state) issues in Iran are the bread and butter of liberal advocacy groups in the US. So why not speak out when it comes to Iran? The answer cannot be that it's "their" issue.

On the other hand, if the millions who turned out for the memorials did so because they were coerced by the government, then things may be more promising than we often imagine. It may be that people are not so happy with the status quo. It may be that more people than many imagine are still looking for a new way forward. And if that is the case, then offering something other than stark choices between American culture and Islamic totalitarian culture is incredibly important.

I know that like so much of what goes on in the Middle East, and especially in light of this past week's events off the coast of Gaza, we tend to see what we already believe rather than ask how new events present new opportunities and invite us to see the world in new ways. I also know that if we want things to improve, whatever our definition of that word is, we need to do more than use current events to confirm past conclusions.

As Albert Einstein remarked, "No problem could ever be solved at the level of consciousness which created it." Nowhere more than in our thinking about the Middle East should that insight be more forward in our minds.