[Thanks to Infinite Thought, who published this essay on her blog yesterday morning. This piece is copyright-free. Please distribute widely. You should also listen to the June 16 interview with Ali on Radio Telefís Éireann. The interview kicks in at 37:00.]
Why are Iranians dreaming again?* Ali Alizadeh, Researcher at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Middlesex University
Iran is currently in the grip of a new and strong political movement. While this movement proves that Ahmadinejad’s populist techniques of deception no longer work inside Iran, it seems they are still effective outside the country. This is mainly due to thirty years of isolation and mutual mistrust between Iran and the West which has turned my country into a mysterious phenomenon for outsiders. In this piece I will try to confront some of the mystifications and misunderstandings produced by the international media in the last week.
In the first scenario the international media, claiming impartiality, insisted that the reformists provide hard objective evidence in support of their claim that the June 12 election has been rigged. But despite their empiricist attitude, the media missed obvious facts due to their lack of familiarity with the socio-historical context. Although the reformists could not possibly offer any figures or documents, because the whole show was single-handedly run by Ahmadinejad’s ministry of interior, anyone familiar with Iran’s recent history could easily see what was wrong with this picture.
It was the government who reversed the conventional and logical procedure by announcing a fictitious total figure first – in four stages – and then fabricating figures for each polling station, something that is still going on. This led to many absurdities: Musavi got less votes in his hometown (Tabriz) than Ahmadinejad; Karroubi’s total vote was less than the number of people active in his campaign; Rezaee’s votes were reduced by a hundred thousand between the third and fourth stages of announcement; blank votes were totally forgotten and only hastily added to the count when reformists pointed this out; and finally the ratio between all candidates’ votes remained almost constant in all these four stages of announcement (63, 33, 2 and 1 percent respectively).
Moreover, as in any other country, the increase in turnout in Iran’s elections has always benefitted the opposition and not the incumbent, because it is rational to assume that those who usually don’t vote, i.e. the silent majority, only come out when they want to change the status quo. Yet in this election Ahmadinejad, the representative of the status quo, allegedly received 10 million votes more than what he got in the previous election.
Finally, Ahmadinejad’s nervous reaction after his so-called victory is the best proof for rigging: closing down SMS network and the whole of country’s mobile phone network, arresting more than 100 leading political activists, blocking access to Musavi’s and many other reformists’ websites and unleashing violence in the streets…But if all this is not enough, the bodies of more than 17 people who were shot dead and immediately buried in unknown graves should persuade all those “objective-minded” observers.
In the second scenario, gradually unfolding in the last few days, the international media implicitly shifted its attention to the role of internet and its social networking (twitter, facebook, youtube, etc). This implied that millions of illiterate conservative villagers have voted for Ahmadinejad and the political movement is mostly limited to educated middle classes in North Tehran. While this simplified image is more compatible with media’s comfortable position towards Iran in the last 30 years, it is far from reality. The recent political history of Iran does not confirm this image. For example, Khatami’s victory in 1997, despite his absolute lack of any economic promises and his focus instead on liberal civic demands, was made possible by the polarization of society into people and state. Khatami could win only by embracing people from all different classes and groups, villagers and urban people alike.
There is no doubt that new media and technologies have been playing an important role in the movement, but it seems that the cause and the effect are being reversed in the picture painted by the media. First of all, it is the existence of a strong political determination, combined with people becoming deprived of basic means of communication, which has led the movement to creatively test every other channel and method. Musavi’s paper was shut down on the night of election, his frequent request to talk to people on the state TV has been rejected, his official website is often blocked and his physical contact with his supporters has been kept minimum by keeping him in house arrest (with the exception of his appearance on the over a million march on June 15).
Second, due to the heavy pressure on foreign journalists inside Iran, these technological tools have come to play a significant role in sending the messages and images of the movement to the outside world. However, the creative self-organization of the movement is using a manifold of methods and channels, many of them simple and traditional, depending on their availability: shouting ‘death to dictator’ from rooftops, calling landlines, at the end of one rally chanting the time and place of the next one, and by jeopardizing oneself by physically standing on streets and distributing news to every passing car. The appearance of the movement which is being sold by the media to the western gaze – the cyber-fantasy of the western societies which has already labelled our movement a twitter revolution, seems to have completely missed the reality of those bodies which are shot dead, injured or ready to be endangered by non-virtual bullets.
What is more surprising in the midst of this media frenzy is the blindness of the western left to the political dynamism and energy of our movement. The causes of this blindness oscillate between the misgivings about Islam (or the Islamophobia of hyper-secular left) and the confusion made by Ahmadinjead’s fake anti-imperialist rhetoric (his alliance with Chavez perhaps, who after all was the first to congratulate him). It needs to be emphasized that Ahmadinejad’s economic policies are to the right of the IMF: cutting subsidies in a radical way, more privatization than any other post-79 government (by selling the country to the Revolutionary Guards) and an inflation and unemployment rate which have brought the low-income sections of the society to their knees. It is in this regard that Musavi’s politics needs to be understood in contradistinction from both Ahmadinejad and also the other reformist candidate, i.e. Karroubi.
While Karroubi went for the liberal option of differentiating people into identity groups with different demands (women, students, intellectuals, ethnicities, religious minorities, etc), Musavi emphasized the universal demands of ‘people’ who wanted to be heard and counted as political subjects. This subjectivity, emphasized by Musavi during his campaign and fully incarnated in the rallies of the past few days, is constituted by political intuition, creativity and recollection of the ‘79 revolution (no wonder that people so quickly reached an unexpected maturity, best manifested in the abstention from violence in their silent demonstrations). Musavi’s ‘people’ is also easily, but strongly, distinguished from Ahmadinejad’s anonymous masses dependent on state charity. Musavi’s people, as the collective appearing in the rallies, is made of religious women covered in chador walking hand in hand with westernized young women who are usually prosecuted for their appearance; veterans of war in wheelchairs next to young boys for whom the Iran-Iraq war is only an anecdote; and working class who have sacrificed their daily salary to participate in the rally next to the middle classes. This story is not limited to Tehran. Shiraz (two confirmed dead), Isfahan (one confirmed dead), Tabriz, Oroomiye are also part of this movement and other cities are joining with a predictable delay (as it was the case in 79 revolution).
History will prove who the real participants of this movement are but once again we are faced with a new, non-classical and unfamiliar radical politics. Will the Western left get it right this time?
* The title is a reference to Michel Foucault’s 1978 writing on Iran’s revolution: “What are the Iranians dreaming about?”