The Tragedy of the Left's Discourse on Iran
The electoral coup and the subsequent uprising and suppression of the revolting voters in
As for the Left in the West, confusions abound. The progressive left, from the beginning openly supported the Iranian civil society movement. ZNet, Campaign for Peace and Democracy, Bullet, and some other media provided sound analysis to help others understand the complexities of the Iranian situation (see, for example, here). Some intellectuals signed petitions along with their Iranian counterparts, while others chose to remain silent. But disturbingly, like in the situations in
MRZine and Islamists
The most bizarre case is the on-line journal MRZine, the offshoot of Monthly Review, which in some instances even publicized the propaganda of the Basij (Islamic militia) hooligans and criminals. The website has given ample room to pro-Islamist contributors; while they can hardly be considered to be on the left, their words are appreciated by the leftists editing the site. One writer claims that the battle in
During the 1979 revolution, the late Tudeh Party, under the direction of the
Azmi Bishara's imagined
In "Iran: An Alternative Reading" (reproduced in MRZine), Azmi Bishara argues that
The second differentiation Bishara makes is that "... the official ideology that permeates institutions of government ... is a real religion embraced by the vast majority of the people." He is right if he means the majority of Iranians are Muslim and Shi'i, but it is wrong to assume that all are religious and share the same obscurantist fundamentalist version as those in power. He also fails to recognize the existence of a large number of secular people in
He praises "such tolerance of political diversity," "tolerance of criticism," and "peaceful rotation of authority" in
Bishara undermines the genuine massive reform movement and claims that "expectations regarding the power of the reform trend ... were created by Western and non-Western media opposed to Ahmadinejad...." Had Bishara done his homework, he would have learned about the massive campaigns led by large number of womens' organizations, the youth, teachers and select groups of workers. He warns us of "elitism" and of having an "arrogant classist edge," and implicitly dismisses these movements of "middle class backgrounds" and claims that "these people are not the majority of young people but rather the majority of young people from a particular class." It is unclear on what basis he makes the assertion that most of the youth from poor sectors of the society support Ahmadinejad.
James Petras' message: freedom is not "vital"!
One of the most shocking pieces is by the renowned controversial Left writer and academic, James Petras. In his piece "Iranian Elections: 'The Stolen Elections' Hoax," Petras conclusively denies any wrongdoings in the Iranian elections and confidently goes into the detail of the demographics of some small Iranian towns, with no credibility or expertise in the subject.
The abundant facts pointing to massive electoral fraud speak for themselves, so I will not waste time refuting his evidence and 'sources,' but will rather focus on his analysis. The most stunning aspect of the Petras piece is the total absence of any sympathy for all the brave women, youth, teachers, civil servants and workers who have been so vigorously campaigning for democracy, human rights, and political freedoms, risking their lives by spontaneously pouring into the streets when they realized they were cheated. Instead we see sporadic references to "comfortable upper class enclave," "well-dressed and fluent in English" youth, etc. Women are not mentioned even once, nor is there any recognition of their amazing struggle against the most obscurantist policies such as stoning, polygamy, and legal gender discriminations. Neither is there any reference to trade union activists, writers, and artists, many of whom are in jail.
Instead, the emphasis is on crude class analysis: "[t]he demography of voting reveals a real class polarization pitting high income, free market oriented capitalist individuals against working class, low income, community based supporters of a 'moral economy' in which usury and profiteering are limited by religious precepts." Petras could not be more misguided and misleading. Of course this would fit well within the perceived traditional class conflict paradigm (with an added touch of imagined Islamic economics!). However, the reality is far more complex. The Ayatollahs on both sides are "market-oriented capitalists," so are the leaders of the Islamic Guards, who run industries, control trade monopolies, and are major land developers. There are also workers on both sides. Failed economic policies, the rising 30% inflation rate, growing unemployment and the suppression of trade unions turned many workers against Ahmadinejad. The communiqués of Workers of Iran Khodrow (auto industry) against the government's heavy-handed tactics, the long strikes and confrontations of the workers of Tehran Public Transport and the participation of workers in the post-election revolts, are all examples of opposition to Ahmadinejad by workers. It would also be simplistic to talk of the Islamists' 'moral economy,' when both sides have been involved in embezzlement and corruption, much of which was exposed during the debates fiasco in which they exposed each other.
On the basis of his limited understanding of the situation, Petras declares that "[t]he scale of the opposition's electoral deficit should tell us how out of touch it is with its own people's vital concerns." Firstly, like many others he cannot distinguish among different groups and categories of this "opposition," and worse, is telling Iranian women, youth, union activists, intellectuals and artists, that their demands and "concerns" for political and individual freedoms, human rights, democracy, gender equity and labour rights are not "vital." It seems he's telling the Iranian left: rofagha (comrades), if you are being tortured and rotting in prisons, your books are burned and you are expelled from your profession, don't worry, because the "working class" is receiving subsidies and handouts from the government! Professor Petras and those like him would not be as forgiving if their own freedoms and privileges were at issue.
The left has historically been rooted in solidarity with progressive movements, women's rights and rights for unions and its voice has been first and foremost a call for freedom. The voices that we hear today from part of the Left are tragically reactionary. Siding with religious fundamentalists with the wrong assumptions that they are anti-imperialists and anti-capitalists, is aligning with the most reactionary forces of history. This is a reactionary left, different from the progressive left which has always been on the side of the forces of progress.
Zizek also misses an important point
In a much admired and distributed piece, Slavoj Zizek, the prominent voice of the new left, refers to versions of events in Iran. Zizek explains that "Moussavi supporters... see their activity as the repetition of the 1979 Khomeini revolution, as the return to its roots, the undoing of the revolution's later corruption." He adds "[w]e are dealing with a genuine popular uprising of the deceived partisans of the Khomeini revolution," "'the return of the repressed' of the Khomeini revolution."
Zizek does not differentiate between the "partisans of Khomeini" during the 1979 revolution, and the non-religious, secular elements, both liberals and Left, who actually started the revolution and in the absence of other alternatives, accepted Khomeini's leadership. Lack of recognition of this reality, that sometimes draws us to despair, is a big mistake. Along the same line, Zizek, wrongly attributes all of today's movement to support for Moussavi: "Moussavi ... stands for the genuine resuscitation of the popular dream which sustained the Khomeini revolution." On this basis he concludes that "the 1979 Khomeini revolution cannot be reduced to a hard line Islamist takeover." To substantiate his point, Zizek refers to the "incredible effervescence of the first year of the revolution...." In fact much of the 'effervescence' of the first year, or before the hostage taking at the American Embassy, was because of the actions of the non-partisans of Khomeini; from the workers councils movement, to confrontations of Fedais and other left organizations in Kurdistan and in Gonbad, to the women's and university-based movements. It was a period when Khomeini and his supporters had not consolidated their power. After the hostage crisis and beginning of the Iran-Iraq war "the Islam establishment" took over.
All these draws Zizek to conclude that "what this means is that there is genuine liberating potential in Islam." Zizek does not recognize that Moussavi is a conservative Islamist, and this "liberating potential" can hardly be applied to him. For sure, there exists a new breed of Muslim intellectuals, the likes of Mohamad Shabestari, Mohsen Kadivar, Reza Alijani, and Hassan Eshkevari, who believe in the separation of religion and state, and can be the champions of such liberating potentials, but definitely not the likes of Khomeini and Moussavi.
There is no doubt that the Iranian 1979 revolution is an unfinished business and its main demands for democracy and political freedoms, and social equity have remained unfulfilled. But these were not Khomeini's demands, in the same manner that not all today's demands are those of Moussavi.
What is happening in
Saeed Rahnema is Professor of Political Science at