Iranians are writing their history. The pen of the revolutionaries of the 1970s has been supplemented by the keyboard of a new generation. Ayatollah Khomeini’s supporters perfected clandestine pamphleteering and the distribution of audio cassettes to subvert the regime of the shah; today’s activists use Facebook and Twitter to get their message across. This is not a movement for western “modernity”; this is not a battle at the end of which Iran will be either pro-western or anti-western. This is a movement that is realising the original utopia of the revolution in 1979: independence, freedom, Islamic Republic.
Indeed, out of these three emotive ideas, the first (independence) and the third (Islamic Republic) have been repeatedly linked in the official discourse of successive Iranian governments: “the Islamic Republic is independent” has not only been the standard response of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the questions of inquisitive foreign journalists, but one of the main ideological narratives after the revolution in 1979. It is ironic that Ahmadinejad and his nefarious backers allege that the mass movement against their electoral coup de force has been inspired by foreign agents, organised by the BBC, CNN, or the British embassy in Tehran.
What makes the current protests historic is the fact that “the west” isn’t even an issue. The demonstrators do not really care what Gordon Brown, Barack Obama or others think. They start from a firm belief in the independence of Iran which has been achieved after the Islamic revolution in 1979. Of course, I am not suggesting that governments are not plotting and scheming to fulfil their destructive agendas. The curse of oil has brought the country that unwanted attention. What I am saying is that since the revolution in 1979 Iranians have written their own narrative. Independence is a hard-earned reality in Iran, one that the post-revolutionary generation has paid for dearly. Does the establishment really want to suggest that large swaths of Iranian society are easily manipulated by foreign agents? This goes against what they have propagated for three decades now.
It is another irony of this historical conjuncture in Iran that some in Britain and beyond seem to reiterate the myth that Iranians are risking life and limb in order to jump on the western bandwagon (“modernity”), to become less “Muslim” (irrational), whiter, a bit more like us.
Consider the recent article by Martin Amis. It is not only that Amis alleges it was not Saddam Hussein who actually started the Iran-Iraq war, but Ayatollah Khomeini (a vulgar example of historical revisionism). It is not only that he implies that Iran would attack Bahrain and that equipped “with weapons of fission or fusion” Ayatollah Khamenei “may delegate first use to Hezbollah, or to the Call of Islam, or to the Legion of the Pure”.
The whole article is a patronising example of contemporary Eurocentrism. Dissect it and you will find that terms such as Khomeini, Islamic, Shia, Mahdi are garnished by adjectives such as insane, militant, senescent, delusional or laughable. Read all of this against Amis’s prescription, expressed in July 2008, that Muslims should “suffer until they get their house in order”, that they should be banned from travelling, deported, and strip-searched, and you will discern that the Iran he envisages is very different from the one we are fighting for. In the bifurcated world-view Amis seems to believe in, Islam is retroactive, archaic, destructive and inherently anti-western. Everything must be rescued from it, including the concept of Iran — which is why Amis seems to think that most Iranians must have stopped being Muslim, since they are now protesting for their rights in such a progressive manner. He should note that the protesters are shouting Allah-u-Akbar (God is great) and that the colour green is also the colour associated with Islam. To these Iranians, there is a truly emancipatory and libertarian message hidden beneath the power-political perversion of their religion. Certainly, they are not willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as Amis seems to hope.
Both Amis and Ahmadinejad are wrong. They should listen to the slogans of the protesters, to their rap, their melodic utterance of dissatisfaction with a country that they feel a part of and that they have helped to build up. This is the first mass movement in contemporary Iranian history that is entirely future-oriented; it is thoroughly positive, idealist, vigorous and utopian in the empowering sense of the term. All major upheavals in the recent history of the country, the so-called Tobacco Revolt in 1891 against the concession of exclusive tobacco rights in favour of a British citizen, the constitutional revolution in 1906-1907, the nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company under the premiership of Mohammad Mossadegh between 1951 and 1953 and the Islamic revolution itself were very much anti-colonial struggles: necessary signposts in Iran’s path towards independence. Today, the demonstrators indulge in the luxury that was bestowed upon them by previous generations. They live in a politically independent country — which is why they can afford to express an entirely future-oriented vision in the first place. They are the visionaries of Iran, not the establishment, not privileged opinion makers in Europe or North America, not us.
By attributing domestic dissent to the interference of sinister foreign powers, Iran’s political independence, which has been achieved through blood and sweat, is seriously undermined. Any suggestion that domestic politics in the country can be determined by external forces is a slap in the face of all of those who have fought and died for the progress and independence of the country, including those hundreds of thousands killed in the trenches of the Iran-Iraq war that Ahmadinejad and his backers purport to speak for. This is one of the many tragedies that he and his institutional supporters are perpetuating. At this very moment they are being tried by the post-Islamist generation of the country; stay tuned, their verdict will be executed soon.
Born in Istanbul and educated at the University of Hamburg, American Universtiy (Washington DC), and Cambridge, Arshin Adib-Moghaddam lectures on politics and international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. The author of Iran in World Politics: The Question of the Islamic Republic (Hurst/ Columbia University Press, 2007/2008) and The International Politics of the Persian Gulf (Routledge, 2006), he was the first Jarvis Doctorow Fellow at St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford. He was also elected Honorary Fellow of the Cambridge European Trust Society at the University of Cambridge. His latest publication Iran in World Politics: The Question of the Islamic Republic is now available for worldwide distribution from Hurst & Co., Amazon.com, and Columbia University Press. This article was first published by the Guardian on 28 July 2009; it is reproduced here for educational purposes.