Thursday, February 19, 2004

Almost over, yet to be begun

Friday brings the elections in Iran, and what a meaningless exercise that has turned out to be.

Nearly 130 deputies have resigned in protest over the banning of most (and all well-known) reform candidates. The Islamic Iran Participation Front, the largest reform party, is boycotting the elections. This week, 679 candidates whose qualifications had been approved by the Guardian Council withdrew to add their voices to the protest.

And now,
Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Peace laureate, joined protesters on Tuesday in announcing that she would not vote in parliamentary elections on Friday in which more than 2,000 candidates were disqualified by the government.

"I cannot tell people to vote or not to vote, but I will not vote because I do not know any of the candidates who have been allowed to run," said Ms. Ebadi, a human rights lawyer. "I would have voted if I knew and trusted the candidates."
This followed on the heels of a letter from reformist members of Parliament that took the shocking course of openly criticizing Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accusing him of "lead[ing] a system in which legitimate freedoms and the rights of the people are being trampled on in the name of Islam."

The saddest figure in this is President Mohammad Khatami, who initially threatened a mass resignation of his whole administration if reformers were not reinstated to the election rolls, and then backed down, and then threatened not to hold elections, and then backed down to the point where on Monday he released a statement urging people to vote in spite of "the unfairness of the election." It's impossible to know what pressures Khatami felt (or even what threats of mass reprisals might have been made behind closed doors) but still I find it rather sad to see him trying to maintain what dignity he can in the face of what amounts to his total capitulation.

Yet against this dark background there are signs that changes in Iran ultimately can't be denied, as indicated by a trio of recent Christian Science Monitor articles. I'd urge you to read all three.

On February 11, CSM described how many among the clergy are coming to question their political power.
"Behind closed doors, even the clergy is debating velayat-e-faqih [divine rule by clerics] and secularism, and their role in political power," says a Western diplomat. "They are asking: 'Is it so wise that we are running the state, that we are doing things against the will of the people, which is against Islam?'" ...

"Islam is the religion of peace, of rights, of justice, not tyranny, violence and prisons - let alone terrorism and killing people and torture in prisons, even if this torture is putting them in solitary confinement," said reformist Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei, in a recent interview.

"All of these things are against Islam," says Mr. Saanei, one of only a handful of grand ayatollahs in Shiite Islam. "In one word: What you would like for yourself, you must do for others. These are all the human rights and freedoms, which the Prophet calls justice."
Indeed, even as the hardliners wield the real power, the conservative forces are not monolithic and even after their expected triumph on Friday, reform may not be dead in the majlis (parliament). This is from February 18.
Even among hard-line Iranians at a recent celebration or at Friday prayers, there are shades of gray. Some advocate violence against the "enemy within"; others say rhetorical persuasion is enough. If conservatives reclaim control of parliament after Friday's elections, as expected, new political divisions are likely to emerge between conservative factions. The tough faction will cling to hard-line views, while moderates have signaled intent to address some issues of the popular reform agenda - a recipe for future rightwing clashes.
And clashes of a harsher sort than political maneuvering and bickering may be in the offing. Because there are really two Irans, separated by a cultural and economic chasm so wide that each can barely perceive the other across it. On February 19, CSM went to an upscale shopping mall in Tehran.
This mall - home turf for Iran's prosperous and disillusioned social elite - is a place where two worlds collide. On one side are young free-spirited Iranians, radicalized beyond politics against Iran's Islamic revolution and hard-line rulers.

One the other: Feared enforcers of the regime's Department of Vice and Virtue, who routinely target improper garb, pop music, and the peddling of Western influence by selling men's ties. ...

The social and political fault line in modern Iran has become so pronounced that both sides have taken to protesting the other in the most niggling ways.

At this mall, shoppers push the limits, wearing required long coverings, or manteaux, skin-tight and above the knee. Kerchief-sized headscarves are often accompanied by matching nail polish and lipstick.

Indeed, the secular world in more affluent parts of north Tehran is saturated with the Internet, illegal but tolerated satellite TV, and Western music, and thick with respect and even yearning for Iran's top enemy, America.

It could not be further from the poorer, religious areas of south Tehran, where Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution took root and still commands a faithful following. Indeed, Hossein [who runs a women's clothing store in the mall] says that most of the mall's morality enforcers appear to come from less privileged families, "and haven't seen this kind of thing in their lives. It's a different world."
As is often mentioned, 2/3 of the population of Iran is under 30 and has voted consistently for reform. But now many are disillusioned by the power of the hardliners and the failures of the reformers and so express their resistance in other ways. Like many before them, such as was seen in the old Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, they adopt the outward signs of what they perceive as the freedom of the West, and so push the limits of allowable dress and music.

For some, that seems enough - if they would be left alone, they'd be satisfied. But happily, others have learned a better lesson.
"Their Islam and their state are different from the ones we know," says her sister Parisa, who also studies architecture. She says she and her young friends once said their prayers regularly, but no longer do. "Even those who took part in the revolution 25 years ago say that this is not Islam. They are working against Islam."

The current "little bit of freedom" now tolerated, Parisa says, is meant only to "calm people." But for the anonymous shopkeeper, recent months have been marked by a clampdown that he thinks will only worsen if conservatives win parliament.

"Girls and boys coming out like this are only pretending to be free," he says, waving toward flirting couples. "What do you call liberty? Uncovering your hair? This is not freedom. The true liberty is expressing your idea.

"With the Internet and satellite TV, people are understanding more and more every day," he adds. "This is the atomic age, and each person knows better if they are on the right path. I know what is right or wrong.... I don't need anybody else to tell me."
I keep thinking of lines from an old Donovan song: "Now live your own life, I tell you for why:/You gonna be around when they all die off."
"The conflict is brewing, and one day, one group will win," says Somayeh. "If the conservatives were to win, they would have done so already. In the end, they will lose."
In the immediate wake of the elections, there may be dark times. But keep hope alive.

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