Fall 2009, Vol. 12, No. 2

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Spiritual Politics blog

Articles in this issue:

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Family Ties

Sanford and Wife

Who Killed George Tiller?

Obama in Cairo

When Push Comes to Twitter

Airing the Syrian Laundry

Our Crowd

The Irish Map of Hell

The Baptists Shrink

The Episcopalian Split

Claiming The King's Soul


New books

When Push Comes to Twitter
by Babak Rahimi

TEHRAN – In late March, I traveled to Iran to study the impact of the Internet on the presidential elections scheduled for June.

Arriving in Tehran, I immediately sensed an atmosphere of apathy. On the street, hardly anyone spoke of politics, let alone about the presidential candidates. Nor was much enthusiasm for politics shown by Iranian bloggers, who had just discovered the joys of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, thanks to the regime’s recent decision to unblock these social networking sites.

But with the beginning of the campaign season in May, the situation began to change. An air of festivity spread over Tehran and other major cities around the country, and in the Iranian blogosphere. The lackluster campaign of Mir-Hossain Mousavi was energized by reformist websites—including his own Facebook home page—with messages of “hope” and “change” reminiscent of the 2008 Obama campaign.

The Western press was quick to pick up on this. But when CNN International, BBC, and CBS News reported on the same pro-Mousavi rallies I attended, the narratives they produced had more to do with American and European ideas than the situation on the ground. 

The scenes of unruly youths dancing to Western music, including half-covered young women holding anti-Ahmadinejad signs and shouting out Mousavi’s name, gave the false impression that the protesters were hostile to Islam.

Despite the protestors’ universal cry of “Allahu Akhbar” (God is Great) and embrace of Islamic green, the Western media largely framed their stories as a contest between Mousavi’s secular young urbanites and Ahmadinejad’s devout country folk. Mousavi’s own support in rural areas never made it onto Western screens.

As the Montreal Gazette editorialized on June 13, “As many as 80 per cent of the country’s 46.2 million voters were expected to vote, spurred on by a campaign that laid bare the divisions in Iranian society: Rural voters against urban; the wealthy and educated against the poor; secular Iranians against the devout.” In this battle, “modern” Iranians were on the march, chipping away the power base of a traditional, religious government and moving towards a more secular political order.

Iran’s state-sponsored media employed the same storyline, for ideological reasons of its own. Describing the election as “an historic event,” TV reporters spent a good deal of time conducting interviews with somberly clothed men and women in chadors.

One hot day in central Tehran three weeks before the election, I watched one reporter grill his carefully selected subjects on voting as a religious duty. Participation was the responsibility of all citizens concerned for the welfare of society, he said. It would strengthen the nezam, or political order, and thereby serve the common good.

That night, I watched brief clips from the interviews. With 1990s techno music beating in the background, it seemed as though the country itself was speaking in unison.

In the early days of the uprising that followed the election, I knew I was witnessing an historic event with a trajectory as uncertain as the 1978 protests that led to the toppling of the Pahlavi monarchy. But this time around, cell phones and the Internet changed the ways street protests and state violence would be reported, and the impact they would have.

Events encountered on the street were immediately posted—unedited, uncut--on YouTube or emailed to CNN, VOA Farsi, or BBC Persian. Many Iranians who did not participate in the demonstrations would later watch those very images (some of them very violent), get angry, and run to join the protesters, injecting new momentum to the demonstrations.

Not surprisingly, the images of baton-wielding riot police beating up demonstrators that dominated news coverage in the West were passed over by the Iranian news media. The government closed a number of reformist newspapers and detained prominent journalists.

Soon enough, the Internet was considerably slowed down. Yahoo, Gmail, Facebook, and YouTube disappeared. Most foreign reporters were ordered to leave the country, leaving Western media to depend largely on the Internet for information.

The result was a new type of news coverage, presenting events on the ground exclusively via the prism of video footage and photo images posted online, along with on-the-ground descriptions of the unfolding crackdowns through email and social-networking sites. Twitter became the major source of information for a number of media outlets, who desperately sought to find news for an eager public outside of Iran.

It was because of this narrow prism that the role of new technologies as a medium of communication for the protest movement was somewhat exaggerated. A number of reports—for example, Yigal Schleifer’s “Why Iran’s Twitter Revolution is Unique,” in the June 19 Christian Science Monitor—even went so far as to describe Twitter (still a relatively unknown social networking site in Iran) as a driving force behind the “green revolution.”

Ironically, the main entity responsible for this kind of media production of knowledge was the Islamic Republic itself, which by limiting access created the conditions for the Western media to create a narrative of the crisis that haunts the hardliners in power to this day. But while they gave such coverage as there was more impact, the new media sources did nothing for its sophistication.

At the heart of the massive protests and ensuing political crisis lay not only demands for an end to corruption and greater government transparency but also a call for reinterpreting religion as a force for democratic change. This religious element was entirely missed by the western media, which remained locked into an image of an “Iranian people” eager for modern secular democracy versus an oppressive medieval theocracy.

In fact, many Iranians opposed Ahmadinejad’s re-election precisely because they rejected a political order that they considered increasingly “secular”—by which they meant corrupt and greedy for worldly power. This was brought home to me a few weeks after the elections during a visit to the shrine city of Qom, a major Shia scholarly center.

Visiting a bookshop, I overheard a group of mid-ranking clerics talking about the post-election turmoil, the possible electoral fraud, the violence on the streets, the reports of torture in prisons, and most importantly the role in the conflict of the country’s Spiritual Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

One of the clerics claimed that the Islamic Republic no longer had legitimacy (mashru‘iyyat) because of its harsh and unjust reaction to those who demanded a recount of the votes. Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad who is Shia Islam’s fourth imam, had ruled with justice and not brute force, he said. Ali had based his government on tolerance of opposition, which was necessary for him to rule the Muslim community efficiently and wisely. According to the cleric, Ali had distinguished mashru‘iyyat from power (hukumat), always making sure that the former would never be sacrificed for the latter.

Ali, who ruled the Islamic world from 656-61, has served a model of just rule for Shias through the centuries. In the view of the clerics I overheard—and, increasingly, of many other devout Iranians as well—Ayatollah Khamenei has failed to live up to that model. With the show of brute force after his infamous Friday sermon threatening demonstrators with violence a week after the elections, Khamenei revealed his true identity as a usurper and a corrupt ruler who preferred hukumat to mashru‘iyyat.

Beyond that, the model of Ali has been used to challenge the entire theoretical basis of the Iranian regime—Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theory of the “guardianship of the jurist” (Velayat-e Faqih). Introduced after the 1979 revolution, this novel theocratic concept assigned traditionally quietist Shia clerics the responsibility of ruling on behalf of the Twelfth Imam, whose eventual return is believed to culminate in the establishment of divine justice on earth. Thus was established the first theocratic state in Shia Islamic history.

In the years following the revolution, not all Shia Iranians accepted Khomeini’s vision of theocracy. One of the country’s senior clerics, Ayatollah Muhammad Kazem Shariatmadari, called it a deviation from true Shi‘ism—and was immediately stripped of his religious authority and placed under house arrest. Never before had a high-ranking jurist been deposed by another cleric. Subsequently, the takeover of Qom by state-sponsored activist clerics caused many independent clerics to keep quiet for fear of retribution.

In the wake of the protests, however, many began to challenge the regime publicly. A number of leading figures spoke out on behalf of the protestors. Ayatollah Yusef Sanei, one of Qom’s leading reformists, went so far as to call Ahmadinejad a “bastard” for illegally gaining power.

But it was Ayatollah Ali Montazeri—slated to succeed Ayatollah Khomeini before falling out of favor—who delivered the harshest critique, denouncing Khamenei as a dictator with no legitimate right to rule. Later, an anonymous letter written by a group of clerics demanded the Spiritual Leader’s immediate removal.

 Behind these taboo-breaking accusations lay a growing realization that the Islamic Republic was becoming not merely a dictatorship but a military state. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), charged with defending the Islamic Republic against domestic and foreign threats, stands accused of playing a decisive role in Ahamdinejad’s re-election.

According to critics of the regime, the Guard has become increasingly politicized since the 2001 elections, when the reelection of President Mohammad Khatami and the rise of reformists posed a major threat to the clerical establishment. It has now been permitted to take over much of the country’s economic and industrial infrastructure, including its controversial nuclear technology.

There is no question that the IRGC played a crucial role in putting down the election protests. By empowering it, Khamenei has effectively signaled the end of authentic Islamic rule in Iran.

It is an indication of how things have changed since the elections to hear clerics speak out against the status quo in so blunt a manner in a public place in a conservative religious city. But it is no less telling to hear echoes of their arguments, in similar Islamic terms, from Iran’s most “westernized” citizens—reformist students, secular nationalists, feminist internationalists.

The fear of many Iranians is of a type of military rule that dominates not only the (limited) democratic institutions of the country but also the spiritual authority that can be expected to uphold Shia ideals of justice and tolerance. In effect, what Iran experienced over the summer was the delegitimization of its theocracy—and the resulting secularization of its governing regime.

That’s the story that the Western media are going to have to catch up to.


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