We know a lot about those demonstrations in Iran, in Teheran, and Ispahan, and points north, south, west, east. We can see the blood-stained videos, the crowds running from careening cars and out-of-control Basij, gleefully smashing heads and faces with their clubs.
We read reports of what they, those enemies of the regime that may, or may not, be on the ropes (we hardly know how to judge, or whom to believe), shout in protest. We know what they shout. They shout different things. Sometimes they shout out a single name: “Montazeri.” Or “Moussavi.” Or, for some, “Karroubi.” Sometimes they shout “Death to [the] Dictator” – meaning Death to Khamenei, death to those who stole the election.
Sometimes, at night, they shout, in attempted unison, the Islamic phrase “Allahu Akbar.” We read of how, when the weather permits, the dissidents go up to their rooftops, the ones they sleep on in the slight relief of the open air in summer, but now it is deepest winter, and now they go up not to cool themselves off but to heat things up, shouting from rooftop to rooftop, or sometimes in hoped-for hopeful unison, across the city of Teheran, “Allahu Akbar.” And sometimes, when the government goons are leading chants of “Death to America” or “Death to Israel” at mass-man rallies, instead of echoing the chant, those in opposition do not remain silent but instead attempt to drown it out. (See Major Strasser’s fate in “Casablanca” as he is forced to listen to the swelling voices singing the “Marseillaise.”) They attempt to shout, even louder, quite a different denunciation: “Death to Russia” and “Death to China.”
Each of these chants, and others too, has its points. When they shout “Death to Dictator,” they are denying the legitimacy of Khamenei’s and Ahmadinejad’s rule. When they shout “Moussavi” or “Karroubi,” they are shouting out the names of the two candidates who ran in the last election, and who were considered the anti-government candidates, and at least one of them – Moussavi – is held to have garnered more votes than the ballot-stuffing Ahmadinejad, who was declared the winner by none other than Ayatollah Khamenei. The chanting of those names reminds everyone that the dissidents on the streets today got their recent start from the stealing of an election. And even to question the result of an election, and the correct counting of votes, implies a world in which what the people vote for matters, and that world is a most un-Islamic one. In modern Western democracies, political legitimacy is located in the will of the people. However imperfect our elections and however crude our electioneering, we still hold that a government’s legitimacy is imperiled if, for too long, or too significantly, it fails to reflect the will, ideally the informed will, expressed by the people.
In Islam political legitimacy resides not in the expressed will of the people, but in the will expressed by Allah and dictated, to Muhammad, by the Angel Gabriel, in what is known as the Qur’an. Islam is a collectivist faith; the individual believer hardly matters, and is discouraged from free inquiry, and is taught to regard himself – he may not always follow the teachings – as a mere “slave of Allah.” The will of Allah was written down long ago in the uncreated, and immutable text of the Qur’an. Qur’anic commentators and Islamic jurisconsults long ago fixed its meaning, and the gates of ijtihad – interpretation or rather further interpretation – swung shut long ago, never to be re-opened.
But the mere fact that the fight is over a contested election, a stolen election, and not over whether there should be elections at all, is a victory for the forces of decency, the forces of those who refuse to accept the Islamic view of political legitimacy.
What does invocation of the name “Montazeri” do? It does not obliquely reject Islam. Rather, it uses the name of the highest-ranking cleric in the land, one who had obtained the rank of Grand Ayatollah in Shi’a Islam (so rank-conscious about clerical authority), and claims him as one of the dissidents. He outranked Ayatollah Khameni and other clerics in the government or among the government’s supporters. It claims for the dissenters greater religious and revolutionary legitimacy than that of the Islamic Republic itself. The late Grand Ayatollah Montazeri was once regarded as Khomeini’s natural successor, until he had a falling-out with Khomeini. After that he was a steady opponent of the Islamic Republic. When they shout the name “Montazeri,” the dissidents are not referring to the real Montazeri, the totality of whose views are hardly soothing to Infidels (about which possibly not enough outside Iran, in the Infidel camp, are sufficiently aware), but the man-symbol Montazeri. One understands why such a name should be invoked, its political usefulness, even as one has considerable reservations. For Montazeri was hardly one who, in deploring the Islamic Republic of Iran, was seeing beyond that to the underlying problem for Iran: the continued avoidance, by many, of recognizing that it is Islam itself, the extra dose of Islam that the country gave itself as a wrong-headed and hasty antidote for whatever ills the Shah’s old-fashioned corruption and vainglory managed to inflict.
When they shout, from their rooftops, “Allahu Akbar,” they are appropriating the best-known Islamic phrase, taking it over, insisting that it is now belongs with them, and in that very insistence, they endow it with new meaning, or try to. They are attempting to suggest that they are not irreligious, but the righteous ones, the ones who deserve not the ahmedinejads and khameinis kept in power by Basij bezonians, but a rightly guided caliph, or rather a government of the rightly guided.
Then there are the chants “Death to Russia” and “Death to China.” It would not be enough to refuse to join in the Islam-prompted chants of “Death to America” (the leading Infidel power) and “Death to Israel” (the local Infidel nation-state resurrected in its ancient homeland, but on territory once – and therefore forever by Muslims regarded as – part of Dar al-Islam). These must be taken to mean something like: “Oh yeah, we are fed up with these nonsensical denunciations of America and Israel. Russia and China are countries that, like the Islamic Republic of Iran, have both been unconcernedly making deals with the Islamic Republic of Iran, about nuclear reactors and oil deliveries, respectively, with as much indifference for human rights in Iran as they display for human rights in Russia or China.”
Each of these chants has its points. But none of them, I think, does what I hope, and believe, will be necessary ultimately. And that is no longer to pretend that Islam is irrelevant to the thirty years of hell that have been Iran’s fate since 1979, when the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. What followed was not an accident, but rather, the inexorable workings-out of a regime based on putting Islam front and center, giving it a power it had not enjoyed since the 1906 Revolution, a revolution about which more people, including those in Iran, should inform themselves. For a return to the ideas and ideals of the 1906 Revolution and the educated men who made it would be a considerable step not backward but forward in the moral progress, if there is to be any, in Iran.
The people of Iran of course are not ready for an open, free, discussion of Islam. They are not ready for an examination of how the collectivist faith of Islam, with its mistreatment of women, and its mistreatment of all non-Muslims, and its insistence that nothing to do with Islam can ever be subject to free and skeptical inquiry, and that ideally a Muslim will learn the habit of mental submission, and accept his role as a “slave of Allah,” explains much of the inevitable horror of the current regime. That regime has been in place since, in a misreading of their own power and that of Islam, the Iranian left collaborated with Khomeini’s forces of dark reaction, to overthrow the corrupt and vainglorious Shah who, despite that corruption and that vainglory, ruled over a regime that still possessed some connection to another Iran, the Iran that tried to make the 1906 Revolution, that tacitly recognized the retrograde effect of too much Islam (without taking the risk of openly saying so). It was under the Shah that for the first time minorities – Christians and Jews and Zoroastrians – were given legal equality and treated with something like Western decency. It was under the Shah that women saw the age at which they could be married off raised to 18, and then, under Khomeini, promptly lowered again to nine years, the age at which little Aisha’s marriage to her long-time admirer, that Perfect Man (al-insan al-kamil), Muhammad, was consummated.
It would be foolish and cruel to expect of Iranians that right now, when they are still under the heel of the obvious oppressor, one that readily tortures and murders, that the elite – for the elite are the ones leading the demonstrations – should risk even more by introducing a note that directly questions Islam. But by indirections find directions out, as it says in Shakespeare’s Hamlet – or was it Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh? There is one way, I think, to exploit the enormous national pride of Iranians, a pride that the Ahmadinejad people ignore as they try to become leaders of the Muslims, even the Muslim Arabs, by embracing pan-Islamism and attempting to be the champions of the Arab street (over the hostility of Arab regimes), Sunni as well as Shi’a – especially by being the standard-bearer of the Local and Lesser Jihad against Israel.
Two things suggest themselves as the kind of thing that should now be heard, first a little and thence to more, on the streets of Teheran. One is simply a date: 1906. That is the date of the only Iranian Revolution worth remembering, a revolution undertaken by patriots, members of the educated elite and, above all, secularists who recognized that the problem was Islam. They were forced to recognize this given the obvious wretchedness, back in those days, of the wretched state, the backwardness, of Islam-dominated lands and of Muslims – that there was something about Islam that held their country back. They looked forward, without of course necessarily admitting it even to themselves, to a polity that might come to look something like what the advanced states of the non-Muslim West had created. The 1906 Revolution is not remembered by enough Iranians, however, and it is probably a little too limited in its appeal, and in what it would imply, for it to take off.
So let’s come to the single phrase that more than any other one would – I would, and I hope you would – like to hear shouted by demonstrators, in Iran and outside Iran wherever Iranians gather.
Here is the phrase: “We Are Not Arabs.”
Why is that such a useful phrase?
In the first place, it is not a response to something else. It is a statement, the self-evident truth of which cannot be denied: “We, Iranians, are not Arabs.” No one can say that the Iranians are Arabs, though in a sense Ahmadinejad and his supporters have tried to say that by ignoring Persian pride in having resisted the arabization that usually accompanies islamization.
But of course that phrase is endowed with all kinds of significance.
It plays upon, it appeals to, it reinforces, the contempt (one often expressed to Westerners) by Iranians that “we” (heirs to the civilization of Darius and Cyrus) are not to be confused with “those Arabs” – meaning the primitive desert Arabs, the very Arabs who brought Islam to us. When an educated Iranian at a dinner party in Tehran – or London or Paris or New York – in the old days, insisted to his Western guests or dinner companions that “we Iranians are not Arabs,” he was making clear that Iranians were superior to the Arabs. And what made them superior was that they had a long history that predated Islam, a claim to a civilizational legacy that continued to be visible, could not be wished away, because of all the monuments that had been left behind. And even after Islam arrived, a main theme in the Iranian historical narrative is that of resisting arabization. When Iranian scholars – see for example Fourough – praised and recited, or taught others to recite, from Firdowsi’s Shahnameh, they were also praising, holding up for praise, a work regarded not only as offering a national epic, a history of the Persian kings, but also part of that national epic, the epic of Iran. For Firdowsi himself, through the Shahnameh, is held to have been one of those who prevented the arabization of the language and literature of the Persians. Edward J. Browne’s celebrated work on Persian poetry offers examples, for English readers, of others – Sa’adi, Hafiz, Omar Khayyam (far more famous in the West, and higher in the hierarchy of the West, because of the memorable English poem created from his Rubaiyat by Edward FitzGerald), whose most un-Islamic verse, full of wine and women, are regarded as poetic weapons in the war against the imposition of Arab ways.
Until the Khomeini regime came along, the Iranians were perhaps the non-Arab Muslims most keenly aware of, and worried about, arabization – the Iranian narrative after the arrival of Islam is about efforts to successfully resist that Arabization. For the past 30 years, Iran has been ruled by members of a regime who, in the first place, were helped to power by Arabs – the PLO trained Khomeini’s earliest Sturmgruppen, and Arafat, tellingly, was Khomeini’s first, and most frequently honored, guest after the Ayatollah came to power. And everyone knows that Hizballah has been aiding the Basiji in recent years, whenever some particularly dirty work has to be done, when Iranians themselves might not be willing to act (or so it was fondly thought) against other Iranians.
The statement “We Are Not Arabs” plays to, appeals to, Iranian civilizational pride, a pride or even an arrogance that such observers as J. B. Kelly and Sir Reader Bullard and A.K. S. Lambton all mentioned as a notable feature of the Iranian national character. The Turks, too, just like the Persians, like to tell visiting Westerners “We Are Not Arabs” in order to distance themselves from those whom they historically regarded as uncivilized and primitive “desert Arabs” over whom the Turks had long experience of rule. But the Persians have an added animus: they not only resisted the cultural and linguistic imperialism of the Arabs (see the discussion of Firdowsi, Sa’adi, Hafiz, Khayyam above), but are well aware that much, or most, of what is great in the early centuries of Islam, in what might be called High Islamic Civilization, is – where due not to Christians or Jews or very recently-islamized Christians and Jews — is owed to Persians, some of them a generation or two away from being Zoroastrians, and not to Arabs, though it is the Arabs who have led the world to confuse “Islamic civilization” with “Arab civilization.” That difference is better understood in Teheran or Ispahan or Shiraz or Tabriz than in New York, London, or Paris.
The demonstrators in Iran today consist of the morally and mentally most advanced members of Iranian society still remaining within Iran (many others, of course, live outside Iran). Some of them must surely know about the 1906 Revolution; many of them may now realize that it is not merely this regime, but the “Islamic” aspect of this regime, that accounts for its continuing in power. For while the majority of people everywhere can be said to be politically primitive, there are attempts to improve matters in the non-Islamic lands. In the lands of Islam, the habit of mental submission that Islam encourages, and the insistence that Islam be accepted, and never have any part of it, any of its prohibitions and commandments questioned in the slightest, prevents the exercise of the moral muscles, causing them to atrophy, so that one ends up with widespread support – don’t be fooled by the pictures on YouTube, for the regime has the primitives behind it, and they of course outnumber the best people, the people who are risking their lives on the streets – for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Ayatollah Khamenei, and Mohammad al Jaffari, and Ali Larijani.
During the famous “Prague Spring” of 1968, supporters of Dubcek insisted that “if only Lenin were alive” he wouldn’t stand for it. But Lenin was a monster, and he was built up, in the naÃ¯ve minds of those who could not yet make the complete break with Bolshevism, because by comparison with Stalin he seemed.okay. The same sort of thing is going on now. People say that “if only Moussavi were…” or “if only Montazeri were…” They forget how implicated these people were in the past, in the Islamic Republic and its founding. I suspect that few, nowadays, looking back, would dare to continue to believe that Khomeini himself would have been appalled by what followed. Khomeini would not only not have been appalled, but would be seconding the crackdown, the hard line of the whole ruling class, of Khamenei, Ahmedinajad, Larijani, Mottaki, tutti quanti.
“We Are Not Arabs” takes an emotion that nice people, good people, don’t like to exploit. They don’t want to use, even for the best of causes, anything smacking of ethnic hostility. Too bad. They are quite wrong. In war, especially a war of such seemingly insurmountable odds, where the bully-boys of the Basiji, and the Iranian military, and the ruling class, and the clerisy (at least, that which is still allowed to have power) are all on one side and where, furthermore, the primitive masses cannot be appealed to in any other way except to solicit their shared dislike of, and felt superiority towards, “the Arabs,” this kind of statement should be chanted all over Teheran. What it says, obliquely, about the Arabs who brought “the gift of Islam,” and what it also implies about Islam itself, smuggling in its meaning in the most acceptable fashion, is important. And the best-educated Iranians by now surely know that their hopes for an “Islamic” state in Iran were always based on a misreading of Islam, a misunderstanding of Islam and of those who took it to heart and were formed by it. Somehow, they are going to have to deal with this, the Thing That Cannot Be Discussed.
Well, here’s how Iranians can start discussing it:
“We Are Not Arabs.”