TitleInterview with Hamid Dabashi on Iranians' quest for democracy

Iran’s Green Movement is perfectly alive and well

22 May 2011

■ Shervin Nekuee
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Hamid Dabashi is Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. He has written 20 books and over 100 essays, articles and book reviews on subjects ranging from Iranian Studies, medieval and modern Islam, comparative literature, world cinema, and the philosophy of art (trans-aesthetics). His book Iran, The Green Movement and the USA: The Fox and the Paradox (Zed Books, 2010) was published in 2010. (for more information visit the offical website of Hamid Dabashi (http://www.hamiddabashi.com/)

Professor Dabashi, thank you for being with us. Almost two years ago, you wrote in an article entitled ‘People power’ that the biggest winner of Iran’s 2009 presidential election is the Iranian people and their democratic aspirations. You also wrote that Ayatollah Khamenei was the greatest loser of that election, because the process of election and massive participation of people (not its fraudulent result) proves the will and capability of Iranian citizens and their democratic intelligence, which makes Velayat-e Faqih and his guiding disposition irrelevant and obscure within Iranian society. Two years later, the what you called (latent) winners and losers are apparently in inverse positions. Ali Khamenei looks more powerful than ever and there is no sign of manifest power of people in terms of civil disobedience, demonstrations or strikes, or news about construction of new political networks and organizations to empower political activism.
Is the Green Movement dead? Is this the beginning of a new long season of disillusion in Iran, like we have been experiencing in the last century time after time with the return of dictatorship after a short time of hope for freedom – like after the Constitutional Revolution, after the Musaddiq government, and after the first year of the 1979 Revolution?

HD: I must first begin by saying that I do agree with your summary of my thoughts two years ago about the Green Movement, but disagree with your characterization of our current condition. Two years into the commencement of the Green Movement, and even before the rise of the Arab Spring, which will have an enduring effect on it, there are so many achievements that it will take me a long time just to enumerate them. So no: the Green Movement is not dead. It is perfectly alive and well. You just need to have a sharper set of antennae to receive its signals. Before anything else, you must remember that social movements have their own innate logic, which are by definition societal and collective. We must try to decipher that inner logic and not assimilate these movements backward to things we know from similar events. The Green Movement as a social fact is far ahead of our analytical capabilities, and we as analysts, or historians, or theorists, are lagging behind the factual evidence of our own people who have courageously and creatively launched this movement. The reality of this movement in my judgment is far richer than the poverty of our philosophy can afford fathoming. With that in mind, let’s look at the achievements of the Green Movement a bit more closely. At this moment, the illegitimacy of the Islamic Republic as a state apparatus is even more exposed for the whole world to see (especially in the Arab and Muslim world) than it was two or twenty or thirty years ago. The halo of sanctity it had falsely manufactured around itself has disappeared, and its propaganda machinery, once boasting with thinkers like Abdolkarim Soroush and filmmakers like Mohsen Makhmalbaf, is now reduced to the combined banality of Fatemeh Rajabi, Mohammad Javad Larijani, Hossein Shariatmadari, Sa’id Tajik, and Mohammad Marandi. This is the level and the capacity of the best that the Islamic Republic can mobilize to defend itself in the realm of ideas, intelligence, and argument. The juridically manufactured institution of Velayat-e Faqih with which the Islamist Sultanism has sought to give itself a Shi’i disposition is even more exposed for its outdated and banal character than ever before. I do not attribute the rise of the Arab Spring entirely to the Green Movement, but I do believe that they both stem from identical, unstoppable, and open-ended modes of defiance. The Green Movement has even more importantly succeeded in retrieving and exposing, in the public domain and discursive registers, our innately worldly and cosmopolitan political culture in a manner that undermines the militant Islamism of the regime. The sham of the Islamic Republic stealing and distorting a worldly and robust political culture via a brutal Islamization of our multifaceted and polyfocal political culture is more than ever before evident for the whole world to see. The absence of street demonstration is no indication that the repressive organs of the Islamic Republic have succeeded in suppressing the civil rights movement. Quite to the contrary: that suppression has in fact ever more powerfully rooted it in richer and more robust soil, resulting in sweeter and shapelier fruits. All it took was one simple question, “Where is my vote,” and the Islamic Republic was forced to expose all its ugly and brute force for the whole world to see. After that inaugural question, the Green Movement went through three successive and crucial stages of street demonstrations, discursive elaboration, and now being linked to the Arab Spring. So we have every reason to be optimistic and celebratory rather than disillusioned. Not only we are not reverting back to the aftermath of the Constitutional Revolution or Mossadegh’s era. In fact we are not even back to the Reformist era of Khatami’s period. By virtue of the Green Movement, and precisely because of the courageous stands and public pronouncements of both Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi (as well as many others—from Zahra Rahnavard, Mostafa Tajzadeh, Fakhr al-Sadat Mohtashamipour, and Mohammad Nourizad, to Mansur Osanlou, Majid Tavakoli, Bahareh Hedayat, Ahmad Zeidabadi, Jafar Panahi, Shirin Ebadi, and Nasrin Sotudeh, and many others) we have witnessed a whole new episode in our social history. We have every reason to celebrate the achievements of the Green Movement and charge ahead.

All it took was one simple question: “Where is my vote”

Does the Green Movement have a common and coherent strategy these days? If so, how would you define it? If not, is this bad? If not, why not? And if it is bad, how we can change this situation?

HD: No it does not have a common and coherent strategy. But neither did the Tunisian or Egyptian revolution. They both unfolded spontaneously and progressed apace until they achieved a certain stage of their objectives, which was the toppling of the top dictators. By the same token that the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions are not over yet, and those of Syria, Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen have just started, the Green Movement in Iran will go through various phases in terms at once domestic to the Iranian scene and yet responsive to the democratic uprisings in the region. “It,” meaning the Green Movement, is a living organism, and as such it cannot have a “common and coherent strategy”, which usually comes from a single or organized leadership. We do not have such a leadership in the Green Movement, and as I have said from the outset this is both a social fact and a good fact. Even those who think they oppose the Islamic Republic, or particularly those who think they oppose the Islamic Republic, they in fact mimic its history and in the heart of their heart are wishing for a Khomeini sitting under an apple tree in the suburb of Paris and calling the shots in Iran. They must correct their lenses; not the Green Movement cutting and pasting itself to their distorted and crooked vision. You do not impose on a massive social uprising your particular failures in a dead and decayed past, as I see some retiring revolutionaries do in Europe, still clinging to the outdated memory of this or that runaway president or failed cult. You must try to understand the specific social characteristic of a movement made up almost entirely of a new generation. If you think that if Bani-Sadr, for example, had remained the president, this or that would have happened, and thus thirty years later are still trying to find a parking place on that crossroad, then you are out to lunch in more than one sense and entirely ignorant of how to read the Green Movement. The Green Movement has its own innate logic and rhetoric and cannot be reduced to anything before it, including and in particular the Reformist Movement of the Khatami era. We have witnessed a massive transformative uprising that has pushed forward our political culture by leaps and bounds. This uprising does not have a “strategy” because fortunately it does not have a leader, an ideology, a political party in the standard understanding of these terms. It has a social logic of its own, a collective memory it has heroically construed, a societal disposition of its own, and it continues to guide itself by virtue of that very nature. This does not make the movement ineffective. It makes it grassroots, enduring, multifaceted, rich, diversified, unstoppable, and open-ended. You cannot understand this movement with the limited vocabulary of hitherto retired revolutionaries of bygone ages. What will change this situation is not any “strategy” that we might fathom, but the fact that the three grassroots movements—labor, women, and students— that gave political rise to the Green Movement in the first place, will now continue to work their innate logic out and at one and the same time sustain the uprising and exacerbate the crisis-ridden disposition of the misbegotten Islamic Republic. By “strategy” you man more when and how will the regime collapse; whereas I have always said and continue to say that this movement is not geared either to uphold or to dismantle this regime? It is already ahead of this regime. The continuation or collapse of this regime is entirely inconsequential to the principal objectives of this movement, which is achieving them apace, if you learned its innate logic and did not impose on it your own cliché-ridden definition of a “revolution,” or “reform.” This movement has left even Khatami (which is closest but not integral to it) behind, let alone Bani-Sadr or Masoud and Maryam Rajavi, or the late Shah’s son Reza Pahlavi. The movement itself, of course, not these retired expatriate revolutionaries who get up in the morning, write an opinion piece out of their tired old cliché frustrations for one website or another insisting that this is a “revolution” and not a “reform”—which means their limited critical imagination can only zigzag for or against Khatami. In short, we need not change the situation, as you say. The situation is changing itself. We must just recognize the change and mark and identify and celebrate and push it forward. The structural crises of the Islamic Republic are definitive to the labor, women, and student movements—and these three movements are leading this uprising, not by any set strategy, but by the fact of their economic, social, and political realities.

We must never wait. We must always think and act.

Do we have to wait for a new street politics-momentum or should one think of how to create this momentum?

HD: We must never wait. We must always think and act. Street politics has its place and we may yet again witness its resurgence. But at this point far more important is the centrality of the three grassroots movements I mentioned: labor, women, and students. These are the enduring institutions of democratic uprising that will continue to corrode into the banality of the Islamic Republic. Soon after the 14 February 2011 street demonstrations I said that the Green Movement has entered a more radical phase. By this radical phase I do not mean blind acts of violence. I mean the endemic and structural crises of the Islamic Republic have now achieved a public forum, a public voice, a public space, and thus any single labor unrest, any single women’s rights issue, and every single student act of defiance will be collectively registered on that matrix and push the movement forward. Mousavi and Karroubi meanwhile have said much, have opened the horizon beyond anything that even Khatami could have had the courage to imagine, and while silenced and in custody, they remain the most eloquent voices of this uprising.

The Islamic Republic has died before its death

Some commentators are emphasizing that one should look at things in the long run and work on creating and cultivating the culture of freedom in Iran instead of focusing on challenging and overturning the Islamic Republic and its political structure in the short run. What is to be done in your view?

HD: We have a perfectly robust “culture of freedom.” Like any other culture we have our own flaws. But that does not mean we are constitutionally incapable of democracy, or that we have a “Jame’eh Kolangi/Makeshift Society,” as it has been suggested—in a moment of bizarre self-Orientalization. We must relentlessly challenge the Islamic Republic, its very foundation, its having brutally distorted our political culture, its sustained history of one atrocity after another—university purges, cultural revolutions, mass executions, forced exiles, etc. In challenging the very foundation of the Islamic Republic, we ordinary folks must understand our immense power. We ordinary people, citizens of our future republic, are far more powerful than all the organs of the Islamic Republic put together. For every execution that they have done over the last two years, we have scandalized them globally and thus prevented ten other executions. Hadi Qaemi is an infinitely superior defender of human rights in Iran that Mohammad Javad Larijani. Every political activist they have put to jail and sought to silence has in fact become far more eloquent in his or her denunciation of this brutality. Jafar Panahi is under indictment and his film was just screened for the whole world to see at Cannes. I assure you, Panahi has never been more popular, his films more widely seen, his cinema more dear to his people, his vision more globally shared. The Green Movement has at once ennobled and enabled us all. Every single Iranian in every single city around the global is infinitely more powerful in representing the realities of our homeland than the entire foreign ministry of the Islamic Republic. It is we, ordinary people, not the Islamic Republic, who are opposing the imposition of sanctions on our homeland, and scandalize the neocon comprador intellectuals who go to the US government and ask it to impose “crippling sanctions” on our brothers and sisters. It is we, not the Islamic Republic, who are opposing war, protecting the territorial integrity of our country in the international community, and denouncing covert operations against our country. We are enabled; we have taken possession of our homeland; we have become agential—and you ask if the Green Movement has failed? Outdated and banal political organizations, the byproducts of the Islamic Republic itself, are exposed for the bankruptcy of their ideas and practices. We are practicing the culture of freedom, dreaming big dreams, signing more liberating songs, painting more beautiful pictures, making more ennobling films—and you ask if the Green Movement has failed? The factual reality of the outdated and banal institutions of the Islamic Republic from the office of the supreme leader to any other institution is entirely useless in upholding the national and global integrity of our country, our homeland, our culture, and by the same token we have become actors of our own destiny. This to me is an infinitely superior achievement than any so-called “revolution” that might result in any one of these retired and corrupt “revolutionaries”—employed by or collaborating with the neocon chicaneries of Europe or US—to come to power in Iran. We must be happy and delighted that precisely because of the prolonged and healthy unfolding of the Green Movement grand charlatans working for such Zionist and neocon outlets as WINEP or Hoover Institute, and thus promoting the interests of US and Israel, are exposed for what they are. Imagine if the catastrophic ideas and aspirations dominant in the Bush Institute were to be the result of a revolution or a regime change. Imagine if the criminal consequences of a neoliberal economics were to be the highest aspiration of a regime change in Iran. What then? I believe it is infinitely better for us to dissect and understand these issues right here and right now while we are laying the foundations of our democratic future. Neither inside Iran nor outside Iran has the Islamic Republic managed to prevent a single production and dissemination of critical ideas we need to cultivate an convey. Look at the magnificent letters that are sent to and are coming out of Evin and Kahrizak, poetry and courage that comes out of Kurdistan, exquisite works of journalism that Fereshteh Ghazi is doing in covering the victims of executions in Iran. Give me one Fereshteh Ghazi, one Akbar Ganji, one Jafar Panahi, one Mostafa Tajzadeh, one Mehrangiz Kar, one Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani—and you can keep all these Che Guevara wannabes to yourself. Through the globalized media we are now connected as we have never been. Look at your own TehranReview, or even the binary opposition between Jaras and Khodnevis. Look at the magnificent work of Mana Neyestani. We are home. This is where we want to be. The Islamic Republic is entirely irrelevant and inconsequential, and under the pressure of its own innate paradoxes it will collapse. Meanwhile we must do more of what we are doing. Live our lives, fight our battles, love our homeland, educate the next generation, and make the Islamic Republic even more irrelevant to our future than it is. The Islamic Republic has died before its death. Meanwhile Jafar Panahi is making films, Mohammad Reza Shajarian is singing, Mohsen Namjoo is composing, Shahin Najafi is rapping, Fereshteh Ghazi is reporting, Akbar Ganji is investigating, Mana Neyestani is drawing, Termeh is painting . . . and in and for all of us in the mountains of Kurdistan Farzad Kamangar is teaching our grandchildren.

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