Iran Fails Again Melik Kaylan
One worries that the coup in Iran--for that is what it is--will not produce a life-affirming, decisive upsurge of popular revolt against the unshaven charlatans in charge. Iranian citizens have disappointed the rest of the world ad seriam in recent decades, and ultimately, tragically, one suspects they are not about to change their habits this time around.
Iran really is another civilization altogether, sui generis and oddly asymmetrical to other cultures. The Turks have lived beside them and with them--almost a third of Iranians are said to be ethnically Turkic--for millennia, not just in Turkey but throughout Central Asia, and even Turks don't understand Iran. What is one to make of a population that marched into martyrdom against the Shah and then against Saddam Hussein, yet has left the mullahs in place for 30 years?
The last time I visited Tehran (as opposed to other provinces) some six years ago I was charmed, like other Western visitors, by the highly cultivated good manners everywhere on display. I went for the Wall Street Journal to cover a cultural event and traveled in the guise of an ordinary tourist. It's easy to make friends with Iranians. Women walk up to you in the street to chat--an utterly unique experience in the Muslim world. Men quote poetry to each other. People newly met extend invitations to their homes and lives, and apparently into their thoughts. I had just visited another, more dangerous Muslim country for which I'd grown suitable facial hair. The reception girl at my hotel pointed to it and said, "It's not nice." From shopkeepers to restaurant waiters, one and all seemed to deplore the ukases of mullahs and basijis and kleptocrats. Yet they have ultimately allowed the likes of Khamenei, Rafsanjani, Khatami and Ahmadinejad to endure. While the pretend electorate let successive pretend governments persist in their mutual masquerade, the barely hidden deep state has dug ever deeper foundations of power.
Many have tried to push from within--trade unionists, students, journalists-- only to find themselves truncheoned down and buried away in the warren of secret gulags run by the various para-gendarmeries attached to real power. The Web site co-founded by Ramin Ahmadi (who has written for Forbes on the election), the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center offers a chilling anatomy of the entire complex. Yet none of the protest and sacrifice has reached critical mass. The regime has ingeniously tinkered with populist sentiment to keep it off the boil or to redirect it--from the Iran-Iraq war to the nuclear issue. Throughout, it has tried to present itself as an equal and opposite force to Israel, with the inbuilt message that Iran's regime is at least as legitimate as Israel's, therefore anyone undermining Iran is doing so not for Iran's faults but for Israel's sake. Most Iranians don't buy that any more than Soviet citizens ultimately bought the capitalist bogeyman as the cause of all their ills. Yet the Soviet police state collapsed while the hirsute police state of Iran endures.
One resorts to neologisms and euphemisms for the Iranian regime because Ahmadinejad's sustained presence in power has altered the regime's complexion--you can't quite call it a full-scale mullahcracy any longer. Indeed, several of the top mullahs now find themselves threatened by the very state they upheld, not least the former presidential mullahs Khatami and Rafsanjani, who supported Mousavi, the challenger to Ahmadinejad. Khatami and Rafsanjani, like Stalin's henchmen Kirov, Beria and the like, have found that dictatorships sooner or later consume their enforcers.
To be sure, the West has played its part, as it always does, with foreign policy blunders and live-and-let-live intellectual arguments. In the former category, one can point to a long list of wrong turns: the neglect of Afghanistan, which allowed Iran to consolidate influence over non-Sunni Afghans, thereby giving Tehran leverage over U.S. moves in Kabul; the unopposed resurgence of Russia in the Caucasus, which gave Moscow counter-leverage against the West in Iran; and the many misjudgments in Iraq, especially America's mishandling of relations with Turkey, a country which has always functioned as a counterweight to Persian power in the region.
In the latter category of intellectual offenders, one always finds the predictable host of what you might, at a stretch, call neo-Fabians after the British socialist movement--always more ingenious, more humanist-than-thou--who focus on Western polemical inconsistencies rather than a rogue regime's horrors. My colleague Reihan Salam in this section cites the example of Noah Feldman: "Last year, Noah Feldman, a professor at Harvard Law School with a longstanding interest in religion and public life, published a provocative book called The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State. Rather than condemn contemporary Islamist political movements outright, Feldman placed them in a broader historical context."
I might add the example of Reza Aslan, the highly presentable young operator (and author) of Iranian-American background upon whom our institutions--even the Daily Show--have showered legitimacy. Last week, Aslan was featured in a one-on-one interview with Vishakha Desai for an entire evening at New York's Asia Society, in which he rehearsed his usual list of provocative nostrums to the delight of the audience--that Iran is a real democracy whether we like it or not, that Islam has been living through a reformation for over a century, and so on. The first assertion I leave the reader to consider. The second, though, is worth a detour.
Aslan's argument on Islam's reformation can be found in many interviews published on the Web. Here's one from Los Angeles CityBeat, in which he asserts in his usual way that, contrary to Western assumptions, Islam's reformation is fully underway because Muslims have pushed aside priesthoods and institutions and turned directly to holy scripture to exercise individual conscience in the way that Martin Luther did.
You could equally argue that Muslims in recent years have largely done the opposite. Since the post-World War I collapse of the Ottoman caliphate ushered out the ulema, the Islamic order of official jurists who determined the correct interpretation of scripture for rulers and citizens alike, no such priestly institution has existed--except in Iran, which has invented an entirely new and comparable hierarchy with all those Ayatollahs and Hojatelislams codifying daily conduct according to holy text.
Furthermore, the standard ideology of most Sunni Islamists includes a program for resurrecting the Caliphate and its attendant priesthood. Finally, most Muslims don't read scripture directly, because the vast majority--Indonesians, Pakistanis, Malaysians etc.--don't understand Arabic. The Quran is meant to be God's word literally, and may not be understood except in the original. Most Muslims therefore have to trust the word of their Hoja, the Mosque preacher--exactly the condition of Christians before the Reformation. To be precise, and pace Aslan, Islam is undergoing a counter-reformation without having lived through a reformation. When will our bien pensant institutions resist the suave appeal of the "useful idiots" in our midst?
Meanwhile, Iranian citizens can help spur a true Reformation in Islam by sweeping away their turbaned and bearded tormentors back to the moderation of the cloister. They have the good taste, cultural depth and independence of mind to see the absurdity of their condition. Where is their collective courage? One might remind them (with a slight alteration) of Omar Khayyam's words: "Think, in this batter'd Caravanserai / Whose Doorways are alternate Night and Day / How Mullah after Mullah with his Pomp
Abode his Hour or two / and went his way."