Pity the Nation!
There is a well known phrase in Iranian political culture, repeated over decades: از ماست که بر ماست – it is our own doing. It is saying the people deserve their political system, whatever its nature.
In 1978-79, as a student in political science, I heard it from my Iranian elders, refugees in Europe. They were democrats eager to sketch a few collective scenarios for the improvement of social structures in Iran. In their sixties, they had spent most of their lives in exile, protecting themselves from the dictatorship of the Pahlavi Shahs.
For these lucid men and women, passionately committed to their country’s politics, the growing unrest against the monarchic regime could have been good news. However, the revolution taking place was Islamic, and its leaders were the clerics that have kept a backward religious dogmatism alive for centuries.
As the protests and events in Iran unfolded, some of the exiles, against their better judgment, changed their minds overnight, and become followers of Khomeini, advocating the Velayat-e Faqih. Less than a half a dozen kept to their beliefs, but were soon ostracised by their fellow citizens. Given the choice, the swift change of mind in favour of the mighty and later the ostracism of one’s old mates are symptoms of divisions and poor morale reigning in Iran’s social and political environment – from time immemorial.
At the time, inexperienced as I was, intuitively I liked those who stayed loyal to their principles and did not change their minds from one meeting to the next. Knowledgeable in Persian and Arabic classics and history, they discussed our country with an open mind. Nothing was taboo, least of all the religion and the sex divide in Islamic society. They took time to explain things to me without patronising. The overused expression everybody knows this, which serves to highlight a specious argument, was anathema to them. No one would take personal offence when I would express my unarticulated and different views.
They distrusted the clergy, and were critical of the populist dogmatism and religious superstition. I grew up with my grandparents, seyed/sayyid, in an Iranian province; I had felt and witnessed their resentment for the clerics and their hypocritical practices.
However, I could not bring myself to accept the concept that the people deserve their rulers, as one mate would relentlessly repeat when discussing the Iranian mentality in politics.
At the height of my twenties, I was optimistic, and believed in the goodness of human nature, the civility of culture and the rationality of human logic for betterment.
I was convinced that people would learn fast from their errors, thus avoiding falling into the same trap again. As the Islamic Revolution was galloping toward dictatorship, I naively thought that, surely, soon people would wake up and realise the enormities that Khomeini proffered and see the spreading claws of the new autocratic regime?
Time has proved me wrong. My own experiences of life have made me realise the wisdom that the simple phase it is our own doing carries. As a nation, we are collectively inapt to progress, unable to learn from the past. We have no vision for our future and we would not even dream to take an active part in discussing it.
There are few or no similarities between the path taken in 1979 to overthrow the Shah and today’s protests, except a fundamental one: then the Shah’s dictatorship was hated. The protesters chanted Death to the Shah. Today, the dictatorship hears the mounting voices howling Death to the Dictator.
When we are politically near a precipice, we chant Death to…
We hardly ever give a second thought to the fact that it is our own idolatry of the Leader/dictator that makes him a megalomaniac and then takes us to the edge of the cliff; we hold banners and joyfully jump into the new trap.
In 1979, the clerics were providing an organised structure to amplify and canalise the unleashed social forces. People wanted to believe in Khomeini’s lies as a child would believe in their father’s Christmas tale… so Long life to the Emam.
In 2018, another precipice is awaiting us. But there is no organised structure to unify the scattered demands and protests. A banner under which the confused Iranians can unite does not exist. There is no chant of Long life to…
For now the banners read We want water, We want our wages, We want jobs…
The democratic principles, and the shared responsibility of the citizens to carry them, are not values well understood. Fundamental perspectives on changing society such as questioning the despotism, both domestic and political, are disapproved of, avoided and occasionally feared.
For today’s protesters, a saviour in the form of a new dictator is the only hope of betterment. When it comes, millions of Iranians will take to the streets and chant Long life to him.
What if he does not materialise?
Collusion between Executioner and Condemned
It took the clerics four decades to ruin the country with bombast and mendacity. It took forty years for the people to react, saturated with lies and the sense of desperation.
All those years, the population, submissive as they were, lived by the adage carpe diem. If the repression was too harsh for the individuals to bear, or they simply did not like it, they took refuge elsewhere, mainly in the West. However, instead of finding a consensual banner under which to regroup in safe harbours, they did all they could to amplify their divisions by quarrelling among themselves. After all these years, our politically structured opposition to the theocracy is down to a sectarian Islamist-terrorist group, MEK/People’s Mujahedin of Iran, which lavishly spends money for Western politicians, especially people like John Bolton – a key figure in Trumpian-era démocrature, to speak at its private meetings. MEK presents itself as an alternative to the theocratic regime. The fierceness and assiduity shown by Tehran’s theocracy to eliminate them grant the sectarian group importance. However, both sides are birds of the same feather. Their past cannot not be deleted from memories.
All others who speak out against the Iranian theocratic regime, as respected and knowledgeable as they may be, are isolated and have no impact in building a political movement. The weakness of the diaspora befits the clerics who do not need to divide – division is natural to Iranians – to rule.
In the country, a majority applauded when women, under male guardianship, were forced to wear the hijab and become second-rate citizens. The diehard Shiites rejoiced when Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians were forced to exile and their properties were confiscated. The Baha’is and Sunnis, who are Muslims like the Shiites, among other minorities were barred from performing a long list of jobs in the public sector and lived under the threat of physical harm in the private sector.
In forty years, the Shiites have shrugged off these persecutions, behaving as if they never happened. After all, the facts one chooses to ignore have never happened.
The overwhelming majority of the population did not act to protect the persecuted. They sat on their hands when injustice was obvious and despotism flagrant.
Justice for all! is an Iranian motto. When in despair, they collectively chant it. However, there is no justice unless people learn to defend the fundamental principles that help to get it. Any dictatorship in essence is lawless, as long as one poses as an infallible leader and God’s representative.
Perhaps some were scared of the regime’s reaction, but many, even if they did not approve of the violence, shared the regime’s prejudices toward anything that would not fall under the heading of Persian Shiite, a preposterous and mythical notion of life in Iran. And even then, to the satisfaction of the regime, the infighting has never ceased among them.
Reza Shah, Come Back!
Since January 2018, the protests taking place in most towns have been good news in a sense that at last a majority has woken up to the dreadful abnormalities of the theocratic regime.
The protesters started by chanting slogans against the government and the president, Hassan Rouhani. Emboldened by their nascent courage or desperation, they stepped up and aimed at the Supreme Leader. Death to Dictator was heard and tagged on walls in towns across the country.
However, Death to… is not coupled with a Long life to…
The horrifying reality is obvious to all: there is no consensus as to how to shape the future. So people have looked back to the past: the slogan Reza Shah, Come Back! has been heard loud and clear.
The dream of a secular dictator is reborn.
Reza Khan, backed by the British forces, seized power in 1921, was the First Shah of the Pahlavi dynasty. A despot, he wished to shake the traditional shape of Iranian society by imposing reforms that hurt the clerics and the majority made up of traditionalists. In 1941, as he favoured Nazi Germany, the Allies forced him into exile. He was replaced by his son, Mohammad-Reza, who was overthrown in 1979.
Now that the despotic and the idolatrous Supreme Guide has taken them to the edge of a new political and social precipice, the protestors look back and wish to see a new father figure, a copycat of the past, a secular dictator like Reza Shah.
The Iranians are prisoners of a centralist and authoritarian culture. They praise and adjust to the despotic power of the father and the leader as long as it fits their personal interests. When they enjoy a bit of freedom in private, they are as happy as a teenager who thinks he has outsmarted its despotic parents. However, in public they build an idol from the Leader and let the elitism thrive till the regime is changed with a bang and the idol falls to pieces.
These days, the Icon of God on earth, the Supreme Leader, is in danger of being shattered to pieces. Possibly, when that happens – if that happens is already behind us – the people will rejoice and pee on the fragments as they did in 1979 with the Reza Shah’s remains. In the least bleak scenario, they will erect another idol to follow.
The slogan Reza Shah, Come Back! has given new hope to a little man living in Washington. He is the son of the late Shah, aka Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi, disposed of in 1979.
Void of political understanding and imagination, he is the prisoner of the foolish, but widespread, idea that the clerics, as if aliens from another planet, have stolen the country and that the Iranians, victims of antagonistic forces, should take back their country from them.
He wrote: My compatriots are seeking to end the Islamic Republic not only because the regime is authoritarian, corrupt and ineffective, but because it is a non-Iranian and an anti-Iranian regime.
This idea was much favoured by the Shah’s elite in the early 1980s. It freed them analysing the revolution that they helped to create by stifling the demands of the population, corruption and gross political mistakes.
The supporters of the ancient régime present themselves as the protectors of the victims. I would not believe a word of it.
And, Reza Shah, Come Back! is not a personal call to the grandson of Reza Shah.
The agony of the Iranian nation lies in its mentality. The call for Reza Shah to come back is the voice of rejecting an Islamic dictatorship and wishing for a secular one. The latter would give Iranians a slice of personal freedom and intimacy that the clerics refuse to grant them, with policing everything, even the bedrooms.
As a nation, Iran has not got citizens mature enough to accept the responsibilities of sharing power.
In a clear-cut analysis, Hassan Shariatmadari, briefly discussing a number of revolutions that took place in the 20th century, wrote: We are constantly jumping from one pillar to another pillar. We revolt and demonstrate against the dictators; we are even politically and socially active. But, as soon as the society opens up a little, we fear its freedom and openness, and undermine its foundations. We then push in the path of chaos, waiting and wishing for a new dictator with false promises to materialise.
More than a century ago, Yousuf Khan Mostashar al-Dowleh wrote his pamphlet, One Word /یک کلمه, in which he examined the causes of the Iranian society’s backwardness and sought to find ways out of underdevelopment and tyranny. For him the rule of one word, Law, was fundamental.
Further, Shariatmadari continued: Deep buried in our unconscious, the despotic mentality of each one of us – the Iranians – has not accepted the handover of power from top to bottom, nor has it accepted the division of power with respect to the law. […] Each of us, when the opportunity arises, would bypass the law, since for us, the despotic power is above laws. This collective mentality is the same, and has not budged since the One Word pamphlet. […] This barrier, our mentality, acts as an impenetrable barrier to change in our political and legal system, because the ruling political system is ultimately nothing but the reflection of it. From a jar comes out what is in it.
From a jar comes out what is in it. In other words, از ماست که بر ماست – it is our own doing.
Khalil Gibran wrote:
• Pity the nation that raises not its voice save when it walks in a funeral, boasts not except among its ruins, and will rebel not save when its neck is laid between the sword and the block.
• Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpetings, and farewells him with hootings, only to welcome another with trumpetings again.
(Khalil Gibran, p. 20 – 22, The Gardens of the Prophet, 2000, London.)
We add these to his lines:
• Pity the nation that in any rigged elections would joyfully vote for any inapt and corrupt man to represent it.
• Pity the nation that has not staged a street march to protest against criminalising human rights activism and is mute to the imprisonment of Nasrin Sotoudeh.
• Pity the nation that has already forgotten why Kaveh Madani left Iran and how Kavous Seyed-Emami was killed.
• Pity the nation that does not show that they care for those hanged or to be hanged like Ramin Hossein Panahi.
• Pity the nation where the educated spend hours enthusiastically reading consumer catalogues, and when forced to, the Koran, but would not spend more than a minute holding in their hands One Word /یک کلمه.
• Pity the nation that laughs reading Dai Jan Napoleon, but does not know that he is laughing at himself.
• Pity the nation whose educated people bury their heads in the sand, with some even claiming that the Iranians are standing up to defend democracy.
No! They are standing up because they are economically desperate, socially in agony, and barely surviving the pollution. If another bloody dictator promises them the blue moon, they would cheer him.
There is no quick remedy to changing mentalities enslaved to backward Islam. Therefore, there is no way out of the agony unless we learn to set aside personal gains and favour collective debates. A future dictator would buy time to relaunch a new cycle of despotism but would not let the society better itself.
Our mentalities have barely changed since the The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan was published in the early 19th century and the diary of Mirza Abolhassan Khan Ilchi was written.
Perhaps, and in this I try to rekindle the optimism of my youth, it is not too late to question the mentalities and the denial of realities that the despots thrive on. It would be a starter. Question me again on my views in five years.
Firouz Farzani wrote: “I hope for democratic changes, but…”