Monday, February 15, 2010, Safar 30, 1431 A.H   ISSN 1563-9479
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The News International Pakistan

 Ramifications of the Iranian election
By Ayesha Ijaz Khan
Years ago, an Iranian riddle was narrated to me by my college roommate. It seems to still be relevant, and goes something like this: An American man, an Iranian woman and a British man are riding in a train together. The train is packed and the American sits next to the Iranian woman. The British man sits across from them. The woman is attractive and both men are interested in her. The American is thinking about how to approach the woman when the train enters a long dark tunnel. Whilst in the tunnel, there is a kissing sound followed by a slapping sound. Who kissed whom and who slapped whom, asked my Iranian friend?

I know that Iranians mistrust the British profoundly so I answer that the British man kissed the woman, and she, in turn, slapped the American. ?Ah, but you don?t know the British well enough,? she tells me, ?it is in fact the British man who kissed the woman, but as soon as he did it, he also slapped the American.?

Whenever I had reason to remember this joke, I thought my Iranian roommate gave the British too much credit. But with the recent turmoil in Iran, the BBC?s biased and provocative coverage, the ensuing expulsion of respective diplomats and President Obama?s comparatively measured and mild criticism, I cannot help but think that the deep-seated mistrust the Iranians harbour against the British is once again coming to a head.

There is, however, far more to the post-election mayhem in Iran than western-Iranian relations. Sharp criticism has come from France and Germany while Obama has thus far resisted voices within the United States calling for stronger condemnation. Interestingly, those advocating harsher words belong to both the left and the right in America. While the right, much like Sarkozy and Merkel, is motivated by self-interest and perceives Moussavi as potentially friendlier, the left is more concerned about human-rights violations within Iran and ?preventing another Tiananmen Square,? in the words of one respected analyst.

Obama, it appears nevertheless, realises that confrontation and choosing sides will be counterproductive and give the ruling regime reason to taint its opponents as western-backed. As a veteran journalist of the Urdu press recently remarked, ?even if America touches gold in Pakistan, it turns to dust.? Perception is not much different in the rest of the Muslim world. But Obama does not control the media and large sections of the western press, including American networks, have done more harm than good.

But the culpability and bias of western media cannot detract from the much larger picture. It has been thirty years since the Iranian revolution. Iran?s anti-west credentials are a fait accompli. Moussavi has been prime minister of Iran for eight years in the past. He is no western-backed Shah. His support is rooted in Iranian establishment figures like Rafsanjani. Ahmedinijad has, in all likelihood, won the election, but not by as large a margin as claimed. Opposition to his regime is home-grown and not imported. Until free press, tolerance for dissent, civil liberties and women?s rights are guaranteed, Iran will find it difficult to progress.

What the Iranians accomplished thirty years ago is no small achievement, but in 2009, university students born well after the revolution are looking to move beyond chants of ?Marg bar Amreeka? (Death to America) and are more inclined to conduct an honest analysis of whether mixing religion and politics is beneficial to either. For as Maryam, a 24-year-old student from Tehran writes, ?While I am religious and I believe firmly in Islam, I have lost faith in Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the revolution. I have no trust in Ayatollah Khamenei or his offspring Ahmadinejad? This country needs a proper political leader, not an old cleric or a political child.? Maryam does not describe herself as the typical Moussavi supporter. She not only accepts the hijab, but prefers the full-fledged chador, but Maryam does not believe in imposing her choice on others. ?People who judge me from my appearance presume that I am a fundamentalist conservative?an Ahmedinijad voter,? she says. ?But I gave my vote to Moussavi?.so our youth could have more freedom?.express their ideas, wear what they want.?

While in Pakistan Ahmedinijad is often glorified by many for his confrontational attitude with the west, I suspect that within Iran there is a growing group that looks upon this constant resistance as a diversionary tactic taking attention away from more pressing domestic concerns of reform to fulfil dreams from the revolution.

In a recent conversation with Hamid, an Iranian from Shiraz who drives a cab in London and regularly takes me to and from the airport, I was not surprised to learn that he voted for Moussavi, but of his mistrust of the government. Two days before the election, as he drove me to Gatwick, he said, ?I will take my own pen when I vote because I don?t trust them. My friends in Iran say that if I use their pen, they will erase my vote and write in the name of Ahmedinijad.?

Hamid?s father was a schoolteacher in Shiraz. His family supported the revolution. ?My mother is a very religious person,? he tells me. ?She used to wear the chador even before the revolution. She was very fond of Ayatollah Khomeini, even though my grandfather was always skeptical. But after the revolution, she felt cheated when they banned all other political parties. She felt so cheated that she never voted again.?

Hamid goes on to point out other flaws. ?Soon after the revolution Iraq attacked us. They were supported by the whole world and we fought alone. Yet, in two years, we had taken back all our land but our leaders continued the war for six more years. They could have ended it sooner. Less Iranians would have died. But they wanted to march to Karbala and then liberate Palestine. I feel sorry for the Palestinian people, but before we help them we need to help ourselves. Ahmedinijad is making investments in Somalia. Building roads there?-what about us? In every village in Iran, they have built only a big mosque. In every tiny village, a mosque is the first thing you see, but there is no hammam (public bath) to wash up before you go to the mosque.?

Hamid has a point. I wonder why the MMA government never built any hammams either. Cleanliness is as much a part of Islam as prayer, yet so many Pakistanis don?t get running water at home. In these conditions, public hammams, in keeping with Islamic tradition and with separate timings for men and women, would have been a good contribution from the MMA. But we can only expect such constructive thinking if we get out of our self-defeating ?let?s blame everything on the west? mode.

Barring few notable exceptions, western analysts delude themselves on Iran. Taking cues from the large Iranian diaspora that left Iran with the Shah and confining themselves to North Tehran where the revolution never gained currency, they can wait around for their Iranian counterrevolution. But that is not the source of Ahmedinijad?s worry, and he knows it. The source is far more indigenous. It is the very fact that tolerance for suppression of dissent is waning. There are serious schisms within the regime and within Iran?s power centre. This is bound to happen thirty years on from the revolution. If dissent is not allowed proper political expression and civil liberties are denied to the Iranian people, the moral authority which has historically legitimised the post-revolution Iranian power centre is bound to further erode.

The Iranian example is no doubt instructive for other countries of the Islamic world, including Pakistan. If Islam is to find political expression and compete successfully with secular alternatives, it will have to incorporate modern-day, universally accepted democratic norms, or suffer by comparison.

The writer is a London-based lawyer-turned-political commentator. Website:
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