lessons from Iran

June 19th, 2009

        Twitter seems to have found a calling that no one saw coming – it's helping loosen the grip a totalitarian regime has on tens of millions of lives.

What's going on in Iran right now is unprecedented on multiple levels, but the most surprising is the role Twitter is playing in allowing any flow of information at all out of Iranian cities. It's still fucking Twitter so there's tons of mis- and disinformation to sort through, but somewhere within all the noise is the reality of what's going on. And Twitter certainly realizes this, they rescheduled a crucial network upgrade to prevent a tweet blackout which would've effectively cut Iranians off from the world.

In the same way that during Katrina messageboards and other online forums filled in the gigantic gaps left by the mainstream media, Twitter's #iranelection feed has become almost the only source of information as foreign press broadcasts are being shut down and censorship closes its grip on the throat of the media. And the collective wisdom seems to be effectively singling out who the reputable tweeters really are.   Twitter has officially proved it's potential to change the way everyone approaches the world.

Facebook is easy to block, email addresses have very limited distribution and can easily be choked off, but with Twitter one person can instantly reach millions and millions of potential viewers through a computer, phone, or anything else with a keyboard.

Most of the incredible pictures from inside the protests originally found their way out of Iran via Twitter. (That first picture is of a protester, in the green t-shirt, helping an injured member of the riot police, in ghetto Robocop.)

The online hacking community is rallying against the Iranian regime, there's a good beginner's guide from boingboing, and also some cyberwar guidelines from another site. Even something as small as changing your Twitter location and timezone to Iran can help.

And, par for the course given how financial news is reported, the best source for a summary of what's going on isn't anything from the mainstream media, but from the website of some Fark user.

Without the printing press there probably never would've been a Protestant Reformation, and it's looking like that without Twitter the fate of Iran's people may have been very different.   There's even speculative evidence that the birth of the alphabet itself was linked to the Jewish rebellion that led to the Biblical Exodus.  Yeah, that Exodus – archelogicial evidence shows the alphabet traveling along the same path the Hebrews took out of Egypt, and so one theory is that the alphabet itself may have begun as a way to encode messages.

The internet's changed a lot of things, the way we keep in touch with old classmates, the way we kill time, the way books find their way into the world – and now it's playing a role in the way a  nattion struggles for its fate.

If nothing else, the ongoing struggle in Iran should highlight the fact that Fareed Zakaria doesn't have any idea what in the fuck he's talking about. 

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        In the June 1st edition of Newsweek, Zakaria wrote a column that was featured on the cover,  carrying the headline "Everything You Know About Iran Is Wrong."   Of the three points Zakaria made, one is pretty much irrelevant at this point – whether or not Iran's government is ready to deal, which has since been overtaken by events.

But the other two points he made are indefensibly wrong. 

One was labeled "Iran Isn't A Dictatorship."  Even before the current crisis which has made it clear that Iran was actually a lot closer to a dictatorship than anyone thought, Zakaria then goes on to state that Iran is in fact an oligarchy.  That's patently absurd.

Iran has been a totalitarian theocratic regime since the '79 revolution.  Sure there's an oligarchical mood to the totalitarian regime, but omitting the totalitarian nature of the Iranian government is an incredible omission.  Totalitarian regimes are characterized by being entirely controlled by one overreaching ideology, which controls everything from education to dress codes to political offices.  Besides the dress code we've all seen, students in Iran regularly answered questions on their biology tests with "because Allah designed it that way."  Kansas should be so lucky.

It's true that Iran "Isn't a Dictatorship," but it is not a simple oligarchy.  It's a totalitarian theocracy, leading up to this crisis no one was sure exactly who had what power, but labeling Iran an oligarchy and leaving it at that is straight wrong.  Ancient Greece was an oligarchy, categorizing Iran as one and leaving it at that is extraordinarily obtuse. 

The other assertion that Zakaria makes is even more wrong, but requires a more delicate treatment.

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        Refuting the idea that Iranians are suicidal is a strawman from the get go.  And it's a stupid strawman, as Zakaria was responding to Benjamin Netanyahu's statement that the Iranian regime is "a messianic, apocalyptic cult."  Netanyahu didn't call Iranians suicidal, just the men in charge of their totalitarian government.  Asserting that the leaders of the theocratic regime are members of a messianic, apocalypic cult is not calling all Iranians suicidal.

But that's besides the point.

Iranians, as a whole, are not suicidal.  But the concept of suicide does play a much stronger role in their national ethos than it does in almost any other nation's. 

This is because Iran is almost entirely Shia, and for the most part Shia Islam is to Iran what Judiasm is to Israel.  It's also important to point out that Iranians are Persian and not Arab like most of the rest of the Muslim Middle East, but the special place suicide plays in Shia Islam bears exploration given recent events.

There are a lot of ways to distinguish Shia Islam from the majority Sunni, but one of the more telling ones is to examine their holidays.  Both share Ramandan, but after that Shia Islam's Easter is a holiday named Ashura.  Ashura, literally just "The Tenth" in Arabic, commemorates the death of Muhammad's grandson Imam Husayn ibn Ali, at the Battle of Karbala on the tenth day of the Islamic month of Muharram in 680 AD.

What's unique about his death is exactly how he went out – not just dying in battle, but dying  in a military battle that's most often described as a massacre along with thousands of his followers after refusing to surrender to overwhelming odds.  As such, his death is most often labeled a martyrdom when referred to within the context of Islam… but in a sense, he ordered his followers to commit suicide alongside himself. 

An action which is commemorated every year at Ashura.

And on the simplest level what makes Shia Islam different from Sunni is that they believe religious authority rests with Ali's lineage, that his choices are the hallmark every Muslim should aspire to.

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        So Iran is a nation full of Shia Muslims, who celebrate Ashura – commemorating the death of the prophet Muhammad's grandson after ordering his side to charge against insurmountable odds – as the highest holiday only behind Ramadan.  And for Ashura, they don't exactly hold Macy's  Day Parades:

Iranians hold parades where men of all ages march and flagellate themselves for hours and hours at a time, as a thanksgiving and celebration of the deaths their forebears willingly rode to.  This isn't an alien concept to the West – military heroes, starting with Thermopylae, have alwa
ys been renowned for their willingness to face certain death.

But neither Christmas nor Easter have anything to do with a military encounter.  Islam is unique in that it is tied to military conquest in a matter that no other great world religion is.   And Shia identity is inexorably tied to the willingness to face certain death when you're fighting for a just cause.

Which brings us to today.

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        During Friday's sermon, the Grand Ayatollah Khameini accused the uprising of being anti-Islamic, and leveled the not-really veiled threat that anyone partaking in any further protests could be put to the sword.  There are already widespread reports of dozens of deaths, and hundreds being dragged away to be tortured.  The protesters aren't simply trying to get rid of Ahmadinejad, they're attempting to overthrow the entire regime – the entire system of governance:

Here are the 7 demands that are distributed by pamphlets to protesters:

1. Dismissal of Khamenei for not being a fair leader
2. Dismissal of Ahmadinejad for his illegal acts
3. Temporary appointment of Ayatollah Montazeri as the Supreme Leader
4. Recognition of Mousavi as the President
5. Forming the Cabinet by Mousavi to prepare for revising the Constitution
6. Unconditional and immediate release of all political prisoners
7. Dissolution of all organs of repression, public or secret.

This isn't about rotating the totalitarian leadership around, it's about overthrowing it entirely.

And during Friday's prayer, the current Supreme Leaders made it clear that any further protests could legally and morally (in his opinion) be met with death. 

Which is where Karbala comes in. 

Violent repression is going to happen.  The Basij, Iran's SS alongside the Pasadran, gained noteritery during the Iran-Iraq war when tens of thousands of them went to their death by acting as human minesweepers and tank fodder.  They are not afraid of death.

And if you want a better understanding of what's going on in Iran, listen to Reza Aslan, the author of the brilliant history of Islam No god but God.  Unlike Zakaria who is Indian (dot not feather), Aslan is a native Iranian with an instinctual understanding of his nation.

For your average Shia Iranian, to die for a cause greater than yourself – especially when it has a higher religious and political significance, is something they've been attuned to since birth.  Fighting back against impossible odds, being willing to die for the continuation of a great good is not something Iranians are going to shy away from.

We share many things, but we do not share the same culture.  We are not wired the same way. 

When a nation of children grow up doing Easter Egg hunts to commemorate a religious holiday, their approach to the world is very different than children who grow up doing this on religious holidays:

This weekend, and the next few weeks, hold the potential to bottle up the death and mayhem our Western Revolutions took years to produce into a matter of  days.

(If you're interested in learning more about social
unrest and terrorism, please return to Tremble the Devil's homepage.)

Category: current affairs 3 comments »

3 Responses to “lessons from Iran”

  1. Jim S.

    The cultural differences between the west and Iran and indeed striking. One gains a clearer understanding of how they think and act. It appears from this article that the average Iranian will commit to fight to the death for freedom and the end of this repressive and brutal Islamic regime. If so, the U.S. Should be pleased. The U.S. should also use this lesson in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as in Iraq.

  2. CJB287

    Just a point of clarification on Zakaria’s background: Just because he is from India does not mean he is not familiar with the details of Shiism, especially when you take into consideration that he is, in fact, not Hindu but an Ishmaeli Shia. Yeah I’d say he was raised with as good an understanding of Shiism as Reza Aslan…
    And the assertion that the leaders of Iran are suicidal is a farce. They, like the leaders of any nation, have a vested interest in seeing their political entity and their own power endure whatever events may transpire – i.e. they are, at their fundamental level, realists (albeit realists who like to obscure their realism with the thin veneer of ideology). The Basij, with their plastic keys to the gates of heaven, may be suicidal but not the leaders. If they were so suicidal, why have they not given chemical and biological weapons to Hezbollah to use on Israel? Better still, why have they themselves not launched an outright offensive military attack against Israel? After all, what better way to bring about the reemergence of the 12th Imam than to destroy that nation which is the most striking abomination in his eyes?
    Islam is tied to the military unlike any other religion in the world? Did you forget about that whole period of the crusades? What about the Children’s crusade, which can best be compared to Khomenei’s invocation of the Basij to charge the minefield of Iraq? No, Islam is tied to the military just like any other religion in the world has been at some point in its history. It’s simply a matter of Islam being 500 years younger than Christianity, and not enjoying the modernized environment for evolution – and superpower endorsement (i.e. Constantine’s Rome) – that gives it the appearance of being “stuck.”
    As for the 7 points distributed to protesters, are you asserting that these are given out at every protests? Because, like the student protests of 1997, not every protester is agitating for complete dismemberment of the system – in fact, it is probably a minority; including elements of dissident groups such as the MEK.
    And to classify Iran as an oligarchical system in no way precludes the totalitarian nature of that system. Although, totalitarian no longer seems an apt description of Iran post-Khatami – authoritarian seems more in-line with modern Iran. But Iran is assuredly oligarchical, a fact which will be bore out in days to come as Rafsanjani will demonstrate that the Supreme Leader is in fact not allowed to operate with impunity. Oligarchy is type of system, totalitarianism (your assertion) or authoritarianism (my assertion) is mechanism and extent of control, and theocracy is the ideology underpinning that system and mechanism of control (although, again, realism not theocracy has always been the order of the day for the Suprmeme Leader).
    Iranian politics, like those of the U.S., is based on a system of checks and balances – just far more complex and convoluted than that established by our Consitution.

  3. TrembleTheDevil

    Right, I never said Zakaria is clueless about Shiism only that Reza Aslan is a much better source, and that Zakaria’s recent piece had some intrinsic logical weaknesses.
    And I didn’t make the assertion that the Regime’s leaders were members of a suicidal cult, only pointing out that Netanyahu called the leadership suicidal and not every Iranian, as Zakaria conflates.
    I’ve written a lot about Islam, check out “dreamers of the day” on the PAGES are on the left. Islam is more tied to the military than any other major religion because Muhammad was a military leader, while Christ was not. Sure, later Christianity was coopted by imperial powers as an excuse for military action, but Islam is unique among religions in how from it’s very start it’s tied to the military and politics.
    It’s not all that hard to make the argument that “Muhammad would have killed this person,” because Muhammad did kill plenty of people in battle, but it’s about impossible to make the argument that “Jesus would have killed this person.”
    The italicized points from the pamphlets was from the link I referenced earlier, but I re-linked it to make this clearer.
    Calling Iran’s regime (up until this election) an oligarchy is wrong in the sense that it would be far from the best answer on a test. Zakaria’s omission of “totalitarian” is absurd. Besides, we’re now finding out that it turns out Iran’s leadership was actually much closer to a dictatorship than anyone thought, if you agree with Reza Aslan’s assessment that the Pasadran rigged the vote for Ahmadinejad.
    As I wrote, there was an “oligarchical mood” to the regime, but it was a totalitarian theocracy (a subset of authoritarian governments, basically when an authoritarian government acts under the precepts of an ideology) – Zakaria doesn’t use the word “totalitarian” even once in his entire piece, which is nuts.
    And you’re right it’s been incredibly tough to figure out what’s what in Iranian politics, to put your finger on where the balance of power is, but it’s look like that leading up to this election Ahmadinejad had a lot more power than most people assumed.
    Thanks for taking the time to write that comment out, it’s appreciated!!

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