The myth of Iran’s Twitter revolution
It’s been a full year since I had the privilege of witnessing and writing about Iran’s fateful election. However, I am still left wondering which story is more lasting – the actual political upheaval that tore through Iranian society or the worldwide media frenzy that misread most of it. A year after trashing the line between analysis and advocacy, most “experts” and media personalities are backpedalling after getting the story so wrong. While the error of indulging in fantasies such as the “Twitter revolution” and the collapsing Islamic Republic may be understandable, I wonder if the flawed logic that allowed for such fallacies is. This matters only because bad analysis leads to terrible policy. Let us review.
Unfortunately, the “Green movement” that promised to finally end the clash of civilisations and usher in the cosmic triumph of liberal democracy may never have been more than an accidental convergence of forces. Whether because of the brutal crackdown by state forces or a systemic lack of leadership and direction (probably both), the green-clad Mousavi campaigners that shocked the world after the election quickly fractured and returned to their previous social divisions leaving only a hard core of dissenters willing to confront the Islamic regime. The masses that filled the street last June have long since returned either to their Bazaar shops, traditional religious services, or villas in northern Tehran. Most visibly they have returned to the mundane grind and nihilism of living in the political pressure cooker that is contemporary Iran.
Nonetheless, even today experts operate under the wishful assumption that there actually is an identifiable pro-democracy movement in Iran that represents the majority of society. When the green movement steadily dwindled instead of strengthened over the year, our leading educators responded by promising an “eventual win” or reminding us that “it’s a gradual fight.” In the face of no-show protest rallies, they told us of increased internet chatter and midnight rooftop shouts of “Allah Akbar”, when they should have simply told us about the realities of violent political neutralisation and displaced adolescent angst. These same analysts have taken insider criticism of Ahmadinejad such as that rendered by the Larijani brothers as a sign of a fractured regime instead of recognising the reconsolidation of a traditional, yet weary, clerical base. They read Rafsanjani’s year long silence as the calculated tactic of a shrewd politician instead of the retreat of an aging and defeated mafia don preserving his seat. Make no mistake the political upheaval in Iran was tremendous, but it was nothing close to what we imagined it to be.
The result of this expert advice has gotten us where? A year after the elections Iran is still an illiberal theocracy, it is no closer to halting its uranium enrichment program, it still plays king maker in Iraq, and the fate of the Strait of Hormuz still rests on a hair trigger. In fact, it can be safely said that since the Iranian revolution itself, the supposed experts and the politicians who listen to them have only pursued a singular track of error when dealing with Iran. What they don’t seem to accept is what has been so obvious for so long – the Islamic Republic of Iran is not going anywhere anytime soon.
The same can be said about political Islam in general yet no one seems prepared for the reality. From boycotting the democratically elected Hamas government in Palestine to pouring millions into promoting moderate (read secular) Islamic institutions, western policy has aimed only at thwarting rather than engaging with Islamic politics.
Not only has this made a complete farce of international legal institutions and the values they are meant to bolster, it has served the exact opposite of the intended goal: After 30 years of boycott and repeated Isreali fiascos, Lebanon is now effectively ruled by Hezbollah. After the longest war in US history, the Taliban refuses to negotiate because it’s confident that it’s the one winning. With the likes of Faisal Shahzad, salafi jihadism needs no network, much less a leader like Bin Laden. And now Turkey’s secular power elite has drowned under the chants of “Istanbul is Jerusalem”. Yet the wake up call still falls on deaf ears.
Liberal idealism may be nice for the classroom but it has no place in the world of realpolitik. Nor in the age of Gaza flotillas, Baha Mousas, and Guantanamo Bays does it have right to even raise its head. Thankfully in the case of Iran there has been a quiet and steady stream of realist coverage that has gotten the story right over the last 12 months. Most notably Washington-based analysts Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann and London based Mehrdad Khonsari have offered assessments that present a realistic picture of what is happening and how to proceed. Ironically, we should also appreciate the pragmatic attitudes in the White House and Pentagon which have thus far at least prevented an even further descent into chaos in the Middle East.
It has been painful watching the despotic cruelty and political degeneration unfold in Iran over the last year; but just as tormenting has been seeing the chronic refusal of western intelligentsia to understand the entrenched nature of Islamic politics in Muslim societies. The question here isn’t just about how to tell a story, it is about how to deal with the reality of Islamism in the 21st century. It remains to be seen whether our leaders and educators will take the natural steps of accepting Islamic experiments in modern governance and then seeking honest and equitable avenues for engagement. I just hope it doesn’t take another Twitter revolution.
Abbas Barzegar is a professor of Islam at Georgia State University and a fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU).
This article was published by the Guardian UK on June 11, 2010: